Islands Prefer Dependence

Periodic volcanic eruptions have destroyed nearly two-thirds of the British island of Montserrat's land area over the past two years. The devastation has fractured its tourist economy, caused the emigration of over half the eastern-Caribbean island's 11,000 residents, and produced cynicism over Great Britain's commitment to redevelop the ravaged territory.

The row has prompted London to start a six-month study of its long-term relationship with its territories. What will it find? The evidence suggests that despite periodic complaints of neglect and the United Nations' declaration of the 1990s as the Decade of Decolonization, these small colonial outposts exhibit little sentiment for independence.

Take the small Caribbean island societies, for example. Despite the march to independence by 10 of the larger islands, 16 island democracies remain dependent territories - including six British dependencies, the French Overseas Departments of Guadeloupe and Martinique, the six islands of the Netherlands Antilles, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands.

In the last referendum in the French Antilles, fewer than 5 percent of the voters favored independence. In the Dutch Antilles in similar votes in 1993 and 1994, islanders overwhelmingly preferred the status quo in Curacao, 73 percent; St. Eustatius, 91 percent; Saba, 86 percent; Bonaire, 88 percent; and St. Maarten, 59 percent. Aruba, slated for autonomy in the mid-1990s, has reversed course.

The outcomes have been similar in both British and American territories. In recent elections in the Turks and Caicos Islands, Cayman Islands, Montserrat, Anguilla, and the British Virgin Islands, voters elected dependent status-quo parties. In the 1995 status referendum in Bermuda, residents of England's oldest colony voted against independence 3-to-1. Likewise, in separate status plebiscites in Puerto Rico and the US Virgins, islanders voted more than 10-to-1 against full autonomy in 1993.

These results are not surprising given the substantial socio-economic advantages associated with political affiliation such as free trade with the parent country, lucrative grants and social welfare assistance, ready access to off-island capital through special tax concessions, availability of off-island labor markets through migration, aid-financed infrastructure and communications, quality health and educational systems, disaster relief, external defense, and protection against potential internal disturbances.

My research with Prof. Klaus de Albuquerque of the College of Charleston in South Carolina shows the extent and impact of these territorial advantages. A comparison of the average performance of a cross-section of 13 dependent territories with that of a cross-section of 12 independent Caribbean neighboring island countries reveals the superior performance of the territories in all important respects. Both average and per capita gross domestic product and electricity production are three times higher for the dependencies than for their sovereign counterparts.

The territories also record a lower average unemployment rate, 7 percent versus 17 percent. Average life expectancies are higher in the dependencies, and the average infant mortality rate is half the level of their independent counterparts. Secondary educational performance tests in math and English are routinely 30 to 40 points higher.

It is small wonder then that the process of decolonization has stalled at the steps of the small-island Caribbean. Although they are irritated occasionally by the political limitations that result, territorial residents ultimately vote their pocketbooks just like everyone else.

* Jerome L. McElroy, a specialist in the development of small tropical islands, is professor of economics at Saint Mary's College in South Bend, Ind.

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