Islands in the sun, where the treasuries are empty

I called the Foreign Office to ask whether Prince Charles's visit to the Caribbean was part of a new initiative by the British to rescue the region from the social and economic disaster in which several of the islands find themselves.

The FO press office said that royal visits were no business of theirs or of the Prime Minister. There is no British programme to help the Caribbean. Nevertheless, some of the island prime ministers are due here in a week or two to listen to Tony Blair lecture them on the Third Way. Perhaps that will help them.

British ignorance of the Caribbean is immense. Sky News broadcasters did not know that residents of Guyana are Guyanese. They referred to them as Guyanans. On Cilla Black's Blind Date, the winning couple covered their faces in horror when they heard that the prize was a trip to St Vincent and the Grenadines. They believed, I suppose, that it was somewhere at the back of Skegness. Prince Charles's visit may go some way to putting that right, but I doubt that many people know the extent of the crisis in the Caribbean.

In the Windward and the Leeward Islands economic activity is virtually at a standstill. The recently elected prime minister of Dominica, Rosie Douglas, speaking to those of his country folk who have migrated to Antigua, said that his treasury is empty. "We have no money to pay civil servants in the coming month." The government usually relies on loans from the local banking system, or from several bandits who occupy these islands with offshore slush funds from the drug trade and the Russian mafia. The drug barons finance political parties and a small local bureaucracy.

In St Kitts, the ambassador to the United Nations, a former law classmate of mine, a graduate of King's College, London, and with a PhD in some remote field of law, was dealing in drugs big time. He was entrapped by the American Drug Enforcement Agency, but was able to plead diplomatic immunity. Later, he went out to sea with his wife and family, ostensibly on a cruise, and was never seen again. He had offended the Medelin cartel. Thus these islands transform their leaders into monsters.

Recently, the Drug Enforcement Agency snatched a local gangster in St Kitts and, without extradition proceedings, carted him off to Miami. The murder of a British millionaire in St Kitts earlier this year was the last straw.

In Guyana and Trinidad, racial crises loom. Both islands have roughly equal populations of Africans and Indians from the subcontinent. The Indians, who have suffered severe discrimination in the past, are now in charge of both countries. "Is we time now" is their slogan. Almost the entire government in both nations is now of Indian descent, and the huge government patronage has shifted to the Indian community. I find it rather odd that Charles chose to visit the Renegades steel-band yard in Port of Spain, a nest of hostility, even virulent hostility, to the government in power. I am certain that it will be read by the population as a partisan move in election year.

The judicial institutions in Trinidad, indeed in the Caribbean generally, are also falling into crisis. Led by the Chief Justice of Trinidad and Tobago, the entire bar is currently challenging the regime for interfering with the judiciary. The prime minister has set up a commission of inquiry under a British law lord to investigate the local judiciary. Word is out that the locals view this as colonial imposition and will not co-operate.

All these Caribbean crises create an instability that will worry the British because of their vast interests in the oil and natural gas industries. Prince Charles proposes organic farming as a way out of the economic impasse in the Caribbean, and Sainsbury's has such a scheme under way. Local politicians are bound to agree to it; anything is better than nothing.

Any British attempt to sort things out will face the problem of dealing with so many different governments. A federation of the islands was created in the 1950s when the islands became independent. That soon collapsed. They may have to try again.