La Digue is a sun-drenched island where people eat octopuses and mangoes and get around by oxcart and bicycle. The only industry consists of two low-slung tourist hotels tucked beneath the breeze-stirred fronds of banana and palm trees.
Next to the pier where the ferry docks stands a small corrugated iron shack. Large, uneven letters scrawled over the small door proclaim: "Full Employment Scheme." Inside Symty Bibi runs a program that could be described as minuscule, tropical reincarnation of the New Deal's Works Projects Administration.
As Bibi explains it the government of President France Albert Rene has promised a job to everyone in the Seychelles, but until there are enough to go around, the government will pay a small stipend to anyone who wants to work at casual jobs such as "sweeping the seaweed off the beach."
"Of course, I wouldn't be here under the old government," she volunteers "that one was just for whites. Now we have socialism and for whites, blacks and browns, it's all the same," said Bibi, who is black.
To a visitor, politics seem distinctly out of place on what the 66,000 inhabitants of the Seychelles call their "islands of love." Named for the finance minister of Louis XV, king of France, this paradisical archipelago of 92 islands is sprawled across hundreds of miles of lapis lazuli-hued waters 1,000 miles off the east coast of Africa.
The steep granite hills, covered in lush jungle verdure, slope to miles of dazzling beaches.
The people are mainly of Creole stock, tracing their roots to the original French settlers and their African slaves. Compared with most of their fellow members in the Organization of African Unity, the Seychellois are better off, healthier and better educated. Their annual per capita income is $1,030. About 60 percent of the population is literate, and the life expectancy is 66.
The "old" government Bibi referred to was that of James Mancham, known for his pro-Western, laissez-faire economic policies, his sybaritic life style and far-flung travels. He became the Seychelles' first president upon its independence from Britain in June 1976.
Barely a year later, Rene, a lawyer and former seminarian who was then Mancham's prime minister, staged a bloodless coup with the help of soldiers from socialist Tanzania.
In an effort to reverse that development, known here as "the revolution," Mancham and unnamed financial backers hired a band of white mercenaries to overthrow Rene last Nov. 25, but their mission failed when they were discovered at the airport.
During the ensuing gun battle, seven members of the raiding party were captured, and 45 others forced their way onto an Air India jetliner that had landed during the shootout and forced the pilot to return them to South Africa.
The mercenaries, who plotted their invasion in South Africa, included South Africans, Britons, an American and former members of the Rhodesian Army.
On their return, the South African government--which denied any involvement in the plot although it admitted that one of the mercenaries worked for the South African Intelligence Service--released all but five of the mercenaries.
This prompted an international outcry and Western pressure, and on Jan. 6 the government rearrested the 45 and charged them under the country's tough antihijacking law. They now face mandatory minimum sentences of five years in prison and a maximum of 30 years.
Although Rene's government, as a result of the mercenaries' attack, is enjoying a broader support from the population, it fears that there could be another coup attempt. It therefore is relying more on outside military help, which has come both from the West and the Soviet Union.
Rene, like his socialist neighbor to the east, Madagascar's Didier Ratsiraka, has urged that the Indian Ocean be declared a "zone of peace," off-limits to all military vessels. He has said no foreign powers will be allowed bases in the Seychelles.
"We wish people would believe us when we say this," said Information Minister James Michel during a recent interview, "because we are sincere about it."
But for now, all foreign military ships are welcome to visit the main port on Mahe, largest of the Seychelles islands, they are required to declare whether they are carrying nuclear weapons. The U.S. Navy is barred from anchoring at Mahe because it refuses to abide by that rule. The Soviets simply say they do not carry nuclear weapons--something Western diplomats here doubt--and get their ships into the harbor.
Although the official limit on embassy personnel here is 15, the Soviet Embassy staff numbers about 30, according to Western diplomats who also point out that the Soviet ambassador is a senior Communist Party official. By contrast the U.S. presence here is low-key, with an embassy staff of four people. The ambassador resides in Kenya and visits the Seychelles three or four times a year.
But U.S. diplomats can point out their office windows at a huge white ball sitting atop one of Mahe's hills and smile with satisfaction. It is a satellite tracking station for which the United States pays $2 million a year in rent to the Seychelles. In addition, foreign aid from the United States, Britain and France acounts for a large portion of the Seychelles' development capital, a fact Seychelles officials privately acknowledge to Western diplomats.
The pace and character of Rene's revolution has been determined by the temperament of the Seychellois, the country's small but prospering economy and the islands' near total dependence on tourism. The Seychelles gets just about one tourist a year for every resident man, woman and child. The country collects about three times as much foreign revenue from tourism as it does from exports, which include cinnamon, copra and fish.
Adopting a pragmatism similar to that of Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, Rene has left the mainly privately run tourist industry alone. In a recent speech on the economy, Rene said, "There is no intention of government doing what other people do effectively . . . . I hope that people will stop talking about nationalization and saying that the government does not encourage private investment. This is nonsense."
"Ideologically, it's a straightfoward Marxist state, but in practical terms, economically, it's got a mixed economy," a West Europen diplomat here said. Perhaps unique among developing socialist countries, the Seychelles has no foreign currency restrictions and Seychellois can hold foreign bank accounts.
Both critics and supporters agree that the widespread government corruption that existed under Mancham is gone. Now there is much approval of the social welfare programs Rene has introduced which, besides the full employment scheme, include free elementary-school education, a free school lunch program, free health care, low-cost housing and new roads.
One of the government's priorities, according to Information Director Antonio Beaudoin, is to "try and make everyone a homeowner." Thus, the government offers low-interest, no-down-payment loans to prospective home buyers. Recently it passed a law requiring landlords to sell their rentable properties to any tenant who wants to buy and who has been living on the property for at least five years.
"There's no question about not wanting to sell," Beaudoin replied when asked what happened if a landlord did not want to give up his property.
Measures such as these raise fears, especially among landowners and businessmen, of more radical politics in the future. There have been casualties along the way of Rene's revolution, mainly in the area of civil liberties. Only one legal party--Rene's--is permitted, and the only newspaper is a government broadsheet heavily laden with dispatches from Tass, the Soviet press agency.
But the most controversial move so far has been one Rene directs personally: Every teen-ager is required to spend two years in the national youth service, a large camp where young people study such subjects as animal husbandry, horticulture, typing, cooking, sewing, and even broadcasting--they have their own radio station.
The service, which is to replace traditional high-school education, is also intended, according to camp director Florence Benstrong, "to prepare students for the Seychelles' new society."
Students, fearing the two-year separation from their families and communist indoctrination, rioted when the service was introduced in 1979, giving Rene his first taste of open dissent.
But a recent visit to the camp built on a swampy, humid beach at Port Launay, suggests that all is quiet now. There was little ideological propaganda on display, rosary beads hung from girls' bedside lamps and the "rules" of the dormitories sounded much like any residence: "Students shall be neat, polite to staff and work together."
Benstrong sounded more like the matron of New England boarding school than the director of a socialist youth camp. "We want to teach them self-discipline, self-reliance and we would not like to see youths walking about with long hair or doing things that do not fit into a disciplined establishment like ours. It's what we used to call 'civics' in the old days."