- The Washington Times - Monday, June 23, 2003

OLD PROVIDENCE ISLAND, Colombia — The hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” drifts through the open windows of a wooden church perched above a turquoise bay. It is a scene that could have played out a century ago on this Caribbean island.

First settled by Puritans in 1630, then used as an outpost by pirates and now inhabited mostly by descendants of slaves who speak English as their first language, Old Providence seems forgotten by time. Island music — played with a washtub bass, jawbone of a horse, fiddle and mandolin — recalls buccaneer ballads blended with calypso.

But the modern world — tourism and drug smuggling — is intruding on Old Providence, an island about the size of Manhattan that is 300 miles north of the Colombian mainland.

“The people that come to this island need to respect our culture and our way of being,” says the Rev. Francisco Bent, pastor of the bayside church.

The target of Mr. Bent’s ire are Spanish-speaking police and marines from the mainland, whom many of the 5,000 islanders view with suspicion and resentment.

“They think that because they have a gun at their side they can trample and abuse,” Mr. Bent said. “We islanders are a respectful people. We don’t manipulate arms.”

Old Providence, called Providencia by mainlanders, has a history of defiance. The first slave revolt in the English colonies occurred here in 1638. The rebellion was crushed, but some of the participants fled and joined other escaped slaves in the island’s rugged interior.

A Spanish invasion ousted the English Puritans in 1641, and some islanders wish the winds of history had blown a different way. They say Old Providence could just as easily be flying the Union Jack or the Stars and Stripes instead of the Colombian flag.

“Tell Bush to take us over. He should forget about Iraq and come here,” said Ulette Barker, the principal of an elementary school in the village of Bottom House, half-jokingly. Mrs. Barker’s teachers, taking a break from meetings with parents on a recent hot morning, nodded in agreement.

Nicaragua, which lies 110 miles to the west, would like the winds to shift, too. It has gone to the International Court of Justice to claim ownership of Old Providence and a cluster of nearby islands and keys.

Nicaragua argues that when it ceded the archipelago to Colombia in a 1928 treaty, it did so under duress because Nicaragua was occupied by U.S. Marines who were battling a leftist insurrection.

The territorial dispute prompted the Colombian military to step up its presence near the archipelago. Nicaragua’s government charges that Colombian navy vessels have been intercepting and capturing Nicaraguan fishing boats off the Nicaraguan coast.

But Colombian police and soldiers are also focusing on Old Providence because it lies on a route used by smugglers to ship cocaine from the mainland across the Caribbean and into the Gulf of Mexico to Mexico and the United States.

Smugglers are said to sometimes buy fuel — at high prices — from islanders who transport the gasoline in their fishing boats to smuggling craft offshore.

On April 9, 2002, islander Lemos Lee Robinson set off before dawn in his open boat with a spear gun, dive mask and fins. As Mr. Robinson, a 33-year-old fisherman, motored in the darkness past Manchineel Bay, near the southeastern tip of Old Providence, a joint force of marines and police laying in wait opened fire, hitting Mr. Robinson in the chest, killing him.

No drugs nor extra gasoline was found in his boat. The antidrug force said Mr. Robinson shot first and they returned fire in self-defense.

His brother, Alirio, dismisses the account.

“I think they thought the first boat that would come in would have drugs,” he said. “They opened fire and thought they would find a smuggler and drugs aboard.”

Alirio Robinson said his brother was headed to a dive shop to obtain air tanks to fish off the island just as dawn broke.

“It’s illegal to fish with air tanks, so he was going out there at first light to avoid getting caught,” Mr. Robinson said at his mother’s wooden house, the windows open for the afternoon breeze.

Islanders are still angry about the death. Ralph Newball, then governor of the archipelago, issued a proclamation saying Lemos Lee Robinson, a father of two young sons, “was cruelly killed.”

Lt. Col. Gloria Stella Quintero Velez, police commander for the archipelago, wrote to Mr. Robinson’s mother, expressing condolences and pledging a full investigation. A year later, the investigation is continuing, authorities say.

Meanwhile, on nearby San Andres, the biggest island in the archipelago, a police officer fatally shot a 13-year-old island girl in February when the motorcycle she was a passenger on turned away from a police checkpoint. The driver was trying to evade the checkpoint because he didn’t have the cycle’s registration with him.

Despite resenting the police and marines, most islanders say they could not exist as an independent nation. Joblessness is as high as 60 percent, and Colombia’s government pumps more money in than the islanders pay in taxes.

“If we became independent, we would die of hunger,” said Catherine Archbold, a lawyer for the island government.

Islanders would like the jobs that increased tourism could bring, but they also worry that more development could bring a hodgepodge of hotels, shops and discos, as happened on San Andres.

There are no high-rise hotels nor condos on Old Providence. Tourists, who arrive by turboprop airliner from San Andres, stay in pastel bungalows dotting the island’s fringes. The interior is covered by mountains and old-growth forests.

In the cool of morning, men with faces leathered from the sun and hair twisted into dreadlocks shove off in small boats to fish in the clear waters off the island, which is ringed by a 20-mile coral reef. The main social event is the weekly horse race on the beach of Southwest Bay.

Most islanders don’t want to lose life as it is but wonder whether that’s possible.

Celia Livingston, 76, pondered the question while stirring a cauldron over an open fire behind her house to make coconut oil that she will sell to restaurants.

“I believe the island will continue this way,” she said, practicing a craft she learned from her mother and has taught to one of her daughters.

Her friend Raphael Hudgson lugged a big tree limb from the forest for Mrs. Livingston to use as firewood, dropping it near the fire. He volunteered a different view.

“I don’t agree that things will remain as they have,” he said. “This island will change, and the changes won’t be good.”

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