Arthur, Owen 1949–
Owen Arthur 1949–
Prime Minister of Barbados
Owen Arthur, elected prime minister of the Caribbean nation of Barbados in 1994, is perhaps the most visible representative of a new breed of Caribbean leader that emerged at the end of the 20th century. Nationalistic without being leftist-oriented, professionally trained as an economist, and wary of but not hostile toward the United States and other First World countries, Arthur gained popularity with the ordinary folk of Barbados. He implemented changes in the country’s economy that resulted in a notable increase in prosperity; indeed, it is his stated aim that his tiny Windward Island country should join the ranks of developed nations in the 21st century.
A native of Barbados and the son of working-class parents, Arthur was born on October 17, 1949. He did well at school, and soon it was clear that he was destined for higher education and a professional career. Unlike earlier Caribbean politicians who went to England for some portion of their studies, Arthur acquired his entire education in the Caribbean. He attended the University of the West Indies, receiving a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1971, and then won a scholarship for graduate study at the university’s main campus in Kingston, Jamaica.
After a stint as a research assistant in the university’s social science department, Arthur began his career in Jamaica as an assistant in the government’s planning department. He rose quickly, becoming Jamaica’s chief economic planner within five years and then serving as director of economics for the Jamaican Bauxite Institute from 1979 to 1981. While in Jamaica, Arthur represented the country at various international conclaves but also came under the influence of Jamaica’s charismatic socialist leader of the day, Michael Manley. Thus, when he returned home to Barbados in 1981, he possessed a unique combination of familiarity with the world of international high finance and commitment to a stake for ordinary citizens in governmental affairs.
Arthur took a job as a project analyst with the Barbadian Ministry of Finance, but it did not take the leadership of the ruling Barbados Labor Party (BLP) long to realize that he was a natural for electoral politics. Encouraged to run for the Barbados House of Assembly by party leader Tom Adams, Arthur was given the added advantage of running in a district that had been receiving heavy government aid after recent
At a Glance …
Career: Prime Minister of Barbados. Assistant economic planner and then chief economic planner, National Planning Agency, Jamaica, 1974-81; economics director, Jamaica Bauxite Institute, 1979-81; chief project analyst, Ministry of Finance and Planning, Barbados, 1981; elected to Barbados House of Assembly, 1984; taught at University of the West Indies, late 1980s; became leader of opposition Barbados Labor Party, 1993; became prime minister when party returned to power, 1994; strong re-election victory, 1999.
Addresses: Office —Office of the Prime Minister, Government Headquarters, Bay Street, St Michael, Barbados.
floods. Nevertheless, the newcomer lost a 1984 election by one vote. Arthur, with what the Times of London called “the terrier-like determination that would characterise his future career,” appealed the resulting recounts to the Barbados High Court, roughly equivalent to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court mandated a new election, which Arthur won.
In 1986 Arthur’s fortunes took a turn for the worse when the BLP was defeated in national elections. Arthur briefly returned to academia as an economics lecturer at the University of the West Indies, and, in a televised speech, threatened to leave the political arena altogether. But he was already emerging as a spokesman for the BLP, having combined his education in economics with his newfound political experience. When the Barbadian economy hit the skids in the early 1990s as its twin pillars of tourism and sugar took strong hits as a result of an international slowdown, Arthur was able to frame critiques of government economic policy in a language accessible to ordinary Barbadians.
Named BLP party leader in 1993, Arthur was a heartbeat away from becoming prime minister—in the Barbados electoral system, modeled on that of Britain, the leader of the party that wins the most seats in the country’s legislature becomes the national leader. After the BLP recaptured its majority in 1994 elections, Arthur was sworn in as the country’s fifth prime minister on September 7, 1994; he was also the first Caribbean head of state who was also a trained economist. From the start, he pursued policies that reflected both the populist and the technocratic aspects of his background.
Early in his term, for example, Arthur impressed observers by appearing on a radio talk show—common enough in U.S. politics but a novelty in the Caribbean. Promising increases in education spending aimed at bringing universal schooling to Barbados, he also courted international investment, pitching Barbados as a promising location for foreign information and financial services firms and thus attempting to diversify the island’s economy. His government took some criticism early on for passing a constitutional amendment that shielded the salaries of government employees from future cuts, and for refusing to devalue the weakened Barbadian dollar. Soon enough, however, the island’s economy began to turn around, with the stability engendered by Arthur’s personal popularity helping to create an environment conducive to growth. “No country can ever truly develop,” Arthur was quoted as saying in Current Leaders of Nations, “unless it finds the means of engrossing everyone in the task of nation building, whatever their class, creed, color or political persuasion.” Arthur wrangled with international financial agencies over what he identified as an unfair double standard shown in the pressure applied to Barbados to reform its money-laundering laws; wealthy European countries such as Switzerland and Luxembourg, which had long served as financial havens, were given more time than hard-pressed Barbados. But such disputes did little to stand in the way of a Barbadian recovery.
The country’s unemployment rate, which had stood at a ruinous 22 percent in 1994, fell to 15.9 percent by 1997. The employment statistics were bolstered by strong increases in agricultural production and tourism, as new hotels and other tourist facilities sprouted on the island. Arthur and the BLP retained power in a landslide victory in 1999, winning 26 of the national assembly’s 28 seats. Arthur’s leadership was endorsed even by members of opposition parties.
Arthur’s government announced ambitious plans in its second term, including the implementation of a national minimum wage and massive new spending on education. Arthur moved to strengthen trade ties with the United States while at the same time curtailing the ability of U.S. counter-narcotics ships to operate in Barbados in an unrestricted manner. At the end of the century, Arthur set in motion a proposed confederation of eight small Eastern Caribbean countries that would coordinate government services including judicial systems, aviation, telecommunications, shipping, education, health, and disaster response, among others.
“The move is a logical process in facing up to the inevitable economic and political changes in preparation for the challenges of a new world order in the 21st century,” Arthur was quoted as saying in the Financial Times. One of those challenges that faced Barbados was a decline in tourism due to the U.S. terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and to the general slowdown in the world economy. Yet, as a result in part of Owen Arthur’s efforts, Barbados faced these challenges fortified by solid economic fundamentals and new possibilities of cooperation with its immediate neighbors.
Financial Times (London, England), September 28, 1994, p. 5; April 26, 1995, p. 36; March 27, 1998, p. 5.
The Guardian (London, England), March 3, 2001, p. 24.
International Money Marketing, December 2001, p. 25.
Journal of Commerce, October 11, 1994, p. Al.
Los Angeles Times, January 23, 1999, p. A2.
Ottawa Citizen, January 24, 1999, p. A8.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 2, 1998, p. A3.
The Times (London, England), November 13, 2000, Features section.
Current Leaders of Nations, Gale Group, 1999. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center, Gale, 2001, http://www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC.
—James M. Manheim
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