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OWEN ARTHUR: The man and his record

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Looking back on the scene at The Esplanade six hours before Bajans went to the polls, it was as if Owen Arthur knew something deep down inside: he had come to the end of an era.

As he crossed Bay Street, with his wife at his side and surrounded by enthusiastic supporters, his body language seemed to be saying, “I gave it my best shot and what happens next so be it”.

Without skipping a beat, the apparently exhausted 58-year-old leader reached into the crowd, shook hands and smiled.

“Thank you for your support,” he told one bystander, calling him by his first name.

“How are you doing?” he asked of a political colleague he has known for years. “Thank you for everything.”

Was he saying goodbye, convinced that he and his party would lose? On reflection, it seemed that way. Those around him didn’t know it at the time, but it was going to be his last walk from the busy street to the steps of the Government Headquarters as the nation’s Prime Minister.

Torch passed

Within a few hours he was out of office and he stepped down a few days later as the Barbados Labour Party’s (BLP) standard-bearer, passing the torch to Mia Mottley, his energetic deputy.

“I believe that it would be in the very best interest of the future development of the party and also the development of democracy in our country if the transition to new leadership of the Barbados Labour Party is made immediately,” he said over the weekend.

The expressions of appreciation on that fateful Tuesday morning had come immediately after a thunderous welcome to the stage, set up within shouting distance of the Prime Minister’s Office. They had also followed a motivating half-hour address designed to stir the faithful to action at the polls.

Now, that the people have spoken, denying him and his party an unprecedented fourth successive term, Arthur can take comfort in the fact he has left the country in a much better economic and social position than he found it in 1994 when unemployment was at least 25 per cent and people’s confidence was shattered by uncertainty.

And if he is looking for a consolation, he can find it in history: Errol Barrow, Father of Independence, had also sought but was denied a fourth successive term by the people.

Clearly, then, there is little of which Arthur should be ashamed following the Democratic Labour Party’s 20-10 majority.

His leadership

The evidence of Barbados’ good fortunes under Arthur’s stewardship is overwhelming:

* There is an extra spring in the step of most Bajans as they look to the future and at their relative prosperity when compared with their neighbours.

* Barbados is highly respected regionally and internationally for its success and the influence it wields abroad, so much so that Kofi Annan, the recently retired United Nations Secretary-General, once hailed the island as a nation “that punches above its weight”. And when Annan’s successor Ban Ki-Moon came to the country shortly after assuming duties last year, he said he was impressed with the island’s development and international standing.

*The island is rated on the United Nations Human Development Index as the world’s top developing country.

* Its creditworthiness as seen in its Wall Street rating of BBB+ is among the highest on the list of emerging markets.

* Transparency International, the European organisation that measures the perception of global corruption, gives Barbados one of the highest marks for its relatively low level of corruption.

* The housing stock, among the best in the Caribbean and Latin America, continues to improve daily.

* The Economist ranks Barbados at number three when it comes to marriages, 13.1 marriages per 1 000 people, an indication of a commitment to the family.

* Barbados was eighth among selected countries with almost eight per cent of its GDP spent on education.

* Democratic institutions, never under threat, are strong. The courts, police, labour movement, church and civil society are independent and robust.

On and on go the indicators of success.

Admittedly, Barbados’ debt profile as a percentage of its gross domestic product, around 88 per cent, is high, too high. But much of it is local and not foreign debt.

Obviously, Arthur can’t be given full credit for all of the success stories. That’s because their foundations were laid by Sir Grantley Adams, built upon by Barrow, strengthened by J.M.G.M “Tom” Adams and enhanced even more by Arthur. However, in much the same way that he would have been blamed if things had turned sour, Arthur is entitled to his share of praise now that he has left office and things generally are smelling like roses.

Little wonder, then, that some early analyses of the election outcome suggest the BLP’s loss was much less of a referendum on his leadership than it was a case of fourth term blues fuelled by the demand for change, the cornerstone of the DLP platform.

Undoubtedly, fighting against what turned out to be a tidal wave of a demand for change, Arthur and the BLP were overwhelmed by public sentiment and by the weight of a bruising, expensive and keenly contested campaign.

His past

Put this mix of factors into the cauldron and what emerges is a remarkable achievement for a person who grew up in poverty in a society riddled with class prejudices.

For as he did in previous election campaigns, the former Prime Minister repeatedly referred to his early childhood years growing up as the son of a small shopkeeper father and of a mother, a field-hand in rural St Peter, who often took her son along with her as she toiled in the hot sun. And when time came to sleep, the light shining in the bed he shared with his siblings came from the stars finding easy entry through the porous roof.

In a real sense, Arthur’s story can be an inspiration for the nation’s youth of poor backgrounds who may question their future role in a developing country of limited physical assets but an abundance of competing human resources.

Anyone listening to Arthur, a product of Coleridge & Parry School, Harrison College and the University of the West Indies would quickly recognise he takes personal pride in his origins and draws on it as a source of strength.

However, none of this is to suggest Arthur didn’t have faults. Far from it.

Like the two Adamses and Barrow before him, he made his share of mistakes. His included overspending on much needed infrastructural development projects; a quick temper that caused him to make statements he subsequently regretted; and a seemingly blind faith in the virtues of the Civil Service, something that wasn’t always reciprocated. After all, it was Barrow who once called the public service an “army of occupation”.

How, then would historians judge him, and what about his legacy?

While it’s much too early to answer that question, some things are clear:

Arthur provided Barbados and the Caribbean with decisive leadership. The economic troubles of the early 1990s and the CSME are examples.

Also, pushing ahead with Barbados’ investment in its people; the expansion of social services; and his strong stand when the dignity and independence of Barbados were threatened by rich and powerful international forces, including the United States with the Shiprider Agreement, the clash with the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) over the financial services sector; and the Iraq war.

His role as the Head of Government, with lead responsibility for the CARICOM Single Market and Economy, was crucial and enhanced his and Barbados’ standing.

Another thing: as in the case of some of his predecessors, Arthur had a vision for the country and he moved aggressively to achieve it. His goal was Barbados’ emergence as a developed nation by 2025 and at the time of his defeat the country was on its way to achieving.

This article was published on January 21, 2008 in the Daily Nation.

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