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Tiny island illustrates universal drive for independence


By John Zarrella
CNN Miami Bureau Chief

August 14, 1998
Web posted at: 11:00 a.m. EDT (1500 GMT)

In this story:

MIAMI (CNN) -- The feelings run as deep as the blue waters that surround the tiny, 36-square-mile Caribbean island of Nevis.

No matter whom you asked during our CNN crew's recent trip there, the answer was almost always the same: "At least Nevis would be speaking for itself, rather than having other people speaking for Nevis."

From Nevis, St. Kitts is easily seen across the water  

A desire for self-determination was the driving force behind this week's failed vote to make Nevis an independent nation, free from the federation of St. Kitts and Nevis.

Most of those who went to the polls -- 62 percent -- felt that desire. But it wasn't quite the two-thirds majority needed to pass the referendum.

Perhaps the idea was, as opponents contended, impractical. But the little island's election can be seen as a kind of microcosm of the drive for independence found worldwide.

A stereotypical paradise

For Nevis, St. Kitts is the island next door. At their closest point, the two volcanic pearls in the West Indies are only two miles apart. Their nation is the smallest in the Western Hemisphere.

By boat, the island-to-island trip takes about 30 minutes. As you approach Nevis, the first site is the beach dotted with pale, oiled-down bodies sprinkled like soon-to-be prunes on lounge chairs. Like tall, stately models, rows of palm trees fill in the background.

This is, of course, the way most people from elsewhere see the islands of the Caribbean. They are places to go when you really don't want to go anywhere or do anything.

Most people, if they were frank, have probably never given a thought to whether the islands are independent, or still colonies.

An island itch

Among the Caribbean islands, many of which were for so long under the thumb of Britain, France and Spain, independence is cherished. And its pursuit is a present-tense concern.

Look at Puerto Rico, with its ongoing internal debate about its dependent status as a U.S. commonwealth. Just this week, its government approved plans for a non-binding referendum in December on whether to remain a commonwealth or seek statehood or independence.

Nevis, meantime, came under some criticism even within the region for its independence notions.

But many Nevisians found such criticism hypocritical. From their view, they were using the democratic process to determine their independence, while some other island governments were rolling out the red carpet for Cuba's Fidel Castro.

That hand-me-down feeling

bumper sticker

The irony involving Nevis is that the island already is independent, sort of.

Nevis and St. Kitts won independence from Britain in 1983, and the two islands hitched together as a federation. But the arranged marriage, with its roots in the colonial era, never sat well with many Nevisians.

Nevis, in both size and population, is by far the smaller of the two islands. Nevis has a local island government and its own premier. But the national seat of power is on St. Kitts.

You can ask most any Nevisian -- even those who didn't support independence -- and they'll tell you Nevis is treated like the little brother, getting St. Kitts hand-me-downs.

"It goes beyond the pride issue," Nevis Premier Vance Amory told me on our recent visit, as we sat on his porch on a hillside overlooking the palm tree-lined coastline.

"The history of the relationship has not been good," Amory continued, "primarily because the central government did not take ... interest in the people of Nevis in terms of development of infrastructure, in terms of development of services."

Mark Brantley, who chaired the Constitutional Reform Committee, put it another way.

"We have matured," Brantley said. "We are past the stage where we want anyone to take care of us. We want to take care of ourselves."

Nevis depends almost entirely on tourism  

A one-hotel economy

The pivotal question, of course, was whether so tiny an island -- with a population of some 10,000 people and limited natural and financial resources -- could actually make it work.

Nevis is, as the saying goes, a one-horse town. The economy is driven by a few offshore businesses, but nearly all the revenue comes from one high-end resort that caters to the wealthiest of tourists.

Nevis is an economy based not on one industry, but on one hotel.

In this climate, opponents of independence worried out loud that the island would be infiltrated by powerful drug cartels that might see Nevis as an ideal place to set up shop.

'All politics is local'

In fact, we went to St. Kitts and Nevis for an unrelated story, and worked in the secession issue while we were there.

We had been sent to cover the story of a suspected drug dealer living on St. Kitts. The U.S. State Department had said he threatened to kill U.S. veterinary school students there if the United States tried to extradite him.

Drugs are a real regional concern. This story, though, seemed unlikely to be connected directly to the secession story. But locally, it was.

On St. Kitts, it was openly speculated that the story of the suspected drug dealer's alleged threat was a total fabrication, intended to make St. Kitts look bad. St. Kitts residents thought it would be viewed on Nevis as another reason to separate.

Despite the potential pitfalls, Nevis came close this week to choosing independence. Even many people on Nevis who opposed independence agreed with the premise that their island was not an equal partner with St. Kitts.

And that is a feeling that can be understood around the globe.

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