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Foes Challenge Antigua's Dynasty : Caribbean: Tainted by charges of corruption, the Bird family may find its grip on power loosened by elections next week.

March 05, 1994|KENNETH FREED | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ST JOHN'S, Antigua — A visitor to the office of Antigua's likely new prime minister encounters a stench arising from a gutter carrying raw sewage past the building. To many Antiguans, the odor symbolizes the state of their nation's politics.

"You noticed the smell, did you?" asked a prominent St. John's businessman who has a shop near the politician's office. "Get used to it. The whole island stinks of (it) and so does the way politics are run here and so does that politician across the street."

He sneered when he said "that politician."

"That politician" is Lester Bird, a 55-year-old U.S. citizen who at times seems minister of nearly everything, not to mention owner of, or investor in, many of Antigua's most important businesses and development projects.

Among his titles are minister of trade and commerce, minister of foreign affairs and self-proclaimed deputy prime minister.

He owns or controls the island's two sand and gravel mining firms and has major holdings in other businesses.

But most important, he is son of Vere Cornwall Bird, the last of the giants who led the British Caribbean nations to independence earlier in the century.

Lester, as the graduate of the University of Michigan is universally called on this 112-square-mile island nation, will lead his father's Antigua Labor Party to national elections Tuesday.

It will be the first time since Antigua was granted limited self-government by the British in the mid-1950s that V.C. Bird will not head the party or lead it in elections.

In fact, when he steps down after the elections, it will be the first time in 50 years that Bird, 84, will not be Antigua's leader, except for 1971-76, when his party was out of office.

While the Antigua Labor Party is considered likely to win most of the seats in the tiny national legislature, most political experts say its current 16-1 domination will be reduced considerably, probably to a five- or six-seat edge.

The opposition, the United Progressive Party, is running a full slate of candidates for the first time in several elections. It has chosen as its head a highly respected labor leader, Baldwin Spencer, known for his honesty and conciliatory style.

According to Spencer and Tim Hector, who is a Progressive Party candidate and the editor of Antigua's crusading weekly newspaper, the Outlet, their main campaign tactic will be to take advantage of what they say is an overwhelming public sense of revulsion against half a century of Bird rule.

"There's been nothing like it outside of Haiti," said Hector, 53, a former Bird protege, referring to the Duvaliers, father and son, who ruled that nation from 1957 until 1986. "In the past, the Birds were unstoppable; people just accepted that the old man and his family could do what they wanted.

"But now it is just too much. All of them, including V.C., have been branded by outside sources as corrupt, and that corruption has put the country deeply in debt and deprived the people of what they know they should have."

Hector, who is widely admired here for his thorough investigative reporting, is a fervent anti-Bird partisan, and his judgments have to be seen in that light. There are many experts who believe that in the end a majority of voters will go with the son of the man still called "popa" and the "father of our independence."

"It's going to be a question of how the people judge the last 50 years," said a diplomat with close ties to both parties.

There is much to balance. It has been half a century of strong economic growth. Antigua has one of the region's highest per capita incomes. But it also has one of the world's highest per capita debts, about $400 million for a country of 60,000 people.

But more important in the minds of many diplomats, investigating jurists and other experts, the Bird era has been a time of political dynasty and corruption.

Dynasty it certainly is. In addition to V.C. and Lester, there is Vere Bird Jr., who has played an important and highly visible role in Antiguan politics over the last 25 years, winning elections by huge margins. In fact, Vere Jr., the eldest son, was the one most observers thought likeliest to take his father's place.

Except that Vere Jr. made a few mistakes. Among other things, he had roles in a 1989 gun-running scheme involving the sale of arms to Colombian drug dealers; establishment of a terrorist training school for the Colombians, and an $11-million airport construction scandal.

All of this led to an investigation conducted by a British jurist, Louis Blom-Cooper, whose report attacked the entire Bird government for "unbridled corruption . . . (and) the failure of the government to observe the rule of law."

Calling Vere Jr. "thoroughly unprincipled . . . mendacious," the judge expressed the hope that he "become both politically and socially an outcast in Antigua." He recommended that Vere Jr. never be allowed to serve in the Cabinet.

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