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2003-01-01 12:16:25

2002: A Year Of Change

PM says it's been a "fascinating and historic year."

The year 2002 was one in which the people of the Bahamas proved that democracy was alive and well in its truest form, according to Prime Minister Perry Christie who started the year with hopes of clinching a soon-to-be announced election and ends it now as the first Bahamian to be elected head of government in the 21st century.

A good part of his year was spent hop-scotching across this archipelago, bringing a message of hope and help to Bahamians. It was the catch phrase of a campaign that climaxed in a sweeping election win that unseated the ruling Free National Movement. Few would argue that May 2 dealt a crushing blow to the FNM which had ruled the island nation for nearly a decade.

"It was an encouraging year for democracy where we were able to effect fundamental and major change in the country without any kind of violence or turbulence. That is a wonderful statement for our country," Mr. Christie said on December 11, the night when members of the House of Assembly adjourned for the Christmas holidays.

POLITICS

When the year started, Mr. Christie had eagerly been waiting former Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham to ring his symbolic bell, setting the date for the 2002 general election.

On February 12, then Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham told hundreds of FNM supporters gathered at a Pinewood park that he would ring the election bell after addressing one more FNM rally.

"I am going to address you in a rally one more time before I ring the bell," he told cheering supporters.

But before that could happen, Bahamians would participate in a vote of another kind. The referendum of February 27, 2002 was one which many political pundits and other observers said dictated the election that followed weeks later.

In the weeks leading up to the referendum, the government was roundly criticized for rushing nine constitutional amendments through parliament, "without proper, widespread consultation."

On February 7, despite calls by church leaders, opposition politicians and others to delay the crucial vote, Mr. Ingraham said, he will "stand or fall on it."

"I will vote yes and I hope you will vote yes also," he said. "Discrimination against Bahamian women with foreign spouses and their children is spread like a cancer through eight articles of the constitution."

While Mr. Ingraham said he was moving ahead with striking discrimination against women out of the country's laws, some constitutional framers like former Attorney General Paul Adderley were saying that they were frightened that the prime minister was "getting it wrong" in the referendum being conducted in the Bahamas.

Mr. Ingraham, meanwhile, accused the Progressive Liberal Party of spreading misinformation in its efforts to manipulate public opinion and gain support for its "Vote No" campaign against the proposed amendments to the Constitution.

At the time, Mr. Ingraham said that the effort by the PLP to strike fear in the heart of single Bahamian women with children born outside of the Bahamas was cruel and betrayed the lack of concern which the PLP has for Bahamian people generally, and Bahamian women in particular.

Mr. Ingraham also said it was clear that the PLP had chosen to intentionally mislead and deceive the public in its efforts to find a legal basis for its abandonment of its position of support for the amendments to the Constitution passed in the House of Assembly.

But at the end of the night on February 27, it was clear that the majority of Bahamians had sided with the opposition in its "Vote No" campaign.

The results of the referendum to amend the Constitution created more dissent in the ranks of the FNM with some council members reportedly requesting that the designated leaders step aside.

Then opposition leader Perry Christie said that the results of the referendum demonstrated that the Bahamian people are not "dumb and stupid" as some of our national leaders would have many believe.

"Rather, the Bahamian people demonstrated that they can separate fact from fiction and that they can and will make up their minds intelligently and rationally based on what they honestly believe to be in their own best interests and the best interests of our nation," he said during a post referendum press conference at the Sir Lynden Pindling Centre on Farrington Road, where he mentioned that the referendum results demonstrated how important and sacred the Bahamian people regard their constitution.

The Free National Movement picked up the pieces and moved on, hoping that Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham was dead wrong when he predicted that who ever won the referendum would win the general election.

Two days before the May 2 vote, the Free National Movement was in high gear, with some opposition members claiming that Mr. Ingraham was "playing dirty."

At one of the last campaign rallies of the season, Mr. Ingraham alleged that the FNM was up against "big" drug money, but a PLP party official refuted that charge saying the FNM is carrying out "acts of desperation" in its re-election bid.

Mr. Ingraham said, "Seems the PLP has lots of money this year. You ever seen them spend so much money in an election campaign before? Think they'll tell us where the money coming from?"

And on the evening of the first general election of the 21st century, party leaders took to the airwaves vowing prosperity for the Bahamas and making final pleas to voters.

FNM leader Tommy Turnquest said his government would focus on strengthening the family as "the bedrock of change and development."

PLP leader Perry Christie said his party's return to power was not about settling old scores, re-emphasizing his pledge that no Bahamian would be victimized.

When the curtains closed on the night of May 2, the PLP claimed 29 of the 40 seats in the House of Assembly; the defeated FNM captured seven and four independents were elected to parliament.

Dr. Bernard Nottage, who teamed up with trade union leader Obie Ferguson in a new political entity called Coalition + Labour, lost his bid for reelection to the House of Assembly.

This new government was faced with bringing a new budget to parliament that had for the most part the fingerprints of the former FNM administration.

The new administration of Perry Christie was also burdened by all that came with the fallout of September 11 and is still today faced with the uncertainty that comes with a possible U.S. led war on Iraq.

ECONOMY

The Bahamas entered 2002 like many other nations in the world, struggling to recover from the fallout of the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001.

On January 10, the Bahama Journal reported that in the first two weeks after September 11, customs revenue saw "a tremendous drop."

From July to December in 2001, the Customs Department collected $248.8 million. The previous year it collected $324 million that same period.

Chamber of Commerce President Raymond Winder said that with government revenues down, its borrowing would have to increase to meet the shortfall.

The economic crisis brought on, in part, by the events of September 11, 2001 plagued the new government of Prime Minister Perry Christie.

On May 29, the new prime minister told members of the House of Assembly that the former administration had exceeded its overdraft limit by at least $16 million and the Free National Movement government's decision not to debate a resolution seeking approval to borrow $125 million further exacerbated the country's financial dilemma.

Mr. Christie claimed that electioneering overtook the former administration causing it not to make prudent financial decisions.

Giving a glimpse of the country's financial straits, Mr. Christie said that the former government left "massive amounts" of unpaid bills.

Mr. Christie spent many months preaching that the government was millions of dollars behind in revenue collection. In October, he said that figure stood at $60 million for the first few months of the 2002-2003 fiscal year.

Chief financial experts, like Central Bank Governor Julian Francis, are predicting that the Bahamian economy will not experience any growth this year. It was also clear that the government's revenue collection problem would continue to exist.

The Minister of State in the Ministry of Finance James Smith told the Bahama Journal last week that the Bahamas has been challenged by economic uncertainty in 2002.

"We're seeing however some positive signs," Minster Smith said. "I was speaking with some hoteliers two or three days ago and I gather that occupancy is up and at one hotel in particular, it's more than 90 percent.

"Our bread and butter, as you know, is generated from tourism. The visitors from the United States, they will continue to come and I think create the jobs."
 
MAN OF THE YEAR

After 30 years as a parliamentarian, Perry Gladstone Christie, longtime Valley Boy and Member of Parliament for what is now called Farm Road, this year became the clear choice for "Man of the Year" in the Bahamas. Very early in the year, it was doubtful that Mr. Christie would have been able to wrest control of the Government of the Bahamas from the FNM party, which governed the country for nearly 10 years. Riding on the wave of the wholesale rejection of constitutional amendments proposed by the FNM government, Mr. Christie won the hearts of the Bahamian electorate and on May 2, 2002 danced his way to power. He is seeking to change the face and modus operandi of government in the Bahamas with the appointment of several commissions and consultative groups to advise his government. Mr. Christie was part of the change that came with 2002. In his words, the year was both "fascinating and historic."

Minister Smith said it is quite possible that the Bahamian economy would grow by 2 to 3 percent next year.

Since 9-11, the economy contracted by 1 to 2 percentage points.

"I think there is a misconception that the growth, say 2 to 3 percent is somewhat optimistic, but what we're doing, growing by 3 percent is that we would actually be growing effectively by 1 percent because we might have lost 1 and a half to 2 percent following the tragic events of 9-11," he said.

Minster Smith said the big economic story for the Bahamas in 2002 is one that never really made headlines.

"It's the fact that there have been no major labour strikes, no major labour unrest and we've begun to take it for granted in some way. Unionized labour has been very tolerant of conditions and they have been very cooperative, I think, with the [various] managements...I see it as a very positive sign that the people who really move the economy are exercising some kind of restraint. I would only hope that the rest of us would do the same thing as we wait for things to turn around and begin being productive again," Mr. Smith said.

He also reported that there were improvements in government revenue collection in November, which were "a little better" than November, 2002, shortly after the terrorist attacks.

"In the last two months, we have seen great improvements in the sense that November results were a little better than last year. But last year was a terrible year for the Bahamas, following the events of September 11," he said.

In the months that started the fiscal year, he said, the government was behind in revenue collection by as much as $20 million per month. But in November, revenue collection was about $6 million more than what had been projected.

"While I would not take one or two months as being indicative of the change in trend, it's an improvement and for me it was

unexpected. So we have to watch it for another three or four months to decide exactly what we are going to do," he said.

Central Bank Governor Julian Francis, meanwhile, said that the Bahamas is heading into 2003 with a cloudy economic outlook and Bahamians must now scale back on spending.

In fact, 2002 is a year Central Bank Governor Julian Francis is anxious to see come to an end.

Mr. Francis said in an interview with the Bahama Journal that the current economic position and the short term outlook are not very promising and not very strong as a result of a very weak external environment.

Mr. Francis reported that for the first three months of this fiscal year, the government's budget deficit was in the region of $30 million and the deficit for the year is expected to significantly exceed the original projection of $180 million.

The government is also expected to have gross borrowing needs that are significantly in excess of $200 million. Overall, he said it's time to exercise cautious spending.

He also reported an increase in foreign reserves from $312 million to $460.7 million between January and June of this year. Since then, the reserves dropped to $350 million, as is the normal trend for this time of the year when consumer spending peaks. But on Monday, he said they had moved up to about $375 million.

According to Governor Francis, through its conservative monetary policies, the Central Bank was able to control credit and thereby reduce demand for imports. It was, therefore, able to conserve much of the foreign exchange reserves of the country.

TOURISM

Meanwhile, tourism officials are reporting that in the year that followed the terrorist attacks on the United States, the Bahamian tourism industry struggled to recover.

Tourism Minister Obie Wilchcombe said Monday that, "I think it's general knowledge that tourism has been on the rebound. While we are not where we want to be, we are satisfied at this festive season. I want to ensure that we have a greater demand not only for Nassau and Paradise Island, but also for Grand Bahama and the other Family Islands. We have to improve our product and we are going to work feverishly to do that."

While Minster Wilchcombe looked ahead, some hoteliers like Wyndham Nassau Resort General Manager Robert Sands said for much of the year, hotel occupancy levels were flat and the average room rate was down.

Still waiting for the final numbers to come in, Director General of Tourism Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace said he wanted to wait before giving his review of tourism in 2002.

CRIME

While financial services and tourism officials looked at the state of the Bahamian economy, Police Commissioner Paul Farquharson paused in the final days leading up to 2003 to look back at the year that was.

For the police, the big story perhaps came toward the end of the year. Earlier this month, local law enforcement officers working with U.S. Drug Enforcement Agents cracked one of the largest drug smuggling rings in Bahamian history, sending five Bahamians to prison.

While many people applauded the efforts of police officers in bring alleged drug smugglers before the courts, Mr. Farquharson said there was much more the police needed to do to bring the crime rate to a minimum.

On Monday, the police reported that there were 51 murders for the year, up from 43 last year. According to the Commissioner of Police, his officers were able to solve more than 80 percent of the murders committed this year.

Looking the scourge of crime straight in the face, the Commissioner of Police Paul Farquharson told the Bahama Journal that the police force will remain vigilant in its police strategies.

He admitted that 2002 has been a challenging year for the Police Force.

"We have a mandate to ensure that with the public cooperation that we try to minimize particularly violent crime and try to minimize the fear of crime that really sends people into a frenzy," he said.

Mr. Farquharson said 2002 ends with police officers redoubling their efforts to bring criminals to justice.

DIPLOMACY

On another stage, the year ends with the Bahamas having somewhat of a strained relationship with its Ambassador from the United States J. Richard Blankenship.

Throughout the year, Mr. Blankenship has made what some critics called "diplomatic flops." The Ambassador dominated news headlines on and off for months.

Most recently, he called the integrity of some local law enforcement agents into question, challenging the integrity of the Bahamas, in the words of Foreign Affairs Minister Fred Mitchell.

In a clear reference to the recent controversy surrounding U.S. Ambassador, Minister Mitchell said Sunday that the Bahamas must remain focused on the long-term relationships with those countries it has diplomatic relations with and the value of those relations rather than focusing on personalities.

Moving forward, the Bahamas will have to wait and see if its relationship with Blankenship himself is improved. Some Bahamians have said that relationship could not get much worse than it already is.

Foreign Affairs Minister Fred Mitchell also spent time this year negotiating with Haitian officials a new treaty to deal with illegal migration.

In 2002, the Bahamas continued to be strained by the influx of illegal Haitian migrants. In November, Immigration Minister Vincent Peet said that the Government of the Bahamas spent about $1 million repatriating Haitians in 2002.

Whether in foreign affairs, tourism, the economy or in the political realm, there is no crystal ball looking into 2003. But after a year of struggle, of economic uncertainty, of political defeats, of murder and mayhem, many who look forward pray for a better Bahamas.

In the words of Prime Minister Perry Christie, the Bahamas ends a "fascinating and historic year."

What 2003 will bring remains to be seen.

By Candia Dames, The Bahama Journal

 
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