Boston Globe / November 9, 1998
By Larry Luxner
HAMILTON, Bermuda -- Two middle-aged, outspoken black women are vying for power in Bermuda, a tidy little island in the North Atlantic that's gotten very rich over the past 30 years from captive insurance, offshore banking and tourism.
Voters will decide Nov. 9 whether to return Premier Pamela Gordon of the ruling United Bermuda Party (UBP) to power, or replace her as premier with Jennifer Smith of the opposition Progressive Labor Party (PLP).
Polls show this to be an extremely tight race, with the clear possibility that the left-leaning PLP might win for the first time in the island's history.
"We're in 1998, and this country has never had a change of government. After awhile, you begin to question the democratic process," says Smith, a 51-year-old lawmaker who's referred to by her underlings as Madam Leader. "When our party began, we were labeled leftist. But there has not been a single PLP platform issue that has not been adopted by the governing party."
Gordon, whose smiling portrait greets U.S. and Canadian tourists as they arrive at Bermuda International Airport, says she and Smith are both experienced legislators, both well-educated and both black women in an island that had long been dominated by white colonialists.
"We have very strong political differences, and we're not afraid to articulate them," said Gordon, 43. "But that does not make her my enemy."
Unlike some of its Caribbean neighbors to the south, where voters are faced with the harsh realities of poverty, illiteracy and rampant corruption, the real issue in English-speaking Bermuda is how to preserve the wealth.
Despite a population density of 3,000 people per square mile -- making it one of the most crowded territories in the world -- lush, green parks are plentiful, litter is nowhere to be seen, and early all Bermudian families own their own homes. Fully 5% of the island's land area is devoted to championship golf courses, and it's hard to find any real poverty.
That's because Bermuda, located 586 miles east of Cape Hatteras, N.C., and about 3,000 miles southeast of London, has transformed itself into the world's reinsurance capital. Favorable tax laws and incentives, a 90-day licensing turnaround and political stability have made Bermuda a $37 billion haven for corporate-owned insurance captives, excess liability underwriters and catastrophe reinsurers. Fully one-third of the world's captive insurers are based in Bermuda.
The lack of corporate or personal income taxation has attracted other financial industries as well -- all of which has given Bermuda's 61,000 lucky inhabitants a per-capita income of $35,000, putting the U.S. average of $28,000 to shame.
"A lot of people are afraid to commit themselves to change, because they feel the PLP might still be too radical to lead the country," says Hamilton taxi driver Howard Spenser. "So far, the UPB has done pretty well, except a lot of people wish the profits could be spread around a little better."
In a lengthy interview at her office on Front Street in downtown Hamilton, Gordon acknowledged that people are frustrated with the fact that her party has been in power since 1968. But she also sees serious racial overtones to this frustration.
"For whatever reason, Bermuda has had this racial divide for years," she said. "Any black who supports the current government -- which is deemed to be conservative -- is seen as a traitor to the labor party, which is 99% black. And anytime a black joins the government, we're accused of being an Uncle Tom. This has had a very negative impact on Bermudian society. Neither party is harmless in this debate."
Gordon adds: "Most of the nice houses in Bermuda are owned by blacks, but they're still stuck in the mentality of 30 years ago. A lot of this is the politics of envy. We have taken this country from a fishing-farming village to a prosperous nation. When I was growing up in the early 60s, my first trip was to the New York World's Fair. It was a big deal then. Now, everyone has cars and travels abroad, but they've taken this prosperity for granted."
In August 1995, a referendum was held to decide whether the island should become independent from Britain. Voters overwhelmingly rejected the idea, leading then-Premier John Swan to resign. He was replaced by David J. Saul, who resigned in May 1997 and was replaced by Gordon. At the time, her only political experience had been serving as minister of youth and sports, and later minister of environment. Before that, she had been financial controller at St. George's Club, a posh timeshare resort on the island's eastern edge.
"I was no more ready to become premier than the man on the moon," said the premier, who says "I'm not afraid of independence for Bermuda, but I also believe we have an educated populace, and that they should decide the issue."
Gordon, showing a visitor her British passport and a rubber-stamped visa declaring that the bearer is "not entitled to work in the United Kingdom," says Bermuda is the only island colony that is self-governing.
"The U.K. is now looking at how they handle their overseas territories. They're preparing a white paper on citizenship. But we've not gotten anything from the U.K. in terms of financial assistance. If Bermudians accept full citizenship, which is what we had until 1981, then there would be no need to have a referendum. We're literally citizens of nowhere."
A more pressing problem, says Gordon, is the recent discovery of toxic waste, sludge and up to 500,000 gallons of oil left by the Americans at the former U.S. Naval Annex in Southampton, now known as Morgan's Point. Gordon, who last month traveled to Washington to meet with U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen, says the cleanup will cost at least $55 million -- a bill she says the Pentagon should pay.
"We don't have a reservoir here. When it rains, water goes right into the earth," she explained. "This can affect the lives of the 60,000 people who live here, and the 400,000 Americans who visit here every year."
Interestingly, both Great Britain and Canada also polluted the ground around their respective naval bases in Bermuda, but those were remedied without a fight, said Gordon. "The Americans," on the other hand, "argue that they don't have a responsibility to clean up the base once they leave. We're offended."
Other problems, however, take precedence: racism, drugs and what Gordon calls "being victims of our own financial success."
But opponent Smith doesn't see that success filtering down to all Bermudians.
"You can't compare Bermuda to Puerto Rico or any other island," said the longtime legislator at her office across the street from her opponent. "Homeless people here are sleeping in cars, in tents or in the parks at night. The hotel sector has gone down, and that has affected all Bermudians. The government did nothing to retrain them so they could go into another industry."
Smith, who joined the PLP in 1972 as a representative of St. George parish, angrily denies that her party caters only to blacks (who make up 55% of the population).
"In 1963, Bermuda was a segregated society," she said. "The desegregation laws came about in 1968. The party was formed by blacks but included whites from Day One. I would categorize that as very progressive."
Smith estimates the island's unemployment rate at 7%, though she admitted that she has no hard data to back this up. She added that "Bermudians are proud to be Bermudians. What they want is a government that will be accountable to them."
Neal Hansford-Smith, who came from England 36 years ago to run a hotel school and has stayed ever since, says the PLP has "a very real opportunity to win" in next Monday's election.
"They've gradually matured," says Hansford-Smith, a 70-year-old retiree who spends his days showing tourists around the island in his sailboat. "They've become more capable, and they probably deserve a chance to run the country."