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Pierre Charles Biography - Trained as a Teacher, Joined the Independence Movement, Elected to Parliament, Imposed Austerity Measures

dominica bay minister grand

1954-2004

Prime Minister of Dominica

Charles, Pierre, photograph. UN photo by Michelle Poire. Reproduced by permission.

On October 1, 2000, Roosevelt "Rosie" Douglas, prime minister of the Caribbean island-nation of Dominica, died of a heart attack after less than a year in office. Two days later Pierre Charles—popularly known as Pierro and deputy leader of the Dominica Labour Party (DLP)—was chosen as the new prime minister. A lifelong social and political activist, the longest-seated member of Parliament, and Minister of Communications and Works, Charles was the logical choice to lead the country through what was to become a major economic crisis.

Charles faced a difficult situation upon taking office. With a population of fewer than 100,000, Dominica—located between Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Lesser Antilles—was one of the poorest countries in the Caribbean. Hurricanes and globalization had devastated its traditional banana economy, and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the ensuing worldwide economic downturn put Dominica's fledging developments in ecotourism and offshore financial services on hold. Charles was forced to impose austerity measures that alienated his traditional poor and working-class supporters, as well as business and political leaders.

Trained as a
Teacher

Pierre Charles was born on June 30, 1954, in Grand Bay, on Dominica's south coast. The town of about 5,000 was a center of both Dominican culture and social and political activism. Pierre was one of seven sons and ten daughters born to Francis and Theodora (Francis) Charles. Pierre was educated at Grand Bay Boys' School and the Dominica Grammar School before completing high school at St. Mary's Academy in 1972. As a student he was a sergeant in the Cadet Corps, representing Dominica at the 1972 Regional Cadet Camp in Jamaica. That year he became a teacher at the Grand Bay Primary School.

Charles married Justina Musgrave, a nurse, and fathered three children. His son Camilo was named for the Cuban revolutionary hero Camilo Cienfuego. Charles was a member of the National Basketball League of Dominica, a Boy Scout leader, and belonged to a choral group called "La Jeune Etoile," which revived Dominican folk music. Later he managed the "Midnight Groovers" band.

In 1975 Charles and his friends formed the activist group L'Echelle (The Ladder). Inspired by the left-wing Caribbean political ideology of the times, their goal was to raise social consciousness among the young people of Grand Bay and involve them in the fight for Dominican independence from Great Britain. L'Echelle formed a loose-knit network with activists from neighboring islands, including Grenada, St. Vincent, and St. Lucia. The group's motto was "work and study." Charles worked with the Dominica Literacy Project and the Library Project at Tetre Lalay Grandbay.

In July of 1978 Charles defied the Dominican government by leading a group to the 11th World Festival of Youth and Students in Havana, Cuba. He was a founding member of the Dominica Cuba Friendship Society, which led to a Cuban government scholarship program that enabled hundreds of Dominicans to attend university in Cuba.

Joined the Independence Movement

Charles became involved with Rosie Douglas's Popular Movement for Independence for Dominica and in 1977 he led Dominica's National Youth Council into the movement. The Commonwealth of Dominica gained independence from Great Britain in 1978. The following year Charles gave up teaching.

During the May 1979 political uprising against the government of Prime Minister Patrick John, Charles represented the National Youth Council on the Committee for National Salvation, which negotiated a settlement. In June Charles was appointed a senator in the Dominica Interim Government. In the July 1980 general election he ran unsuccessfully for the Grand Bay parliamentary seat on the ticket of the left-wing Dominica Liberation Movement Alliance.

Charles was a leader of the reconstruction efforts after Hurricane David devastated Grand Bay in August of 1979. He served on the Grand Bay Village Council for more than a decade, eventually becoming chairman. In 1979 Charles helped establish an agricultural trade organization called Farm to Market. As operations manager and later field manager, he worked to develop markets for Dominica's small-farm produce.

Elected to Parliament

In 1985 Charles—now a member of the major opposition party, the social democratic DLP—was elected to parliament from Grand Bay. He was reelected in each general election through 2000, when the DLP, in a coalition with the Dominica Freedom Party, took power for the first time in 20 years. As deputy leader of the DLP, Charles organized party branches throughout the island and joined Prime Minister Douglas's cabinet. Eight months later he became the DLP leader and prime minister of Dominica.

In addition to his role as prime minister, Charles was in charge of finance, economic planning, and Caribbean and foreign affairs. He promised to attract foreign investment, create jobs, and diversify the island's economy.

Always an outspoken critic of American foreign policy in the Caribbean and elsewhere, Charles protested the United States' hostile treatment of Cuba and its invasion of Afghanistan. One of his first acts as prime minister was to establish diplomatic relations with Libya. However, Charles also began to seek closer relations with the United States, Canada, Europe, and especially Japan.

At a Glance …

Born on June 30, 1954, in Grand Bay, Dominica; died January 6, 2004, in Roseau, Dominica; married Justina Musgrave; children: Faiza, Camilo, Tshidi. Education: Dominica Teachers' Training College, 1978-79. Religion: Roman Catholic. Politics: Social democrat.

Career: Grand Bay Primary School, teacher, 1972-79; Dominica Interim Government, senator, 1979-80; Farm to Market, operations manager, 1979-88, field manager, 1984-86; Dominica Government, member of parliament for Grand Bay, 1986-2000, minister of communications and works, 2000, prime minister, 2000-04.

Selected memberships: L'Echelle, founding member, 1975-?; National Youth Council, president, 1977-?; Grand Bay Village Council, chairman; Dominica Labour Party, 1985-2004, deputy leader, 2000, leader, 2000-2004; Caribbean Community (CARICOM), chairman, 2003.

Imposed Austerity Measures

Charles was a strong supporter of the integration of Caribbean economies as a means of dealing with globalization. However, from his first months in office, he faced a worsening economic crisis. Unemployment was at 23%. Between 2000 and 2002—after the World Trade Organization forced European Union members to phase out preferential treatment for their former colonies—Dominica's banana export revenue dropped by 32%. The island's stagnant tourist industry slumped after September 11th, 2001. The global economic downturn meant that Dominicans working abroad no longer had money to send home. The nation lacked educational opportunities, health care, and adequate infrastructure. Dominica's debt equaled about 75% of its gross domestic product.

To meet this economic crisis Charles was forced to undertake drastic economic measures that were at odds with his political inclinations. In 2002, yielding to pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank, Charles imposed a 4% stabilization levy on all salaries and a 5% tax on telephone and television services and all petroleum products except kerosene. Public spending was cut 15% and Charles downsized his government. Strikes, protests, and the largest mass demonstrations in two decades erupted in response to these measures. The government was under siege by trade unions, industry organizations, and the main opposition party.

In 2002 the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) launched a $250-million stabilization fund to help the region's struggling economies, particularly Dominica. That fall, frightened by the Dominican crisis, the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States moved to initiate the creation of an economic union. By the end of 2003, following the imposition of new austerity measures, the IMF granted Dominica special financing for poverty-relief programs.

Died in Office

Charles underwent heart surgery twice in 2003. In November he took a three-week medical leave. Some members of his own party, as well as the opposition, called for him to step down. On January 6, 2004, while being driven home from an evening cabinet meeting, the 49-year-old prime minister died of a heart attack.

At Charles's state funeral at the Grand Bay Roman Catholic Church, Cristin Gregoire, Dominica's ambassador to the United Nations, was quoted on the CNN Web site: "He was like a fighter in the ring. He took the punches that were thrown at him, and was still able to smile and radiate the love and kindness for which he was well known."

In a tribute to Charles on the Dominica Academy of Arts and Sciences Web site, Gabriel J. Christian wrote: "Whatever we may have thought of him, Pierre Charles was an independence hero, a man who stood for social justice. One who died at his post, giving his last full measure for Dominica. In respecting his legacy, we will be respecting ourselves and so encourage the principle that patriotic and selfless service to one's country is a blessed virtue."

One year after Charles's death, the Dominican government renamed the Grand Bay Secondary School and a road in Grand Bay after the late prime minister. The Pierre Charles Foundation was established to provide student scholarships. At the 2005 ceremony, Dominica's Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit was quoted by the Asia Africa Intelligence Wire : "To have moved from a negative 5 per cent growth to seeking to achieve in 2004-05 a growth of about 3 per cent is the fruits of the efforts of Pierre Charles. He will be remembered in the history of Dominica for really taking the bold and necessary decisions in the best interest of Dominicans."

Selected writings

Address, United Nations General Assembly, 56th Session, 51st Plenary Meeting, New York, November 13, 2001.

Sources

Periodicals

Asia Africa Intelligence Wire, January 8, 2005.

Global Information Network (New York), July 15, 2002, p. 1; October 17, 2002, p. 1.

On-line

"Dominica Prime Minister Honored in State Funeral,"

CNN.com, www.cnn.com/2004/WORLD/americas/01/17/dominica.charles.ap/ (April 25, 2005).

"Pierre Charles," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (May 19, 2005).

"Tributes & Condolences to late Hon. Pierre Charles," Dominica Academy of Arts and Sciences, www.da-academy.org/bios.html (April 25, 2005).

—Margaret Alic

Norma Charles Biography - Writings, Sidelights - Personal, Career, Member, Honors Awards [next]

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