U.S. Virgin Islands
The U.S. Virgin Islands are an unincorporated territory of the United States, subject to U.S. laws. Virgin Islanders are U.S. citizens and the U.S. president is the head of state, although Virgin Islanders do not vote in presidential elections (but they do vote in presidential primaries).
Since 1970, the governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands has been chosen by popular election. Before that, the governor was appointed by the U.S. president. As the head of the executive branch, the governor chooses commissioners to oversee departments, proposes the territory’s annual budget, and signs (or vetoes) legislation. The governor is assisted by a lieutenant governor, elected as part of a gubernatorial ticket, like the U.S. president and vice president.
John deJongh Jr., a Democrat and former businessman, began his first four-year term as governor in 2007 with promises to focus on education, public safety, and economic growth.
The 15-member unicameral legislature is elected every two years. The Senate passes laws and can petition the U.S. Congress to make changes to the Organic Act, the territory’s constitution. Seven of the 15 senators are elected from the St. Croix district and seven are elected from the St. Thomas-St. John district. The final member is chosen at large but must be a resident of St. John.
Virgin Islanders also choose a nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives who can take part in debates and serve on committees but does not have a vote on the floor. Rep. Donna Christian-Christenson, a Democrat, won her sixth term in 2006.
Elections for governor are held every four years; elections for Senate and delegate to Congress every two. The vast majority of Virgin Islanders align themselves with the Democratic Party, so much so that political parties are largely irrelevant in local elections. Personality and political alliances are much more important; party affiliation is easily shrugged off when found inconvenient.
Election season is marked by spirited debates, lots of political banners and signs, and a seemingly endless sequence of open-air political rallies.
Judicial and Penal Systems
There are both local and federal courts in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Territorial court judges are appointed for 10-year terms by the governor and hear civil and criminal cases based on local laws. U.S. District Courts in St. Thomas and St. Croix are part of the Third U.S. Circuit, the same as Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals is the territory’s appeals court; cases from the Virgin Islands can be appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Virgin Islands have a higher crime rate than many U.S. cities of similar population. In 2008, there were more than 40 homicides, many of which are linked to drugs and gangs. Violence does not often affect tourists, although visitors should avoid urban areas at night and use common sense in other situations.
The U.S. Virgin Islands have a high inmate-to-population ratio: 392 per 100,000 people, according to recent figures. These inmates are housed at prisons on St. Thomas and St. Croix.
The U.S. Virgin Islands’ economy is highly dependent on tourism—80 percent of the $4.1 billion GDP comes from that industry. Some 2.6 million people visit the U.S. Virgin Islands every year, most of them aboard cruise ships. In 2007 there were 1.9 million cruise ship passengers and 500,000 overnight guests. There are small agriculture, manufacturing, and industrial sectors, too. St. Croix is home to one of the world’s largest oil refineries.
Despite the large number of visitors, the U.S. Virgin Islands economy is struggling. The government is bloated and inefficient, providing poor services at high prices. Slumps in tourism following Hurricane Hugo in 1989, Hurricane Marilyn in 1995, and the terrorist attacks of 2001 have hampered economic growth. More than half of the government’s annual revenue comes from individual income tax; other major sources of revenue are business taxes ($152.7 million) and the rum excise tax ($86.7 million).
One-third of households in the Virgin Islands have incomes below the federal poverty line, and more than 40 percent of children grow up in poverty. Unemployment is 6 percent. Some 68.5 percent of births are to unmarried mothers, and nearly half of all households are headed by a single mother.
© Susanna Henighan Potter from Moon Virgin Islands, 4th edition