Earlier this week, as newly elected Turks and Caicos Premier Sharlene Cartwright Robinson weighed her possible recommendations to the country’s British governor for new ministry chiefs, she made certain her cabinet knew one thing.
“There are great expectations,” the islands’ first female leader told the group.
After a 13-year drought, the People’s Democratic Movement (PDM) had finally returned to the leadership helm of the sun-splashed British dependent territory, 575 miles southeast of Miami. And Cartwright Robinson, a 45-year-old attorney who had led the party during its last four years in opposition, was sworn in Tuesday after a vote that was closely watched throughout the Caribbean and in the United Kingdom.
Among her slogans during the campaign: “She’s just the best man for the job.”
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Her rise to power comes after a rocky few years for the Turks and Caicos Islands. Britain ended decades of self-rule in 2009, taking day-to-day control of the government after a high-profile scandal forced Premier Michael Misick to resign. Misick — who helped make the islands a hot hideaway for celebrities, and had his lavish lifestyle and marriage to Hollywood actress LisaRaye McCoy featured in U.S. tabloids — was accused of accepting millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks and profiting from the sale of government-owned land. He has denied the allegations and accused Britain of “a political witch hunt.”
Before than, in 1985, Chief Minister Norman Saunders, who shared the same political party with Misick, was convicted of conspiracy after he was arrested in Miami and accused of allowing the islands to be used as a refueling station for U.S.-bound Colombian drug traffickers.
The new premier is determined to keep her party’s reputation clean.
“I told them, ‘I will fire you,’” Cartwright Robinson, 45, told the Miami Herald, recalling the cabinet meeting. “My party has never been involved in any scandals that led to any commission of inquiry. We have our party’s great name and reputation to protect. And I will not tolerate it.”
By electing Cartwright Robinson, the Turks and Caicos is following an emerging trend. In recent years, voters in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago have shunned traditional male politicians and gone with a woman.
“I walked into a party in 1998 where there were only two females, myself and my first cousin,” the married mother of two young daughters, ages 12 and 9, said. “I came up the ranks by the votes of men — the first female chairman, the first female deputy leader, the first female leader, largely elected by men. It wasn’t very difficult for that to transfer to the wider Turks and Caicos.”
But, she said, “I didn’t play on a female status. People saw me as capable and able to work.”
Born in the Bahamas to Turks Island parents, Cartwright Robinson grew up in South Caicos, the same island that Saunders represented as a member of the House of Assembly, both as a member of the Progressive National Party (PNP) and briefly as an independent after returning from a U.S. prison. He announced his political retirement earlier this year after 49 years.
The island also is where Cartwright Robinson, who ran at-large, received her lowest vote in the recent election.
“Still, I am from South Caicos,” she said proudly, “and I have to take care of my own.”
But bringing development to the underdeveloped island of South Caicos is not the only challenge facing her.
Helping the Turks and Caicos put its vexing past behind it, once and for all, is also high on the list for Cartwright Robinson, a graduate of the College of the Bahamas and the Norman Manley Law School at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica.
A trial into the allegations of corruption, fraud and money laundering involving Misick — who unsuccessfully ran for office while on trial — and several former cabinet ministers is expected to continue well into 2017.
Meanwhile, an uptick in crime, unemployment and not enough foreign investments in the islands are among her top concerns.
“We are a tourist destination, so we want to make residents feel safe, and we want to protect our tourism product as well,” said Cartwright Robinson, who inherits the leadership of the Caribbean Development Bank with her party’s 10-5 landslide victory over the then-ruling Progressive National Party. “There is a high level of unemployment here that I believe is contributing to a resurgence in crime. Even though we are still very low in our crime rate, it’s still uncomfortable for us as islanders.”
Another priority of her administration, said Cartwright Robinson, who will also serve as the country’s finance minister, is the country’s youth. Though the PDM had been regarded as “the dead, boring party,” this time the campaign included youthful songs and a youth-focused platform.
“That in itself has transformed the image of the party,” she said.
The PDM didn’t just overcome the ruling party, though. It also faced a record number of independents and a third party, the People’s Progressive Party, led by a former PDM leader.
The third party’s existence underscored the fragmentation that Cartwright Robinson had to overcome as she also battled accusations that her party was anti-foreigner and anti-business.
On the campaign trail, Cartwright Robinson and her slate of candidates also were accused of cutting a secret deal with Jamaican businessman and Sandals Resorts International founder and chairman Gordon “Butch” Stewart involving unpaid gratuities for hospitality workers and work permits for foreigners. Cartwright Robinson said there is “absolutely no deal” with Stewart.
Cartwright Robinson said one of her slogans — “enough is enough” — spoke to the frustrations of voters.
“Unfortunately the government of the previous years was so focused on paying off debt and ignoring the social issues, the people didn’t get pulled along with any of the upturn in the economy,” Cartwright Robinson added. “They felt they were left out, they felt they were abandoned, and they were just ready to give another party an opportunity.”
The new premier also plans to work on the Turks and Caicos’ strained relations with Britain, stressing engagement.
“There will be occasions when we have a difference of opinion with the UK, but we intend to handle that in a mature way,” she said. “We’re not going to be at loggerheads with the British just to say we’re fighting with the British. But we are going to work with the British on behalf of our people and putting our people’s case forward.”
As for the Turks and Caicos moving past its blemished image, Cartwright Robinson believes that voters took the first step last week when they rejected Misick, who placed 11th out of 21 candidates for an at-large seat.
“Michael Misick’s rejection at the polls is a great statement for my government to move forward on, and for the Turks and Caicos to move forward and restore our reputation,” Cartwright Robinson said.