Anyone who thinks the Caribbean is seething with turmoil and revolution should visit this quiet, quaint and prosperous island.
Drenched in sun year 'round, blessed with good land for farming and heir to a long tradition of stable democracy, Barbados has become something of a model for its poor neighbors.
Residents are proud to call their island "little England," and many see it as a haven of sanity in a world gone mad.
Because the distribution of wealth here is much more equitable than in most other Caribbean nations, a large middle class exists that is anxious to maintain Barbados as "the freest country in the world." To protect their tranquility, they have adopted conservative values that sometimes border on the comical.
Tourism recently surpassed sugar as the mainstay of the local economy, and it's easy to see why. The island's immaculate beaches and crystal-clear sea make it a powerful attraction for Americans, Canadians and Europeans who want to swim and sunbathe far from the troubles of home.
Barbados is anxious to attract "the right class" of tourists, as one local hotel owner put it -- those with plenty of money to spend and no inclination to wildness. At the airport, the Tourist Board distributes leaflets advising visitors that while Barbadians are "not prudish or stuffy," tourists should take care to "dress appropriately" when shopping or walking the streets.
Cruise ships stop here regularly, and hundreds of tourists arrive daily on jumbo jets making nonstop trips from Miami, New York, London, Montreal and Toronto. Visitors are not allowed to leave the airport without a confirmed hotel reservation. Local authorities have shrewdly arranged airline schedules so that even tourists in transit to other islands must spend at least one night in Barbados.
The hottest recent issue among many Bajans, as the natives call themselves, was the opening of a nudist beach on the island's east coast. The Board of Tourism, in an official statement, declared that such an institution "is undesirable and not in keeping with the moral values of Barbadian society."
Dean Harold Crichlow, a leading figure in the Barbados Anglican Church, added his voice to the protests. "Nudity is quite foreign to our culture and is one of the signs of a decadent society," he told parishioners. "Europe is in decay and the developing countries should not follow this trend."
Some church leaders have also become active in the fight to prevent the proposed fluoridation of the local water supply, suggesting that fluoride could cause cancer or that it may be part of some alien plot against the island.
Unlike most nearby islands, Barbados is built on rich soil instead of on the peak of an undersea volcano. This has given Bajans a long experience with agriculture, and explains why this was the richest British colony in the world during the 17th century. Its allure to foreigners also dates back that far, and islanders are still proud that George Washington's only trip outside the United States was a voyage here to accompany his sickly brother to a warm restorative climate.
Barbados, a pear-shaped island of 270,000 people, claims to have the third-oldest parliament in the world, a fact also attributable to its location. tWhile the nearby island of St. Lucia, for example, changed hands nearly a dozen times between the British and French, each change bringing a new government, Barbados never left British hands from its settlement in 1627 to independence in 1966. The reason for this continuity, according to local historians, is that Barbados is the eastermost island in the Caribbean and prevailing trade winds made it almost impossible to launch a sea attack from more westerly islands.
But besides the island's location and strong agricultural base, there is another factor that helped create the remarkably easygoing, peaceful nature of the Bajan: the kind of slaves that were the ancestors of current residents.
"Being the most easterly island in the West Indies, Barbados was the first stop in this hemisphere for slave traders," explained Ulric Rice, a local newspaper editor and student of Caribbean history. "That meant the planters here had first pick of which slaves they wanted.
"They always chose Africans who were small in stature and docile in nature, mostly herdsmen and farmers. By the time the slave ships got to more northern ports such as Jamaica, the only Africans left were hunters and warriors, which explains why Jamaicans have always been more rebellious and ungovernable than Bajans."
The prime minister of Barbados, British-educated Tom Adams, is an avowed socialist with a decidedly capitalist bent. He has carefully managed the economy, subsidized local products, kept conditions attractive to foreign investors and slowly extended social programs. He hopes to have a free national health care system in place before he leaves office.
Under Adams' leadership, the island has strengthened its role as a regional leader. It boasts not only a strong democracy and healthy economy, but also a literacy rate over 95 percent, a successful birth-control progam, free education and the best daily newspaper in the region. The American embassy to the eastern Caribbean is located in this capital, as are such regional organizations as the Caribbean Development Bank.
Bajans have an ambivalent attitude toward the United States that is typical in the developing world. While they admire some of the achievements of American society, many see Americans as "brash, rip-off-oriented sons of bitches," according to Rice.
"There is this aura of the ugly American," he continued, "and it applies to the government as well as the people. Even when the U.S. proposes an aid program, in the back of our minds we often suspect ulterior motives. The feeling is that the Americans need us as much as we need them, but they don't seem to realize that."
Like people everywhere, Bajans worry about the future. They are troubled by a modest decline in tourism, by the volatility of world sugar prices, and by a 15 percent unemployment rate that has created a pool of dissatisfied youth. But in a region plagued by wrenching poverty, sprawling slums, fiscal bankruptcy and widespread feelings of despair and hopelessness, it is difficult to take those worries too seriously.
"We've been doing all right, sir," said the owner of a small grocery store. "We just want to keep it that way."