It is quite likely that the good feelings generated by Carnival are going to be short-lived. A number of recent events spell real trouble and potentially the end of an era for the territory.
For more than a decade the Virgin Islands has stumbled along, declining slowly but visibly but never going over the edge of the cliff. During this period, the Virgin Islands government has systematically debilitated the private sector and all but destroyed the not-for-profit sector that any healthy community depends on for its social "glue."
It has presided over increasingly entrenched corruption, loss of confidence in law enforcement, growing social tensions, and the physical decline of three of the most beautiful islands on Earth.
In the face of this ineptitude and worse, key segments of the community have struggled mightily to maintain standards and preserve what is special about the Virgin Islands. Some public officials, the hospital on St. Thomas, the University, the United Way, portions of the media, and a number of business leaders have fought an uneven and often losing battle against a public sector whose sole purpose is self-preservation and self-aggrandizement. Many people, this writer included, have underestimated the government's capacity to adapt, its readiness to sacrifice tomorrow for a short-term gain today, and the willingness of Virgin Islanders (and the federal government) to tolerate the intolerable.
Events may be overtaking the unfortunate cast of characters who currently govern the territory. There may be no more rabbits to pull out of the hat. It is worth connecting the dots between the following discrete events to find a pattern and a set of implications that may finally produce the real crisis that many have feared for a long time. Consider:
After the longest economic boom in American history, a boom in which the Virgin Islands shared not at all, economic growth is, at a minimum, slowing. Economic slowdowns and recessions inevitably have a direct negative impact on tourism-based economies. The boom should have provided an opportunity for investment and for building a rainy day fund. It did not. Everyone's cupboard is bare.
The Bush administration and its policies will at best be indifferent to the Virgin Islands, and more than likely will produce significant cuts in many key areas, particularly human services, the territory's area of greatest weakness. Poverty, already acute, is likely to become worse.
– At a time when the territory must speak with a single voice, preferably one that at least grasps that a totally business-oriented federal administration is in power, three disparate voices speak for the Virgin Islands in Washington. The worst aspect of this situation is that the most capable spokesperson, Delegate Christensen, is drowned out in this cacophony. It has become just another instance in which individuals are unwilling to submerge their egos for the common good. It has been going on for a long time.
The apparent decline and potential collapse of the Prosser empire in the Virgin Islands will have as yet undefined consequences, but they are certainly not going to be good, particularly in the critical areas of banking and communications. It is to be hoped that someone in a position of responsibility is planning to deal with the fallout. Don't count on it.
Finally, we come to the frosting on the cake, Governor Turnbull's and his deputies' recent performance at the tourism industry dinner and symposium. Every so often, some small incident captures the essence of the larger picture. The very idea of the government's chief executive attacking the leaders of his primary industry in front of that industry's most important customers staggers the imagination. It is clear that Mr. Turnbull has now combined his own incompetence with the arrogance and megalomania of his predecessors. Virgin Islanders need to understand that they are now unique. The citizens of no other jurisdiction in either the United States or the region, possibly excepting Antigua, would tolerate this kind of behavior. To
an outsider, what is as stunning as the governor's performance is the mildness of the business community's response to it. Almost anywhere else, a movement to either recall or impeach any official doing what Turnbull and his boycotting aides did would have been launched the following day.
What can be done? For a long time, there has been an implicit and growing assumption among Virgin Islanders that nothing can be done. Every new report or "crisis" is followed by hand wringing, big talk and inaction. Recent events and key trends can leave no doubt that, in the absence of dramatic action, things will only get worse, with the potential for economic and social disaster on all three islands. There can also be no doubt that there are people in office and in the community who would welcome such a disaster and fan the flames of discord and intolerance.
There is honest and thoughtful leadership in the Virgin Islands, but it has been timid in facing up to the reality of a government that is both fiscally and morally bankrupt.
It is hard to take the kinds of actions that are necessary in small communities, but the essence of effective leadership is doing what has to be done, even when it is difficult and uncomfortable. There may not be much time left to take substantive action before someone else does, possibly in the midst of a crisis that is both uncontrolled and with no obvious way out. This is the time to act forcefully.
Editor's note: Management consultant Frank Schneiger has worked with V.I. agencies since 1975, most recently as consultant to United Way of St. Thomas/St. John. He is one of the founders of the St. Thomas/St. John Youth Multiservice Center.
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