Barbados ditches British queen, becomes republic
Barbados is about to cut ties with the British monarchy, but the legacy of a sometimes brutal colonial past and the pandemic's impact on tourism pose major challenges for the Caribbean island as it becomes the world's newest republic.
Famed for its beaches and love of cricket, Barbados will this week replace its head of state, Queen Elizabeth II, with her current representative, Governor General Sandra Mason.
Ceremonies from tonight into tomorrow will include military parades and celebrations as Mason is inaugurated as president, with Prince Charles – heir to the British throne – looking on.
The dawn of a new era has fueled debate among the population of 285,000 over Britain's centuries of influence, including more than 200 years of slavery until 1834, and Barbados finally becoming independent in 1966.
"As a young girl, when I heard about the queen, I would be really excited," said Sharon Bellamy-Thompson, 50, a fish vendor in the capital Bridgetown who remembers being about eight and seeing the monarch on a visit.
"As I grow older and older, I started to wonder what this queen really means for me and for my nation. It didn't make any sense," she said. "Having a female Barbadian president will be great."
For young activists such as Firhaana Bulbulia, founder of the Barbados Muslim Association, British colonialism and slavery lie behind the island's modern inequalities. "The wealth gap, the ability to own land, and even access to loans from banks all have a lot to do with structures built out of being ruled by Britain," Bulbulia, 26, said. "The actual chains (of slavery) were broken and we no longer wore them, but the mental chains continue to persist in our mindsets."
In October, Barbados elected Mason as its first president, a year after Prime Minister Mia Mottley declared the country would "fully" leave its colonial past.
But some Barbadians argue there are more pressing national issues, including economic turmoil caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has exposed overreliance on tourism – which, ironically, is dependent on British visitors.
Eerie calm in usually bustling Bridgetown, paltry numbers at popular tourist spots and a dead nightlife scene all point to a country struggling after years of relative prosperity. Unemployment is nearly 16 percent, up from 9 percent in recent years, despite sharply increased government borrowing to and create jobs. The long-standing curfew has also been eased.
Opposition leader Bishop Joseph Atherley said the celebrations among dignitaries would largely not be accessible to ordinary people. "I just don't think we are doing ourselves a credit and a just service by having this when people are being admonished to sit in the comfort of your home and watch on a screen," he said.