Roosevelt Bernard Douglas 1941 - 2000

PM Rosie DouglasRoosevelt (Rosie) Bertrand Douglas, politician, born 15th October 1941; died 1st October 2000, aged 58.  He was a son of Robert Douglas, a shopkeeper and estate holder who had travelled, worked overseas and then returned to invest his savings. Robert was also was a politician, with a great degree of community involvement and charitable works, which his wife Bernadette shared.

Rosie Douglas became prime minister of the eastern Caribbean island of Dominica only eight months ago, having spent much of his political life travelling the world in support of liberation struggles, the black diaspora and African unity. And it was that international dimension which defined him, a perspective forged during his student days in Canada, where he was jailed following the smashing of a university computer during "black power" protests.

In a sense, Douglas came to power a generation too late, for he represented the now lost spirit of 1970s Caribbean radical movements. Yet Dominicans who celebrated Douglas's electoral win last January felt that he could somehow re-invent that legacy. They also hoped - as did Douglas himself - that his international connections would bring benefits to his banana-dependent island.

His background was not typical of Caribbean leaders of his generation. He was neither from the light-skinned elite nor the landless poor. His father had been a rich landowner, albeit from humble beginnings, who had made his money in Curacao'soil fields. The Douglas coconut estate was large and bountiful, in the north of the island, close to the second town, Portsmouth.

The second eldest of 16 children, Rosie was christened Roosevelt (there were other brothers named Eisenhower and Adenauer "Washway"(living 2001)). He went to school in the capital, Roseau, before applying to study at university in Canada. Impatient of the long wait to receive a visa, he rang up the office of the Canadian prime minister, John Diefenbaker. The story goes that Diefenbaker was so impressed that he invited Douglas to meet him. So it was that Douglas's first political act in the dominion was to join the Canadian Young Conservatives.

But then everything changed. Douglas experienced racism. His education in Roseau had been colonial; he had been privileged. In Canada, he heard Martin Luther King speak and met black power leaders such as Stokeley Carmichael - who campaigned for Douglas in the 1990 Dominica election. Meanwhile Douglas studied agriculture at Ontario Agricultural College, and political science and economy at Sir George Williams University, Montreal.

Then, in 1969, by then a McGill University post-graduate, he led an anti-racism sit-in at Sir George Williams which led to the occupation of the computer centre and its destruction when police broke up the protest. Charged with arson, Douglas served 18 months in prison. When he was released, to be deported, as he would tell, in handcuffs and leg-irons, he said he would only return as "prime minister of my own country".

Back in Dominica, he began to develop that balancing act of participation both in domestic politics and on the wider, grander stage that characterised the rest of his life. He formed the short-lived Political Independence Committee, before becoming a senator during a turbulent period after independence in 1978. But he was sacked for inviting Cuban troops to Dominica after the devastations of Hurricane David in 1979; the United States had demanded the action in return for relief aid.

Douglas had begun to build on his old student contacts. He secured scholarships for Dominicans to Cuba and the Soviet Union. He made links with Colonel Gaddafi, and the Libyan leader's Little Green Book began to appear in Dominica, much to the alarm of rightwingers. Douglas saw Gaddafi as being able to offer financial support to liberation movements and became a key figure in the somewhat ill-defined Mataba, a Tripoli-based organisation, which offered aid, training and education to Africans.

Restless in his small island, Douglas went trouble-shooting in the interests of the Caribbean and the black diaspora. Active in the Socialist International, he also attended Sinn Fein's annual conference for many years. Despite his Libyan connections, he was close to the British Labour party - he was at its annual conference last week and the late Bernie Grant, the Labour MP, was a close friend.

Douglas became an MP in 1985, but he only became leader of the Dominica Labour party in 1992, after the death of his brother, Michael. His party lost the 1995 election and there was the feeling that his absences - his critics said he was always "up in the air" - diverted his energies. Nevertheless, this year, in January's election, he became prime minister in a coalition administration. At the opening of the new parliament, the guest list included Martin Luther King III. It was a glittering reflection of Douglas's long years in the service of black solidarity. Dominica had never seen anything like it.

Desperate to attract investors, he encouraged an enterprise culture and was keen to develop closer relations with the neighbouring French islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe, and thus with Europe. His oratory was inspiring, yet some felt disheartened by his inability to plan and pay attention to domestic details. Others were also disappointed at his pro-Japan line on whaling.

He remained close to the people. Unstuffy, speaking in Creole, patient and big-hearted, he would hear their troubles at any time at his two-storey red and white painted house in the middle of Portsmouth. He was proud, he said, to live "in the ghetto". And in the mornings, he jogged with the town youth or played basketball, while the official car sent to take him to his office had to wait. Yet to stay at home was not his way; only by globe-trotting, he said, would business come to Dominica.

He is survived by his mother Bernadette, three sons, Tiyani, Cabral and Kim, and one daughter, Deborah.

He died in office.

His brother Michael died in 1992, leaving a son, Ian, now (2009) minister of tourism and legal affairs. 


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