Freeport, Grand Bahama - Walking the streets of Grand Bahama, and especially after leaving the tourist enclave of Port Lucaya and heading westwards towards the outlying communities of West End and Eight Mile Rock, one is immediately confronted with the notion that this island has seen better times.
A trio of direct-hit hurricanes in 2004 and 2005 caused some of the lasting damage that one still witnesses. But to see houses and businesses in various stages of reclamation by the press of tropical vegetation, nearly a decade after the fact, suggests that natural disasters are not the only factor at play here.
Unemployment, deeply tied to global tourism, now hovers above 21%. This is several percentage points higher than the Bahamian average, and is a full 5% increase for Grand Bahama from March of 2011. Population on Grand Bahama is also in decline, as islanders fall in line with the all-too-common urban exodus in search of jobs. Vacation weekends, such as this August's Emancipation Day celebrations, are occasions for families to briefly reunite; and then off again to the capital city of Nassau.
My tourguides for the majority of the trip thus far have been the core members of the local action group Operation Justice Bahamas. Troy Garvey, Jonathan Glinton, and elder statesman Etienne "Faqi" Farquharson, are well known across the island, and have opened doors otherwise inaccessible to me.
From the power bosses of industry, to the newly-elected members of the Progressive Liberal Party, to the local Grand Bahamian; Operation Justice, and especially the charismatic Garvey, are always greeted with a handshake and a conversation. And the question on the tip of everyone's tongue, as it has been since Garvey and Glinton visited Nova Scotia October last seeking answers from Emera, is: "When are you going to get my power bill lowered?"
Within the Bahamas, Grand Bahama exists as a manner of private kingdom, almost outside of the influence of the democratic process. The Grand Bahama Port Authority, keepers of licences and grantors of rate increases, exists as something of an autonomous operation and regulatory body. To put it bluntly; the Port Authority runs the show.
The Bahamian government does have sway, but to get at the Port Authority, and thusly keep Emera's new cash cow, the Grand Bahama Power Company, in any degree of check, it must delve into the legally murky waters of the Hawksbill Creek Agreement, by which the island was virtually signed away until 2054.
The Progressive Liberal Party (who publicly make mention that Garvey's late campaign endorsement of the party on Grand Bahama was key in helping secure their win), knows that there is a problem with Emera on Grand Bahama. But doing something about that problem is something else entirely. It is a matter for legal-types to wage courtroom battles over interpretations of the Hawksbill Creek Agreement. It is a war, with it's deep, deep, pockets, that Emera is well-armed for.
“From my days as president of the Grand Bahama Chamber of Commerce, I have always spoken with grave concerns regarding what appear to be, the face of it, very exorbitant rates being charged by the Grand Bahama Power Company to the consumers of Grand Bahama," says Gregory Moss, PLP member of parliament for Marco City, on Grand Bahama.
“When you look at it, it cannot be defensible to have a 12 cents per kilowatt hour rate in our neighbour Florida, and a 44 cent per kilowatt hour rate as we pay here [especially] when you bear in mind that the fuel being used to generate power in Grand Bahama is fuel upon which no duty is being paid. It begs the question of what is happening, and it sounds a siren call to the need to have that addressed for the good of the people."
Moss, and other members of parliament for Grand Bahama, appear to understand that the situation under Emera's rule is not going to be sustainable for long.
Industry bottom-lines will only allow for so much profit to be lost to power bills before they join the Grand Bahama exodus. Hotels, which do, but could better, benefit from a naturally lush and tropical landscape, now stand half-full. In some cases they have even begun to use their own generators. And Grand Bahamians, dependent upon dwindling employment to support ever-increasing power bills, appear to be generally reaching a threshhold beyond which they cannot go.
“In Grand Bahama, right now we have the anomaly, the unsustainable anomaly, that most consumers are spending as much or more on their electricity bill as they're spending on rent or mortgage for their home," says Moss. "We also have the situation where businesses are exiting Grand Bahama, or refusing to come to Grand Bahama, because of the cost of electricity.
“My concern for that has not diminished by reason of my having been elected to power, in fact it has become more pronounced. I have absolute confidence that this issue will be addressed with priority by the Progressive Liberal Party.”
It has become a legal, and political, battle. Troy Garvey, the career activist, is banking on the party he stuck his hopes on to address the issue in a meaningful way.
"The former government chose to ignore the cries of the Grand Bahamian people as it relates to the Grand Bahama Power Company," says Garvey. "We are now calling on this new administration, which actually campaigned on the fact that the Grand Bahama Power Company is not operating in good faith with the people here on Grand Bahama, to please hear our cries and reach out to us. Remember 'Believe in the Bahamas [the Progressive Liberal Party's slogan]. Let's make this a reality and prove to the people that you do believe in Bahamians."