Warm breezes, warmer politics in Seychelles
This beautiful little archipelago of islands, 1,000 miles off the coast of Africa, is probably the nearest thing to what is meant by paradise. Its lagoons, white sand beaches, warm waters, and fragrant cinnamon trees give it an exotic beauty. The humid heat contributes to a slow, relaxed pace of life. There are flora and fauna on the islands found nowhere else in the world, and a unique variety of coconut the natives call ''coco de mer.''
So it seems out of place in this sleepy, steamy botanical extravaganza that its socialist government relies on foreign troops to stay in power and busies itself with statements on such far-flung issues as the unification of Korea and support for the governments of Grenada and Nicaragua.
Ever since an abortive coup attempt here in 1981, when South African-backed mercenaries fought gun battles with Seychellois troops at the airport, the government of President France Albert Rene has paid for the presence of an estimated 100 to 200 Tanzanian soldiers. They have recently been supplemented by a North Korean military training mission. The island's top officials still believe that another attempt will be made to overthrow them, and they are taking no chances.
The Seychellois Army has 800 men. Its members are mostly black, in contrast to the Seychelles government, which is made up mostly of descendants of the French planter aristocracy called ''grands blancs.''
Since an attempted mutiny last August, the government has not trusted the Army. Soldiers were said to resent the high-handed manner of some of their senior officers. The Army is issued Soviet guns, but no bullets.
The Seychelles also has an image problem. The government's reputation as a militant socialist state runs counter to its desire to represent itself as a carefree vacation paradise. ''One word about Marxism in the Seychelles in (the French newspaper) Le Figaro,'' said one of President Rene's aides, ''and our tourism figures go down.''
The island's well-run tourist industry, the main source of foreign exchange for a country that imports five times the amount it exports, has been the most serious casualty of the 1981 attempted coup. From a peak of 81,000 tourists in 1979, the number of visitors declined to 49,000 last year. All the large luxury hotels on the island except the one owned by the government are up for sale.
Last November, in a move that was seen in foreign diplomatic circles as a attempt to ''soften'' the Seychelles' foreign image, President Rene replaced his hard-line foreign minister, Jacques Hodoul, with the more ingratiating Dr. Maxime Ferrari. In an interview, Dr. Ferrari said the Seychelles had adopted a more ''pragmatic'' approach to foreign policy.
''We have given the impression that we're closer to the Soviet Union, and (in international forums) we voted against the US many times. We are also concerned about it. The different approach that we are adopting now is that we should not at any time, if it is not of tactical value to us, expose ourselves to superpower rivalries.''
But Dr. Ferrari qualified his statement by saying that ''because we say we're more pragmatic, it doesn't mean we drop our interest in the liberation groups of the world. We will always support the liberation struggle of Central America. It has a direct relationship with our interests.''
Tourism officials predict this year the number of tourists will increase 10 percent over 1982, and in the first three months of this year tourism did increase somewhat. But balanced against that, two airlines, Lufthansa and British Airways, have decided to discontinue direct flights to the Seychelles, and restrictions on the French franc will probably mean fewer French tourists this year.
The Seychelles government is trying to decrease its dependence on tourism by developing its fishing industry and increasing its traditional exports of cinnamon and copra.
But in spite of its economic difficulties, the Seychellois enjoy one of the highest standards of living in Africa, with a per capita yearly income of $1,030 . The island looks prosperous and its citizens are well dressed. Victoria is a neat capital in miniature, with quaint colonial buildings in pastel colors and a tiny clock tower. It is home to 20,000 of the island's 60,000 inhabitants, most of whom are an attractive mixture of African, Asian, and European blood.
Mr. Rene's government has improved health and transport services, and 95 percent of the school-age children attend school. The government has a policy of giving every Seychellois his own house, and it has been building houses at a rate of about 500 a year.
The government has also established national youth camps for young people between the ages of 16 and 18. ''The national youth service,'' President Rene has said, ''has an important role to play to produce people with a revolutionary frame of mind.'' The youth service is supposed to be voluntary, but those who refuse to serve are said to come under various types of government pressure.
With the election of a socialist government in Mauritius last year, the Indian Ocean has seen the establishment of a string of socialist states in the area: in Mauritius, the Seychelles, and Madagascar. The Comoro Islands are the exception, since their conservative leader was installed with the help of white mercenaries in 1978. Relations between Mauritius and the Seychelles have improved greatly since the Mauritian socialist government took power.
The three island states have tried to coordinate policy on Indian Ocean questions and increase economic exchanges through the creation of an Indian Ocean commission. So far, Mauritius, Madagascar, and the Seychelles are members. They have asked the French government, which controls the island of Reunion, to come as an observer.
Like Mauritius, the Seychelles supports the demilitarization of the Indian Ocean and has called for the dismantling of the United States base at Diego Garcia. The Seychelles bans warships carrying nuclear arms from calling at its ports, and since British and American policy is not to specify which ships carry nuclear arms, they are effectively barred. French and Soviet ships, however, call at Seychellois ports. France, in fact, is the only foreign naval power with ready access to all Indian Ocean ports. France is the largest contributor of foreign aid to the Seychelles, followed by Britain and the United States. Mr. Mitterrand's Socialist government in particular has improved relations with both the Seychelles and Mauritius.
Despite government efforts to transform the Seychelles into a revolutionary, socialist society, there is a continuing feeling of unease among its leaders, who wonder when and from where another attack might come.