by Larry Smith
If you wanted a good laugh, you should have tuned in last week to Wendall Jones' conversation with former Turks & Caicos premier Michael Misick.
Misick said he was being punished for his success in developing the TCI as the Monte Carlo of the Caribbean: "The British used allegations of corruption to stop our move towards independence," he asserted, adding that: "We never violated the laws or the constitution."
In a variation on this theme, he also told the London Times that the recent suspension of the TCI constitution "has less to do with the corruption and more to do with (British) policy, particularly in relation to tax havens."
Talk about putting lipstick on a pig!
That the British are still in control of TCI is an historical anomaly - nothing more. in fact, they have been trying to offload the islands since the early days of decolonisation, beginning with the short-lived West Indies Federation in the 1950s. But it is in no-one's interest to create a failed mini-state.
Although the TCI are part of the Bahamian archipelago and share a similar history, responsibility for their administration over the past 300 years has shifted from Bermuda to the Bahamas to Jamaica and back to the Bahamas. They are now one of 14 remnants of the former British Empire scattered around the globe and known collectively as the Overseas Territories.
Although salt-raking was a big business in the early days of colonisation, for most of their history the TCI have been dirt poor and sparsely populated. In fact, for most of the 20th century the islands exported labourers to the Bahamas, much like Haiti does today.
In 1958, Britain tried to group as many of its Caribbean possessions as possible (including the TCI) into a Federation based in Trinidad that would become independent as a single unit. But it turned out to be financially and politically impractical, and the Federation was dissolved in 1962. Jamaica and Trinidad gained independence shortly thereafter.
But the TCI did not want to be part of an independent Jamaica, so in 1964 the British officially proposed a merger with the Bahamas. A TCI delegation actually met with a United Bahamian Party government delegation at the Carlton House downtown that same year.
Sir Arthur Foulkes, then a member of the opposition Progressive Liberal Party, recalls those meetings: "Most of us in the PLP were sympathetic to closer ties, but after 1967 (when the PLP came to power) there were other things to do, and I don't recall any structured talks about it."
At the time the TCI was not as developed as it is now and Turks Islanders came freely to The Bahamas to work, often considering themselves Bahamians. One of the issues in the 1964 talks was the level of subsidy that the British would provide for the Bahamas to take on responsibility for the 6,000 Turks Islanders.
Obviously, no agreement came out of those exploratory talks, but in the hope that a union could eventually be achieved, Britain made the governor of the Bahamas the governor of the Turks and Caicos. When we became independent in 1973 there seemed no further prospect of a merger, and the TCI asked for an association with Canada, but that was turned down by the Canadian government in 1974.
Two years later the TCI received its own Westminster-style constitution with a resident governor, and political parties were formed. The first elections were won by the People's Democratic Movement, led by James 'JAGS' McCartney, who pressed for full self-government. In 1979, the British - who were heavily subsidising the territory's annual budget - set an 18-month deadline for independence.
But this plan was derailed when McCartney died in a plane crash in 1980. The commitment to independence had been unpopular with voters anyway and in the subsequent election the 'conservative' Progressive National Party led by Norman Saunders came to power. According to historian George Drower's book on the Overseas Territories, Saunders "preferred to shelve the idea of decolonization and concentrate on developing the economy."
And that is just what he did - in his own special way - turning the TCI into a drug transshipment haven, following the Bahamian example. In 1985, Saunders and his development minister Stafford Missick, who was a former official of the Bahamas Central Bank, were arrested in Miami on drug trafficking and bribery charges. They were convicted and imprisoned, and the British suspended the constitution and appointed a commission of inquiry.
That 1986 Inquiry cited evidence of persistent unconstitutional behaviour, contraventions of fundamental freedoms, political discrimination, and maladministration at every level of the TCI government. A new constitution was implemented in 1988 and tourism and offshore finance became the twin pillars of the economy - again, following the Bahamian example. And during the years leading up to the present global economic crisis, the territory's growth was among the highest in the world.
That was then, this is now. The most recent inquiry has once again identified "systemic corruption" in government, the legislature and the civil service - mainly the acceptance of bribes from overseas developers and investors during the economic bubble that preceded the current recession.
The inquiry also pointed to a serious deterioration in the territory's systems of governance as well as to financial collapse, caused by the "extravagant and ill-judged commitments of those in public office," and the absence of effective checks and balances.
Criminal investigations of five cabinet ministers have been launched. They include Misick, his deputy Floyd Hall, former environment minister McAllister Hanchell, former health minister Lillian Boyce and former housing minister Jeffrey Hall. A special judicial process for prosecutions has been recommended.
The inquiry report called for rule by the British-appointed governor and a local advisory council while constitutional and legal reforms are worked out over the next two years. Elections have been set for July 2011. In the meantime, a team of highly experienced and senior British investigators will be dealing with the wide-ranging allegations.
The special prosecutor is Helen Garlick, former head of the overseas corruption unit in Britain’s Serious Fraud Office. Misick and his fellow ministers have yet to be charged, and the investigations could take more than a year.
The inquiry report also referred to widespread allegations of vote buying and rigging of constituency rolls in a territory where suffrage is limited to less than half of the adult population - about 7,000 people. Misick himself was said to have adopted a lifestyle and spending habits that far exceeded his income as premier, while his private business interests expanded exponentially.
"The PNP funded him to the tune of $500,000 following the 2003 election," the report said. "He was at liberty to spend party funds at will - with hundreds of thousands going out to his wife's US stylist and to pay for household bric a brac. This was supplemented by personal donations to him largely made through his brother and including $500,000 from a developer who received belongership, and lavish spending of government funds for worldwide travel, a private jet and contracts for his wife.
"The government provided him with two official residences and covered household expenses. He received a number of land grants as well as commissions and finders fees from developers seeking land. He also received interests in several businesses and millions in loans that he did not have to repay. He failed to disclose his interests or to respond to the commission's inquiries."
In short, the report said, quoting the humourist P G Wodehouse, Misick's behaviour as premier "would have caused raised eyebrows in the foc'sle of a pirate sloop."
Perhaps the most telling recommendation of the inquiry was to remove the wide discretionary powers of ministers in the disposal of crown land, the award of contracts, the approval of developments, and on immigration matters. These discretionary powers are an issue of great concern in the Bahamas too.
It would be fair to say that the 2009 TCI inquiry report (you can read it here) is equally, if not more damning than the 1967 inquiry into government corruption from casino gambling under the UBP, or the 1984 inquiry into official corruption from drug smuggling under the PLP.
Back in the 1960s, the TCI 's impoverished inhabitants would have added two seats to our House of Assembly as well as an unwanted, but relatively modest, burden on government finances. But otherwise, we can surmise that it could have been achieved fairly easily.
In the light of the inquiry report, acting on Misick's recent suggestion of a self-governing federation with the Bahamas today would present enormous practical difficulties and raise some critical governance issues.
The unexpurgated 266-page Commission of Inquiry report for the Turks & Caicos Islands was published for the first time by an Internet whistle-blowing service. This site, called WikiLeaks, offers a unique forum for dissidents and journalists struggling against official secrecy, government corruption and back-room dealing.
The British-appointed inquiry into high-level corruption in the TCI issued its final report on July 18. But authorities removed sections of the document (after some of those named filed law suits) and then pulled it altogether, issuing a media gag order to boot. However, a few hours later the full report was published on WikiLeaks and, accepting that the information was now in the public domain, the gag order was lifted by the TCI's chief justice on July 21.
WikiLeaks says it is dedicated to revealing the unethical behaviour of governments and institutions around the world. Documents that are "classified, censored or otherwise opaque to the public record" can now be published anonymously on this site, which was founded by dissidents, journalists and techies from the US, Taiwan, Europe, Australia and South Africa. WikiLeaks has been described as acting like a global freedom of information act or "an intelligence agency for the people".
WikiLeaks portrays itself as following in the tradition of the famous 1971 US Supreme Court ruling in the Pentagon Papers case. That ruling declared that only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.
"WikiLeaks opens leaked documents up to stronger scrutiny than any media organisation or intelligence agency can provide...nearly everything we cherish depends on good government (and) the first requirement of good government is open government."
Technically, WikiLeaks is an uncensorable version of Wikipedia (the online encyclopaedia) for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis. It combines the protection and anonymity of cutting-edge cryptographic technologies with the transparency and simplicity of a wiki interface. Anybody can post comments to it, and whistle-blowers can submit documents anonymously and un-traceably.
The website says it has received over 1.2 million documents so far from dissidents and anonymous sources around the world. And one of those was the Commission of Inquiry report into official corruption in the Turks & Caicos Islands.