Keep out of this island: an editor's wife was beheaded

Once a year, at least, I review a couple of Caribbean weeklies, just to give you a feel of what is taking place in those countries from which so many of us originated. A few months ago I wrote about Outlet, published in Antigua and edited by Tim Hector. I warned then that tourists should avoid Antigua during the coming elections, due in a few weeks' time, because those who have been in power for the past 20 years or so will defend furiously and violently their ill-gotten gains. In these tiny islands the state is constantly used as the vehicle for personal accumulation of wealth by politicians. Should the opposition party win, Pandora's box will be opened and the stench will be unbearable.

Only a couple of weeks ago a group of men were seen circling the premises of Outlet in a Land Rover. It was late evening. Then a passer-by heard a great explosion and Outlet's printing press was in flames. The arsonists had poured diesel oil over the entire premises before setting it alight. And the election campaign had not yet begun.

But that is quite mild in the context of the extraordinary campaign that the Bird regime has waged against Outlet for 18 years. A government hit-man beheaded Hector's wife in order to thwart the publication of an investigation linking the government with the export of cocaine. Hector himself has been jailed several times for his unrelenting campaigns against corruption.

Cranes on the wharf at St John's Harbour, Antigua's only port of call, twice winched printing presses from the hatchway up in the air, only to have them crash to the ground in a mangled heap. It was government-sponsored terrorism.

A day or so before the printing press went up in flames, Hector was on the wharf investigating what appeared to be huge quantities of arms imported by a private company. According to a public statement, they were destined for the Antiguan police; these arms included rocket-launchers and hand-grenades, as though Antigua was headed for the third world war.

The Antiguan government has an odious history of importing arms for third parties. While the South African government was launching counterstrikes against neighbouring African countries, Antiguan ministers gathered a glittering array of weapons for export to South Africa. After Outlet broke the story, an inquiry was set in train by the United Nations, which found the regime culpable.

As if that were not enough Vere Bird Jnr, brother of the prime minister, Lester Bird, and son of the former prime minister, Vere Bird Snr, imported shipments of arms, which he re-exported to the Medellin drug cartel in Colombia. Again Outlet broke the story and its campaign forced a public inquiry, which recommended that Vere Bird Jnr be banned for life from participating in public affairs. Yet Vere Bird Jnr is now a member of the Antiguan cabinet.

The list multiplies. Young Ivor Bird, head of the family radio station, was arrested and charged at the airport after he was caught red-handed importing cocaine. Prison seemed inevitable. Instead he got off with a big fine and his father, Vere Jnr, through a cabinet edict, was given the ownership of prime government lands, which he promptly sold to pay off the fine. Again Outlet broke the story.

Antigua is a tiny state with a population of 60,000 and a high rate of literacy. Hector's remarkable journalism has placed the issues sharply before the people so that the Bird regime is very likely to lose power in the forthcoming elections.

The moves to hold on to office are becoming more desperate. Illegal immigrants from the Dominican Republic and Guyana, who provide cheap labour for the tourist industry, have hastily been turned into Antiguan citizens.

Antiguans are treading on dangerous ground, and the population can easily be plunged into the most merciless violence. Tourists beware!

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 01 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, An earthquake strikes new Labour