BRIDGETOWN, Barbados: Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley (L), President of Barbados Dame Sandra Mason (2nd L), National Hero Sir Garfield Sobers (C), Charles, Prince of Wales (3rd R) and Rihanna (R) look on during the Three Cheers to Barbados at the ceremony to declare Barbados a Republic and the Inauguration of the President of Barbados at Heroes Square in Bridgetown. - AFP

BRIDGETOWN: The Caribbean island nation of Barbados has sever centuries-old ties to the British monarchy, ditching Queen Elizabeth II as head of state and declaring itself the world's newest republic. The Royal Standard flag that represents the queen will be lowered in the capital Bridgetown and - at midnight - the current governor-general, Dame Sandra Mason, will be inaugurated as the first president.

Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, will attend the "Pride of Nationhood" ceremony, which is set to include military parades, a mounted guard of honor, gun salutes, dances and fireworks. The new era for Barbados has fueled debate among the population of 285,000 over colonialism and Britain's centuries of influence, including more than 200 years of slavery until 1834.

And Prince Charles' visit was clouded at the last minute by another race row over alleged comments about his grandson. Charles' youngest son Prince Harry and his wife Meghan - who has a black mother and a white father - have said an unnamed royal asked how dark their unborn first child's skin would be. After a new book reportedly claimed that Charles was responsible, his spokesman said that "this is fiction and not worth further comment."

Colonialism and slavery

Barbados, famous for its idyllic beaches, love of cricket and as the birthplace of singer Rihanna - who will attend the evening's fanfare - won independence from Britain in 1966. In October, it elected Mason to become its first president, one year after Prime Minister Mia Mottley declared the country would "fully" leave behind its colonial past. "I remember in the old days we would be really excited about the Queen and Prince Charles and Princess Diana and royal weddings," Anastasia Smith, a 61-year-old nurse, told AFP.

"But I don't know if we ever quite saw them as our royal family. Now, everybody is talking about a republic. I'm not sure that anything about my life is going to change. But I think we're doing the right thing and it's a proud moment for Barbados." British officials said Charles would use his speech in Barbados to stress continuing ties between the two countries, including through the Commonwealth group of nations.

But local criticism has focused on Mottley inviting Charles to be the guest of honor, and to award him the Order of Freedom of Barbados, the highest national honor. For young activists such as Firhaana Bulbulia, founder of the Barbados Muslim Association, British colonialism and slavery lie behind the island's modern inequalities. "The wealth gap, the ability to own land, and even access to loans from banks all have a lot to do with structures built out of being ruled by Britain," Bulbulia, 26, said.

Relying on tourism

Some Barbadians argue there are more pressing national issues than replacing the queen, including economic turmoil caused by the COVID-19 pandemic that has exposed overreliance on tourism -- which, ironically, is dependent on British visitors. "I know it is something that we were going towards for a very long time, but I think it came at a time which is not necessarily the best time considering our economic situation and the COVID situation," said 27-year-old office manager Nikita Stuart.

Eerie calm in usually bustling Bridgetown, paltry numbers at popular tourist spots and a dead nightlife scene all point to a country struggling after years of relative prosperity. Unemployment is at nearly 16 percent, up from nine percent in recent years, and the country has just eased a longstanding COVID-19 curfew, pushing it back from 9:00 pm to midnight.

For the occasion, however, it has been suspended temporarily to allow Barbadians to enjoy the festivities, which are to include projections at various points across the country and large fireworks displays when the transition becomes official. Buoyed by Black Lives Matter movements across the world, local activists last year successfully advocated for the removal of a statue of the British Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson that stood in National Heroes Square for two centuries.

And the end of the queen's reign is seen by some as a necessary step towards financial reparations to address the historic consequences of the use of slaves brought from Africa to work on sugar plantations. For many Barbadians, replacing the British queen is just catching up with how the nation has felt for many years. "The symbolism of being able to aspire to become head of state is so powerful," Mottley said last week. "Our president-elect, who will be sworn in on Monday night... is the person who will bring immense pride to every Barbadian boy and girl." - AFP