Increasingly self-confident Barbados takes time to mourn

While preparing to bury a much-loved prime minister, Caribbean island also gives thanks to Thompson’s mentor for emphasizing a quality education system
This story first appeared in the Toronto Star foreign news section on October 29, 2010

Olive Estwick was one of the pilgrims who came for a piece of the rock that came from the grave where David Thompson would be buried.

ST. JOHN’S PARISH, BARBADOS—Olive Estwick isn’t asked for an explanation but offers one anyway.

“It’s for my great-grandson,” the tearful 73-year-old says, holding up a softball-sized piece of coral rock from the pile beside a grave where the late prime minister David Thompson will be buried Wednesday. “This will always be in our family.”

Estwick is one of several pilgrims to the St. John’s parish church cemetery on a sweltering afternoon. In what would otherwise be a sleepy, idyllic setting near the edge of a cliff facing the Atlantic, gravediggers kick up a jackhammer racket and rocks they chuck to the pile become souvenirs.

A period of national mourning was declared in Barbados after Thompson died from pancreatic cancer Oct. 23, seven months after being diagnosed. Flags are half-staff, some people wear black ribbons and it seems nearly every Barbadian you speak with gets moist around the eyes when talking of him. But pursue the conversation a bit longer and you’ll often hear expressions of a rising national self-confidence.

One moment it’s a tragic tale of three young girls who don’t have a dad anymore, or a lament for a country that has lost a great leader just as he was getting started. Thompson, who became PM in 2008, was only 48.

But the locals also seem eager to tell Canadians this Caribbean island is on the verge of becoming a first-world nation. Even before your flight lands at Grantley Adams airport, you might have heard Barbados has public health care like Canada and a public education system that has placed literacy rates among the world’s best — 99.7 per cent. Stable governments and relatively low crime rates are also a source of pride.

Frank Anderson, returning to Barbados after doing temporary work in Canada, says his country’s rising living standards are “in many ways the legacy of Errol Barrow, our first prime minister after independence in 1966.”

Anderson explains that part of the sadness about Thompson’s death is his link with Barrow (who was a close and longtime friend of Pierre Trudeau). “Not only are (Barrow and Thompson) the only two people to have represented St. John’s parish in Parliament since independence in 1966, Thompson was Barrow’s protegé in the Democratic Labour Party (DLP).”

Barrow, who also died in office, in 1987, had a dream — that quality public education, free to all, would make the former British colony a first-world nation providing opportunity for all, no matter how poor. The seemingly widespread belief is Thompson lived nearly long enough to see it happen; that a real middle class has quietly emerged.

“It’s not just high schools; university is free for Bajans,” Anderson says. “These kids aren’t just students at university, they were raised in educated homes.”

Rosa Alleyne, who works for an ad agency in the United States but returned to Barbados last week to visit relatives, speaks of “a new optimism despite the mourning and the recession” in the lineup at a south coast convenience store. “I live in San Francisco, but kids I went to school with are getting good jobs without leaving the country,” she said. “Go take a look at the new suburbs north of Bridgetown. It’s not foreigners buying those houses and they’re as nice as newer subdivisions in the States.”

Though tributes to Thompson dominate media coverage, the release this week of Transparency International’s 2010 report is also big news. Barbados is now ranked second to Canada for the lowest levels of corruption in the western hemisphere.

“It’s a small country that always punches above its weight,” says Ezra Catwell, of Invest Barbados, a government agency that promotes both direct foreign investment and Barbadian companies to the world.

A longstanding emphasis on transparency and rule of law, the educated workforce and the country’s tax treaties with many countries are popular with businesses. Royal Bank of Canada, Scotiabank and CIBC have long had big presences here. A tour of a plant owned by Florida-based Lenstec is impressive. The company began in Barbados in 1995 as a straight manufacturer of precision synthetic lenses used in cataract surgery. It has expanded several times and is now developing product lines that are being shipped around the world.

Cardiology and in vitro fertilization clinics are seen as evidence of a nascent medical tourism industry. There’s also a software cluster in Bridgetown.

The crime rate is almost certainly low by Caribbean standards, though independent, verifiable comparisons are hard to find. The 2009 United Nations Human Development Index ranks Barbados third in the Western Hemisphere behind Canada and the U.S., but evidence of poverty is still not difficult to find.

Governments in recent years have pushed diversification. Sugar was king for most of the island’s history, but exports are down 70 per cent since the 1960s. Tourism will continue to be relied upon heavily, but it’s seasonal and vulnerable to economic cycles.

“We’re past the point where we can compete as a low-cost jurisdiction,” says Darcy Boyce, minister of immigration, energy and communications under new Prime Minister Freundel Stuart. “Our wages are not low by Caribbean standards. We have to go for high value,” he says in an interview, promising the government will spend heavily on new health care and biotech labs in the near future and that green energy technology will be a priority.

“I hope the world will view us as a first-world country by 2020; in some ways we’re already there,” said Boyce.

In the meantime, confident as they may be, Barbadians clearly are in mourning as they gear up for the state funeral. Thompson touched citizens with a radio address shortly before his death; he didn’t want to be on TV because he didn’t want his appearance to detract from his parting message.

Kenmore Lynch, wearing a black ribbon while working on the front desk at the Hilton becomes choked up while trying to speak of Thompson’s commitment to “transparency and accountability. He prepared the government and he left us a road map.”

And back at the gravesite, Olive Estwick talks of Thompson as “a great young man.

“He loved people. He came to my retirement; he came to my great-grandson’s christening.”

“Please take a piece of rock back to Canada. Save it for your great-grandson.”