Sunday, December 17, 2017

Of Errol Barrow and Caricom

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Mark Fraser

 BARBADIANS were yesterday celebrating Errol Barrow Day as a national holiday as they have been doing for the past 25 years. Except that they have never done so in a climate of social and economic gloom and uncertainty about the future as exists currently.

They are still struggling to come to terms with the downward slide of a once-booming and stable economy, following a shock pre-Christmas disclosure by Finance Minister Chris Sinckler that 3,000 public sector workers would be retrenched within the first two months of 2014 as a consequence of falling revenues, declining economic investment and the need to adhere to fiscal management guidelines from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

However, the threats of devaluation of the Barbados dollar—currently 50 cents to the US dollar—and social instability have not deterred them from enjoying, as best they can, the birthday of their first and most loved prime minister and “Father of Independence”—Errol Walton Barrow—on January 21, 1920.

Barrow died suddenly at home on June 1, 1987—one year after leading his Democratic Labour Party (DLP) back to power at age 66, with a crushing,  landslide 24-3 victory against the Barbados Labour Party (BLP).

He was declared a national hero the following year and, as from January 21 1989, his birthday has traditionally been observed with a national holiday.

There has been unanimity over this decision since “the Dipper’, as he is still fondly referred to, has always been respected as a national hero across party lines, in or out of government.   

Indeed, taking Barrow’s birthday celebration and making it a national holiday may be a unique political phenomenon across the Caribbean Community (Caricom) of which he was among the founding fathers.

Having had the opportunity to follow his life in politics both up close and far in my Caribbean beat as a journalist, it is not difficult to recognise Barrow’s inspiring leadership as a unifying force at home and across Caricom—the regional economic integration that was to blossom from a personal creative initiative undertaken by him.

It was an invitation from him that led to a meeting in Barbados on July 4, 1965 with then Guyana  prime minister Forbes Burnham to discuss his idea of a free trade area. The proposed initiative later involved then-prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Vere Bird. 

The rest is history, for the then- mooted Caribbean Free Trade Area (Carifta) of three countries was to spread and deepen into a Caribbean community of a dozen nations at the time of the passing of  Barrow. 

An unwavering regionalist, the Barbadian leader, who also had a close friendship with Jamaica’s Michael Manley, is  credited with being as well the prime moving political personality in creation of the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB).

With the CDB headquartered in Barbados, Barrow had succeeded, with the crucial co-operation of Dr Eric Williams, then-prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago—-himself a very formidable regionalist—in shifting William Demas—a doyen among Caribbean economists—away from being Secretary General of the Caribbean Community to the presidency of the  CDB as successor to the departing Arthur Lewis.  

Barrow is also recalled for the passion he shared with Dr Williams to utilise home-based natural resources of countries like Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Belize, to break the heavy dependence on foreign food imports that kept draining the outflow of capital badly needed for regional development.

By July 1986, within months of returning to office as prime minister, Barrow, in a most inspiring and memorable address to a Caricom Heads of Government Conference in Guyana, was to  lament the apparent lack of vision and energy to motivate the deepening of a people-focused regional integration process.

“If we (the community leaders) have failed to comprehend the essence of the regional integration movement,” he told the conference, “the truth is that thousands of ordinary Caribbean people do, in fact, live that reality every day…

“We are,” he had declared, “a family of islands nestling closely under the shelter of the great Co-operative Republic of Guyana. And this fact of regional togetherness is lived every day by ordinary West Indian men and women in their comings and goings…’’

This was the visionary thinking of  Errol  Barrow, a deeply admired and loved political leader of the Barbadian people whose birthday has been institutionalised as a national public holiday in the  Caricom partner state currently gripped—hopefully temporarily—in a most serious economic crisis.