Three issues are colliding in The Bahamas that have the potential to unsettle this mostly civil society. First, there is a soft economy that is doing little to prosper the masses of Bahamians. In the ‘70s and some of the ‘80s, the Bahamian middle class grew handsomely and felt prosperous, certainly more prosperous than their regional colleagues and many developing countries in the world. By the late ‘80s that growth started to slow, largely because global instability and U.S. sluggishness retarded economic growth at home. We had also become a decadent people, prone to spending, given to materialism, unwilling to save and hungry for leisure. Though the ‘90s would see the longest economic expansion in a generation, it served only to serve our consumerism rather than our wealth accumulation. In the decade of 2000s, Bahamian economic prosperity would be mediocre at best. By the time the Great Recession occurred in 2007/2008, our economy was already faltering under the weight of its lackluster productivity. We now had only a phantom prosperity.
Phantom or not, as it did in years past, it continued to do in the years to come, the Bahamian economy attracted many to our shores, none more than impoverished Haitians seeking a way out of their deprivation in Haiti, and into the Bahamian relative abundance. Hence the second side of the triangle: the growing anxiety and anger of more and more Bahamians about the presence of illegal, maybe even legal, Haitians in our country. This has as much to do with the dwindling sense of economic prosperity here at home as anything else, especially as it seems that there is an unyielding influx of Haitians from abroad. For many Bahamians, the economic pie is fixed, and probably shrinking, and our local resources are stretched and disappearing; they see the Haitians as contributing heavily to both. Notwithstanding the limited factual support for this claim, like populist sentiments accrue across the globe, and are true enough for those who believe it – there are many of them. The government could try to tell them differently but dare not, for pandering to this populist banality equals political prosperity. This brings us to the base of the triangle of issues – pandering politicians.
“Speak truth to power” we are told, but this is often a message relayed to the masses in terms of their political leaders. Yet, truth be told, ultimately the masses have the power and politicians shudder to speak truth to them, even when the masses are wrong, they are still strong. So, under-girding many of the hardest and most troubling issues in a democratic society is an unwillingness to tell large groups of passionately vocal people that their thinking is not only wrong, but potentially injurious to the very state they claim to love. Rather than oppose unsubstantiated, unhelpful views by the public, politicians eager to stay in power or get in power, join them either covertly or overtly in order to curry favor. In the end, they add to the difficulties of the state.
So, there you have it: three difficult issues coming together to challenge the peace, prosperity and promise of our little land. Economic squeeze combined with immigration anxiety sitting on a feckless base of political pandering. We can deal with this or be overcome by it. It will not happen today and perhaps not even a decade from now but be sure, it will happen. A house divided against itself cannot stand and it especially won’t stand long if it is broke and its leaders aid in the divide.
• Zhivargo Laing is a Bahamian economic consultant and former Cabinet minister who represented the Marco City constituency in the House of Assembly.