British Overseas Territories

Unnoticed Unrest in Turks and Caicos and the Canadian Connection

turks and caicos political map

turks and caicos political mapturks and caicos islandsMassive unrest across much of the Middle East, coupled with the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster in Japan, have tended to crowd other important international stories out of the news, such as the on-going debacle in Ivory Coast. While the emphasis on Japan and the Arab world is understandable, other topics deserve attention as well. In keeping with this week’s Geocurrents focus on the Caribbean, today’s post turns to the largely ignored unrest in the British overseas territory of Turks and Caicos, a group of some 40 islands covering 193 square miles (430 square kilometers) of land and containing roughly 36,000 inhabitants.

In early March 2011, protests targeting pay cuts to civil servants and increased utilities rates broke out on Providenciales Island, the territory’s commercial and tourism center. Protestors blocked the road to the airport, some chaining themselves to roadside railings, threatening the vital vacation industry. Talks between the demonstrators and the British officials in charge of the dependency were soon arranged. On March 16, Britain announced that that it would deliver a “bail-out package” for the islands worth $417 million, a sizable figure considering the fact that territory’s entire GDP in 2006 was an estimated $722 million. Although the British government insisted that the “rescue package will not be used … to reverse current cuts,” it did reduce tensions, at least temporarily.

Unrest in Turks and Caicos has deeper roots than those of pay levels and utilities rates. The current crisis dates to 2009, when Britain dissolved the local government and reinstituted direct colonial rule. That action was taken in response to allegations of widespread corruption, as well as “clear signs of political amorality and general administrative incompetence.” A few years earlier, the chief minister of Turks and Caicos had announced that his party’s ultimate goal was full independence; his opponents had countered that he did so only to forestall a commission of inquiry set up to investigate corruption in his administration. Britain’s assumption of direct rule came with assurances that the change would be temporary, as well as a pledge that it would not affect offshore financial operations, a major business in Turks and Caicos, as in many other Caribbean locales. Top local officials were not mollified; one accused British authorities of “dismantling a duly elected government and legislature and replacing it with a one man dictatorship.” Evidence for financial malfeasance, however, was solid, including one instance in which 239 acres of crown land were leased for $1 an acre. Major courts cases to reclaim plundered assets are pending.

Turks and Caicos has long been geopolitically anomalous. The archipelago was annexed by Britain in 1799 and initially ruled as part of the Bahamas. It became a separate colony in 1848, but in 1873 it was assigned to the British island of Jamaica. In 1959 it was again made a colony in its own right, but it remained under the authority of the governor of Jamaica. In 1965, however, it was placed under the power of the British administrator of the Bahamas, even though it remained administratively distinct. When the Bahamas gained independence in 1973, Turks and Caicos finally got its own governor. Although independence has often been discussed, a more widely mooted alternative has been, oddly enough, union with Canada. Many Canadians evidently fancy the idea of a tropical outpost for their country, while many residents of Turks and Caicos believe that membership in the vastly larger and more powerful but distant and accommodating country would bring substantial benefits.

The idea of annexing Turks and Caicos to Canada has a long history. It was first proposed by Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden in 1917, but was shot down by the British government. A 1974 annexation bill failed to pass the Canadian House of Commons. In 1982, the local government of the islands, having soured on the idea of eventual independence, made renewed inquiries in Ottawa about a possible union. One sticking point was size, as Turks and Caicos was considered too small and lightly populated to form a Canadian province in its own right. In 2004, however, the legislature of Nova Scotia offered membership in its own provincial body, potentially bypassing such objections. As one Nova Scotian leader opined, such a merger would be “natural, given historical trade connections and a sea-going culture.” Public opinion polling in 2003 indicated that 60 percent of the people of Turks and Caicos supported merger with Canada.

Many Canadians also champion the incorporation Turks and Caicos. Some 16,000 Canadians visit the archipelago annually, and citizens of Canada reportedly own thirty percent of local hotels and resorts. Enthusiasts highlight the economic advantages that Canada would gain from possessing a deep-water port within a regional free trade zone. Geopolitical leverage is also emphasized. As one Canadian blogger recently framed the issue:

Suppose the port [in Turks and Caicos] doubled as a Canadian military operations base for countries wanting help to patrol their waters and to interdict the Caribbean’s robust trade in smuggled arms, drugs and people. … Suppose Canada fills a vacuum of influence where China, Cuba and — bolstered by Iran — Venezuela have stepped in with medical aid, cheap petroleum, schools and factory construction.

But as the author of the blog also notes, concerns have been raised that “winter-weary” Canadians, especially retirees, would overwhelm the small archipelago. From the Canadian perspective, the biggest draw of Turks and Caicos may well be its tropical location.

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The Peculiarities of Gibraltar and Other British Overseas Territories

Gibraltar’s position as a British Overseas Territory makes it a geopolitical anomaly. Britain’s scattered overseas colonial remnants are under the sovereignty of the United Kingdom but are not part of it*. Since the passage of the British Overseas Territories Act of 2002 their inhabitants have enjoyed full British citizenship, but they are not under the rule of English law. Perhaps most confusingly, all of the UK’s fourteen overseas territories enjoy “concurrent European Union citizenship, giving them rights of free movement across all EU member states.” But only Gibraltar is in the EU, yet it not within the EU customs union, and it does not possess EU membership in its own right.

Anomalous geopolitical situations often generate both opportunities and disputes. Taxes are generally kept low, partly to maintain local popularity of the foreign regime, but this has the side effect of encouraging both trade and smuggling. Neighboring countries often resent not just the smuggling but the sheer persistence of such foreign bases. As we have seen in previous postings, Spain claims Gibraltar and Argentina demands both the Falkland Islands (Malvinas) and the South Georgia group; in addition, both Mauritius and Seychelles lay claim to the British Indian Ocean Territory, the most important island of which — Diego Garcia — is leased to the United States military.

Isolation from Britain, proximity to other lands, historical openness to migration, and geopolitical distinctiveness have all helped nurture cultural particularities in the UK’s Overseas Territories. Idiosyncratic forms of speech are common, and Gibraltar is no exception. Gibraltarians are called “Llanitos,” a term of uncertain provenance that also refers to the peninsula’s dialect — if indeed the local language merits that designation. From the limited number of sources that I could find, Llanito appears to be a variety of the Spanish dialect of Andalusian that employs a number of English and other foreign expressions. Llanito-speakers often alternate rapidly between English and Spanish, a practice known as “code-switching.” Llanito is seldom written, but it does have its own dictionary, and several BBC programs have been aired in it. Llanito is influenced by Haketia (or Western Ladino), a Hebrew- and Moroccan-Arabic-influenced form of archaic Spanish spoken by Jews whose ancestors fled across the Strait of Gibraltar after being expelled by Spain in 1492. After Britain gained Gibraltar in the early 1700s, a Jewish community reestablished itself, bringing its language and other cultural practices. The Treaty of Utrecht, by which Spain ceded Gibraltar to Britain, expressly forbade the immigration of Jews; the fact that Britain ignored this stipulation forms one of grounds that Spain historically used for demanding the return of the Rock.

The 30,000 inhabitants of Gibraltar have mixed ethnic origins as well as linguistic practices. Judging from surnames, roughly a quarter of Gibraltar’s population is of British derivation, another quarter Spanish, and about a fifth Italian; others sources include Morocco, Portugal, and India. Such diversity is notable for a territory that encompasses a mere 2.7 square miles (6.8 square kilometers), forty percent of which is a nature reserve focused on the uninhabited Rock of Gibraltar. Over the centuries, the various peoples of the peninsula have largely melded into their own ethnic group. They have found communal cohesion in their desire to maintain the status quo and resist incorporation into Spain. According to the Wikipedia, Gibraltar’s voters rejected joint sovereignty with Spain in 2002 by a margin of 99 percent, an unprecedented figure, to my knowledge, in a free election.

The people of Gibraltar are not the only members of Britain’s Overseas Territories to have been concerned about possible abandonment by London. A recent article from the Turks and Caicos Islands, a British Caribbean territory, relates mounting fears last year that the previous Labor government “would have happily ended Britain’s relationship with its Overseas Territories, leaving them to fend for themselves.” The article went on to express relief that the current administration, and especially deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, believes that Turks and Caicos “matters greatly” to the British government, and that “Britain and its people have a duty to look after the interests of all of its Overseas Territories.”

Although many people would like to see the final dismantling of the British Empire, such a sentiment is shared by scant few of the inhabitants of its remnant possessions. For them, living in an overseas territory means not exploitation and colonization, but security, special tax and passport privileges, and economic subsidies. The endgame of empire is nothing if not ironic.

*As an additional note of complexity, the Overseas Territories are not the only places that are under but not part of the United Kingdom; the same is true of the Crown Dependencies — the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man — which have a particularly convoluted constitutional relationship with the British government. The Channel Islands are also of note for the name of their two subdivisions, focused on the two main islands: the Bailiwick of Guernsey and the Bailiwick of Jersey. A bailiwick was the domain of the bailiff, a legal officer appointed by the king, such as a sheriff.

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