UK releases two decades of governors’ restricted memos


Revealing everything from local and international political intrigue, to “white elephant” projects, to a general preference toward the sport of cricket over baseball, annual reports sent by Cayman Islands governors to Britain between 1987 and 2005 have been released by the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Read the memos

The partially redacted documents were released Tuesday following a Freedom of Information request made by former Cayman Governor Alan J. Scott.

Mr. Scott told the Cayman Compass that he requested, some two years ago, copies of the governors’ dispatches as part of his “continuing interest” in the U.K.’s administration of the overseas territories. Several of the annual dispatches – reports to the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office – were penned by Mr. Scott himself, and later on by territorial Governors Michael Gore, John Owen, Peter Smith, Bruce Dinwiddy and Stuart Jack.

Only one year requested, the year 2000 governor’s dispatch, was not included. According to foreign office representatives, that particular report could not be found.

“This was the time that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was moving from paper documents to electronic documents,” the open records response to Governor Scott noted. “We have checked both the electronic and paper files, but we are unable to find this document.”

Other sections of the annual reports are blacked out largely because the statements made by the former governors “would, or would be likely to, prejudice the relations between the United Kingdom and another state, the interests of the U.K. abroad or the promotion or protection of … its assets abroad.”

Local politics

Subjects covered in the various dispatches, which range anywhere from two to 14 pages long, are numerous and deal with areas from the environment, to the economy, to law and order, U.K. relations, immigration and the general “mood” of the Caymanian populace.

There is no mistaking throughout the almost-two decades’ worth of dispatches that British governors keep a keen eye on Cayman Islands politics and political elections, as well as government policy decisions.

In the 2005 report from then-newly appointed Gov. Jack, it is noted: “The election of a new government under Kurt Tibbetts in May also created a healthier atmosphere. They are putting effort into greater transparency and accountability and better delivery from the civil service. They remain Caymanian at heart and can be suspicious of the motives of the U.K. and others, but there is a healthy debate in Cabinet, which often brings out the wider realities and they are open to advice, including from a new governor.”

Other governments did not get such positive reviews from incoming governors, as evidenced in the year 1992 dispatch from then-Governor Gore: “… with minimal pressure from me, the government cancelled a project initiated by their predecessors which was so obviously a white elephant that I find it extraordinary it was allowed to get off the ground in the first place. This was the construction of a new luxury hospital in George Town, the brainchild of the previous member for health.”

One dispatch from 1999, when Governor Smith was in office, spoke of the “need for change of political class in the next elections.”

“With elections scheduled for November 2000, there will be some reluctance to address contentious problems with no vote-catching potential,” the ’99 dispatch reported. “Indeed, the unofficial campaign has already begun and deal-making season is upon us. There lies the central weakness of the Cayman scenario: a truly first class center of excellence in financial services and tourism with some 40,000 inhabitants of whom barely half have Caymanian status. The electorate is therefore so tiny that the Father of the House, John McLean, has served in the Legislative Assembly continuously and inauspiciously since 1974, being returned last time with 322 of the 464 votes cast in his constituency. [Next sentence redacted]

“There is an urgent need for a new wave of younger and untainted politicians, as well as for some reform of the nationality rules to allow for wider electorate.”

Political issues also arose from other types of unexpected events, the dispatches revealed: “On Christmas Day, an Executive Council member [redacted] fired his pistol in a public place, in the close vicinity of [redacted],” Governor Scott wrote in his 1988 annual report. “Apart from the legal consequences if [as in any normal society, he would] he resigns from Executive Council, an election for his vacant seat must take place in the Legislative Assembly. In a 7-5 situation, the balance of power could shift.”

Successive governors, it seems from the dispatches, also took a significant interest in the election system used by the Cayman Islands.

In 2003, then-Governor Dinwiddy noted that an Electoral Boundary Commission report “recommended” boundaries for 17 single-member constituent districts, a move the governor said could be made as a result of constitutional revisions being discussed at the time.

“The most contentious issue is the United Democratic Party’s determination to postpone, until 2008, the move to single-member constituencies in West Bay, Bodden Town and the Sister Islands,” he wrote. Mr. Dinwiddy added that he strongly supported constitutional changes in Cayman that created “greater confidence” among local residents that the U.K. possessed “goodwill” toward the islands.

“It is not just the elected government that sees the U.K. as too restrictive and self-interested in its attitude towards Cayman,” the former governor wrote.

Crime and economics

Almost every annual gubernatorial dispatch since 1987 touched on the issue of crime and most dealt in some way or another with the prospects of the local economy.

In 1997, then-Governor Owen noted there were “doom and gloom” economic forecasts after what he termed “insensitive handling of revenue raising measures introduced in the budget” that year and the passage of a new Proceeds of Crime Law.

“[This] did not slow down the growth of the financial services industry,” Mr. Owen wrote. “All sectors saw strong growth.”

Mr. Owen, during the same year, also fretted about the increasing drugs trade seen in the islands around that time: “The Cayman Islands continue to be a transshipment point for drug smugglers into the U.S. and Europe. Worryingly, the number of cocaine swallowers arriving on flights from Jamaica continues to rise despite increased surveillance by Drugs Task Force and customs officers.”

Governor Owen also noted that in 1996 Cayman’s streets were “among the safest in the Caribbean.”

“The support for the police has never been so high as at the end of 1996,” Mr. Owen wrote.

About two years prior, in 1994, the news was not so good on the law enforcement/public safety front, as a massive influx of Cuban migrants flooded into the territory – a result largely blamed on the U.S. government’s proposal to implement the now-infamous “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy for Cuban migrants.

“Within a period of four weeks, 1,183 Cubans landed on Cayman Brac,” Governor Gore reported. “They came in fishing smacks, tiny boats with dilapidated outboard engines, inflatables and [rafts] patched with inner tubes for floatation.”

With no facilities to house the Cubans on the Brac – their arrival essentially doubled the island’s population at the time – the migrants were sent to live in “tent cities” on Grand Cayman.

Mr. Gore blasted the U.S. government’s approach to the Cuban migrant situation: “The U.S. government, clearly at a loss as to how to cope with the 20,000 or so Cubans at Guantanamo and 10,000 at a safe haven in Panama, were content to wash their hands of the relatively small number in the Cayman Islands. On a pro-rata basis, the 1,183 we had here was equivalent to almost the whole population of Cuba moving the U.S. over a four week period.”

Mr. Gore was clearly moved by the “great compassion” and “generosity” the Caymanian people showed to their unexpected visitors during the period. “Families go to the tent city daily to talk with those they have befriended, food and other gifts have poured into the camp and over Christmas several hundred were invited out to private homes for a traditional Christmas meal which, here in Cayman, is roast beef.”

The Cuban crisis left Cayman with a budget deficit of $3 million to $4 million for the year, despite earlier projects for a fiscal surplus.

Hurricane Ivan

Almost the entirety of Governor Dinwiddy’s 2004 annual report was taken up with the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan, which devastated Grand Cayman in September 2004.

“Readers who know enough about Ivan may prefer now to jump to paragraph No. 11,” Mr. Dinwiddy noted in paragraph No. 4 of his report.

The governor’s missive indicated that the situation with maintaining order in the islands was far more serious than many might have realized at the time.

“There are lessons for the future, which I have discussed with the overseas territories directorate,” Mr. Dinwiddy wrote. “With rapid assistance from overseas territories law enforcement advisor [Larry] Covington and loan of 26 armed police from Bermuda, TCI and BVI, we just avoided a collapse of law and order [redacted].”

Given Cayman’s size, the post-storm recovery progressed faster than the former governor expected. Problems with homeless residents persisted well past the end of 2004, however.

“Several thousand people are still displaced,” he wrote. “There is a severe housing shortage and rents have risen by up to 50 percent.”

Past times

Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II’s last visit to the Cayman Islands was a notable event reported by Governor Gore in 1994.

Mr. Gore’s commentary on the visit indicated his surprise that the younger generation of Caymanians seemed to hold the Queen of England in such high esteem.

“Everyone was clearly delighted that their Queen had decided to revisit the islands,” Mr. Gore wrote. “The trappings of the United States may be evident in the Cayman Islands, but there remains a close affinity for Britain. Highlight of the visit was undoubtedly the knighting in the main square of the first Caymanian [Sir Vassel Johnson] to be so honoured.”

Other events of less pomp and circumstance were highlighted, such as the construction of two cricket grounds in 1995.

“The fight back against baseball has begun!” then-Governor Owen wrote.

Governor Scott concluded his 1991 dispatch to Britain thusly: “One sometimes gets impatient, even pessimistic, with affairs in Cayman, but there is much good sense behind the trappings of affluence and American lifestyle. It is reassuring to visit the districts and listen to those who still live a very different life from that of their George Town compatriots. Their warmth and courtesy balance the political vexations.”