On 30th November 2021, Barbados became a republic. Nearly 400 years after the first British ship arrived on the island, and exactly 55 years after independence from British colonial rule, Prime Minister Mia Mottley conducted a ceremony replacing Queen Elizabeth II with Dame Sandra Mason as the head of state. Bells chimed across the capital, steel drum orchestras performed in celebration, and Bajan pop star Rihanna was declared a national hero. As the news broke, people sent their congratulations, hailing an end to British colonial influence and celebrating the beginning of a new era of independence and self-determination.
But, in a world without reparations, in the shadow of “third-world debt,” how free is Barbados, really? Even though Barbados has separated itself from the UK symbolically, and the Queen no longer has jurisdiction over the nation’s laws and policies – ongoing neo-colonial financial conditions continue to devastate Barbados’ economy, and limit its political possibilities. A meaningful rebuke of colonization necessitates more transformative action. A democratically elected head of state is a crucial first step, but true independence from Western influence necessitates debt cancellation and reparations.
The next step on the path to true independence from colonial power is the cancellation of the debt Barbados owes to Western financial institutions. When Barbados won independence in 1966, they received no compensation from Britain. Appallingly, the only compensation the British government ever did fund during the process of decolonization was £20 million to slave owners, which they only finished paying off in 2015.
In the years after independence, Barbados borrowed from the International Monetary Fund, in order to build up infrastructure for its tourism sector (now the country’s main source of income), supplement spending on public services, and deal with oil price shocks and the decline of the once-prosperous sugar industry. Low living standards meant many Bajans left the island in search of economic opportunity, further cementing a cycle of economic decline and public borrowing to address it. By 2017, Barbados’ national debt was $7.9 billion – over 175 percent of GDP, the highest in the Caribbean and Latin America. This necessitated a drastic, IMF-driven sovereign debt restructuring in 2018. This process resulted in mass layoffs of government workers, lower corporate tax rates, and privatization of public services – all in the name of alleviating the burden of debt on Barbados’ government. Then, economic conditions worsened during the pandemic, when the cessation of tourism hit the economy grievously.
Though republicanism means that bills in Barbados’ parliament no longer require royal assent by the Queen, they are still conditional on the tacit approval of Western financial institutions, which can impose harsh controls on public spending, as long as Barbados is in debt to them. Debt cancellation would sever the ties of financial obligation Barbados still has to the IMF, allowing true independence, not just in name, but in financial and legislative ability.
Debt cancellation is possible. Small steps towards a more prudent understanding of debt are already in progress. During the 2018 debt restructuring, Barbados negotiated a clause ruling that in the event of a natural disaster (as ruled by a meteorological agency, or the World Health Organization) debt repayments would be suspended for two years. This clause is particularly essential for an island nation facing existential threat from rising sea levels and extreme weather events. Given that financial institutions show some willingness to accept that in times of crisis, debt relief is necessary, perhaps a wider understanding of what constitutes “crisis” would impel institutions to permanently cancel debt. Climate breakdown, economic decline and pandemic devastation are already in progress – debt should be cancelled now.
Barbados had to take out loans in the first place because colonizers extracted wealth and resources from the nation and enslaved Bajan people, selling the products of their labor. This process went on for hundreds of years, to the sole financial benefit of Britain. The real historic debt is owed in the other direction, from Britain to Barbados. Reparations are a necessary transformative policy intervention, one which would facilitate true independence.
For a long time, Caribbean nations have been working together to articulate demands for reparations. In 2014, Caricom, an intergovernmental organization of 15 Caribbean states unanimously approved a 10-point plan for reparatory justice, which calls for European investment in public health, cultural institutions, education, technology, and for the cancellation of debt. Reparations from Britain to Barbados are a moral imperative, but also a precondition for sustainable improvements in living standards. In 2020, Barbados’ GDP per capita was $13,660 and Britain’s was over three times higher, at $42,455. Even within Barbados, economic inequality is dramatic, and racialized: the top one percent of earners’ average household income is ten times the national average, and white residents own most of the land, even though they are just 2.5 percent of the population. Flows of resources and funding for public services from the UK to Barbados would start to repair this crisis of inequality.
Philosopher Olufemi Táíwò’s constructive view of reparations is particularly salient for a nation in Barbados’ environmental position. He argues for an approach to reparations centered around demands for climate justice – pointing to divest-invest strategies, torching tax havens, and putting land into community control as essential actions. A good starting point the UK can take for reparative action is returning Bajan land, which many British descendants of slave-owners still own – for example: sitting Conservative member of parliament Richard Drax, who in 2017 inherited the Drax Hall plantation in Barbados.
Without reparations, Barbados will continue to be on an unequal footing with the UK, tied to it by an unaddressed history of exploitation. Reparative action would work to re-balance the injustices of the past and put Barbados on a stronger path towards prosperity, independent of the UK.
Belt and Road
In Barbados’ new republican era, there are other geopolitical factors at play in a world shaped by colonization, that might also complicate full financial independence. In February 2019, Barbados signed onto China’s Belt and Road Initiative, agreeing to increased developmental ties with China – who have agreed to provide particular assistance on infrastructure projects. Questions remain about the conditions attached to this investment – and to what extent it will preserve Barbados’ financial independence. The hope is that proper reparative action and debt relief, built on a strong foundation of republicanism, would reduce Barbados’ need to enter into opaque, potentially exploitative financial agreements with other countries. Instead, these three transformational factors would set the nation up to take on public policy challenges independently, in environmentally sustainable and socially equitable ways.
Barbados’ new republican status is nevertheless a profoundly important and symbolic first step on the road to true independence for all post-colonial nations. Crucially, it has important potential to mobilize other countries into republicanism. The last big wave of independence happened in the 1970s, when Guyana, Trinidad and Dominica all dropped the Queen as head of state. Many expected the next wave to happen after Queen Elizabeth II’s passing, but it is happening sooner.
The uprisings of 2020 opened up a debate about the legacy of colonization and slavery to a wider audience: more are learning about the extractive colonial encounters that create our present reality of stark global inequality, questioning the ongoing economic and political influence Western governments have in developing nations, and demanding change. Barbados’ uncoupling from the monarchy is intimately bound with this political movement – which is gaining ground in other countries, from Jamaica, to Canada. Barbados both energizes movements for republicanism around the world and provides a constitutional blueprint for how they can go about it.
To use a term coined by scholar Adom Getachew, Barbados is ‘worldmaking.’ Getachew argues against the view of postcolonial nationalisms as parochial and fixated on nation-building above all else – instead positing that national independence movements disrupted traditional ideas about state sovereignty, articulating an internationalist “ambitious vision of global redistribution.” By challenging entrenched colonial power and asserting the right to debt relief and reparations, Barbados is mobilizing movements internationally and in the process it is “reordering the world … to create a domination-free and egalitarian international order.”
In sum, any repudiation of lasting colonial dominance is a powerful step in the right direction. But there is a lot left to do before Barbados, and other developing, post-colonial nations, can be truly independent.
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