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Can Mia press Bajan reset button?
Four close races in just over a week—can this be sleepy Barbados? On February 21, Freundel Stuart’s Democratic Labour Party (DLP) squeezed home with a 16-14 election win. Last Monday, Mia Mottley fought tough in a party caucus to replace Owen Arthur as leader of the opposition Barbados Labour Party (BLP). And yesterday, came the Sandy Lane Gold Cup.
Until election night, the BLP thought they were lengths ahead. Their opponent seemed a non-starter. Prime minister since the death of David Thompson in 2010, Stuart is more bumbling charm than dash and charisma. But he found strength a year ago to face down 11 rebel MPs.
The “Bees” meanwhile had a self-inflicted leadership problem. Too many voters felt that Arthur was past his sell-by date. In office from 1994 to 2008, he acquired a reputation for arrogance. Sensibly, he allowed Mia Mottley to replace him as party leader after his election loss five years ago. Less sensibly, he pushed her aside in October 2010, with the DLP government looking shaky just five days before the death of David Thompson. “If they had kept Mia, the Bees would have won easily,” says a lifelong “Dee.”
For Stuart, the next five years will not be easy. He will have to keep every one of his squad smiling. He took a week to announce a cabinet. Barbadians suspect a fractious behind-scenes tussle for prize portfolios. For a prime minister hamstrung by a skinny majority and shaky economy, life can be a hand-to-mouth scramble. In opposition, Mia Mottley will have the chance to think strategically.
Now 47, she comes from an established Barbadian family. Her father and grandfather sat in the House of Assembly. As a young student at prestige high school Queen’s College in the 1970s, she told her form teacher she wanted to be the island’s first woman prime minister. “Yes, why not?” was the staff-room consensus.
By 1994, Mia was education minister—at 29, the youngest Barbadian to reach cabinet rank. In 2001, she was the first woman attorney general. She was deputy prime minister from 2003, and economic affairs minister from 2006. Two years later, she was the first woman opposition leader and first to lead a major party. Today, many sense that Barbados needs to hit a reset button. “I like a country where people pay taxes and the health and education system work, but there’s too much complacency,” says a senior banker.
There is plenty to be proud of. Barbados achieved universal, free secondary education in the 1960s, a generation ahead of the rest of the region. The murder rate, at eight per 100,000 last year, is too high; but it is barely one-quarter of T&T’s. Transparency International ranks Barbados 15th cleanest out of 174 countries worldwide. In the Americas, only Canada is ahead.
Owen Arthur told me soon after taking office in 1994, “It’s a good time to be prime minister of Barbados.” Consensus and compromise among the social partners had helped pull the country out of an earlier slump. Tourism was on a fast track, and the island prospered.
Concorde zipped in high-spending big-name tourists from Britain. They played golf, tennis and polo, booked tables at high-end restaurants, and heard Pavarotti sing at Holders Season. Real estate boomed from villa sales. The glitz and glamour pulled the middle-class punters in their wake. The number two money-spinner was international “offshore” finance. Barbados never challenged the Cayman Islands or BVI on business volume, but won a strong niche with a net of tax treaties, not least with Canada.
All this now looks wobbly. Tourism has slumped since 2007. Arrivals from Britain are down by almost a quarter. Starting with Almond Beach Village in the north, a hotelier lists a half-dozen mothballed properties. Historic Sam Lord’s Castle, once owned by Clico, lies derelict, vandalised and fire-damaged. An offshore finance centre must be fast on its feet. Barbados isn’t. Changes in Canadian tax rules have knocked out established earners, while long-promised innovations in trust and mutual fund law have failed to materialise.
Communications with international agencies seem haphazard. The economy slumped in 2009, and has stagnated since. Fiscal deficits have swollen the public debt; interest now eats a quarter of government revenue. Snail-paced decision making loses points for Barbados in the Global Competitiveness Index.
There is scope for a policy reset. Bringing empty hotels and beach-front sites back to life requires creative thinking on new routes for tourism. Barbados gave tax breaks for solar water heaters from the 1970s. Solar electricity is a fresh opportunity; so, perhaps, is a search for deepwater oil. Sugar is expensively adrift; a decision is needed either to invest in restructuring, or dump the industry and move on.
Barbados elections usually have a whiff of policy debate. This was the first T-shirt race—red “Bees”, yellow “Dees”. More worryingly, in clean little Barbados, supporters from both sides complain of vote-buying by their rivals. The political tone, too, needs a reset.
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