About 80% of Barbados' population is of African descent, 4% European descent, and 16% mixed. About 70% of Barbadians are Anglican, and the rest mostly Roman Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, and Moravian. There also are small Jewish and Muslim communities. Barbados' population growth rate has been very low, less than 1% since the1960s, largely due to family planning efforts and a high emigration rate.
From the arrival of the first British settlers in 1627-28 until independence in 1966, Barbados was under uninterrupted British control. Nevertheless, Barbados always enjoyed a large measure of local autonomy. Its House of Assembly, which began meeting in 1639, is the third-oldest legislative body in the Western Hemisphere, preceded only by Bermuda's legislature and the Virginia House of Burgesses.
As the sugar industry developed into the main commercial enterprise, Barbados was divided into large plantation estates which replace the small holdings of the early British settlers. Some of the displaced farmers relocated to British colonies in North America. To work the plantations, slaves were brought from Africa; the slave trade ceased a few years before the abolition of slavery throughout the British empire in 1834.
Local politics were dominated by plantation owners and merchants of British descent. It was not until the 1930s that a movement for political rights was begun by the descendants of emancipated slaves. One of the leaders of this movement, Sir Grantley Adams, founded the Barbados Labor Party in 1938.
Progress toward more democratic government for Barbados was made in 1951, when universal adult suffrage was introduced. This was followed by steps toward increased self-government, and in 1961, Barbados achieved internal autonomy.
From 1958 to 1962, Barbados was one of 10 members of the West Indies Federation, and Sir Grantley Adams served as its first and only prime minister. When the federation was terminated, Barbados reverted to its former status as a self-governing colony. Following several attempts to form another federation composed of Barbados and the Leeward and Windward Islands, Barbados negotiated its own independence at a constitutional conference with the United Kingdom in June 1966. After years of peaceful and democratic progress, Barbados became an independent state within the British Commonwealth on November 30, 1966.
Under its constitution, Barbados is a parliamentary democracy modeled on the British system. The governor general represents the Monarch. Control of the government rests with the cabinet, headed by the prime minister and responsible to the Parliament.
The bicameral Parliament consists of the House of Assembly and Senate. The 28 members of the House are elected by universal suffrage to 5-year terms. Elections may be called at any time the government wishes to seek a new mandate or if the government suffers a vote of no-confidence in Parliament. The Senate's 21 members are appointed by the governor general -- 12 with the advice of the prime minister, two with the advice of the leader of the opposition, and seven at the governor general's discretion.
Barbados has an independent judiciary composed of magistrate courts, which are statutorily authorized, and a Supreme Court, which is constitutionally mandated. The Supreme Court consists of the high court and the court of appeals, each with four judges. The Chief Justice serves on both the high court and the court of appeals. The court of last resort is the Judicial Committee of Her Majesty's Privy Council in London, whose decisions are binding on all parties. Judges of the Supreme Court are appointed by the governor general on the recommendation of the prime minister after consultation with the leader of the opposition.
The island is divided into 11 parishes and the city of Bridgetown for administrative purposes. There is no local government. Barbados' defense expenditures account for about 2.5% of the government budget.
The ruling BLP was decisively returned to power in January 1999 elections, winning 26 seats in the Parliament with the DLP only winning two seats. The Prime Minister, Owen Arthur, who also serves as Minister of Finance, has given a high priority to economic development. The main opposition party, the DLP, is led by David Thompson.
On July 4, 1973, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, and Jamaica signed a treaty in Trinidad to found the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM). In May 1974, most of the remaining English-speaking Caribbean states joined CARICOM, which now has 14 members. Barbados also is a member of the Caribbean Development Bank, established in 1970, with headquarters in Bridgetown. The eastern Caribbean's Regional Security System, which associates Barbados with six other island nations, also is headquartered in Barbados. In July 1994, Barbados joined the newly established Association of Caribbean States (ACS).
As a member of CARICOM, Barbados supported efforts by the United States to implement UN Security Council Resolution 940, designed to facilitate the departure of Haiti's de facto authorities from power. The country agreed to contribute personnel to the multinational force, which restored the democratically elected government of Haiti in October 1994.
In May 1997, Prime Minister Owen Arthur hosted President Clinton and 14 other Caribbean leaders during the first-ever U.S.-regional summit in Bridgetown, Barbados. The summit strengthened the basis for regional cooperation on justice and counternarcotics issues, finance and development, and trade.
Barbados has diplomatic missions headed by resident ambassadors or high commissioners in Canada, the U.K., the U.S., and Venezuela, and at the European Union (Brussels) and the UN. It also has resident consuls general in Toronto, Miami, and New York City. Australia, Brazil, Cuba, Canada, Colombia, China, Guatemala, the U.K., the U.S., and Venezuela have ambassadors or high commissioners resident in Barbados.
The U.S. and Barbados have had friendly bilateral relations since Barbados' independence in 1966. The U.S. has supported the government's efforts to expand the country's economic base and to provide a higher standard of living for its citizens. Barbados is a beneficiary of the U.S. Caribbean Basin Initiative. In recent years, U.S. assistance has been channeled primarily through multilateral agencies such as the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank.
Barbados also receives counternarcotics assistance and is the beneficiary of the U.S. military's exercise-related and humanitarian assistance construction program.
Barbados and U.S. authorities cooperate closely in the fight against narcotics trafficking and other forms of transnational crime. In 1996, the U.S. and Barbados signed a mutual legal assistance treaty (MLAT) and an updated extradition treaty covering all common offenses, including conspiracy and organized crime. A maritime law enforcement agreement was signed in 1997.
A popular tourist destination, Barbados had more than 512,397 visitors in 1998. In addition, Barbados had nearly 510,000 cruise ship passenger arrivals, the majority of whom were U.S citizens. Approximately 3,000 Americans reside in the country.
The U.S. embassy in Barbados is located in the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce Building, Broad Street, Bridgetown (tel: 246-436-4950;fax: 246-429-5246).