How to bribe the voters, Caribbean style

An Antiguan woman phoned me last week to discuss the results of the recent elections held in Antigua and Barbuda. She had read in the Barbudan, a local paper, my recent column on the state of affairs in the country. The editor of the Barbudan had copied it from the New Statesman and credited us, too.

She informed me that the Antigua Labour Party had won a fourth consecutive term, leaving the Bird family safely in charge of the twin island state. She wept bitterly. But I was not surprised. Almost everyone I had spoken to from Antigua and Barbuda was certain that the opposition, the United Peoples Party, would defeat the Antigua Labour Party. But my view was that the ALP would rather murder and maim than be voted out of government. There was too much at stake, too much corruption, too great a network of beneficiaries, too widespread a fear of personal financial ruin. I was right. Not only did the opposition lose, but the number of seats they had in parliament was reduced by one.

I have in my possession a secret document obviously pilfered from the office of Lester Bird, the prime minister. Drafted by one of the country's leading civil servants (now a government minister), it is headed: "Winning the election is all that matters". All voters who owe utility bills "for even minimum arrears", it says, should be disconnected "on a large scale". Then they could be re-connected on the understanding that they would vote ALP. Members of the party are asked "to find out in each constituency the registered voters who are in arrears in meeting their mortgage obligations and offer to assist, but obtain an agreement that they will vote for the ALP candidate."

Consider this: "Rumours must be circulated in every government ministry that their jobs are only secure if they vote ALP. Serious consideration must be given to the giving away of cash money to potential voters before the day of the election. I would suggest from $1,500 to $5,000. The candidate would make this determination." And indeed on election day itself Antiguans were paid up to $10,000 to vote for the ALP, bankrolled by a Texan off-shore banker. You may well ask why Antiguans did not simply take the money and vote for the opposition. But the ballot in Antigua is not as secret as it should be. The Electoral Commission has been transformed into an ALP vehicle. Two party activists were planted at each polling booth checking how citizens voted.

The document continues: "Every company or business that has benefited from concessions given by the government must be persuaded to make campaign donations. Small companies US$10,000, large companies $25,000 and over, betting and gaming US$50,000 and over."

The party would get more money from the government treasury. How could this be recouped without plunging the country into debt? Easy. The author proposes that, by the end of the year, the prime minister should permit an additional 7,000 immigrants - Chinese, Jamaican, Guyanese, Dominicans, Monserratians. At the same time one out of every three Antiguan-born public workers should be laid off. They can be replaced by the immigrants, working for half the weekly salary.

The author concludes that "all efforts must be made" to keep the document secret. "No amount of public relations or spin experts would be able to repair the outrage which would result if this document was to fall in the wrong hands."

Well it has fallen into the "wrong" hands, but perhaps too late. The elections have come and gone. Mark my words, this is a Caribbean phenomenon and you will find examples in every island state.

The voters are not mere victims. They are as much responsible as those who bribe them. State power is a vehicle for capital accumulation on a huge scale and this is a way of life in Antigua and Barbuda. A new band of millionaires will probably emerge over the next five years - unless the population rises up to bring it all to an end. That, too, is possible.