First published in September 2022, this article provides contextual information about the Caribbean and the move towards becoming republics.
RYAN CECIL JOBSON
In November 2021, Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley formally removed Queen Elizabeth II as head of state and declared Bimshire — the island known as “Little England” — a republic. The announcement arrived to international fanfare on the fifty-fifth anniversary of independence featuring an appearance by the soon-to-be King, Charles, and the Queen of pop, Robyn Fenty. The Bajan superstar Fenty, familiar to millions of adoring fans as Rihanna, flanked Mottley at the ceremony where she was honored as the eleventh national hero of Barbados. Evoking one of Rihanna’s chart-topping hits, Mottley offered Fenty her sovereign blessing: “May you continue to shine like a diamond and bring honor to your nation.” Despite her adoration, the artist in the Caribbean is at risk of being reduced to a mere instrument of state interest. Independence is being transformed into an unfortunate spectacle that obscures the continued alliance between Caribbean states and metropolitan capital. At present, Barbados leads this masquerade.
After swearing Dame Sandra Mason in as President, Barbados became the latest Caribbean member of the Commonwealth to chart a path beyond the queen’s gambit of the British royal family. Joining Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, and Dominica, Mottley’s Barbados led by example as the premiers of Jamaica and Antigua & Barbuda promised to call referenda on their own bids to transition to a constitutional republic. This wave, unquestionably a positive development in the region, demands closer scrutiny. Quite simply, we must ask what material changes a republic entails and its consequences for the masses of working people in the Caribbean.
The Republic Mas
The path charted by Mottley’s predecessors indicates that the jury is still out. In Trinidad and Tobago, for instance, the transition to a republic in 1976 included the appointment of a President in a largely ceremonial role as head of state. Even more perplexing, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London remains the nation’s highest court of appeal as its politicians have resisted signing on to the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), a court ironically located in the capital of Port of Spain. Trinidad and Tobago still remains a member state of the British Commonwealth and mourned the passing of Queen Elizabeth II by flying diplomatic flags at half-mast this September.
If not a firm break with the United Kingdom, what then explains the resurgent republicanism of Mottley and her compatriots? Mottley, it must be said, is the most charismatic and talented politician of her generation. In January, her Barbados Labour Party swept parliamentary elections by taking all thirty contested seats. She received plaudits for her fiery speeches to international audiences at the UN General Assembly and the COP26 climate forum calling for reparations, climate financing, and debt relief for CARICOM member states. Back home, she has been seen rubbing shoulders with Nigerian superstar Burna Boy and the native daughter, Fenty, cementing her own legend further still.
One Queen Out, Another Rises
Mottley’s affection for popular artists is not an incidental feature of her statecraft. Her swapping out of one queen, Elizabeth, for another, Rihanna, allowed her to court local and international audiences ahead of January’s snap election. Her counterparts have appropriated her playbook to lesser degrees of success. In Jamaica, the comparatively subdued Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness briefly changed his social media handle to “The Most Honourable Brogad,” appropriating the vernacular title for a close friend or comrade popularized by Montego Bay dancehall artist Daddy1. In his own proposal for a Jamaican republic, rumors swirl that Bob Marley will posthumously receive the Rihanna treatment as a National Hero. This effort to fuse the political class with the popular arts is another arm of the populism that runs through proposals for republics and reparations alike.
Evoking another of Rihanna’s pop standards, Mottley’s international speeches call on the British Government and international financial institutions to pay what is owed to the Caribbean for the horrors of plantation slavery and the contemporary impacts of climate devastation. Her righteous insistence that they “better have [her] money” has allowed the domestic political economy of Barbados and other Caribbean nations to slip out of view. This offers little of substance to the downpressed workers of Barbados. And with Mottley in the frontline costume, her fellow Caribbean statesmen line up to emulate her enchanting, but deceptive mas.
For Jamaican geopolitical analyst Christina Ivey, for instance, Andrew Holness’s calls for “urgent and decisive action” on climate change in Glasgow are contradicted by his aggressive pursuit of bauxite mining and disregard for the sovereign land rights of Jamaican Maroons in Cockpit Country. This masquerade is replicated by Antigua’s Gaston Browne, who supports reparations programs abroad while dismantling communal land rights in Barbuda in service of multinational tourist developers. While Holness dodges the ire of Maroons and anti-mining activists alike, he dons the protective veneer of Bob.
Mottley’s sleight of hand is more subtle. Yet her announcement of renewed talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) this September appears at odds with her contempt for Bretton Woods institutions at the UN General Assembly. Her return to the IMF is in keeping with the tacit compact between a predominantly Black political class and the interests of large landholders and a private business sector dominated by white and brown Bajan elites.
The absence of any fiery rhetoric directed toward the comprador elites of Barbados indicates Mottley’s intent to preserve this compact. Any support for the CARICOM reparations agenda, however, cannot come at the expense of a comprehensive proposal for the working poor, the jobless, and landless squatters in the region. We should not wait for Mottley, Holness, or Browne (or their opposition leaders) to produce a proposal of this sort. Rather, this must emerge from grassroots action independent of orthodox political parties and their financiers.
The Reparations Mas
Statesmen and comprador elites in the Caribbean employ the popular arts and reparations as a cover for their courtship of foreign capital. As it stands, any spoils of reparations stand to embolden a domestic private sector to further extract from a reserve army of labor abandoned by the retreat of sugar and other flagship industries. The formation of Caribbean republics and the recruitment of celebrity serves as a chief tactic for this political class to abort the self-governing capacity of ordinary workers and veil the machinations of local elites.
The popular arts remain a critical terrain of struggle in the Caribbean. The state capture of its musical artists is observed in the efforts by Mottley to fashion Rihanna into a celebrity diplomat, gracing audiences at the grandest of international stages, including her recently announced halftime concert at Super Bowl LVII in Glendale, Arizona. Of course, at one time, the popular arts represented an insurgent medium through which world-renowned calypsonians channeled their craft as a “vehicle for the most acute observations on the social life and political development” as CLR James put it. That the billionaire Rihanna has likely exceeded the global reach of James’s calypso king, the Mighty Sparrow, does not fuel optimism that she will revive this insurgent tradition. But for a moment, we can indulge in the futile anticipation that her return to studio recording will evoke the incisive lyricism of Sparrow. At a moment when the artist in the Caribbean risks appropriation by state interests, we can only hope that her long-awaited reggae album will push beyond a mere homage to the iconic Caribbean genre. The Queen is dead. Long live Queen Ri.