In the 1990s, after the collapse of communism in Europe, the United States went on the offensive in promoting the benefits of free-market capitalism throughout the world. One of the dominant themes was the need for "transparency" — for systems in which what you see is what you get, and where there is a minimum of "insiderism" and official corruption.
Transparency is a powerful and positive message. Unfortunately, as Enron, Global Crossing, WorldCom, etc. have demonstrated, we should have paid closer attention to the need for transparency at home.
Which brings us to the Virgin Islands. Among its numerous crises, the Virgin Islands is afflicted with a serious lack of transparency that continues to eat away at its economic, political, and social health. This lack of transparency takes a variety of forms, including the inability of anyone in the government to give a straight answer with respect to the territorys fiscal situation.
One week, the governor assures the public that there is no fiscal crisis. The next week, there isn't enough money to keep the streetlights lit. The absence of official credibility on virtually all subjects, but especially those related to money, is quite extraordinary and very damaging.
Then there are the perceptions of public corruption. There is so much smoke that the possibilities of there not being a fire have to be considered minimal. The Innovative Communication Corp. training stipend for Kenneth Mapp is just one recent instance. Even more suspicious is the video lottery issue. Anyone with any doubts on this subject need only read Patrick Joyce's mind-blowing Open Forum piece, "VLT's are evil, immoral and bad for business". How is it possible that something that virtually everyone is against, that will cause serious social harm, and that will generate minimal revenues for the territory can be enacted into law? It certainly makes you wonder.
This lack of transparency has contributed to the creation of a business environment that is essentially hostile to honest business people and attractive for those who are less scrupulous, attractive because the back-room deal can take the place of the market. It also is an environment in which public goods and benefits are distributed within a closed circle of insiders, while the broader public pays the price in the form of economic decline, decaying public institutions, and a deteriorating physical environment.
The rot produced by corruption and a lack of transparency afflicts many countries. In most of these, the very system that is supposed to protect the public has been turned against it. In this respect, the Virgin Islands has a distinct advantage. That advantage is known as the Office of the United States Attorney. As the Source has editorially pointed out, U.S. Attorney David Nissman's office is making a solid start. (See "Nissman's actions could stop the slide".)
Major scandals are generally bad for a place's reputation, but they also can be the best medicine for restoring public trust that has been lost and is not going to be restored by those in internal positions of authority. One can make a strong case that the federal government has failed in its responsibility to the people of the Virgin Islands in many respects, the most important of which may be its failure — up until now — to assure a corruption-free and transparent system. It is clear that both citizens and the feds are stirring, and that enough people may have finally had enough.
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 was one of the founders of the St. Thomas/St. John Youth Multiservice Center.
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