Has the time come for Caribbean Republics?

(MENAFN – Caribbean News Global)
Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda Ambassador to the United States and the Organization of American States. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and at Massey College at the University of Toronto.

By Sir Ronald Sanders

In 1994, shortly after Antigua and Barbuda and Cuba established diplomatic relations, Fidel Castro and the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Lester Bird, had a memorable conversation in Havana.

The conversation is worth mentioning in the context of the third announcement by a Barbados government that Barbados will be a republic by November 2021 that will give up monarchical status and Queen Elizabeth II as head of state.

The conversation between Lester and Fidel, in which I participated as a member of the Antigua and Barbuda delegation, began with the revolutionary Cuban leader Lester (now Sir Lester) asking what big plans he had for Antigua and Barbuda. Lester told Fidel that he was considering making Antigua and Barbuda a republic and relinquishing the monarch as the country’s head of state.

Fidel’s response kept Sir Lester and the entire delegation from Antigua and Barbuda on our trail. “Why?” Asked the legendary revolutionary. ‘Does she interfere with your government?’ Sir Lester stated that this was not the case and that Antigua and Barbuda, like many other Caribbean countries, were among the kingdoms of the queen, but their role in the country’s government was carried out by a local representative and, apart from approval ‘Legislation that could not be withheld was only ceremonial and had no executive authority.

“In that case,” replied Fidel, “you might consider staying as you are. The Queen does not interfere in your government and offers foreign investors and others a measure of confidence in the constitutional arrangements of your state.

The surprising conversation didn’t go much further. It was staggering to the Antigua and Barbuda delegation, but it showed the practical sense of Fidel Castro who may be partly responsible for Cuba’s survival despite the punishing embargo by the United States.

The 1994 conversation between Fidel and Sir Lester took place for at least nine years before Owen Arthur, as Prime Minister of Barbados, first proposed Republican status for Barbados in 2003; eighteen years before the Jamaican Prime Minister, Portia Simpson proposed it in 2012; twenty-one years before Prime Minister Freundel Stuart repeated the 2015 proposal for Barbados; Twenty-two years earlier, Andrew Holness repeated it as Prime Minister for Jamaica in 2016; and twenty-six years before Prime Minister Mia Mottley’s latest announcement by the Barbados government on September 15.

So far, none of the countries in which this proposal was made has been implemented.

While the Speech from the Throne, in which the recent Barbados announcement was made, referred to Barbados’ first Prime Minister Errol Barrow and warned against “loitering on colonial premises”, many would make a distinction between seeking independence from colonial power the British (which was the context of Barrow’s remarks) and the retention of Queen Elizabeth II as head of state.

Both Owen Arthur and Freundel Stuart may have withdrawn from the idea, not because they did not think it was right, but because, within Barbadian society, including the business world, great importance is attached to the Queen as a symbol, not least of all, stability and maybe even unity beyond political struggle.

The same is likely to apply to the Bahamas, Belize, Jamaica, Antigua and Barbuda, and the five other independent Eastern Caribbean countries where the Queen is still head of state.

If so, the current Barbados government has the greatest chance of success in achieving its goal of becoming a republic by next year. In contrast to the remaining independent Caribbean countries, whose head of state is the Queen, the Barbados Constitution allows for this significant change in constitutional status by “voting by no less than two-thirds of all members of the House of Representatives”. A referendum by voters is not required. Given that the current Mottley administration controls twenty-nine of the thirty seats in the House of Assembly, getting the vote should be easy.

The only obstacle would be how strong, if any, resistance from parts of Barbados society and business will be to the idea and how much it threatens to divide the country. This was a matter that clearly influenced both Arthur and Stuart during their tenure not to advance the idea.

Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Jamaica and the other six independent Caribbean states not only need a two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives, but also a majority vote of the voters in a referendum.

Winning referendums in the Caribbean has proven as difficult as pushing a boulder up a mountain. In 2009 a referendum in St. Vincent and the Grenadines rejected the proposal to oust the monarchy and replace it with a republic. And in other Caribbean countries, several referendums have failed to change the constitution so that the Secret Council can be replaced by the Caribbean Court of Justice, implying a reluctance of the majority of voters to make radical changes.

While Caribbean intellectuals see the accession as “rounding off the circle of independence”, it is less about the fact that the head of state is not a white woman who lives in a distant former colonial power; it is more about trust in good governance when institutions that are perceived as beneficial are changed.

This argument can only be won by the political parties in any Caribbean country that show that they will uphold the rule of law, civil and political rights and democratic principles, including non-discrimination, particularly with regard to race and religion.

As many ruling political parties want to join the Barbados government in pursuit of republican status, “the matter is really in the hands of the Caribbean people,” as the Queen said in 2012 when Portia Simpson stated, “I love the Queen, she is a beautiful lady, and besides being a beautiful lady, she is a wise lady and a wonderful lady. But I think the time is coming “.


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