By Asot A. Michael
The death of Sir Lester Bryant Bird, KNH, my surrogate father of the last thirty years, feels like a stab wound in my heart. He was the architect and driving force of my political life in national service. And so, I weep for him whose nation building accomplishments are lights and echoes to the eternity of Antigua and Barbuda.
In his honour and loving memory, I paraphrase the timeless words of Rudyard Kipling:
“He kept his head when all about him were losing theirs and blaming it on him. He trusted himself when others doubted him, but made allowance for their doubting too. He didn’t deal in lies; he didn’t give way to hating. His dreams were not his master; his thoughts were not his aim.
He met with Triumph and Disaster and treated them just the same. He was able to hear the truths he spoke twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools. He talked with crowds and keep his virtue. He walked with Kings but never lost the common touch. He filled the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run. His was the Earth and everything that’s in it. He was a man!”
On behalf the family of the late Patrick A Michael – my mother, Ambassador Josette Michael and my sisters Teresa-Ann and Soraya – I extend deepest condolences to Lady Patricia Bird; his children Donyelle, Rika, Jan, Kearon, Sabaena, Raena and Bryant; other members of the Bird family and to all those who feel his passing in a special way.
We hope and pray that the loving memories of the life and times of our nation’s second Prime Minister in building the best Antigua and Barbuda for all its sons and daughters, bring you peace, joy, comfort and strength.
We weep for the loss of our dear friend and honorary family member of the past 50 years. His death brings tears for the pieces of his caring heart and brilliant mind generously granted to us through the years that have blessed us beyond measure. We are indeed lucky to have shared so intimately in the life and times of such a wonderful human being. Indeed, there is comfort in knowing that while we mourn his loss among us mortals, the immortals rejoice to meet him in the great beyond.
Sir Lester was part of our family ever since my late father Patrick A Michael retained his legal services for EC$250.00 monthly shortly after his return from law school at Gray’s Inn in London in 1971. Before that Sir Lester graduated from the University of Michigan where he studied Political Science and Psychology. He was a social worker in New York for a few years counseling traumatized Jews and victimized, downtrodden black people.
Those were the days of the civil rights movement when Sir Lester, himself a victim of racism in the US, marched with Martin Luther King across the Brooklyn bridge and participated in the protest movement of Malcom X. He suffered the scourge of racial prejudice but he never gave in to it as he committed himself to be a responsible citizen of the one and only human race.
My father was instrumental in securing Sir Lester’s first of 8 victories in St John’s Rural East and a return of the Antigua Labour Party to government in 1976. For five decades, he shared his remarkable life with us. From his chambers on Redcliffe Street he would walk across to our family business on High Street every afternoon after work between 1971 and 1976 to talk politics and relax with my parents.
Indeed, he spent every Christmas eve and every Jouvertmorning at our High Street store for over forty years. He was a regular at our Dry Hill home, his second home – talking, teaching, sharing his knowledge of world history, counseling, eating, drinking, playing games, relaxing, enjoying life. He inspired us, looked out for us and delighted us. We loved him beyond words. We will miss him beyond measure.
He was truly an iconic Caribbean politician and national leader who climbed the ladders of service to humanity as an exemplary people person, a walking encyclopedia, a lawyer, an outstanding fast bowler in Leeward Islands cricket, a footballer, a track athlete (bronze medalist in triple jump at the Pan American games, in the US in 1959), and a national and regional sports administrator.
This beloved national hero stood to be counted in the cause of nation building at a time when the nation was in the strife of political turmoil and confused development direction. Under the Progressive Labour Movement of George Walter and Donald Halstead, wrong was at the wheel, freedom was in tears and justice was fast asleep.
The nation yearned for strong, insightful minds, caring hearts, firm faith and working hands fit for the noble purpose of public service. In the company of the young brigade of the Antigua & Barbuda Labour Party at the time – the late Sir Adolphus Freeland, John St Luce, Hugh Marshal senior and Robin Yearwood – Sir Lester answered the call.
After entering Parliament as Leader of the Opposition in the Senate in 1971, this legendary 6-foot 4-inch intellectual giant spent 28 years in Government from 1976, first as Deputy Prime Minister and then as Prime Minister from 1994 to 2004. He is a founding leader and first Chairman of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) and is widely regarded by his peers as a trailblazer in economic development and one of the most influential leaders of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM).
Under his Chairmanship, CARICOM created the Caribbean Regional Negotiating Machinery (CRNM), (now the Office of Trade Negotiations) to strengthen the negotiating capacity of the integration grouping at a time when the Region was involved in several trade negotiations simultaneously. Also, under Sir Lester’s Chairmanship of CARICOM in 1997, the first Protocols leading to the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas were signed along with the Charter of Civil Society.
Sir Lester Bird’s leadership legacy is encapsulated in the spirit of a most faithful national servant and the quintessential Caribbean man. For the duration of our interaction of more than twenty-five years, there was never a moment when his patriotic spirit, his deep love and commitment to Antigua and Barbuda did not shine with characteristic brilliance.
Sir Lester was a visionary. He constantly saw and articulated the next level of advancement for Antigua and Barbuda and dutifully exercised the talent and skill of bringing vision to fruition.The modernization and progressive development of the national economy during the period 1976 to 2004 when the country moved from 47 percent unemployment to near full employment, bears witness to the transformation of his vision into real socio-economic benefits for our twin-island nation.
It was pioneering work in building out the infrastructure and human resource base for hospitality services; marketing Antigua and Barbuda as a world class vacation destination; expanding air access; and attracting foreign direct investment inflows that piloted Antigua and Barbuda’s tourism product to a lucrative position in the global travel market.
In the concerted effort to diversify the national economy away from dependence on the sugar industry, he also championed the emergence of engines of growth like the financial services and light manufacturing sectors and relentlessly led the fight against global pressures that sought to derail the progress of Antigua and Barbuda.
A charismatic and magnetic personality, his leadership action in government expanded the social infrastructure and created one of the highest standards of living among nations of comparative size. He loved the people. He spent his last dollar helping people to improve theur lives and the people loved him back.
In the vision of this remarkable craftsman of our fate, money in the hands of the people of Antigua and Barbuda is as good for them as it for growth and sustainability of the economy. With abolition of personal income tax, an idea borne from the Dry Hill conversations with my late father, Sir Lester and the Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party ensured that citizens could spend more, save more and create more wealth for themselves
In the discharge of his responsibility for economic development, he built institutions designed to facilitate inclusion of all Antiguans in beneficial economic activities – the craft, vegetable and meat market; the vendor’s mall; the Heritage Quay hotel and shopping mall; and the Antigua and Barbuda Institute of Technology.
Among the shining examples of his outstanding statesmanship, I remember his leadership during the tumultuous national and parliamentary debates over the implementation of the Education Levy and the plan to build the Mount St John Medical Center. Faced with strong and violent opposition from a cross section of society he was the key guiding force for public acceptance and successful implementation. His brilliance remains a lesson in long term visioning, strong leadership and managing people and challenges in the public interest.
In the exercise of his national leadership responsibilities Lester Bryant Bird consistently rose above partisan politics to do what he considered was in the enlightened best interest of Antigua and Barbuda regardless criticisms from within his own party. He hired Selvin Walter – a high profile member of the PLM who ran against him in St John’s Rural East – as economic advisoron the understanding that Walter would advise his government on the economy and reserve his political advice for the PLM. He embraced Tim Hector, his fiercest critic over many years and appointed him ambassador, even against the advice of his inner circle.
In the area of good governance and the people’s authority over government of the people, by the people, for the people, Sir Lester ensured effective arrangements for free and fair elections with integrity. Under his watch, the electoral reform recommendations of international election observer missions were fully implemented to ensure a properly resourced independent electoral commission, an accurate list of electors, voter identification and election campaign finance accountability. He also set up the position of Ombudsman to deal with the public service complaints of the people.
Sir Lester’s regional integration spirit was unmatched. He sincerely believed that we are one people and one Caribbean nation. He lived and breathed that belief. Sir Lester embraced his Caribbean family. He opened up Antigua and Barbuda to our Caribbean brothers and sisters allowing them to share our employment and other socio-economic benefits. He was unrelentingin his quest for full integration of the Caribbean community and making our country an exemplary haven of civility for Caribbean people.
Personally, Sir Lester was more than a comrade and leader; he was my mentor, my friend and my motivating force. No one spent more quality time with Sir Lester over the past thirty years. At an early age, he no doubt saw in me what I could not have seen in myself at the time. He believed in my abilities and I looked up to him. I wanted to follow in his footsteps, so much so that I decided to study law in the hope that one day I could emulate the remarkable legal practice he built in service to the people of Antigua and Barbuda especially the poor and vulnerable.
After just one year at University College of London, he asked me to return home to work with him in the Office of Prime Minister. I didn’t even give it a second thought. I packed up and headed home to serve my country under the leadership of my guiding light, the Prime Minister Lester Bryant Bird. He gave me numerous opportunities to serve the people of Antigua and Barbuda. Sir Lester was pivotal in my selection to my most important service as Parliamentary Representative for the people of St. Peter’s, a duty to which I remain wholeheartedly committed.
I cherish his faith and confidence in me that led to appointments as his chief of staff and minister of government and left the indelible imprint of his leadership action example in my heart. I only regret, that he died without forgiving what he saw as a betrayal when I teamed up with Gaston Browne to challenge him for the leadership of the Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party. That disappointment in Sir Lester’s political life was second only to the totally false accusations of misconduct with a minor concocted by his political opponents
Ironically, in supporting Leadership change in the ABLP, I was only doing what I learned at his feet – “Never put what seems better for you above what you believe is better for the country”. I honestly believed then that notwithstanding the leadership success of this high-class statesman, transitioning to younger leadership of the Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party was better for the country.
Today, as Sir Lester lies in his grave having witnessed the political persecution I endure and the disgraces the nation suffers at the hands of younger but far less enlightened leadership, I no longer believe betrayal of his trust served a higher national purpose. Nonetheless, what’s done is done. We move on. But not without my apology.
Sir Lester, I am sorry.
These are dark days that seem like they will never end. But the clouds will clear… and the memories of our dearly beloved Bird will sing again to guide the future as he did the past.
Fly on great Bird. Fly on. The heavens wait to embrace your good and faithful service to humanity with love and understanding.
May your soul rest in peace.