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What’s in a Republic?

What’s in a Republic?

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As of 30th November, on the 55th anniversary of its independence, Barbados became the fifth Caribbean Community (CARICOM) country to become a republic, following in the footsteps of Dominica, Guyana, Haiti, Suriname and Trinidad & Tobago. Republican status carries an enormous amount of symbolism for Barbados, and important lessons for other Caribbean countries that still pledge allegiance to European monarchs.

An immediate symbolic outcome for Barbados is that the names of many things will change. For example, what was once the Royal Barbados Police Force is now the Barbados Police Service. Furthermore, what used to be an honour system tied to the British monarchy for outstanding Barbadians, will now be replaced by a national honour system. In the main, national symbols are moving in the direction of things that Barbadians can recognize as uniquely theirs.

Perhaps the most profound aspect of Barbados going republic is what it says about delinking with a hurtful past. The British monarchy, British symbols and British awards are still emblematic of a history of subjugation, racism and the genocide of indigenous people. As aptly stated by Kristina Hinds, International Relations lecturer at the University of the West Indies in Barbados, “The British royal family is a source of exploitation in this region and, as yet, they have not offered a formal apology or any kind of repair for past harms.” Essentially, Barbados going republic also has to be seen in the context of making a break from a system and institution that still enjoys the spoils of an exploitative past.

Republican status for Barbados also cannot be delinked from the broader reckoning on race taking place around the world. When Trinidad and Tobago went Republic in 1976, it did so at the height of the Black Power Movement. Today, Barbados becomes a Republic against the backdrop of the George Floyd Movement, taking a knee against racism in sports and the removal of offensive statues and symbols of a colonial and racist past in many cities around the world.

At the wider Caribbean level, we have made several attempts at delinking from old colonial structures, but without a sufficiently robust response to make these efforts alive and meaningful. On 14 February 2001, the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) was established. One purpose of the Court was to serve as a municipal court of last resort or an appellate court. In its appellate jurisdiction, the CCJ was intended to replace the United Kingdom (UK) based Privy Council as the final court of appeal. The CCJ is the final Court of Appeal on civil and criminal matters for four CARICOM Members States, namely Barbados, Belize, Dominica and Guyana. By going Republic, Barbados has now progressed further along the road of making breaks with its colonial past.

Just over ten years ago, the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines had an opportunity to gesture important breaks with its colonial past through a new constitution. However, the people voted to maintain the status quo. Perhaps the recent move by Barbados will serve as a reminder that we too have outstanding work to complete.

What is in a republic? In a Caribbean context, a republic has symbolic value for past, current and future generations. It is a nod to the sacrifices and pain of ancestors long gone. It is an affirmation to the current generation that we have the wherewithal to shape our destiny. Finally, it is a message to generations unborn that we want them to be born into a world of our making, not someone else’s choosing.

Joel K Richards is a Vincentian national living and working in Europe in the field of international trade and development.
Email: [email protected]

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