Dame Eugenia Charles

Dominican prime minister dubbed 'The Iron Lady of the Caribbean'
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The Independent Online

Eugenia Charles, known as "The Iron Lady of the Caribbean", fought for the independence of the former British colony of Dominica and became the Caribbean's first woman prime minister in 1980. Her three straight terms until 1995 coincided largely with the reign of Margaret Thatcher, which led to the Iron Lady tag.

Charles was perhaps best known for her support for the US invasion of Grenada, sharing Ronald Reagan's fears of Cuban infiltration of that island and the region after the assassination of its prime minister, Maurice Bishop. She hit world headlines when she stood on the steps of the White House alongside Reagan on 25 October 1983, as he announced the invasion. Her support, as chairman of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), allowed Reagan to claim that regional leaders had "requested" US intervention and that his aim was to save hundreds of American students on the island. She said in later life that she never regretted her backing for the invasion, since "the Caribbean islands would have fallen like dominoes to the Communists".

Although nominally a conservative, Charles owed her popularity to her programmes of economic reform, of curbing Dominica's government corruption, of equal rights for women, and generally improving the lives of her fellow islanders.

She was also a passionate ecologist, a proponent of Caribbean unity, so long as the region's citizens agreed, and the most outspoken fighter for the rights of Caribbean banana workers and their preferential access to European markets. She famously warned European leaders that, if banana workers in the former European colonies in the Caribbean lost those rights, they were likely to turn to marijuana growing and cocaine smuggling, simply to survive. "If we lose the banana industry," she said, "we lose the country." It was she, too, who kept Dominica from being overwhelmed by tourists, casinos and night-clubs, unlike some other Caribbean islands, prompting a common description of Dominica as "the only island Christopher Columbus would recognise".

Having become her native island's first female lawyer in 1949, after studying at the London School of Economics and in Canada, she went into politics in 1968, angered by the ruling Dominican Labour Party's attempts to limit dissent, and silence the press, via a so-called Sedition Act. Outspoken herself, indeed known for what she admitted was a "sharp tongue", she dubbed it the "Shut Your Mouth Bill" and led protests that resulted in its withdrawal.

Mary Eugenia Charles was born in Pointe Michel, Dominica, in 1919, the granddaughter of African slaves. She was one of five children born to John Baptiste, a banker, and Josephine Delauney. While her three brothers became doctors, and her sister a nun, she was determined to become a lawyer. After a Catholic education at the Convent of the Faithful Virgin in the Dominica capital, Roseau, and at St Joseph's Convent in Grenada, she obtained a law degree at the University of Toronto before being called to the Bar at the Inner Temple in 1947. At the same time, she did a course in juvenile delinquency at the LSE, where contacts with other West Indian students turned her thoughts to the future of the Caribbean and of its future independence from the Crown.

Back home in the 1950s, she wrote anti-government articles anonymously for two local papers, co-founded the Dominica Freedom Party and was elected its president in 1969. She first entered parliament representing the constituency of Roseau Central in 1970, a seat she held for 25 years, and became leader of the opposition in 1975. Parliamentarians were shocked when, to make a point about dress code in the assembly, she appeared in her barrister's robes, only to open them up to show nothing but a green-flowered swimming costume.

Her party campaigned strongly for independence from Britain, and, although still in opposition, was seen as a driving force when independence was finally granted on 3 November 1978. The popularity of that historic breakthrough led Eugenia Charles and the party to a landslide victory over Labour in 1980. To her people, she became affectionately known as "Mamo Charles".

Her early years in power were marked by two attempts to oust her, one allegedly by US and Canadian mercenaries linked both to South African businessmen and the American Ku Klux Klan, and by the pressure of reconstruction efforts in the wake of the devastating 1979 Hurricane David. When re-elected in 1985, she also took on the portfolios of Foreign Affairs, Finance, Economic Affairs and Defence.

At the end of her third term, in 1995, Eugenia Charles walked away from politics and disappeared for a time to Alaska, "where there are no phones or faxes", saying she had not had a holiday in 15 years. But she returned to the island to take up her legal career, continuing to speak out in interviews and articles on political issues. In her late seventies, she enrolled at the Johns Hopkins School of International Studies in Washington to study the individual integration processes of the European Union, the United States and Canada, seeking to find out why the Caribbean had not successfully integrated.

Entering her 80th year, in 1998 she became an initial member of the Council of Women Leaders, co-founded by the former Icelandic President Vigdís Finnbogadóttir. Asked by an interviewer what makes a strong woman leader and what makes them bring men along, she said:

Men tend to make decisions and leave it to others to carry them out. Women follow up on their actions to see what is happening to their plan. But I think if you are efficient yourself, you will find efficient men who will get along with you.

She was unmarried, and lived with her father until he died in 1983, having seen her elected Prime Minister, at the age of 107.

Phil Davison