Chapter 2


Marek Rankl could not remember a time he did not love islands. At this very moment, in the forty-second year of his life, his yacht Oribel was approaching a small Caribbean island that he wanted to make his own. He thought of the huge number of islands in the world. Most of them originated from oceanic volcanoes, and the rest were offspring of continental shelves. More than ten percent of the world’s population lived on islands. From a lifetime of studying islands, Marek Rankl knew this.

But his main interest was in a special subset of islands, the tropical ones. Tens of thousands of them, each twelve or more acres, populated the world’s oceans. It was a tropical island of one thousand acres that had been taking shape for the past half hour, as he watched from his yacht’s bridge. He said to his captain, “Dial it back a bit, Armando. I want to approach slowly and circle it before we land.” The island was roughly trapezoidal in shape, and they were approaching it from the southwest.

As the island drew closer, its volcanic mountain, long dormant, dominated their view. It rose to over seven hundred feet, on the island’s southern coast. This coast, stretching for a mile and a half, was the longest side of the trapezoid. The Oribel then went to port to start a clockwise circuit up the western coastline.

Lush tropical vegetation enveloped the island in green. Low cliffs, varying in height, edged its circumference, girding the island against the relentless onslaught of the sea. The Oribel circled the northern tip and progressed south, down the eastern coast. At its mid-point, Rankl was struck by what he saw and said, “Let’s hold it here, Armando.”

The north face of the mountain had come into view, and a third of the way up, a cliff had been hewn—sculpted—out of the lava rock. This cliff became a long balcony for an excavated dwelling behind it, all of it made possible by the materials and heavy equipment that had been air-lifted onto the island for that purpose. Mango trees, growing directly above, provided shade, and continuous horizontal windows ran its entire length. During the day, the dwelling was visible mainly by the light reflected off the glass. It was a subtle presence, a natural part of the small mountain.

Marek Rankl spoke again. “That balcony, looking to the northern end of the island, reminds me of the bridge we are on here in the Oribel. I think we have the name of our small island, old friend.” “Oribel.” “Yes. Golden Beauty.” “Perfecta.”

Having completed their circuit, they headed for the pier on the south western coast. The island sloped down to it, for the cliff was lower at this point. An old man was waiting, and Rankl recognized Jorge Besosa, the owner of the island, the man he had come to see. After introductions, they headed up an incline for the lift to his home. Armando was securing the Oribel, and Besosa called back, “Join us when you finish, Capitán Rojas.”

Their conversation paused while Rankl pondered the implications of what his host had just said. They were sitting in the long living room of the dwelling, looking across the island to the Caribbean Sea and the much larger island to the north. Spacious windows ran the full length of the room and framed a medley of translucent blues and greens. Breakers approached and lost themselves against the cliffs, below their line of sight.

White longtails crisscrossed in the sky overhead, and Marek learned from his host that he had introduced this tern species to the island many years earlier, from elsewhere in the Caribbean. It had flourished.

For a full minute, the only sound was the ice cubes in their glasses. Then Besosa broke the silence. “Yes, my friend, I know what you are thinking, now that you have heard my story. What you have learned, is known to only a few. And now you have a decision to make, bigger than the one you came here to talk about today.”

Jorge Besosa had been born and raised on the much larger island ten miles to the north. As a youth, he became enamored with Caribbean revolutionaries, above all, the famed Brazilian Marxist, Chan Chan Morales. Morales was a flamboyant guerilla leader and skilled propagandist educated in leftist ideology. The young Besosa devoured all he could find on him, and his parents encouraged their son in his studies. The Besosa family had controlled the island for more than a century, and when the time came for college, they sent Jorge to London’s renowned Karl Marx Institute. He excelled there.

When he took over the reins of government from his father, Jorge Besosa was thoroughly imbued with socialist ideology. His education reinforced what his father had taught him as a youth—that capitalism is a system of cutthroat competition, a system in which one swims with the sharks or gets eaten; that capitalism is a system of class struggle where the wealthy dominate and control poor starving workers; that because socialism addresses these ills, the fact that, under it, the lives of the people belong to the state—in this case the Besosa regime—was, they were told, a small price to pay.

Early in the Besosa era, the island had gained its independence and had become a sovereign nation. But it was already largely impoverished by a history of coercion, corruption, destructive agricultural practices, and abysmal stewardship of its resources and infrastructure.

After Jorge’s ascension to power, however, there was improvement. In college, when he had studied Das Capital, he noted Marx’s statement in the preface that, historically, the productive superiority of a market economy was indisputable. And so, during his years of study abroad, he read widely in the extensive literature of free enterprise. He was greatly taken by the work of a Chilean economist, Fernando de Gama, with his emphasis on the vital importance of property rights. In addition, he studied the Austrian and Chicago schools of economics. He also studied the history of the Aegean and became fascinated with Greece’s golden age from five hundred to three hundred BC. He resolved to develop his island and to make it a great power in the Caribbean, in short, a place of excellence. And thus, he renamed it Arête, Greek for excellence, or virtue.

When Jorge Besosa assumed control, he sought to promote market forces, the profit motive, and property rights. Improvement was rapid in many sectors of his island’s economy. And as a result, it became a haven for Caribbean refugees fleeing the impoverishment of their islands.

A family by the name of Ramos was among them, who created and then managed a new immigration program for Arête. It became well known, and Jorge Besosa, very much the driver of it all, was lauded in the Caribbean as a youthful idealist.

But the improvements did not last. To his dismay, Besosa’s mixed economy of market forces and state controls inexorably trended to nearly complete government control. His ministers found the reins of power hard to surrender. For every setback, they simply concluded that more government intervention was needed. That meant less freedom, and Jorge Besosa invariably signed off on it. Gradually, freedom was lost on Arête.

In recent years, an intensified period of calamities had beset the island. Hurricanes occurred regularly, with devastating impact on infrastructure. Outbreaks of cholera and other diseases often followed. Invariably, global climate change was seen as the culprit, and an underlying despair of the situation ever improving sapped the island’s energy.

High level government bureaucrats began to abscond with what wealth they could. Lower-level bureaucrats, too, each of them a looter in his own way, further depleted what scant island resources remained.

Seeing what was happening and helpless to do anything about it, the population fled except for the stubborn few who struggled on. Most of these owned their own homes and had a bare subsistence existence, farming or running small businesses.

The remaining few were subcontractors taking in simple work from other islands, making cigars or hand stitching colorful Caribbean accents onto garments—such as those in the Ramos’s container ship years earlier. They were a middle class, of sorts. But, gradually, they became more impoverished, and, as Arête Island limped along in this state, its population dwindled. _____

By the end of his story, Jorge Besosa’s creased face was etched with sadness. He looked at Rankl and saw that his final words had touched a nerve. He had no way of knowing that his guest already knew his island’s history. Nor did he know that Armando Rojas had made Rankl aware of facts not commonly known—important facts. Watching his guest, Besosa could only ask himself: Is this the man to give my Arête a new life—a man for whom it is not too late? Is this why my final words have him sitting in stunned silence?

“My remaining ministers,” Jorge had admitted to his guest, “each of them basically an honest man, is looking to get out of the whole cursed thing. Like me, Señor Rankl … like me, they are very old and very, very tired—agotado.”


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