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Caribbean Islands

The Barbados Defence Force

In the late 1980s, Barbados was one of only two Eastern Caribbean states to maintain a standing military force (Antigua and Barbuda was the other). The Barbados Defence Force (BDF) was established in 1978 as a force completely separate from the RBPF. It has played a leading role in the RSS. Within the RSS framework, Barbados contributed the highest percentage of the system's budget, provided BDF headquarters as the RSS base of operations (and the BDF chief of staff as RSS coordinator), and informally earmarked the BDF as the primary regional reaction force in crisis situations. This understanding may have been abandoned, however, when the BLP government was voted out of power in May 1986. Domestically, the BDF was a somewhat controversial institution insofar as its existence underscored the Barbadian (and, one might well say, the Caribbean) ambivalence toward established military organizations.

The circumstances that led then-Prime Minister Tom Adams to create the BDF were unsettling and worrisome to the government and to many Barbadians. Adams's October 1976 announcement of an aborted attempt by two United States nationals to seize power with the aid of mercenary forces (and the explosion five days after the announcement of a Cuban airplane at Grantley Adams International Airport) exposed the vulnerability of small island governments to destabilization by outside forces (just as the 1979 overthrow of the Eric Gairy government in Grenada displayed the susceptibility of such states to takeover by domestic dissident groups). The establishment of the BDF was subsequently justified, at least in the eyes of Adams and his supporters, by its successful December 1979 intervention on Union Island in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, which quelled an uprising by militant Rastafarians (see Glossary; Regional Security Threats, 1970-81, ch. 7).

Not all Barbadians shared Adams's favorable opinion of the BDF. Barrow, as the leader of the opposition DLP, questioned the government's figures on defense spending and spoke out against what he characterized as a militarization of Barbados through the establishment of the BDF (see Controversial Security Issues, ch. 7). After his 1986 electoral victory, most observers assumed that Prime Minister Barrow would move quickly to slash the BDF's ranks and budget. However, Barrow's moves in this regard were more tentative and ambivalent than anticipated.

After his May election, Barrow publicly expressed his objections to the October 1983 intervention in Grenada, stating that he would not have allowed BDF forces to participate and would not have acquiesced to the use of Barbados as a staging area had he been prime minister at the time. He also objected to the notion of a treaty formalizing the RSS and pledged himself not to sign such a document. Barrow seemed more reassuring in a September 1986 address to BDF units, during which he denied any plans for a "wholesale retrenchment" of the force.

By December, Barrow was once again vowing to cut back BDF forces or to phase them out entirely. Barbados did not need a defense force, he stated, because the only real threat it faced emanated from the United States, a superpower. These strong words were not followed by action until March 1987, when Barrow announced a freeze in BDF recruiting, a rather conservative approach to thinning the ranks. Subsequently, the government did submit an FY 1988 budget that called for deep cuts in capital expenditure for defense. By the time of his death, it seemed clear that Barrow was intent on scaling back the size of the BDF, particularly the ground forces, and emphasizing its missions of airport security and maritime patrol and interdiction over its role as the primary reaction force within the RSS.

As conceived by Adams, the BDF was not to be tasked with domestic police duties. The prime minister believed that the assignment of internal security responsibilities to an army paved the way for domestic repression; this belief was reinforced by events in Grenada under the Bishop regime. Despite Adams's desire to distance the BDF from domestic affairs, the organization could still be considered an internal security force insofar as its primary mission was to defend the existing government against externally sponsored or assisted coup attempts. In the late 1980s, the domestic duties of BDF ground forces were limited to relief efforts in the wake of such natural disasters as hurricanes; BDF troops performed such duty not only in Barbados but also in Dominica and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

The size of the BDF was unclear in the late 1980s; estimates ranged from 300 to 1,800, with 500 the most commonly cited figure. BDF force levels were considered confidential under the Adams government. The steady rise in defense spending from 1979 through 1986 probably indicated a steady increase in BDF personnel over that period. Because the defense budget was not made public, the breakdown of personnel versus equipment expenditures was uncertain.

The BDF included ground, naval (coast guard), and air branches. The inventories of the latter two arms were limited. The maritime responsibilities of the coast guard included interdiction of vessels engaged in smuggling and drug trafficking, search and rescue, immigration control, and protection of fishing grounds in cooperation with other regional states under the terms of the 1982 Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS--see Glossary) Memorandum of Understanding. The air branch of the BDF apparently was tasked primarily with transport duties, reflecting the BDF's important role within the RSS. The BDF was also reported to include a reserve component.

The BDF was both a recipient and a provider of training. The coast guard received the lion's share of the foreign training provided to BDF personnel. Formerly handled by Britain and the United States, this foreign training program was transferred to Canada by the Barrow government in August 1986. Barbadian trainers assisted in the instruction of paramilitary troops from other regional states.

Despite the concerns of Barrow and others, most observers in the late 1980s did not perceive the BDF to be a direct threat to democratic government. One author, Gary P. Lewis, has cited Barbados' well-established constitutional system and tradition of public accountability, as well as its relatively high level of economic development, as strong disincentives to military influence in the political arena.

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F.A. Hoyos's Barbados: A History from the Amerindians to Independence and Ronald Tree's A History of Barbados provide a thorough account of Barbados prior to independence. Hoyos's Builders of Barbados and Grantley Adams and the Social Revolution span all of Barbadian history to the 1970s. The Barbadian journal the Bajan also provides useful data on recent events. Information on population, health, and education is available in a number of works, including Carleen O'Loughlin's Economic and Political Change in the Leeward and Windward Islands, Graham Dann's The Quality of Life in Barbados, Kempe Ronald Hope's Economic Development in the Caribbean, and the Pan American Health Organization's Health Conditions in the Americas, 1981-84. Background information on the Barbadian economy is presented in the Caribbean Economic Handbook by Peter D. Fraser and Paul Hackett and The Economy of Barbados, 1946-1980 by DeLisle Worrell; statistical data are available in the government of Barbados' annual Barbados Economic Report and five-year Barbados Development Plan 1983-1988, as well as in the annual Economic Review by the CBB. (For further information and complete citations, see Bibliography.)

Data as of November 1987

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