by Larry Smith
GEORGE TOWN, the Cayman Islands - At a dinner party on Seven Mile Beach here I asked a longtime resident (who serves on two public boards) for a briefing on the island's political parties. Curiously, he could not even recall their names.
So the next day I drove along the modern four-lane highway to Camana Bay's signature bookstore here to pick up a copy of Roy Bodden's political history - the Cayman Islands in Transition.
Camana Bay itself - a $400 million 'live, work, play' development by billionaire Kenneth Dart - is an obvious physical example of that transition. Dart, an American with Caymanian status, recently acquired retail and office property in downtown Nassau, but has yet to launch a project.
Oddly enough, political parties here date no further back than the year 2001 - apart from two brief experiments in the late 1950s and early 60s.
The Cayman Islands were first settled in the 1600s by European wreckers, renegades and fishermen. But the political history of the islands did not begin until 1831, when a legislature was established by leading citizens, without reference to the imperial government in London. There were less than 2,000 people living here at the time - half free and half enslaved.
Back then, a handful of men got together in the living room of a plantation great house called Pedro St James, on Grand Cayman's windswept southern coast, to set up an assembly. And four years later, an envoy from Jamaica held court there to issue the proclamation ending slavery in the British Empire.
The three-storey building where this event took place has been carefully restored at a cost of some $8 million. And Pedro St James is now a seven-acre national historic site, featuring a multi-sensory 3-d theatre, as well as a spacious gift shop and visitor centre. There is nothing like it in the Bahamas.
Although the British eventually ratified the Caymanian legislature, confirming the islands' status as a dependency of Jamaica, it was not until 1959 that a written constitution was first introduced. When the West Indies Federation died and Jamaica became independent in 1962, Caymanians overwhelmingly opted to remain British. At the time, there were fewer than 10,000 people here.
Another constitution, adopted in 1972 as the Bahamas was about to become independent, devolved more authority from the British governor to Cayman's elected representatives, while stopping short of internal self-government. The governor remained the islands' chief executive, and candidates for the legislature stood as independents.
"Nonetheless, (this) constitution represented the beginning of a new era in Caymanian politics," Bodden wrote, noting that the 1976 election "marked the first time in the history of the Cayman Islands that the (local) political directorate had assumed prominence over the official arm of government."
Voting by recent immigrants became a potent issue around this time - until a constitutional amendment established eligibility requirements in 1987, enabling control of the legislature to remain in the hands of what Bodden calls "established Caymanians", in recognition of the fact that the entire society is imported.
But there were still no political parties. In the 1980s elections were contested by unofficial "teams" of candidates, as well as by independents. These loose alliances displayed no significant differences in policy or ideology. In fact, Bodden refers to this period as an "ad-hocracy".
In the 2000 election a portly print shop owner named Kurt Tibbets became government leader. And soon afterwards some members of the legislature rejected his leadership and formed the United Democratic Party under the command of Mckeeva Bush, a businessman and longtime politician.
Tibbets and his supporters reacted by forming the Peoples Progressive Movement, and went on to win the 2005 election. In 2009 - after constitutional changes created the office of premier and devolved more power to a reorganised cabinet - Bush and the UDP were re-elected. The next election is scheduled for 2013, and Tibbets recently passed leadership of the PPM to Alden McLaughlin, a lawyer and former civil servant.
In a short visit, it is difficult to discern any distinctions between these two parties - especially since Caymanian politics revolves principally around personalities, and many of these personalities even share identical surnames - Bodden, Eden, Hurlstone and Ebanks in particular spring to mind.
In fact, Caymanian politics has been described by outsiders as "medieval" or "byzantine", and Roy Bodden likes to apply the term "frontier society" to connote "clannishness, scheming and a conspiratorial attitude." But the British governor remains the real head of government, holding responsibility for the civil service, defence, external affairs and internal security.
The transformation of the Cayman Islands over the past 50 years has been nothing short of phenomenal. In 1953 there was a single commercial bank in George Town, but several key pieces of legislation in the 1960s laid the foundation for development of one of the world's top financial centres, which sparked Cayman’s economic boom.
The extent of the transformation can be seen from this recent description in the Cayman Financial Review: "In the early 60’s, there was no telephone service. Electricity did not extend to all districts of Grand Cayman. There was no piped water or sewage system. Mosquitoes were so thick at certain times of the year they suffocated cows. Many of Cayman’s roads were unpaved. There (was) just the beginnings of a tourism industry, geared mostly toward scuba divers."
But today, Grand Cayman is home to a dazzling array of high-end tourist and financial infrastructure, populated by a cosmopolitan and largely affluent workforce of 36,000 - more than half of which is from other countries. Well over a hundred high-quality restaurants and a score of upscale hotels line Seven Mile Beach, including top brands like Ritz-Carlton, Marriot and Westin.
The 2010 census put the total population at 54,000, of which there were about 20,000 work permit holders, Most of the established Caymanians are of mixed race, and the large expatriate population (both white and non-white) is a major source of contention among locals, with immigration policies always a hot button topic.
In fact, during my visit I had a hard time finding an established Caymanian interfacing with tourists. From restaurant servers and bartenders, to front desk clerks and managers, they are usually North Americans or Europeans on work permits.
Grand Cayman has managed to preserve its position as a top financial centre in the face of a crackdown on international money laundering and tax evasion, as well as the recessionary impact of the global credit crisis. And tourism grew by more than 5 per cent last year, for a total of 1.9 million visitors.
As a result, the government is projecting modest growth in Cayman's $2.4 billion gross domestic product this year. Public debt is under $600,000 and the budget deficit is less than $5 million. This sounds good to us, but it is a sign of the times that the government has been obliged to agree to a new British-mandated Framework for Fiscal Responsibility to control spending, borrowing and procurement
Only a few years ago, Grand Cayman was totally devastated by Hurricane Ivan, but you would never know that today. The island is clean, well-maintained and well-organised. All the infrastructure works, and the hotels and restaurants are buzzing.
But despite this obvious prosperity, a drug gang culture has begun to develop, and police are increasingly worried about the proliferation of firearms. Robberies have increased and there were five gang-related killings in September alone, leading the government to allocate an additional $4.6 million to the police while bringing in experts from Britain to help.
In his book, Bodden gives some possible clues as to why this is happening - and his explanation resonates with our far worse experience in the Bahamas:
"Land sales were encouraged and money flowed, while education, training and human resources development were relegated to the back burner or ignored...Crime is becoming increasingly widespread, yet there is no sustained, coherent attempt to address family and community issues, as if societal breakdown and combating crime have nothing to do with one another."
It remains to be seen whether the Cayman Islands will rise above its legacy as a frontier society to become the Singapore of the Caribbean, as many of its promoters enthusiastically forecast.