VIRGIN ISLANDS: SHAME IN THE U.S. TROPICS

LOOK / MARCH 10, 1970

In 1848, the slaves were freed on the Virgin Islands--St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John. Today, ugly echoes of the slave trade are stirring consciences on these predominantly black U.S. isles, only 40 miles east of Puerto Rico.

Some 16,000 so-called "bonded aliens''--a group of blacks as large as the entire resident labor force--have been imported from nearby foreign Caribbean islands under unique provisions of U.S immigration and labor laws. Without the aliens, the Virgins' booming tourist and construction industries would collapse. But the way these blacks are treated is almost without parallel in our history. One has to go back to the days of slaves and indentured servants.

The aliens are attracted by the lure of wages higher than those of their impoverished home islands--St. Kitts, Antigua, Nevis and St. Lucia are the main ones. The U.S. minimum wage of $1.60 an hour does not apply to the Virgin Islands. Some alien women are paid only 54 cents an hour. Last year, it was estimated nearly 59 percent of the women earned less than $1.16 an hour. Of the alien men and women, nearly half earned less than $1.76.

The aliens receive little in return for the taxes they pay. Only a few hundred of their children have been allowed to enter public schools--and it is estimated that 2,000 alien children whose parents can't afford inexpensive church schools are walking the streets. Alien parents aren't allowed tax deductions for dependents back on their home islands. nor (shades of Catch-22) can they collect unemployment compensation even though they pay for it, because they are deported when they lose their jobs. Most aliens will never get any of the Social Security for which they pay. Nor can they use public-welfare services, and they rarely get into public housing. The pretense of government and employers has been that the aliens are some sort of migratory workers, that they are in the Virgin Islands for only a short while. Actually, many aliens have been around for five and even ten years. They constitute a huge, voteless, unintegrated bloc. Why aren't they more demanding? ''The average alien is terribly afraid," says Nathaniel Richardson, himself an alien black who is working, with the Dutch Reformed Chureh in St. Thomas to help other aliens. "The alien isn't secure in his job.... If he asks for more money, his boss can fire him--he has to leave the country, and immediately his boss hires another man cheaper. He has no person to defend him. These blacks won't always be so passive. Someday, and soon, if life continues the way it is, they will become angry."

Franklin S. Anderson is a black labor organizer who was raised on St Vincent's. ''There is a racist mentality among the native blacks toward the alien blacks," he says. "The native blacks constitute 70-80 percent of the U.S. citizens; they are well-off economieally and they feel superior. The aliens in turn resent the black Virgin Islanders; they feel their powerlessness. If changes aren't made, there will be an explosion."

Sociologist John W. McCollum knows as much about the islands' problems as anybody. Last summer his company, Social, Educational Research and Development, Inc., of Silver Spring, Md., completed a major study of the alien situation for the Office of Economic Opportunity. He agrees with Anderson: "There are all the ingredients for a case of spontaneous combustion. The people are cut off completely from the community. This is a classical case of alienation. There is nothing to give them a feeling of belonging to society. Rememer, they don't compare themselves to how poorly they lived back on their home island but how life is in the Virgin Islands."

Curiously, the prosperity of recent years is responsible for the islands' problems. The U.S bought the islands from Denmark for $25 million during World War I, to keep the Ger- ; man U-boats out of the Caribbean. For years. the islands were admininistered as a sleepy tropical colony by the U.S. Navy. Agriculture fizzled out nearly completely: the famous local rum is now made from imported molasses because sugarcane is. no longer harvested. With Fidel Castro's take-over of Cuba came sudden hordes of displaced tourists, first by the thousands, then by the hundreds of thousands. Last fiseal year, the tourists increased 38 percent over 1968 to 1,279,292; they spent $125 million. With the tourists have come white "continentals" to take up a new life in semi-retirement or for seasonal stays in condominium apartments.

They are not much interested in the Islands' social problems. To run the hotels and to build the condominiums takes large numbers of aliens. Incredible as it seems, over 40 percent of the people who live here permanently have government jobs. The other permanents prefer owning taxis or businesses to working with their hands.

That is where the aliens come in. "We on the islands have been too tourist-oriented," says Ariel Melchior, Sr., publisher of the Daily News of the Virgin Islands and a local editor for 40 years. "We should have balanced the human interests--there has just been too much emphasis placed on tourism and making money, too little on how human beings live."

Melchior charges that the islands have been guilty of "exploitation of poor people--like getting large numbers into construction work and then | getting rid of them without any regard." He advocates slowing down the import of aliens to "absorb the more productive ones and give them many of the rights of citizens."

Melchior wants to de-emphasize tourism by attracting light industry. He says: "condominiums and hotels produce profits for stockholders in the U.S.,not for people in the V.I."

The Vrgin Islands government has the power to subsidize new industry by offering it a 75 percent rebate on federal-income and local taxes for a number of years. An aluminum plant and an oil refinery were built on St. Croix, but no other large enterprises have been attracted--except for tourist hotels and condominiums. These plow little back into the economy and contribute instead to the social problems because they require alien labor to build and maintain.

The most powerful man on the islands is Sen. Earle B. Ottley, former president of the Territorial Senate (which is three-quarters black), who also publishes an influential daily newspaper and is founder-president of the powerful Virgin Islands Labor Union, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO Seafarers International. He is also chairman of a governmental commission studying alien problems. Ottley says:

"Tourism is a tiger by the tail. If something happened nationally or internationally, the whole bottom would drop out." To him, the aliens' most important need is clear: "You have to give him self-respect, you have to get rid of the sword of Damocles--the bonding contract that hangs over his head, so his employer no longer has life-and-death power."

The failure of the islands to provide public housing bothers the Senator.

"There are probably 5,000 people on the housing waiting list," he says, "and there are only a couple of hundred units built every year. We should expand the Federal effort and also require more from the importers of alien labor in the way of providing housing for their workmen "

The lackadaisical attitude in Washington toward our former colony accounts for some of the aggravated problems. Sociologist John W. McCollum calls attention to the failure of the U.S. Department of Labor to use its powers to upgrade low wages and poor working conditions. The Immigration and Naturalization Service is also delinquent, he says, in permitting illegal aliens to remain on the isiands and in putting up with laws that it knows to be unworkable.

Federal responsibility may receive some attention, at long last, in Congress. Sen Quentin N Burdick (D., N.D.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Territories and Insular Affairs, says: "We ought to have some hearings on the subject There is no easy solution, but I think it is time we should look for some answers." Sen Gordon Allott, of Colorado, ranking Republican member of the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, has called upon the President to intervene, saying "I am convinced that a Cabinet-level committee is the only unified and comprehensively responsible Federal vehicle for dealing with this important matter."

The Virgin Islands government, until very recently, has done nothing about the alien situation. But then, it seems overwhelmed by all the other problems of growth: the bumpy, muddy highway network; the schools, inadequate for citizens, let alone aliens; the 2.5 million gallons of raw sewage dumped daily into the beautiful St. Thomas harbor; lights and telephones that don't work.

"Despite the tourist dollar, this is an underdeveloped area, perpetually in crisis," Dr. Edward L. Towle tells me. He is director of the Caribbean Research Institute at the College of the Virgin Islands. (It is hard to take notes as we talk because his office is in semi-darkness because of one of the power plant's frequent failures.)

''We suffer from sheer administrative inefficiency and inexperience," says Dr. Towle. "Sure, we had a 38 percent increase in tourism last year, but we didn't provide a one percent increase in the quality of housing, schools and roads."

Dr. Towle believes the islands are going to have to put a ceiling on tourism. He says: "We would be better advised to have only a ten percent increase in tourism annually and provide a good tourist experience than have a 20 percent increase in tourism that is a bad experience.... If we can't provide the vital services, we'll drown in tourism."

This kind of talk enrages civic boosters like Ralph M. Paiewonsky,: who was governor from 1961 to 1969, iland-born, son of an immigrant, and a millionaire with many island interests, Paiewonsky--who owns one of the largest "duty free" tourist shops says,"We're not going to turn the clock back and cut down on tourism. We have improved the quality of living here in every direction. Go down to the other islands and look."

The ex-governor defends the way aliens are treated. "They don't want to establish a permanent residence here," he asserts. "They make their money and go back home." He says that alien blacks "earn three times as much from tourism as from chopping cane" and that the money they send to their home islands (about $3 million a year) "constitutes our own Alliance for Progress."

The new governor, Dr. Melvin H. Evans, who was appointed by President Nixon only last June, disagrees: "We're going to say NO! We're going to tighten up tax incentives on condominiums. We're past the state of welcoming everybody who wants to put up a hotel. We have to slow down. The Virgin Islander is getting angry. He is getting the blame for the alien problem. The money is going off to the mainland and down-island; old taxes and living costs are going up and the schools deteriorate."

A black man, who gave up a lucracareer as a heart specialist for one in public health, Dr. Evans is a Republican in a place where members of the GOP are almost as rare as snowballs. Next November, the islands will for the first time elect a governor. With the Democrats so overwhelmingly powerful, Dr. Evans may not be around to see that all his promises are kept. For example:

"My policy is that next September, every child of school age legally in the Virgin Islands will be in school. . . Employers will be required to supply health insurance for aliens.... We have introduced legislation requiring employers to provide housing for new alien employees--government can't provide the housing.... We will have off-island recruitment of labor so that one hundred people won't be coming here for only ten jobs...."

What the alien blacks seem to need, more than anything, is a bit more power, so they can negotiate with the government. But the very word ''power" is frightening to them. Last December, four young VISTA workers who taught alien children unable to get into St. Thomas public schools were summarily ordered off the island. Their crime? They encouraged 100 parents of the children to form an organization whose function was to needle the schools into admitmore alien children. The group called itself People's Organization to Work for Equal Rights--POWER. The local OEO office accused the VISTA'S of stirring up trouble.

Curiously, the transfer of the VISTA'S received the tacit, if not active, support of the three alien organizations. "We have long observed the divisive actions of the VISTA volunteers involved," the organizations said in a joint statement, "and were cognizant of their attempts not only to pit one alien group against the other but to bring direct confrontation of the alien commmunity and the local government and people."

Such timidity extends all the way into the ruined plantations, overgrown with brush and wild sugarcane. The alien blacks live there in filthy old slave quarters. long buildings of granite partitioned into tiny family hovels. At Castle Coakley, an old plantation on St. Croix, I watched with fascination as a civic-action group organized by the aliens attempted ta elect a president. Nobody wanted the job because to become president means to attract the attention of the authorities.The presidency was finally accepted by a huge black man who reminded me of Porgy in the musical Porgy and Bess. His name is Jeremiah Joseph, he is 31, and he came here from Antigua ten years ago. He led his group in converting one of the plantation's hovels into a one-room "community center," but no sooner was it finished than squatters moved in. Now he is helping to build a new center in the estate's stables. "These are people in despair--they rethink nobody cares," says Sister Marthe Van Rompay, a Belgium-born nun who runs a center for aliens and the native poor.

Rabbi Murray Blackman of the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas blames organized religion. ''Until recently," he says, "the church was more concerned with salvation than with social issues. Finally, at long last, the churches are spurring governmerit to do something."

The Right Rev. Cedric E. Mills, a black man who is Episcopal bishop of the islands and vice chairman of a commission seeking solutions to the alien problem, says: "There is a tendency here to sweep things under the carpet." At a conference the Bishop helped organize recently, the aliens themselves came up with some suggestions. The primary one was to help end their voicelessness by giving them five ironically voteless representatives in the 15-man legislature.

"I don't know what the answer should be," says Nathaniel Richardson, "but our people should be more free to participate in decision-making. There should be job security, with a real grievance procedure. There should be a place for us to live when we come over to take a job. I know we shouldn't have to live like this."