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Obama’s Bahamas

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I’m a bad American. I was out of the country on vacation on Election Day. At the time I scheduled it, I was trying to keep in mind all the November birthdays of the people in my life so as not to avoid them so I guess you could say I was being a good friend, and not a good citizen, first. However, I did eventually realize that my maneuvering meant I would be in the Bahamas when the United States was having one of its most important presidential elections of our time.

Damn. It.

Of course, I could always vote absentee, a process I was very familiar with after years of attending college in Boston while still registered in my hometown in Connecticut. Would I miss out on a celebration, though? Or perhaps, this was a good contingency plan--if all went badly, I could simply not come back. There are worse fates than to spend the rest of your days selling conch shells on the beaches of Nassau. It’s not as if I wasn’t paying attention to things on the contrary, this was the first national election that moved me enough to actually volunteer to get my candidate elected. I figured Obama wouldn’t mind me going on vacation—as long as my vote was still cast. And yet, there the guilt was, packed in my suitcase right next to my string bikini.

For my first time out of the country, the Bahamas was a good choice. Not too far away, native language is English, and no need to exchange currency. Scenery-wise, it actually reminded me a lot of Florida, that infamous swing state. How exciting to live in a state like that, I often thought, and would bemusedly lament my envy to those friends residing in the likes of Boca Raton and Colorado. “Your vote is so powerful, it means something!” I would tell them. They felt the pressure. When I brought my absentee ballot to the post office before leaving for my trip, I asked the guy at the counter if a lot of people had been coming in with them he replied in the affirmative. I surmised that to mean a lot of the area college kids (usuals to vote absentee) had been casting their ballots, and tending to lean a certain way, there was no doubt that Massachusetts was anything but a lock for blue.
Walking around the streets of the Bahamas, it soon became apparent that I was not in the U.S. of A. anymore, as nowhere in the States that I have ever been had as many friendly people as I encountered in Nassau. All smiling, eager, enthusiastic, on the whole, entirely pleasant to speak to! Bostonians would be shocked to find that cars consistently slow down for pedestrians to cross when they see you standing on the curb. As I searched among the shops and straw markets for souvenirs characteristic of the island, I chuckled when I came across the first set of “BAHAMA FOR OBAMA” t-shirts at one particular vendor. Now what would they have done if Clinton won the nod? No rhyming there, I thought. At the next stand I found them at, I casually asked the women working there what they thought of our election, which at that point, was the very next day.

“We don’t want any more Bush,” they resoundingly answered.

I fervently agreed, but pressed for more. Does the Bahamas really want Obama? If so, why?

“The Bahamas has not been an independent nation that long, and we remember the times in the US when the blacks were put behind the whites. McCain seems like he would put the rich ahead of the poor, and that’s not right. Just like I make decisions that affect my children, and my children’s children, when something happens with the US, it affects the Bahamas. We worry though with Obama too. If he opens up Cuba to the US, that would be bad for the Bahamas because when people come to the islands, they might want to go someplace different that they have never been to before.”

It occurred to me with such remarks, that it was more than a distant fascination these people had with our process. Though I did correct one that mistakenly believed if Obama won and was assassinated, that McCain would then take over. I assured them that we did not use beauty pageant rules for our elections, much to Ms. Palin’s dismay. The people of the Bahamas had a vested interest in what was going on, and hoped, like many within this country, for change.
On the morning of November 4, I asked more Bahamians what they thought about the election that was now about to occur. Toni, a waitress, and worker at the hotel I was staying at spoke more about the race issue, “We Bahamians wonder if the prejudiced white people that are in the US will listen to a black man with a black wife and black children in the White House.”

So do you think he can win?

“People are scared about the economy, the way it is right now. We need change. Obama seems like an inspiring man. I know that my pastors and the people of the Bahamas are praying for him, and once that happens, you know you’re alright.”

Later that evening in my hotel room, I thanked the cable gods for CNN and MSNBC, and anxiously watched the tallies come in, state by state. When it became apparent that Toni the waitress’s pastors had solidified the deal, I breathed a jubilant sigh of relief. Watching the images of celebration being broadcast from Chicago, New York, DC, and more, I wondered what the reaction would be amongst those in Nassau.

The following night, on the way into town, I asked my taxi driver, John, his thoughts about the event.

“I am impressed that the college-educated young white people in America voted in such large numbers for Obama, because they understand very clearly what is important not only in their country but in others. I have never seen the world celebrate a U.S. election like this before. Last night, people were honking and cheering in the streets, you’d have thought it was our own election. Mr. Obama has made history, and now he has a great chance to be of service to the world.”

Later, I asked another taxi driver, Thomas, what his thoughts were.

“That is something, isn’t it?” he grinned. “I believe that Obama will be good for the Bahamas because I believe in his message of change. We are so happy that Bush is gone, and that McCain will not be coming in, bringing the same policies. Bush has sent so many children to this war to die, including three from the Bahamas. I know that does not sound like a lot, but for our tiny country, it is. Every life matters, whether it is three or 3000. We should not send any more children over there to die.”
I then asked him how he felt Obama could affect the economic crisis.

“We depend on the States to keep the Bahamas going. Tourism is our number one industry here. If you do not have the money to travel and go on vacation, we feel it. When the States sneeze, the Bahamas catches a cold.”

At the conclusion of my trip, I found myself already wistful of the friendly attitudes exhibited by the Bahamian locals that I was about to say farewell to. While riding in the back of the shuttle van to the airport, the driver called out to all us American passengers.

“You are going back to your new president!”

I could see his face smiling in the rearview mirror. We all nodded and smiled in agreement.

“Ya know, I went to college in New York for four years, and I didn’t think I was a black man until then. That is when I learned that in America, you have white issues, and you have black issues. This Obama is a good man, and a lot of people like him, but I didn’t think you could do it. He has got a whole race behind him. It will now give our brothers and sisters something bigger to believe in and strive for. He will bring the change we all need.”

Upon my return to the U.S., I had a brief stopover in Charlotte, North Carolina, a city that I had made calls to as part of a phone banking effort for Obama. During those calls, I remembered one in particular where a woman said that though she was willing to volunteer her time for Obama’s Campaign for Change, there was no way North Carolina would go blue.

For the first time in thirty-two years, it did.

Reflecting on the changes that had already occurred, I wondered about what was to come. While in many ways it was the ending of my vacation, the campaign, the election, in so many other ways it was just the beginning. What greater changes did the future now hold for us under this historic new leadership? Of that, no one can be sure. But just as we all watch and wait, it is clear we are not alone. The faith and hope of many from outside our borders rest on the shoulders of Barack Obama. A man whose message of change has reached wider than perhaps even he is aware. As he takes office and embarks on the difficult task of repairing the ravages made from years of failed foreign policies, the citizens of this country, and the world will be watching.


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