Roosevelt (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"
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
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
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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