Elected prime minister of the island of Dominica in 1980, she was the first female prime minister in the Caribbean. Her career in politics in her country took place in the last quarter of the 20th century.

Mary Eugenia Charles was born in Pointe Michel, Dominica, on May 15, 1919. Her father, John Baptiste, was a powerful businessman and provided Mary Eugenia with a privileged education in the Convent School. She continued her studies at the University of Toronto and the London School of Economics, earning a law degree. In 1949, she returned to Dominica and became the first woman lawyer on the island.

She entered the political scene in the 1970s when the Freedom Party became the opposition party. Although she supported Prime Minister Patrick John of the Dominica Labour Party in his efforts to achieve independence for the island, in 1979 she joined the National Salvation Committee to oppose the civil and political acts of repression by the prime minister.

In 1980, the Freedom Party won 17 of the 21 seats in the parliament. Charles became the first woman to hold the post of prime minister and she remained in that office until 1995. She was a strong leader of great character. She came to be known as the “Iron Lady of the Caribbean,” a clear reference to her British counterpart Margaret Thatcher. Charles was a fervent anti-communist and aligned herself with the economic and geopolitical interests of the United States. In October of 1983, she supported the U.S. invasion of Grenada. Mary Eugenia Charles also served as a leader of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States.

Her work in government was distinguished by transparency and her concern for economic and social development. Her clear support for U.S. policy toward the region was rewarded economically through transportation and energy infrastructure projects, both of which were indispensable for the banana and tourism industries.

Her popularity declined in the last decade of the 20th century after a series of political and electoral maneuvers that were questioned by her main detractors, particularly the leader of the United Workers Party, Edison James. Additionally, some of her economic reforms were strongly criticized. In 1991 she created the so-called economic citizenship and proposed to offer it for a payment of $35,000 for foreigners who wanted to obtain it. Facing criticism from the opposition, Charles decided to raise the price to $50,000. Also, in 1994 Charles tried to increase the fee for taxi licenses by 65%, which led to a confrontation with this important sector of the economy. The opposition, led by Rosie Douglas, was able to lower the fee increase to 35%.

In 1995, Mary Eugenia Charles did not run for re-election in Dominica, putting an end to her tenure as prime minister. After a hip operation on the neighboring island of Martinique, she died on September 6, 2005, at age 86.

Author: Grupo Editorial
Published: May 25, 2012.

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