The story so far : The Caribbean island nation of Barbados has turned a page in history, declaring itself a republic, a move that coincides with the 55th anniversary of its independence from Britain. The country of some 3,00,000 citizens ceases to be a constitutional monarchy and will not pledge allegiance to the Queen. This is the first time since the 1970s that a Caribbean state has become a republic. An important milestone in Bridgetown’s long journey was a 2005 decision to drop the privy council in London as its final court of appeal, in preference for the Caribbean Court of Justice in Trinidad.
- The Caribbean island nation of Barbados has declared itself a republic, a move that coincides with the 55th anniversary of its independence from Britain.
- The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in the U.S. may have lent greater impetus to Barbados to finally sever links with its colonial past.
- The decision has come with a set of controversies. One of the disputes concerns Ms. Mottley’s refusal to seek public approval for the landmark political transition through a popular referendum. The leader of the opposition has also criticised the lack of clarity regarding the nature of the new republic and the proposed constitution.
How significant is the change regarding the new head of state?
Consequent to the country’s emergence as a republic, Barbadians will no longer regard the British crown as their head of state. This is similar to many states in the British Commonwealth. That constitutional position will, after 400 years, be occupied by the President of the country. On November 29, Barbados, once known as Little England, swore in its first President, Sandra Mason, who was until then the country’s Governor General and the representative of Queen Elizabeth II. Ms. Mason was in October elected as President by both houses of Parliament in Barbados with a two-thirds majority.
How strong is the support for the latest move?
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in the U.S. may have lent greater impetus to Barbados to finally sever links with its colonial past. In July 2020, the country’s lower house adopted a resolution to express solidarity with the BLM campaign in the U.S.
Prime Minister Mia Mottley, who announced the decision on the country’s emergence as a republic in September 2020, has also advocated for reparations for the atrocities perpetrated during the slave trade in the 17th-18th centuries. In a speech, Prince Charles acknowledged the "appalling atrocity of slavery" the Caribbean island suffered. Ms. Mottley had ordered the removal from Bridgetown’s National Heroes Square the statue of the British naval leader Lord Horatio Nelson, who symbolises the injustices, exploitation and oppression associated with the colonial era. All the same, the Government’s decision has not been free from controversies.
What is the dispute over the Government not holding a referendum?
One of the disputes concerns Ms. Mottley’s refusal to seek public approval for the country’s landmark political transition through a popular referendum. The Government may have chosen against this option, given the inherent risk that a plebiscite entails, namely of being manipulated to pass a verdict on the Government of the day. The likelihood of a negative result may be remote in Barbados, where a referendum proposal mooted some years ago has never been reopened. There are enough recent instances in the Commonwealth on this very question for Bridgetown not wanting to risk a gamble.
What are the other contentious issues?
The leader of the opposition Democratic Labour Party, Verla De Peiza, a staunch advocate of the political shift, has criticised the lack of clarity regarding the nature of the new republic and the proposed constitution. The timing of the historic transition has also been attacked as an attempt by Prime Minister Ms. Mottley to divert attention from the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has severely hurt the tourism-dependent economy of Barbados.
What does the latest transformation portend for the country’s future?
Some commentators have described the nation’s new status of republic as a rebirth or a rediscovery by the people of their own identity. These philosophical nuances notwithstanding, the development marks a reassertion, since the country’s independence in 1966, of the sovereignty of Barbados. “This is the ultimate statement of confidence in who we are and what we are capable of achieving,” Ms. Mason had said in September 2020, announcing the Government’s decision in her capacity at the time as the Queen’s representative. Echoes of this political transformation will likely see continuity on economic relations rather than radical change.
Garimella Subramaniam is Director, Strategic Initiatives, AgnoShin Technologies