Thompson’s passing and after

When, two weeks ago, our editorial concerned itself largely with the changing political fortunes in the leadership of the Barbados Democratic Labour Party, there was already widespread speculation in that country that the serious illness of Prime Minister David Thompson was almost certainly one of the considerations in former Prime Minister Owen Arthur’s decision to mount a challenge to Ms Mia Mottley. There has been for some time a widespread sense in Barbados that there was no obvious person among the top leadership of the DLP with the political acumen to stand up to Owen Arthur’s political expertise and experience, in what is considered an economic crisis in the country.

The reshuffle undertaken by Mr Thompson, placing Chris Sinckler as Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs did not settle the issue. Instead, it caused some amount of controversy within the DLP ranks. And now, with the appointment as Prime Minister, of Deputy Prime Minister Freundel Stuart, all speculation about Sinckler being positioned by Thompson to take over the top post will, at least for the time being, have come to an end. At the same time, new as he is to the post, the members of the Parliamentary group who have chosen Stuart may well have decided that not only from the point of view of ensuring balance in the party and government, but more importantly from the perspective of  the widely acknowledged major task of economic policy innovation that now has to be undertaken, Sinckler might have been overwhelmed and do neither of the two jobs – of Prime Minister  and Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs, competently, if he held them both.

With Thompson’s prolonged illness, there seems already to have developed in Barbados a sense that insufficient attention was being devoted to coping with the need to pursue a systematic line towards the economic slowdown induced by the recession gripping the Western world economy on which Barbados depends. And a sentiment complementary to this was developing, or was perhaps being advanced, that given his record of having rescued the country from serious economic crisis after 1994, and seen it though a period of relative prosperity in most of the years of the new millennium, Arthur should have another chance at the levers of power. No doubt, the advocates of Arthur’s cause were making the assumption that the attack which Thompson launched against Arthur during the general elections of 2008, based on a charge of the BLP’s excessive public expenditure and creation of possibly unmanageable debt, would lose some of its salience in the face of a weakened DLP leadership.

The soundness of the calculations made by Arthur and the BLP remain to be seen. Little is known of the abilities of Stuart in terms of his capability for economic management. Like Thompson, an attorney, he has not had even the limited experience of Thompson who at least, in the dying period of Erskine Sandiford’s DLP administration in 1992-93, had a stint as Minister of State and Minister of Finance. On the other hand, we can probably expect a period of something of a collective leadership, given Sinckler’s holding of the Finance and Economic Affairs portfolio. His reputation for a certain aggression in the political back and forth, and his previous grounding in the manoeuvrings of the Barbadian civil society network for much of the 2000s, could stand him in good stead. The protests of the other political contender, Dr David Estwick, made when the ailing Thompson transferred him to the Ministry of Agriculture from post of Minister for Economic Affairs, quickly lost their strength, as party loyalists insisted that there should be no political ructions in the period of uncertainty characterizing Thompson’s absence from office. So it can probably be surmised that much of the case for coping with Owen Arthur’s new thrust at the government will be a joint activity of the leading government ministers supporting Sinckler’s economic policy.

There are beginning to emerge in Barbados also, signs that the essential strategy of the last two decades for Barbados’ economic growth, should now be open to question in the light of the effects of the global recession. Arthur indeed fully pursued the general line of the expansion of tourism as the leading sector, advanced since Errol Barrow’s days, putting an emphasis on the diversification of the tourism product. In addition he placed a major emphasis on the development and expansion of a diversified financial services industry, an effort that has created not only economic growth, but the expansion of middle class and professional employment. In this period, agriculture has taken a relative back seat, the virtual removal of the UK-EU preferential arrangement giving no encouragement that much could be done with the industry. But now the recession seems to be reviving discussion about the nature and role of an agricultural industry, even if only as a contributor to minimizing the extent of foreign exchange resources devoted to agricultural exports.

From the point of view of regional affairs, during Arthur’s reign the country’s reputation for commitment to regional economic integration was enhanced, given Barbados’s lead responsibility for overseeing the implementation of the CSME. Even in recent times, he has had a private consulting responsibility for assessing the capabilities of the OECS countries for implementing the CSME, and has continued to speak out about its importance. And on the other hand, Thompson, had from time to time, made noises about the importance of a regional approach to agricultural development utilizing the resources of Guyana. But on the other hand, both Arthur and Thompson seemed to have had a laid-back attitude to the fate of LIAT and air transportation in the Eastern Caribbean.

Thompson’s short period of governance was marked, in respect of the integration movement, by his insistence that a new look had to be taken at the question of the movement of labour, basing his claim on what he deemed to be the pressure being placed on Barbados’s resources and social facilities resulting from a relatively liberal approach, singling out the prevalence of Guyanese immigration into the country. This issue, now under review by Caricom governments, had somewhat soured popular attitudes towards the Thompson regime.

On the other hand, Minister of Finance Sinckler was himself for some years, as Executive Coordinator of the civil society network Caribbean Policy Development Centre, much involved in regional integration issues, including the intense discussion that has taken place over the last few years on the region’s approach to the Economic Partnership Agreement now signed with the European Union. Barbados’s main concern with the EPA has largely been that of seeking to take advantage of meaningful access to the services aspects, while many other Caribbean countries have still been discussing their disappointment over the agricultural exports aspects. But all countries will be concerned with one aspect of services, though not related to the EPA, this being the heavy taxes placed on travellers to the Caribbean by the United Kingdom government.

The circumstance of Thompson’s passing, and the assumption of office by Stuart, leading, at least for the time being to an administration that is really Thompson’s, is likely to see a concentration by that administration on internal affairs, in particular the economy, and seeking to keep the new leadership of the opposition at bay. In that regard, it may not be much different from most other governments in the region at this time, essentially preoccupied with coping with the recession, and with the discontents at home deriving from it.

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