Sir Lester Bryant Bird left us this morning at about 5.30 lying peacefully in bed. He was 83. Antigua and Barbuda has lost a very special son.
ST JOHN’S, Antigua – Beyond any doubt, he is the architect of modern Antigua, responsible for successfully transitioning the country from an economy dependent on a defunct sugar industry into one of the leading tourism centres in the world.
Under his stewardship, Antigua and Barbuda became a high-income country, transforming the quality of jobs and housing and introducing high-end tourist resorts.
When he lost the general elections in 2004, Antigua and Barbuda had the lowest rate of unemployment in the Caribbean of five per cent. Many people had the luxury of two jobs.
A keen sportsman, he played golf in his later years, but his passion was cricket. He was a superb pace bowler with a strategic knowledge of the game. At a different time, he might have been selected to represent the West Indies. Hie early triumph for Antigua and the West Indies was to win a bronze medal for long jump for the West Indies at the 1957 Pan American Games.
He was a committed regionalist. He was highly instrumental in establishing the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) serving twice as its chairman – the first time he was not yet prime minister, but such was the confidence that leaders of the Eastern Caribbean reposed in him. He strongly influenced the decision to turn the Eastern Caribbean Currency Authority (ECCU) into a Central Bank that serves its member states so well today. He was convinced that the structures of unity and functional cooperation should be maintained in the OECS because the small size of the countries required unity for strength in regional and international bargaining.
In the wider Caribbean, he was literally and figuratively a giant. It was under his leadership as chair of CARICOM that with Jamaica’s PJ Patterson and Barbados’ Owen Arthur that the Regional Negotiating Machinery was established for collective bargaining with the European Union.
Known for his bold oratory, his annual speeches at the UN became a “must listen”, often reported by the international media. He fought tirelessly for a bigger voice in the international community for small states.
Sir Lester Bird was a progressive thinker whose vast experience and knowledge as tourism minister, foreign minister and prime minister served the people of the Caribbean well in the councils of CARICOM.
He had a testy relationship with Barbuda, an island in which he spent his summer holidays as a boy and for which he had great affection. He always said, “I am half Barbudan – my mother is Barbudan”. He dreamed of a developed Barbuda, companion to Antigua in the development of modern facilities and infrastructure. He might have achieved it, had he won the 2004 general election.
It is beyond question that Antigua and Barbuda and the Caribbean Community has lost a gold star in the Olympics of West Indian achievement. And, I have lost an irreplaceable friend and close collaborator of 44 years. I wish it were not so.
Rise, Lester, as you always have with your broad smile and the impish twinkle in your eye. You will continue to inspire through your work that must be recalled and retold for future generations.