Background Notes: The Commonwealth of The Bahamas

Contributed By RealAdventures

Nationality: Noun and adjective--Bahamian(s).
Population (1999 est.): 283,705.
Annual growth rate (1999 est.): 1.4%.
Ethnic groups: African 85%, European 12%, Asian and Hispanic 3%. Religions: Baptist predominant (32%), Roman Catholic, Anglican, Evangelical Protestants, Methodist, Church of God.
Language: English; some Creole among Haitian groups.
Education: Years compulsory--through age 16. Attendance--95%. Literacy--93%.
Health (1995): Infant mortality rate--18.4/1,000. Life expectancy--men 71 yrs., women 77.6 yrs.
Work force (1996 est.): 146,600; majority employed in the tourism, government, and financial services sectors.

Eighty-five percent of the Bahamian population is of African heritage. About two-thirds of the population reside on New Providence Island (the location of Nassau). Many ancestors arrived in the Bahama Islands when they served as a staging area for the slave trade in the early 1800s. Others accompanied thousands of British loyalists who fled the American colonies during the Revolutionary War.

School attendance is compulsory between the ages of 5 and 16. The government fully operates 158 of the 210 primary and secondary schools in The Bahamas. The other 52 schools are privately operated. Enrollment for state and private primary and secondary schools amounts to more than 64,000 students. The College of The Bahamas, established in Nassau in 1974, provides programs leading to bachelors and associates degrees. The college is now converting from a 2- to 4-year institution. Several non-Bahamian colleges also offer higher education programs in The Bahamas.

In 1492, Christopher Columbus made his first landfall in the Western Hemisphere in The Bahamas. Spanish slave traders later captured native Lucayan Indians to work in gold mines in Hispaniola, and within 25 years, all Lucayans perished. In 1647, a group of English and Bermudan religious refugees, the Eleutheran Adventurers, founded the first permanent European settlement in The Bahamas and gave Eleuthera Island its name. Similar groups of settlers formed governments in The Bahamas until the islands became a British Crown Colony in 1717.

The first Royal Governor, a former pirate named Woodes Rogers, brought law and order to The Bahamas in 1718, when he expelled the buccaneers who had used the islands as hideouts. During the American Civil War, The Bahamas prospered as a center of Confederate blockade-running. After World War I, the islands served as a base for American rumrunners. During World War II, the Allies centered their flight training and anti-submarine operations for the Caribbean in The Bahamas. Since then, The Bahamas has developed into a major tourist and financial services center.

Bahamians achieved self-government through a series of constitutional and political steps, attaining internal self-government in 1964 and full independence within the Commonwealth on July 10, 1973.

Type: Constitutional parliamentary democracy.
Independence: July 10, 1973.
Branches: Executive--British monarch (nominal head of state), Governor General (representative of the British monarch), Prime Minister (head of government), and cabinet. Legislative--bicameral parliament (40-member elected House of Assembly, 16-member appointed Senate). Judicial--Privy Council in U.K., Court of Appeal, Supreme Court, and magistrates' courts.
Political parties: Free National Movement (FNM), Progressive Liberal Party (PLP), Bahamian Freedom Alliance (PFA), Coalition for Democratic Reform (CDR).
Suffrage: Universal over 18; 122,939 registered voters in 1992.

Governor General--Sir Orville Alton Turnquest, G.C.M.G., Q.C.
Prime Minister--Hubert A. Ingraham, P.C., M.P.
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of National Security--Frank H. Watson
Minister of Foreign Affairs--Janet Bostwick
Ambassador to the United States and to the OAS--Joshua Sears
Ambassador to the United Nations--Anthony Rolle
Consul General, Miami--Franklyn Rolle
Consul General, New York--Calvin Johnson

The Bahamas is an independent member of the Commonwealth of Nations. It is a parliamentary democracy with regular elections. As a Commonwealth country, its political and legal traditions closely follow those of the United Kingdom. The Bahamas recognizes the British monarch as its formal head of state, while an appointed governor general serves as the Queen's representative in The Bahamas. A bicameral legislature enacts laws under the 1973 constitution.

The House of Assembly consists of 40 members, elected from individual constituencies for 5-year terms. As under the Westminster system, the government may dissolve the Parliament and call elections at any time. The House of Assembly performs all major legislative functions. The leader of the majority party serves as Prime Minister and head of government. The cabinet consists of at least nine members, including the Prime Minister and ministers of executive departments. They answer politically to the House of Assembly.

The Senate consists of 16 members appointed by the Governor General, including nine on the advice of the Prime Minister, four on the advice of the Leader of the Opposition, and three on the advice of the Prime Minister after consultation with the Leader of the Opposition.

The Governor General appoints the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court on the advice of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. The Governor General appoints the other justices with the advice of a judicial commission. The Privy Council of the United Kingdom serves as the highest appellate court.

For decades, the white-dominated United Bahamian Party (UBP) ruled The Bahamas, then a dependency of the United Kingdom, while a group of influential white merchants, known as the "Bay Street Boys," dominated the local economy. In 1953, Bahamians dissatisfied with UBP rule formed the opposition Progressive Liberal Party (PLP). Under the leadership of Lynden Pindling, the PLP won control of the government in 1967 and led The Bahamas to full independence in 1973.

A coalition of PLP dissidents and former UBP members formed the Free National Movement (FNM) in 1971. Former PLP cabinet minister and member of Parliament Hubert Ingraham became leader of the FNM in 1990, upon the death of Sir Cecil Wallace-Whitfield. Under the leadership of Ingraham, the FNM won control of the government from the PLP in the August 1992 general elections. Winning again in March 1997, the ruling FNM controls 35 seats in the House of Assembly, while the PLP controls four seats and serves as the official opposition. A PLP member of Parliament split from the party and created the Coalition for Democratic Reform (CDR). The CDR holds one seat in Parliament.

The principal focus of the Ingraham administration has been economic development and job creation. Many of his government's policies are aimed at improving the image of The Bahamas and making it an attractive place for foreigners to invest. In 1995, for example, the government passed stronger measures to prevent money laundering in the country's banking sector.

The FNM has made considerable progress in rebuilding the infrastructure, revitalizing the tourism industry, and attracting new investment to The Bahamas. A good start has been made to mitigate crime and provide for social needs.

Remaining challenges are to privatize The Bahamas' costly, inefficient national corporations, provide job retraining for hundreds of workers who will be affected by the change, and to continue creating jobs for new entries in the employment market. Currently, Bahamians do not pay income or sales taxes. Most government revenue is derived from high tariffs and import fees. A major challenge for Bahamians as the next century approaches will be to prepare for hemispheric free trade. Reduction of trade barriers will probably require some form of taxation to replace revenues when the country becomes a part of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). The advantages may be hard for the government to sell since The Bahamas exports so little.

GDP (1998): $4.25 billion.
Growth rate (2000 est.): Between 3% and 4%.
Per capita GDP (1998): $14,492.
Natural resources: Salt, aragonite, timber.
Agriculture and fisheries (1999; 5% of GDP): Products--vegetables, lobster, fish. Tourism (1999)--60% of GDP. Banking (1996)--15% of GDP. Manufacturing (1996)--3% of GDP. Products--pharmaceuticals, rum. Trade (1996): Exports ($201.7 million*)--salt, aragonite, chemicals, lobster, fruits, vegetables. Major markets--U.S.(50%), U.K., other EU countries, Canada. Imports ($1.26 billion)--foodstuffs and manufactured goods; vehicles and automobile parts; hotel, restaurant, and medical supplies; computers and electronics. Major suppliers--U.S. (70%), U.K., other EU countries, Canada.
Exchange rate: Bahamian dollar 1=U.S. $1.

*Bahamas' export statistics do not include oil transhipments or the large transactions from the PFC Bahamas (formerly Syntex) pharmaceutical plant located in the Freeport free trade zone.

The Bahamas has strong bilateral relationships with the United States and the United Kingdom, represented by ambassadors in both countries. In addition, High Commissioners represent The Bahamas in London and Ottawa. The Bahamas also associates closely with other nations of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). The Bahamas has diplomatic relations with Cuba, although not with resident ambassadors. A repatriation agreement was signed with Cuba in1996, and there are commercial and cultural contacts between the two countries. The Commonwealth of The Bahamas became a member of the United Nations (UN) in 1973 and the Organization of American States (OAS) in 1982.

The Bahamas holds membership in a number of international organizations: the UN and some specialized and related agencies, including Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), International Labor Organization (ILO), International Monetary Fund (IMF), International Telecommunication Union (ITU), World Bank, World Meteorological Organization (WMO), and World Health Organization (WHO); OAS and related agencies, including Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), Caribbean Development Bank(CDB), and Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO); the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), excluding its Common Market; the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL); Universal Postal Union(UPU); the IMO (International Maritime Organization); and World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).

The United States historically has had close economic and commercial relations with The Bahamas. Both countries share ethnic and cultural ties, especially in education, and The Bahamas is home to 7,000 American residents. In addition, there are about 110 U.S.-related businesses in The Bahamas and, in 1996, some 82% of the 3.4 million tourists visiting the country were American.

As a neighbor, The Bahamas and its political stability are especially important to the United States. The U.S. and the Bahamian Government have worked together on reducing crime and reforming the judiciary. With the closest island only 45 miles from the coast of Florida, The Bahamas often is used as a gateway for drugs and illegal aliens bound for the United States. The U.S. and The Bahamas cooperate closely to handle these threats. U.S. assistance and resources have been essential to Bahamian efforts to mitigate the persistent flow of illegal narcotics and migrants through the archipelago. The U.S. and The Bahamas also actively cooperate on law enforcement, civil aviation, marine research, meteorology, and agricultural issues. The U.S. Navy operates an underwater research facility on Andros Island.

In May 1997, Prime Minister Ingraham joined 14 other Caribbean leaders and President Clinton during the first-ever U.S.-regional summit in Bridgetown, Barbados. The summit strengthened the basis for regional cooperation on justice and counternarcotics issues , finance and development, and trade.

The Bahamas hosts U.S. preclearance facilities (U.S. Customs, Immigration, and Agriculture) for travelers to the U.S. at international airports in Nassau, Paradise Island, and Freeport.

Ambassador--Arthur Schechter
Deputy Chief of Mission--Daniel Clune
Administrative Officer--Andrew Oltyan
Consul--Edward Ramotowski
Political-Economic Section Chief--Elizabeth Lee Martinez
Public Affairs Officer (acting)--Elizabeth Lee Martinez

The U.S. embassy is located at 42 Queen Street, Nassau (tel. 242-322-1181; telex 20-138); the local postal address is P.O. Box N-8197, Nassau, The Bahamas.

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