Astra Armbrister-Rolle isn’t bashful about the beaches where she grew up. After all, the Bahamas is known for the white sand and azure waters that postcards have marketed so well to Americans seeking a getaway.
“When we say that it’s better in the Bahamas, just about everyone in this room will know what that means,” the new consul general in Atlanta told 50-plus attendees at a Global Atlanta Consular Conversation at the law firm of Miller & Martin PLLC in late January.
But even as she seeks to deepen tourism ties and air links with the 10 states she covers from Atlanta, she sees an ocean of opportunity for potential new partnerships.
For starters, the civil rights movement provides a natural kinship. Sir Lynden Pindling, the founding prime minister the Bahamas, attended the 1963 March on Washington and was inspired by the hundreds of thousands of African Americans who came out with Martin Luther King Jr. to demand the full promises of freedom.
Ten years after Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Sir Pindling would help usher out British rule. Now, his footprints grace a sidewalk plaque embedded at the Martin Luther King National Historic Site in Atlanta.
“The struggle was very much the same and they were going through it all at the same time,” Mrs. Armbrister-Rolle said.
Dr. King was also inspired by the Bahamas, the new consul general learned during a chat with former Atlanta Mayor and United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young soon after her arrival in Atlanta.
Mr. Young, a close confidant of Dr. King, said pieces of his speeches were written on Bimini, a northern island 50 miles off Miami that Dr. King saw as a tranquil retreat from his demanding leadership role.
“He used it as a safe haven and was very, very proud of that,” Mrs. Armbrister-Rolle said. Bimini has erected a bust of Dr. King among the mangroves where he once sat quietly to think and write.
Another Atlanta leader — former Mayor Kasim Reed — also has poignant connections to the place: It’s where he and former first lady Sarah-Elizabeth Langford Reed were engaged in 2014.
Facing the Future
But these links should be stepping stones toward future connections, not only monuments to the past, Mrs. Armbrister-Rolle said. Atlanta and the South can be of major help to the Bahamas now as a new government aims to revive the country’s economy.
The Free National Movement, or FNM, won 35 of 39 parliamentary seats the 2017 elections, which Prime Minister Hubert Minnis has interpreted as a strong mandate to improve transparency and enact reforms.
“I think the country as a whole was just ready for a change, and ready to do things differently,” said Mrs. Armbrister-Rolle, who was an active youth member of the party after returning from her university studies in Canada a few years ago.
She later led fundraising for the Bahamas National Trust, the nonprofit that manages national parks in the country. That gave her an appreciation for its vast, diverse landscapes and ecosystems — including those that host the national bird, the West Indian flamingo.
Still, it’s “economic diversity” that the new administration wants, and that means chances for exchanges with the U.S. in agriculture, energy and other key sectors for Atlanta like information technology and film, she said.
“Our country is a very small country but growing, and we have not yet really explored yet what we can do in the Bahamas in agriculture, sustainability and feeding our own population,” the consul general said.
While largely unscathed by recent hurricanes that pummeled the Caribbean, the large-scale damage to neighboring countries and some of the small “family islands” showed the vulnerability of the Bahamas’ aging infrastructure. Ports and airports are vital to survival in a country that imports most of its food, she said.
“If that airport closes down, or if our ports of entry close down, we’d have a serious natural disaster on our hands,” Mrs. Armbrister-Rolle added.
The Bahamas has many islands that can be tapped for agricultural growth: Grand Bahama Eleuthera, Great Exuma, Abaco, and Andros.
Climate change is another cause for concern, she said, and The Bahamas is joining other island nations to make their voices heard about its impact. CARICOM, a bloc of Caribbean nations, has been vocal on the subject.
“As sea levels rise, we disappear, so it’s incumbent on us to do all that we can — even as a small voice in the larger international community,” she said.
The consulate is set to spearhead a Bahamas investment conference in Atlanta in September, and it’s already weighing the idea of taking part in two trade missions later this year.
“We want to let the community know that we are open for business,” Mrs. Armbrister-Rolle said. As if on cue, a few weeks after her talk, the government signed a deal to move forward on a controversial $4 billion oil refinery and storage facility on Grand Bahama island.
The U.S. Commercial Service is hosting a mission to Miami in May where companies can meet with commercial officers from the Bahamas and other Caribbean nations.
A Promise to Mom
Mrs. Armbrister-Rolle speaks with a polish well beyond her years, a tribute to her time in Toastmasters, as well as her education in Canada, where she attended McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.
But she has always planned to return to her home country in defiance of a trend toward “brain drain” that has proved problematic in the past.
“We have suffered tremendously from brain drain, like every other place in the world, but we are actively searching out Bahamians with specific skill sets and want to encourage them to return home,” she said.
Now, the consulate is helping the government catalogue Bahamians in the diaspora with particular skills and contacting them in the event of a project that demands their expertise back home.
And under her leadership, the consulate has created a new education liaison who is reaching out to international education offices at universities around the region, where many Bahamian students have already enrolled.
She believes that the opportunities back home will be enough to persuade many of them to buy return tickets, but she had another, more important reason: When leaving for boarding school at 15, she’d promised her mother that she would use her education for the country’s benefit.
“I was not going to go back to my country to complain about the things that I didn’t have while I lived in Canada,” she said. “I wanted to be a part of the growth and the change to make it better.”
That desire was born, she said, out of a uniquely Bahamian appreciation for democracy. While in college, she made it a point to fly in from Canada to enjoy the pageantry of election week, visit family and cast her vote.
“Politics in the Bahamas is very colorful. Many of us profess to be experts at our constitution and masterful political analysts. We talk about it in the barber shop, we talk about it in the hair salon. The pastors preach about it from the pulpit,” she said.
But with an 85 percent voter turnout rate, it’s safe to say that citizens vote “religiously” in the island nation of nearly 400,000 people, she said.
“In some countries, politics is a precarious thing. In the Bahamas, politics is celebrated. We really appreciate the fact that we have a vote. We hold it near and dear to us, and we believe very strongly that our vote counts, even if we have to wait every five years to cast it.”
Mrs. Armbrister-Rolle encouraged her audience to visit the Bahamas when possible, perhaps on the many nonstop Delta Air Lines Inc. flights from Atlanta. The Bahamas is working on upgrading its airports to that it can offer codeshare flights, expanding one-stop reach to outlying islands, she said.
But if a two-hour flight isn’t possible, she urged Atlantans to take in Bahamian cultural offerings here in Atlanta. That includes the Atlanta Junkanoo Group, which transports spectators into the Bahamian version of carnival, with all its flashy costumes and boisterous brass sections. Performances are coming up March 10 and March 26. More here.
Learn more about the consulate at http://bahconga.com/
See Mrs. Armbrister-Rolle’s full bio in this event listing.