Governor's trouble in paradise Despised figure: Queen Elizabeth's man in the Caribbean colony of Turks and Caicos has managed to offend just about everybody.


GRAND TURK, Turks and Caicos Islands -- You'd think being the British governor of a tiny Caribbean island colony would give life a certain goofy glory.

Being called "Your Excellency" pays $84,000 a year. The job comes with a lovely old residence called Waterloo, with magnificent seascapes and shady gardens tended by local convicts. But for Martin Bourke, the queen's man here, this paradise is, alas, turning into hell.

"Bourke Must Go" scream inch-high red headlines in the local paper. "Bourke must go!" screamed airport demonstrators one recent morning when they caught him slipping out to Miami. During a debate broadcast live on the national radio station, members of the legislature pronounced him "bigoted," "deceptive," "paranoid," "a dictator" and "a buffoon" as approving colleagues thumped their tables so hard, in British parliamentary style, that the water glasses rattled.

To understand why that's happening, you have to understand a country so quaint that the coat of arms features flamingos rampant. The capital has not a single traffic light. The theft of a box of chocolates a week before Valentine's Day is counted as part of a crime wave.

But national pride and human pride are not proportional to wealth or size.

Until 1964, the people of these flat, sandy islands dangling off the south end of the Bahamas chain subsisted by raking sea FTC salt. Some tourism followed, along with offshore banking and insurance, but not nearly enough to support 15,000 Turks and Caicos Islanders, most of them descendants of slaves. Those who did well tended to be British, American or Canadian and white.

By 1985, when then-Chief Minister Norman Saunders and other local leaders were convicted of drug smuggling to the United States, it was clear that islanders had found other ways to make ends meet. Drug smugglers shifted to using Mexico and thus took the islands out of the narcotics mainstream, and the Saunders scandal led Britain to take back power over law enforcement, civil service patronage and land use.

Islanders hardly noticed the rein-tightening because British governors until Mr. Bourke stuck to what a local newspaper letter-writer described as "speeches about non-contentious topics such as being good citizens and keeping the environment tidy." But not Mr. Bourke, a junior diplomat posted to South Africa before he showed up in July 1993.

While younger and more casual than his predecessors, Governor Bourke meant to govern. Against him were smart local politicians who had governed their governors for decades.

Mr. Bourke was not shy about picking fights. When lawmakers wanted to build health clinics, the governor insisted on a new prison. He shrank the civil service and took over control of patronage. When a minister tried to protest over the local radio station, Mr. Bourke called the manager and ordered the minister's remarks squelched.

The governor gave his unlisted phone number only to the chief local minister, forcing others to deal through his British assistant, a bright young flak catcher with the middle-parted hair and ineffectual good will of actor Hugh Grant.

Mr. Bourke stripped local politicians of a potentially valuable prerogative the ability to bypass customs and its 35 percent duty on imported goods while retaining the bypass for himself as a diplomat. And, when a drug case came up last year, Mr. Bourke ordered wiretaps and imported British investigators to keep the secrets that he felt local law enforcers could not.

It's been all downhill from there.

Appalled by the wiretaps and unimpressed by Mr. Bourke's imported prosecutor, Grand Turk jurors rejected the drug case against locals Smoky Smith, Duck Ingham, Porky Robinson and Red Boy Saunders.

Far more damaging was a Bourke interview, full of inaccurate bad-mouthing, that appeared last month in "Offshore Finance Annual," a prestigious directory in a business crucial to the islands' economy. While other colonial governors sang their tax havens' praises, Mr. Bourke groused that drug trafficking in the Turks and Caicos was "in a peak at the moment." Crime was up 40 percent. It was so bad, he said, that his own home had been burglarized by a police guard.

Mr. Bourke had dismissed the police commissioner, the article stated, and was encountering resistance to his reforms from local elected officials.

Mr. Bourke's remarks caused a few problems. Waterloo's alleged burglar has not yet been tried, and it's against British law to publicly discuss his case, let alone convict anyone. The police commissioner retired voluntarily and is threatening to sue. The drug problem seems to all but Mr. Bourke to have abated. The crime rate increase to a record two armed assaults last year, for example still leaves the islands with the lowest rate in the region, according to the Caribbean Development Bank.

Politicians went ballistic. The islands' powerful though normally aloof offshore-finance specialists who had bought tens of thousands of dollars of ads in the directory were fuming. Proud islanders, who had expected the governor to sing their nation's praises at levels they could not, felt betrayed.

In short order, the islands' 13 elected ruling and opposition lawmakers joined to draft a petition for Mr. Bourke's recall. When they sought to deliver it to Waterloo, they found the gates blocked and the governor's door guarded by a dozen policemen, mostly off-islanders.

"Nobody wants his life; we just want his body out of this country," muttered Minister Oswald Skippings, Mr. Bourke's chief adversary, as petitioners slipped through the gates.

Because the delegation had come without an appointment, Mr. Bourke indicated that he'd see only two ministers. No deal, they responded, and he kept them waiting in the sun.

After about 20 minutes, the door opened. Mr. Bourke appeared wearing sunglasses and accepted the petition. "Thank you very much," he said and popped back inside. He has not been heard from since.

Mr. Skippings and Mr. Bourke's other foes rule the islands now, gathering recall petition signatures for delivery to the secretary of state in London. Next will come demonstrations, all peaceful, Mr. Skippings promises.

Asked about seeking independence, he responds: "I don't know at this point in time that that's the issue." Translation: The islands still depend on Britain for a fifth of their $45 million budget.

Mr. Skippings wore a dashiki and favored Fidel Castro 20 years ago when he got into island politics. Today he wears double-breasted suits and a gold watch with diamonds on its face. Nelson Mandela, he says, is his model now.

Mr. Bourke could have another weapon to use: Some local lawmakers seem personally anxious about wiretaps, and the Times of London, an important leak site for the governor, hinted recently of more drug prosecutions to come.

Meanwhile, Britain's other foreign officers are following the governor's lead and lying low. "When lions fight, we monkeys take to the trees," says one. A local Scotsman with a T-shirt that reads "Grow Your Own Dope, Plant an Englishman" says he's had a lot of offers for copies.

No one calls Mr. Bourke governor any more, and he declined to be interviewed. The Foreign Office's lone outspoken voice these days is that of warm-tempered Attorney General David Ballantyne. "If they don't want us, we're not going to stay," he vows in a Scot's proud burr. Then he touches the heart of the matter: "No one wants to be the last vestige of a colonial empire."

Pub Date: 3/16/96

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