Owen Arthur passed away last Monday at the relatively early age of 71. It is a huge loss to the Caribbean and the project of Caribbean integration that we no longer have the visionary and extremely smart economist and former Barbadian prime minister to advise and support the present generation of regional leaders including the popular, current Barbadian PM, Mia Mottley.
The two had famously fallen out after an intriguing episode in the history of the Labour Party, in which she once served as his cabinet minister and succeeded him to the premiership, but by all accounts they had a rapprochement and she wisely drew upon his insights into what Barbados could be post-covid19.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that Arthur was one of the great statesmen and political thinkers of the Caribbean.
His vision and passion for our future as a regional family were impressive, infectious and undying. He may have felt the ongoing impasse over the Guyana election results very personally. His profound belief in democracy for development was evidenced by his final role as a Caribbean statesman as head of the Commonwealth observer team of those elections and his loud call for the recount to be accepted as the final result.
In 1996 I travelled around the region making a series of current affairs documentaries for BBC radio. My adviser and travelling companion was Jones P Madeira, then ex-editor-in-chief of the Trinidad Guardian, who had recently resigned, along with most of his editorial team, in response to unacceptable pressures by then PM Panday and the inadequate defence of press freedom by the paper’s owners.
Together, we met almost every political leader and theorist in the islands. We agreed that Arthur was one of the intellectual giants, along with ANR Robinson. Prime ministers Vaughan Lewis of St Lucia and PJ Patterson of Jamaica saluted him.
Arthur seemed to be a contemporary version of the generation of leaders who had led us into political independence. His passion for economic independence and the conviction that we could only achieve it if we stood together burnt in him with the same fire as shuffling off colonialism did in those early nation builders of the 1950s. His investment in the ideal of unity between our nations was uncompromising.
Arthur was a realist, too, in recognising just how challenging the realisation of a EU-like Caribbean form of integration could be when the diversity of political leadership had to be contended with.
It was a point picked up by ANR Robinson, that progress could only be made in any sort of regional co-operation if all the leaders were of the same mindset. Since the chances of getting a group of likeminded Caricom prime ministers of equal competence and shared political agenda in office at the same time is always pretty slim, Arthur’s focus was on creating the infrastructure that would mitigate against that inherent weakness, via instruments such as the Caribbean Court of Justice, the University of the West Indies, greater economic integration (CSME), improving inter-island transport (LIAT) and the strengthening of the Caricom Secretariat, all of which we advocated and worked tirelessly to support.
Famously, Arthur was PM of Barbados for a record 14 years, winning three consecutive elections. During his terms in office Barbados repeatedly appeared in UNDP indices among the top 15 countries in the world, and persistently ranked highest in the Caribbean for human development, and continues to do so.
He was an academic researcher and teacher and his collection of personal papers is extensive, yet we have no biography of Owen Arthur. He knew he had to write his memoir and I am told he might have started it, but he just did not make the time. It is imperative that the task of recording him and his work, which are intertwined with the development of Barbados and the entire Caribbean, is undertaken by a biographer.
Any historian, whose work is to record and explain events that enlighten, would agree that the book is a place of collective memory and its most fundamental purpose is to block the work of forgetting, to establish a state of things. Records of the everyday become historical data that endlessly resonate with different generations of readers. These records are markers that push us along a continuum.
I firmly believe that the recalling and setting down of the events in the political life of our leaders are acts of public service. These are much needed in a world that is forever challenging, the work hopelessly daunting and in which people feel so unconnected, yet there really is nothing new under the sun, only the changing of circumstances.
It is a mighty shame that Owen Arthur will now never get the chance to write his own story, as maybe in the telling he would have come to different conclusions or seen events of the critical years of his active political life in an altered way that would be beneficial to politicians still to come.