A local buys fruit at the market in St John’s, Antigua and Barbuda on September 16, 2022 (AFP / CHANDAN KHANNA)
If republican leanings are heard within the Commonwealth, the people of Antigua and Barbuda, a small paradisiacal archipelago in the Caribbean, are divided over their leaders’ desire to sever ties with the British crown.
Shortly after the confirmation of Charles III as the new sovereign and head of state of the 14 Commonwealth kingdoms, the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda announced his intention to organize a referendum on the subject “within the next three years”.
“This is not an act of hostility” towards the monarchy, “but the last step to complete our path to independence”, assured Gaston Browne to the British television channel ITV.
But will the inhabitants of this microstate of 442 km2, located in the north of Guadeloupe, want to take this step? The question remains open, acknowledges with AFP, the chief of staff of Mr. Browne, Lionel Hurst, in the capital of St. John’s on the main island of the archipelago, Antigua.
“We’re not sure yet,” he said Friday. If Gaston Browne wins the next election to be held in 2023, the years leading up to the referendum should be spent “promoting the idea” among Antiguans. Some are far from convinced.
“I think we have to stay in the corona. This country can’t do it alone,” said Leonie Barker, 53, who is stocking up to prepare for Tropical Storm Fiona.
Lionel Hurst, Chief of Staff to the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, in St John’s on September 16, 2022 (AFP / CHANDAN KHANNA)
For JC Cornelius, cameraman, it is still too early to comment on a matter that requires “deep reflection”.
“We have reached a level where we would like to be independent, but are we ready?” asks Peter Thomas, 58, for whom a certain pedagogy around the idea is necessary.
Fashion designer and singer Kelly Richardson, who is not opposed to distancing herself from Buckingham, agrees, given that residents need more information.
“I’m open to change,” he says with sunglasses on his nose.
– “Psychological effect” –
Tickets bearing the likeness of the late Queen Elizabeth II at St John’s in Antigua and Barbuda on September 16, 2022 (AFP / CHANDAN KHANNA)
If it did take place, the referendum Mr Browne wanted would be organized almost 400 years after the arrival of the first British settlers in Antigua in 1632 and then in Barbuda in 1678.
The British developed the cultivation of sugar there and then brought slaves from Africa to work the plantations in the face of the death of thousands of indigenous Caribbean people.
Slavery was abolished in 1833 in the archipelago, and many of the country’s 97,0000 inhabitants are descendants of slaves.
Antigua and Barbuda, whose economy is heavily dependent on tourism, has been officially independent for almost 40 years after joining the Commonwealth in 1981, but Lionel Hurst is not wrong.
“It’s not really independence when you don’t choose your head of state, but a tradition that has its source more than 9,000 kilometers away,” he insists to AFP.
However, the control exercised by the United Kingdom is mainly procedural and breaking away from it is above all “symbolic”, he stresses.
A view of St John’s in Antigua and Barbuda, September 16, 2022 (AFP / CHANDAN KHANNA)
“This will particularly have a psychological effect on the people of Antigua and Barbuda, and that is the primary ambition.”
However, the biggest concern for young Antiguans is not necessarily the nation’s psyche, but rather its economic development, according to 19-year-old Kemani Sinclair, interviewed by AFP in central St John’s, where some colorful buildings are crumbling.
“I sincerely believe that Antigua should not become a republic. It is not ready”, launches this student, for whom the holding of a referendum on the monarchy would represent a waste of public money.