Barbados is about to cut ties with the British monarchy, but the legacy of a sometimes brutal colonial past and the pandemic’s impact on tourism pose major challenges for the Caribbean island as it becomes the world’s newest republic.
Famed for its beaches and love of cricket, Barbados at midnight on November 29 replaces its head of state, Queen Elizabeth II, with her current representative, Governor General Sandra Mason.
Ceremonies on the evening of November 29 and into the next day will include military parades and celebrations, as Mason is inaugurated as president, with Prince Charles – heir to the British throne – looking on.
In a speech to be delivered at the transition ceremony, Charles focused on continued ties between the two countries.
“As your constitutional status changes, it was important to me that I should join you to reaffirm those things which do not change. For example, the close and trusted partnership between Barbados and the United Kingdom as vital members of the Commonwealth,” reads an excerpt of his speech, as released by the prince’s office.
The dawn of a new era has fueled debate among the population of 285,000 over Britain’s centuries of influence, including more than 200 years of slavery until 1834, and Barbados finally becoming independent in 1966.
“As a young girl, when I heard about the queen, I would be really excited,” said Sharon Bellamy-Thompson, 50, a fish vendor in the capital Bridgetown, who remembers being about eight and seeing the monarch on a visit.
“As I grow older and older, I started to wonder what this queen really means for me and for my nation,” she said. “Having a female Barbadian president will be great.”
For young activists such as Firhaana Bulbulia, founder of the Barbados Muslim Association, British colonialism and slavery lie behind the island’s modern inequalities.
“The wealth gap, the ability to own land, and even access to loans from banks all have a lot to do with structures built out of being ruled by Britain,” Bulbulia, 26, said.
“The actual chains [of slavery] were broken and we no longer wore them, but the mental chains continue to persist in our mindsets.”
In October, Barbados elected Mason to become its first president, one year after Prime Minister Mia Mottley declared the country would “fully” leave its colonial past.
But some Barbadians argue there are more pressing national issues, including economic turmoil caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has exposed overreliance on tourism – which, ironically, is dependent on British visitors.
Eerie calm in usually bustling Bridgetown, paltry numbers at popular tourist spots and a dead nightlife scene all point to a country struggling after years of relative prosperity.
Unemployment is at nearly 16 per cent, up from nine per cent in recent years, despite sharply increased government borrowing to fund public sector projects and create jobs.
The country has just eased a longstanding Covid-19 curfew, pushing it back from 9pm to midnight.
Opposition leader Bishop Joseph Atherley said the celebrations among dignitaries would largely not be accessible to ordinary people.
“Increasing numbers of Covid cases, an increasing sense of stress and fear – I just don’t think that it is the right time.”