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Friday, 8 July 2011

Vere Cornwall Bird

Vere Bird, who died aged 89, was almost the last survivor of the generation of unlettered populist leaders who pushed the islands of the eastern Caribbean to independence from Britain. He founded a family dynasty, which has controlled the twin-island state of Antigua-Barbuda for most of this century and turned it into something like a music-hall version of a Caribbean island. Inevitably, it became known as "the aviary."

By the mid-1980s, Antigua had become the scandal of the region as tales of corruption, arms and drug smuggling, family squabbles and womanising crippled Bird's government. He allowed two of his five sons to run the country, but fought with them as they vied for the succession and rejected their attempts to force him into retirement. He finally stepped down in 1994. A towering, former Salvation Army captain and trade unionist, he had had heroic beginnings, rising from poverty to lead Antiguans out of a harsh existence of toil in the canefields for absentee landlords into an enduring era of a tourist-based prosperity. The older generation gratefully called him "papa".

Bird helped found the island's first union, the Antigua Trades and Labour Union (ATLU), in 1939 and became its president in 1943. Two years later, he was elected to the colony's legislative council and a year after that was on the executive council, which ruled under the thumb of a white, British Governor.

In 1951, Bird launched a long strike against the island's plantation owners and their leader, the English aristocrat Alexander Moody-Stuart. He and several hundred ragged workers famously met Moody-Stuart, who arrived on a white horse, and in the shade of a tamarind tree told him that Antiguans would "eat cockles and the widdy widdy bush, we will drink pondwater" until the field-hands were paid more than the pittance they were receiving. There was no sugar harvest that year. Bird went on to form the Antigua Labour party (ALP), which won all the elective seats in the legislature in four elections over the next 14 years. He was named minister of trade and production, the post that Whitehall traditionally gave to a colony's leading political figure, in 1956. He graduated to chief minister when the post was created in 1961, and then premier in 1967, when the island was granted effective self-rule as one of the half-dozen Anglo-Caribbean "associated states." Bird's main achievement in this period was to break the power of the large landowners, and turn the island from dependence on sugar towards large-scale, foreign-financed tourist development, which brought a relative prosperity envied by Antigua's neighbours. He introduced free secondary education and island-wide electricity.

But the dream turned sour as a rising black power movement spoke up against white domination, and what many considered the neo-slavery of the tourist industry. The rest of the economy was neglected as huge tax breaks for foreign investors limited government revenue. Bird also clamped down on the press and the opposition. The government's backbone, the ATLU, split in 1967 and Bird was decisively voted out of office in 1971.

Five years later he was back, thanks to a wild promise to abolish income tax. He duly engineered the trial and imprisonment for corruption of the man he succeeded, George Walter. From about 1980, Bird allowed his second son Lester, a US citizen and officially his deputy, to run the government and guide the country to full independence in 1981.

Since 1975 - until she fell out of favour in 1990 - Bird Sr had devoted himself to Cutie "Evita" Francis, who he had taken up with after spotting her as a 13-year-old contestant in a village beauty contest. The influence of the soon-wealthy Miss Francis over the old patriarch aggravated family tensions as corruption and scandal grew.

In 1978, the government was found to have allowed a Canadian company, Space Research Corporation, to secretly export arms to South Africa through the island. There was talk of mafia con trol, and Bird was accused of handing over Antigua to the US government and private interests. The fugitive financier, Robert Vesco, found refuge there. The sister island of Barbuda was disfigured as the Birds illegally exported thousands of tonnes of its sand.

From 1984, the cabinet split evenly into open factions around the old man and Lester. The prime minister favoured his eldest son, Vere Jr, the public works minister, as his successor and refused to sack him after he was implicated in a multi-million-pound scandal over modernising the island's airport. After new accusations in 1990 about Israeli arms shipments through Antigua to drug barons in Colombia, and a damning public inquiry by a British QC, Louis Blom-Cooper, Bird Sr agreed to drop him - but still insisted he was innocent.

Antiguans continued to vote for Bird - corrupt, clearly senile and barely functioning - because he and his family, by now hugely rich, kept the islanders prosperous enough to fear trying the mildly radical alternative offered by Tim Hector, the former black power leader who for nearly 30 years has run Antigua's most popular newspaper and been a one-man opposition.

But in 1993 Bird finally agreed to retire after Lester won the fight with Vere Jr for control of the party. He did not stand in the 1994 general election and yielded the premiership to Lester after the ALP won its fourth straight five-year term.

Though a keen advocate of a united Anglo-Caribbean, Bird was strongly pro-American, and in the 1980s allowed Washington, fearful of revolution in its backyard, to set up military and communications facilities on Antigua to help keep the region under surveillance. When the island airport changed its name from Coolidge Field, after the US base it once was, it became Vere Bird International.

Vere Cornwall Bird, politician and Salvation Army Captain, born December 9, 1909; died June 28, 1999

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