ST. JOHN'S, Antigua — The political saga of Vere C. Bird Sr. has been laced with ambition, corruption and a generous dash of sex for decades, and the latest chapter is no exception.
In it, the 82-year-old prime minister, weakened by a new scandal and a romantic setback, weathers yet another challenge from a powerful son who yearns for his job.
Bird, a former Salvation Army captain and trade union leader who stands 6-foot-5, has dominated politics in the three-island country of Antigua, Barbuda and the uninhabited Redonda for more than half a century.
He has been prime minister for all but five years since independence in 1960 and is credited with turning a poor British dependency into one of the Caribbean's most fashionable resorts.
His family became wealthy in the process, with interests in some of the nation's most lucrative businesses.
In the latest of a long string of corruption cases, Bird is accused of dipping into a health-care fund for $25,000. Political opponents say the money went into his private bank account, which had been depleted during a shopping spree by Cutie Francis, the latest of his several mistresses.
Bird admits putting the money into his account, but said it made up for a like amount he gave to an ailing woman, Carla Samuel, hence the health-care fund. The opposition claims Samuel does not exist, and Bird has not produced her.
Meanwhile, Francis walked out on Bird, taking a son with her, relatives and associates report. The boy is one of at least five children the prime minister has had with mistresses. He is separated from his wife,
Francis had been with Bird since catching his eye as an 8th-grade beauty queen at age 14. According to The Outlet, an opposition weekly, her affections turned to a younger Cabinet member.
Reeling from both blows, Bird yielded to pressure from a son, Lester, for a convention to choose a new Antigua Labor Party leader to head the ticket in the 1994 elections.
Lester, 54, has been deputy prime minister since 1976 and yearns to replace his father. In recent years, he has grown increasingly critical of the corruption charges and of the elder Bird's autocratic style.
At the convention in late May, however, Lester and another challenger, Information Minister John St. Luce, fought to a draw. The 300 delegates split their votes 150 to 150, meaning that Vere Bird Sr. remains the party leader, at least until another convention is called.
"Whenever there is an attempt to oust him, he out-tricks all of us," another son, Vere Jr., said in an interview.
Vere Jr., 55, spent years in his father's Cabinet but had to leave in 1990, when a commission labeled him a conspirator in a shipment of 10 tons of Israeli arms via Antigua to the Medellin cartel's private army in Colombia.
Two years earlier, he had been tainted by charges of corruption in an $11-million deal to renovate Antigua's international airport.
Vere Jr. steadfastly maintains his innocence and complains of a campaign "to character-assassinate me" by, among others, brother Lester.
"My brother and others who were vying to become prime minister felt I had become too powerful," he said. Vere Jr. now is his father's constant companion.
Lester has largely run the government for years, approving construction of state-run beach resorts and other big projects. He acknowledges owning lucrative businesses, including cement and paint companies, but insists that they get no special treatment or government contracts.
"All the business interests" of public officials "should be disclosed," he said in an interview. Lester also said public officials cannot be blamed for graft, because "businessmen have sought to corrupt politicians."
The allegation that Vere Bird Sr. pocketed $25,000 seems like small potatoes beside some multimillion-dollar international scandals that have shaken Antigua over the years. But St. Luce, the information minister, calls it "the last straw."
Before the gun-running to Colombia, Antigua was used for the illegal transshipment of powerful cannons to South Africa in the 1980s. Other schemes, never carried out, included storing nuclear waste in Barbuda and a large real estate deal with Robert Vesco, the fugitive American financier.
St. Luce, 50, hopes to exploit what he sees as growing anti-Bird sentiment.
Many citizens complain about such problems as roads riddled with potholes, poor public schools, and water and power shortages that persist despite a $60-million desalination and power plant.
Businessmen are increasingly upset with the politicians.
"If you look at these guys' bank accounts, it's staggering," said George Ryan, a contractor, car dealer and hardware store owner. "There's no accountability."
Despite it all, Vere Bird Sr. remains formidable.
"Mark you, he's not feeble," St. Luce said. "The prime minister still has a lot of support. Some people want him to go on forever."