(This is one of a series of fortnightly columns from Guyanese in the diaspora and others with an interest in issues related to Guyana and the Caribbean)
David Thompson’s ascent to Prime Minister in Barbados on January 15th is a significant milestone in Caribbean politics because he is the first of a new generation of Caribbean leaders who were born in the 1960s. That means that for his entire adult life formal colonial rule had ended in most of the Eastern Caribbean islands.
This generational shift means that Thompson will lead a government and parliament where a minority of the politicians received their formal higher education outside the region and a significant percentage of them are University of the West Indies graduates.
This transition could not have come at a more opportune time because the islands are now in the process of having to respond to a major shift in the geopolitics of the region that will see more focus on the strengthening of political, economic and cultural relations across Latin America and the Caribbean than ever before.
It stands to reason that Thompson and the generation that he represents will be more intellectually equipped for this challenge than the previous generation of Eastern Caribbean politicians because, unlike them, he was not a product of British universities nor a colonial education that focused attention to the north on the critical issues of foreign policy and national identity.
Indeed, Thompson inherits the Bajan government at the very time the island is struggling with its identity and the meaning of citizenship.
This was most evident in the most contentious issues of the electoral campaign, the most searing of which was the recent trend of spiking real estate prices, especially in the most desirous beachfront areas. Clearly the neo-liberal policies of the outgoing Owen Arthur administration that permitted this trend had engendered resentment among Bajans who saw non-Barbadians with deep pockets being able to outbid them for access to property.
Thompson has promised to lower the cost of living and to secure affordable home ownership. He reaffirmed those promises on the night of the election while mentioning with pride that the intellectual team that masterminded his victory, beginning 18 months previously at a retreat in Dominica, was all Bajan.
It was curious that he should stress that point on national TV while celebrating victory as if to suggest that there might not have been confidence in Bajan talent or that a concentration of Bajan expertise in such a fashion was at risk of being rare in a now more cosmopolitan Barbados.
Another problem that Thompson promised to fix as soon as possible is the island’s main public hospital, the QEH (Queen Elizabeth Hospital).
While the Arthur government boasted about Barbados’ high international economic and quality-of-life ratings, the QEH had become a national embarrassment with a constant flow of scandals related to long waiting times, poor service, and substandard care.
But, ironically, at the root of the QEH debacle is the same philosophical principle behind the land issue. This is the neo-liberal principle advocated by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund that is most popular in open economies such as Barbados – the belief in trimming the size of the public sector in the name of economic efficiency and the supremacy of the free market as a preferred means of allocating goods and services. The Arthur administration had already opened the possibility of the expansion of for-profit educational institutions, and the relative neglect of the QEH was a de facto impetus for the growth of for-profit public health care on the island.
Thompson will be under pressure to balance these outcomes of neo-liberal policies with the demands of a Barbadian public accustomed to such privileges as a public health system that has free care at the QEH as its centrepiece.
In trying to fix the QEH the last place he will go for help would be the United States, but instead he is most likely to find willing assistance from Cuba, the Caribbean country with a public health system that is the envy of the world and that has an established medical assistance programme for countries in the region that need the help.
This openness to Cuban assistance is just one way the world environment will be drastically different for Thompson compared to how it was for his mentor Errol W. Barrow who led the country for 15 years till 1976 and again in the mid 1980s until he died in office.
The rise of Brazil, the spread of elected governments in Central and South America, spectacular economic growth in these countries, and the decline of US power are just some of the factors that account for why the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) government has promised in its manifesto to open a new embassy in Latin America to expand the island’s regional relationships.
Thompson is the only member of his party’s team in the House of Assembly with government experience, having served as Finance Minister the last time the DLP was in office. But for many familiar with Bajan politics he carries with him a profound legacy, much deeper than his administrative experience.
He was heir to both Barrow’s safe parliamentary seat and his lucrative legal practice, and he bears an uncanny resemblance to J. M. G. “Tom” Adams, the leader of the other party who served as PM from 1976 to 1985 when he died in office.