LAST Wednesday residents of the popular Atlantic tourist haven of Bermuda, England's oldest colony, voted overwhelmingly (by a 3-to-1 margin) against independence, an outcome local newspaper polls had predicted.
Bermuda's vote is quite in line with the recent electoral history of its Caribbean neighbors. Over the past decade, all other insular dependencies in the region have voted consistently in favor of the political status quo. In recent referenda in the French Antilles, the Netherlands Antilles, Puerto Rico, and the United States Virgin Islands, an average of less than 10 percent of voters favored independence. Since 1983, no island territory has achieved full autonomy. As a result, 16 Caribbean microstates remain essentially colonies.
This record contrasts sharply with the 1960s and '70s, when over 60 former colonial territories inhabited by some 80 million people opted for independence. In the insular Caribbean, 10 former British colonies achieved full political autonomy.
Why has the juggernaut of postwar decolonization stalled?
Common explanations point to external and internal political obstacles. The external include a range of alleged hindrances by the metropolitan powers, from lack of vision and encouragement to actively promoting federal assimilation over political separation. Internal factors include lack of local leadership, domestic factionalism, complacency with piecemeal progress, and inherent political conservatism.
My recent work with Professor Klaus de Albuquerque of the College of Charleston suggests otherwise. The islanders' overwhelming propensity for dependence is rooted in the substantial economic and social advantages associated with metropolitan affiliation. These benefits involve free trade and export preferences with the metropolis, or ''mother state,'' lucrative grants and social welfare assistance, ready access to off-island capital and labor markets (migration), other special commercial and tax concessions, excellent infrastructure and communications, and relatively high quality health and educational systems.
Dependency has advantages
A comparison of the average performance of a cross-section of 13 dependent territories with that of a cross-section of 12 independent Caribbean countries using several socioeconomic indicators reveals the extent of these territorial advantages. For example, both average per capita gross domestic product and electricity production are three times as high for the dependencies as for their sovereign neighbors. Average annual GDP growth between 1984 and 1992 is twice as high. The territories also record substantially higher levels of motor vehicles and telephone subscribers and enjoy a significantly lower unemployment rate (7 percent vs. 17 percent).
The same contrast emerges from the quality-of-life indicators. Life expectancies are higher in the dependencies, while average infant mortality is half the level of their independent counterparts. Health care facilities are sharply higher. Metropolitan affiliation seems to influence educational benefits as well. In public primary schools, the number of students per teacher is considerably lower in the dependencies (17) than in the sovereign islands (26), and performance on standardized tests in English and Mathematics is 40 to 50 percent higher.
On the other hand, the dependent territories are significantly smaller in population, land area, and exploitable resources and are less economically diversified than the independent islands. With over three times as many visitors and hotel rooms per capita, they are far more dependent on the capricious tourism industry. They are also more engaged in off-shore financial activities, which are notoriously subject to volatile international currency realignments and legal vagaries. The future viability of their delicate marine and terrestrial ecosystems, the capital base of the tourist economy, is also threatened by population densities nearly 50 percent above the sovereign-island average.
Voting with their pocketbooks
Territorial residents, with a maturing awareness of this economic vulnerability in an increasingly competitive international business climate and an appreciation of the territorial privileges they enjoy, tend to be politically cautious. They are reluctant to trade the tangible social and economic benefits of today's metropolitan affiliation for the less certain and (they assume) less affluent payoffs of autonomy tomorrow.
Although they may periodically chafe at the self-imposed limitations that result, ultimately islanders in the small Caribbean territories tend to vote their pocketbooks just like their mainland counterparts.