Nassau’s Paradise Island, as seen from above, is a popular tourist destination in The Bahamas. Photo by Tokar
Story by Isaac D. Pacheco
Renowned for its pristine beaches, blue waters, and glowing hospitality, The Bahamas is a sought after destination for millions of tourists each year, particularly American citizens. A former British colony that gained independence in 1973, the nation comprises more than 3,000 islands, cays and islets, and covers an area of the Atlantic Ocean the size of California immediately southeast of the U.S. mainland. The Bahamas’ physical proximity to the United States (its closest island lies just 55 miles east of Miami) has spawned close ties between the two nations.
Many Bahamians travel to the United States on a regular basis and share a strong affinity for American goods and traditions, which has encouraged a thriving Bahamian diaspora in America’s southern states, and in major cities like Miami, New York, Atlanta, and Los Angeles. The Bahamas is home to only one university, leading many college-bound students there to attend U.S. schools. These close cultural and economic connections have spawned multigenerational collaborations between both nations’ artistic, academic, business, and political communities that underpin a steadfast bilateral partnership today.
Boasting a sturdy democracy with high levels of voter participation, and one of the strongest economies in North America, thanks to its well-developed service industry and offshore banking sector, The Bahamas is a beacon of stability in a region that includes the nearby island nations of Cuba and Haiti. The U.S. Embassy in The Bahamas recently placed second among 72 U.S. Department of Commerce partner posts around the world for its advocacy efforts, match-making successes, and commercial promotion, which has helped the island nation diversify its economy beyond sun, sand, and sea.
“The Bahamas is a young but vibrant democracy that supports the rule of law and shares our ideals. This country is not just a tourist destination; it is an important ally,” said Usha E. Pitts, chargé d’affaires at Embassy Nassau. “The Bahamas is also a rapidly modernizing society, which has forced local Bahamians to tussle with some new realities. Mission Nassau supports The Bahamas in this transition by promoting Biden administration goals to combat homophobia, question traditional gender roles that oppress women, and take issue with xenophobic attitudes targeting the country’s large, Haitian population. These outreach activities sometimes provoke the host nation’s ire, but rarely interfere in an otherwise pacific relationship.”
The Bahamas is one of the only countries in the western hemisphere whose residents enjoy visa-free entry to the United States. As an added advantage, travelers to the United States can undergo inspection at a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) preclearance site at the international airport in Nassau. Preclearance, which is only available at 15 locations worldwide, allows travelers to bypass CBP and Transportation Security Administration inspections upon arrival in the U.S. The Bahamas reciprocates with visa-free travel for American citizens, and even passport-free travel for some tourists on cruise ships traveling between the U.S. and The Bahamas.
This ease of travel and accompanying influx of visitors brings with it unique challenges for the small consular affairs team at Embassy Nassau, located on the island of New Providence, which is home to the nation’s capital and 70% of its population. More than six million tourists arrive in The Bahamas each year, 80% of whom are American citizens. Most of these visitors enjoy pleasant, uneventful vacations, but the massive numbers of visitors ensure that even a small percentage of those that run into trouble results in a substantial workload for officers handling American citizen services issues across the 30 inhabited islands of The Bahamas. The embassy also provides consular services for neighboring Turks and Caicos, a British overseas territory that was once unified with The Bahamas under British rule.
“It is very busy for an embassy of this size; the numbers are actually staggering. On a daily basis we have five cruise ships sitting in the Port of Nassau, plus thousands of Americans living on or visiting other islands,” said Lance Posey, acting deputy chief of mission and consular section chief at Embassy Nassau. “Unfortunately, we deal with many arrest cases, and quite a few deaths. One of the advantages we have is a great relationship with Bahamian law enforcement. They are our eyes and ears across the country, and whenever there’s a problem we get a phone call from them.”
The U.S. partnership with Bahamian law enforcement and defense forces is one of the defining aspects of the relationship between both countries, and encompasses national security issues as well. The island nation’s strategic location and its bounty of discrete, secluded islands have made it a prized transshipment point for goods and people for centuries. Pirates so effectively dominated the trade lanes around the islands in the early 1700s that they were able to establish an informal government on Nassau, the infamous “Republic of Pirates,” for more than a decade. Pirate rule brought lawlessness and terror to local residents, but it also came with greater freedoms for women and the liberation of enslaved people, all of which disappeared once the pirates were expelled (or hanged). The geographic attributes that made The Bahamas a haven for piracy in the 18th century continue to lure criminal organizations, which still skulk around the nation’s waterways and airspace today.
“We are truly America’s southeast border, and we deal with all the same issues as other border posts in Canada and Mexico—gun smuggling, human trafficking, counternarcotics, and migration. Our law enforcement cooperation with The Bahamas means we can disrupt traffickers and dismantle networks before they can affect the homeland,” said Daniel A. Villanueva, political and economic chief at Embassy Nassau.
One unique way the Mission counters border threats is through Operation Bahamas Turks and Caicos (OPBAT), a law enforcement partnership between the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), CBP, and counterparts in The Bahamas and Turks and Caicos Islands. From its 24-7 operations center inside Embassy Nassau, OPBAT tracks and intercepts malicious actors utilizing the northern Caribbean as a transshipment point for trafficking operations. Initially launched in 1982 as a multilateral partnership between the The Bahamas, the U.S., and the United Kingdom to stymie the efforts of Colombian cartels that were trafficking cocaine into the United States with near impunity, OPBAT’s mission and response capabilities have evolved as criminals adjust their tactics and products.
“Over the years OPBAT has refined what we do and who we target, but our basic mission remains the disruption of transnational criminal organizations. Our decades-long partnerships with the DEA, CBP, and local law enforcement enable us to quickly identify persons involved in illicit activity and apprehend them at sea or on land,” said the U.S. Coast Guard officer who currently serves as the director of OPBAT. “The excellent relationship we have with the State Department is equally important to OPBAT, because the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement is key to incorporating what we do every day into our host nation’s larger law enforcement strategy.”
OPBAT is one of several interagency partners that share office space with Department of State officers at Embassy Nassau, a squat, drab, office building nestled between tchotchke shops and a highly trafficked McDonald’s in the city’s tourism district. Embassy Nassau is home to 98 American staff across ten federal agencies, and the Mission also presides over U.S. government facilities on four other islands of The Bahamas, including a U.S. Navy base, two DEA operations, and a Coast Guard hangar in the South.
Recognizing that the existing infrastructure no longer adequately supports the growing U.S. Mission, the Department has broken ground on a new, $318 million, state-of-the-art embassy on nearby Tamarind Hill. In addition to abundant office space and better amenities for staff and visitors, the new embassy campus features safety upgrades and energy-efficient construction designed to better withstand the effects of tropical storms that routinely threaten the island. According to project leaders the new embassy will provide a robust platform for diplomacy in downtown Nassau that better reflects the esteem and warmth of the U.S.-Bahamas relationship.
“OBO is building a new home for the U.S. Embassy in The Bahamas, one appropriate to the significant mission we have here. We hope to be completed in early 2024,” said Stephen Ziegenfuss, project director of the new embassy project in Nassau.
In an effort to embed local history and culture in the foundation of this new facility, the Department’s Art in Embassies program has partnered with distinguished Bahamian artist Antonius Roberts to commission several unique sculptures that will grace the entryway and main stairwell of the new building. The primary installation, a mythical creature of Bahamian folklore called a Chicharney, was carved from the twisted trunk of a tamarind tree that stood on the new embassy site for decades before construction began. Several smaller silk-cotton trees from the same location are being repurposed into canoe-shaped chandeliers that will hang (as if floating) above the central staircase inside the facility. The canoes evoke the spirit of the Lucayan people, who were wiped out by disease and enslavement shortly after Columbus made landfall on the Bahamian island of San Salvador in 1492.
“I wanted to celebrate these trees,” said Roberts. Even though they were removed, they will breathe life into something interactive—something that can become a space where their story can live and where we can inspire young people to value, appreciate, and celebrate their history and heritage.”
Beyond his artistic contributions to the new embassy, Roberts oversees Project ICE (incubator for collaborative expression), an art co-op in Nassau sponsored by the embassy and private sector donors. Built on the site of a defunct ice-making plant, Project ICE hosts one of Embassy Nassau’s two American Corners on the island. The multi-purpose space offers creative tools—from a piano to a 3D printer—that enable young artists to develop their craft in a safe and supportive environment.
“The Bahamas has these groups of very talented people, but no infrastructure to support them. People are honestly trying to do it on their own, but having a space to come together is a game changer. I see Project ICE as a big part of that support, energy, and encouragement,” said Project ICE resident artist Reagan Kemp. “I can’t see myself being the artist I am now without this space. [Project] ICE tends to change people’s lives and perspectives and give them the encouragement they need to keep creating—to keep pushing for change.”
Recognizing that the next generation of Bahamians will be responsible for identifying and tackling new challenges, including the existential threat of climate change, the embassy has made youth outreach one of its key focus areas. Success stories like Project ICE demonstrate that providing young people with resources and a conducive environment can make them agents of change.
“Bahamians, like Americans, passionately seek sustainable development solutions, especially the younger generations who we proudly support in our American Spaces,” said Suemayah Abu-Douleh, public affairs officer at Embassy Nassau. “Focused on creating a comfortable yet innovative environment, our American Spaces welcome Bahamian youth to learn about the United States and feel empowered to help address global challenges such as climate change.”
In the past several decades, climate change has taken an increasingly devastating toll on small island states like The Bahamas. In 2019, Hurricane Dorian made landfall in the northern Bahamas, quickly developed into a category-5 storm, and then stalled over the islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama for 24 hours. The storm erased vast swaths of infrastructure on both islands, leaving dozens of people dead, more than 70,000 homeless, and thousands more without drinking water or electricity. Most of the missing were undocumented Haitian migrants, and many of their remaining family members are still living without permanent housing or basic services more than three years later. The more recent impact of Tropical Storm Nicole in 2022, which tracked along an eerily similar path to Dorian before strengthening into a rare November hurricane that struck the northern Bahamas and southeastern Florida, underscores both countries’ vulnerability to longer hurricane seasons and stronger storms driven by accelerating climate change.
“When you look at the future, at where the world is going, climate change is one of the issues that’s going to continue to affect both the U.S. and The Bahamas. We share a maritime border, so migration and other regional threats affect both our nations. [Embassy Nassau] is at the forefront of those issues,” said Villanueva. “The interconnectedness between our nations goes back a long time, and Bahamians look at us as their partner of choice. We will continue working with them to strengthen our close ties, advance our mutual interests, and protect our shared border.”
Isaac D. Pacheco is the editor-in-chief of State Magazine.