Spears and a Nevada Businessman Help a South Pacific Island Proclaim Itself a New Country
Ross H. Munro
07/21/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT
Only in America, so the saying goes, can anyone grow up to be President. For Michael Oliver, a Carson City, Nev., businessman, that wasn't enough. He wanted his own country. For years Oliver, a disciple of the libertarian political philosophy—which believes in severely limited government authority—dreamed of founding a nation based on his beliefs. A few weeks ago the dream came astonishingly close to reality when the natives on an obscure South Pacific island staged a coup with bows and arrows, adopted a constitution inspired by Oliver and declared themselves the independent nation of Vemarana.
The island is Espiritu Santo (pop. 15,000), the biggest in the New Hebrides chain that is scheduled to gain independence from joint British-French rule at the end of this month. On May 28 a group of natives, led by a chief who objects to the left-of-center New Hebrides government-to-be, invaded the offices of the colonial administration with Stone Age weapons and declared statehood. It was Mike Oliver's finest hour since 1975, when he became adviser, political mentor and financial supporter of the movement that took over Espiritu Santo.
Becoming godfather of a new country some 6,000 miles away does not seem strange to Oliver, considering his life—51 years of tragedy, hard work, success and farce. Born in Lithuania (and now an American citizen), he survived two Nazi concentration camps, came to the U.S. in 1947 and made a small fortune as a coin dealer. "I knew absolutely nothing about the business," he smiles, "but I did extremely well." He then went into land development in Nevada and "did very well again." Despite his achievements, however, Oliver decided that the U.S. was stifling free enterprise. In 1968 he privately published a book called A New Constitution for a New Country—and started shopping for one.
"Where industrious men are permitted to live with fewer government infringements," he wrote, "industry will move in and the place will prosper." In the pursuit of his vision, Oliver formed a corporation in the early '70s to build a 400-acre island—and a minination—on Minerva Reef near Tonga. Tons of concrete were poured, but the ocean finally wrecked the construction. In 1974 he joined a group of businessmen planning a takeover of Abaco in the Bahamas, but withdrew when his associates appeared willing to use force. These disappointments only seemed to spur Oliver on.
His quixotic Vemarana enterprise started in Fiji about a decade ago, when he met Jimmy Stevens, a powerful chief on Espiritu Santo and husband of 15 Santo women. Oliver was in the South Seas on business. "Jimmy asked me, 'Why, Mike, do so many newly emerging countries become rubbish after independence?' " Oliver recalls. "I said, 'Because they are following the wrong kind of model and turning to Marxism.' " Struck by Oliver's arguments, Stevens asked the American for help. Oliver did not visit Santo until 1975. He found "massive fraud" and arrogance on the part of British colonials. "Their attitude is, 'I'm a big chief white father, you're a little nigger,' " Oliver says.
The lush New Hebrides chain, the setting for South Pacific, is so fertile that fence posts sprout branches. One scientist estimates that Espiritu Santo alone could support a million people. Most of the population is poor, however; many of the buildings are dilapidated U.S. Quonset huts. Oliver nonetheless was impressed by the dignity and determination of the natives at a political demonstration. "They were the most disciplined people I have ever seen," he says, "not like those hippies in Berkeley."
Since then Mike Oliver has invested $130,000 in Stevens' movement, much of it for medical supplies and to transport chiefs to Nevada for conferences. He has offered them the consulting services of an unlikely trio of libertarian associates: lawyer Tom Eck, who helped draft the constitution; John Hospers, a philosophy professor and 1972 Libertarian party presidential candidate; and cowboy Robert Stutsman, who goes by the name of "Bear Claw" and advises them on farming. Chief Stevens learned his libertarian lessons well. Last fall, when the New Hebrides constitution was announced, calling for a strong central government and barring foreigners from owning land, Stevens decided to make Santo a separate paradise of free enterprise and laissez-faire politics. The coup resulted, and Mike Oliver is proud that it was bloodless. "There were no guns," he says matter-of-factly. "I didn't give them any."
Besides a constitution, Oliver has supplied the new country with pure silver coinage, flags and two radio transmitters, over which Santo beams its defiant views to most of the 72 islands in the chain. To back up his commitment, Oliver hopes to participate in Vemarana's development. "I'd like to have a sugar plantation," he says. "I could make alcohol-gasoline and sell it there very cheap." For now, the situation is a stalemate. The British sent 200 Royal Marines to the New Hebrides in June, but because of strenuous French objections, they have kept the troops 170 miles from Santo. Meanwhile Oliver is already thinking ahead. "I would not be lying to say at least five other countries have come to me to help them," he reveals. "I need Santo like 10 holes in the head. I just want to see it become a good country, not another creepy little mess."