by Larry Smith
Just over 20 years ago, a group of top British investigative journalists left their jobs at the Sunday Times to piece together the fantastic tale of the cocaine trade in Colombia, the Bahamas and Miami.
Their explosive 1988 book - the Cocaine Wars - described how Carlos Lehder, the Colombian cartel's transport chief, took control of an island in the Exumas "while the government of Prime Minister Sir Lynden Pindling did its best to help him feel at home."
The story goes back to the early 1970s. Within a year of independence, Bahamian police were warning that drug trafficking was a "serious«problem," a US Senate report noted, "and by 1979, that problem was a crisis....both narcotics smuggling and government corruption grew at an extraordinary rate."
One famous Miami-based trafficker, nicknamed Kojak, told the Senate investigation that he had paid off Bahamian authorities "from the lowest ranking officers to the highest politicians." In fact, the chief of the Bahamian police drug task force himself, ACP Howard Smith, was on Kojak's regular payroll, according to testimony.
"The security of this country is being threatened by armed foreign criminals," a confidential report noted in early 1979. "The Bahamas is being deluged with drugs."
And the plain fact is that all of the evidence collected over the years has identified two men - both now dead - as chiefly responsible for this unfortunate state of affairs. They were Prime Minister Sir Lynden Pindling and his cigar-chomping crony, Everette Bannister.
According to the authors of the Cocaine Wars, "it is fair to assume that they both felt they were owed something by the Bahamas because, when the time was right, they pursued those schemes with the rapaciousness of creditors out to collect a debt long overdue."
As the authors note, "If in 1979 there was an incursion of armed criminals, by 1980 it had become an invasion."
A review of Sir Lynden's personal finances by the 1984 Commission of Inquiry in Nassau found that he had spent eight times his reported total earnings from 1977 to 1984. According to the Inquiry: "The prime minister and Lady Pindling have received at least $57.3 million in cash. Explanations for some of these deposits were given... but could not be verified."
Other investigations turned up even more startling evidence. Witnesses told of the "incalculable millions of dollars taken and received by every corrupt official and politician in Everette Bannister's pocket—and by 'the Man', the prime minister who always got his share."
Gorman Bannister, the son of Pindling's longtime "consultant" and bag man, was one of those who helped the authors of the Cocaine Wars write their story. He also testified before a US Senate subcommittee on narcotics trafficking in 1987.
The sheer scale of corruption was unprecedented. As former PLP parliamentarian Edmund Moxey said during the Commission of Inquiry, "Pindling and his crew make the Bay Street Boys look like schoolchildren." And a report by the US State Department concluded that the drug trade accounted for at least 10 per cent of the Bahamian economy, including political payoffs, overheads and investments.
Everette Bannister had returned to the Bahamas from the US after the PLP won the 1967 general election. His influence began to grow when fugitive American financier Robert Vesco moved to Nassau in 1972 and set up a dummy bank to channel bribes and payoffs to PLP bigwigs so he could avoid extradition. Bannister's connections proved helpful in this regard.
Within a year the bank had advanced $50 million in unsecured loans that were never repaid, the US Senate report said. And Bannister had gained a reputation as someone who could provide access to the top for the right price.
Norman's Cay lies about 50 miles from Nassau, just outside the boundaries of the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park. In fact, the island was touted as a headquarters for the park by the 1958 scientific survey that recommended the creation of the Bahamas National Trust. It was a popular anchorage for visiting yachts and was first developed in the mid-1960s as a small resort community with a clubhouse and marina.
According to Phil Kniskern, a developer quoted in the 1991 book Turning the Tide by Sidney Kirkpatrick, "Norman's is special...Ten minutes after landing you can be bonefishing in the pond, or diving on the reef. And it's only 19 minutes from Nassau and a little over an hour from Miami."
In other words - an out of the way yet strategic location. And in 1978 a Bahamian company called International Dutch Resources began buying up land there. IDR was set up for Lehder by a regular trust company in Nassau, which managed his working capital. And Kniskern, along with all the other lawful residents, was eventually forced to leave Norman's Cay.
By the end of 1979, the island was home to Lehdèr's gangsters, who drove ordinary visitors away at gunpoint. Lëhder built ä large hangar with cocaine storage faculties. A 3,300-foot runway was protected by radar, bodyguards and attack dogs for the fleet of aircraft under his command. Cocaine shipments from Colombia arrived on the island every hour of every day, and Lehder's personal wealth mounted into the billions.
Witnesses at Lehder's 1988 trial in the US said Pindling was paid $88,000 on the 22nd of each month to protect the Norman's Cay base, and Everette Bannister - who was also indicted in the US for funneling bribes from drug smugglers to Bahamian officials - collected the bribes personally. Here's an excerpt from his son's Senate testimony:
Senator Kerry. Did your father warn Carlos Lehder of the police raid on Norman's Cay?
Mr Bannister. Yes.
Senator Kerry. Do you want to describe that?
Mr Bannister. Well, as I recall, he just made a phone call to Carlos letting him know, well, police are going.
Senator Kerry. You heard the phone call?
Mr Bannister. Oh, yes, yes, yes yes ... I know my father did call him one time and told him, "Listen, the police are going to raid Norman's Cay on a certain day, clean it up." And when they went there, they didn't find...anything.
When opposition parliamentarian, Norman Solomon, began to complain to Bahamian and US authorities about the situation, his car was blown up. According to Gorman, Lehder boasted about the bombing and Gorman's father, Everette, viewed it as an appropriate response.
All this led to a 1982 meeting between Vice President George H W Bush, US Admiral Daniel Murphy and Prime Minister Pindling, at which the Norman's Cay problem was raised. The Senate report said the vice president showed Pindling a computer printout of CIA surveillance of Norman's Cay and told him the island resembled O'Hare Airport because of its activity.
Lehder also boasted to the Colombian media about his involvement in drug trafficking at Norman's Cay and about giving hundreds of thousands of dollars in payoffs to the ruling Progressive Liberal Party. So his operation could hardly have been considered secret. And it was certainly known to Pindling, who as prime minister had regular security meetings with top police officers.
This house of cards came crashing down on September 5, 1983, when NBC News exposed the Norman's Cay scandal and directly implicated the Bahamian government in Lehder's operations. It was the NBC broadcast, and the resulting outcry in the Bahamas, that led to the appointment of the Commission of Inquiry.
Informers for the US Drug Enforcement Administration have also testified that in 1980 and 1981 Pindling spent occasional weekends partying down at Norman's Cay with Lehder and his gang. The CIA was said to be holding the photographic evidence to prove this.
So the story that sparked the recent controversy over Pindling's legacy can hardly be considered "explosive" or "outrageous" today. Even if Sir Lynden was not complicit in the death of Chauncey Tynes Jr, he was certainly a causal factor in a lot of other tragedies across the length and breadth of the Bahamas over many years.
Allyson Maynard Gibson's pretence at shock horror because Sir Lynden's name had been "sullied" and "desecrated" by the recent Tribune article is pure political farce. No matter how you look at it, the corruption of an entire society and generations lost to drug abuse and organised crime are an indelible part of the Pindling legacy. Face it. Deal with it.
The key point for us today is that PLP leaders have never fully digested the lessons from this disastrous period of Bahamian history, which they themselves led. The contradictions within the party arising from the large-scale criminality exposed by multiple investigations have never been dealt with forthrightly. They have simply been brushed under the rug - as the most recent self-righteous outcries from PLP quarters so clearly demonstrate.
And that is precisely why the party is in such a fix today. It lost a large degree of legitimacy and credibility in the 1980s by selling the country out to foreign gangsters. And it wasted a golden opportunity to claw back some of that legitimacy and respect when it was unexpectedly re-elected in 2002.
Although PLP leader Perry Christie was one of three cabinet ministers who initially recoiled at massive official corruption under Pindling's leadership (Hubert Ingraham and Arthur Hanna were the others), he is one of those now trying to avoid dealing with that despicable legacy. And if he doesn't deal with it, who will?
As we said, it is a legacy that has yet to be processed by the PLP. Their strategy is to cling to Pindling's early achievements of majority rule and independence and ignore the rest, in the hope that it will eventually go away as memories fade. This is a public relations scam that will do nothing to resolve the party's inherent contradictions.
Perhaps the best example to draw the point is that of the retired PLP cabinet minister from Exuma who was found to have routinely accepted gifts and payoffs from the Lehder operation and to have been a "lackey" for Everette Bannister (but later acquitted in the courts). He was appointed to a prestigious government job by the Christie administration in 2002 and now submits statesmanlike essays to the press on the future of Exuma, as if the 1970s and 80s had never happened.
And although we can agree that all of us may bear some responsibility for what happened in those days, and all of us may have benefitted to some degree - wittingly or not - it is the handful of men and women who were large and in charge who must accept most of the blame. Many are still around and can easily make their voices heard in the right way.
As we noted in an earlier article on political prospects for the PLP after the 2007 defeat (click here), it has been said that “All political parties die at last of swallowing their own lies.” It remains to be seen whether the PLP will be able to achieve the fundamental reform that it seems to require, or whether it will fatally choke on its own self-delusion.
1984 Commission of Inquiry Report.
1988 Report of the US Senate Subcommittee on Narcotics, Terrorism and International Operations.
1988 US State Department Report on International Narcotics Control.
1988, The Cocaine Wars, by Paul Eddy, Hugo Sabogal, Sara Walden. Published by W W Norton.
1991, Turning the Tide, by Sidney Kirkpatrick and Peter Abrahams, published by Penguin Group.