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Britain launches Antigua-Barbuda

Antiguan Prime Minister Vere C. Bird long resisted the independence movements sweeping the remnants of Britain's Eastern Caribbean empire. He termed the trend toward mininations in the Caribbean as something of ''a joke'' and said he preferred that Antigua wait until ''all the people of the Caribbean become one independent region.''

But that goal has proven elusive. And now Mr. Bird and his 70,000 fellow Antiguans have taken their 170 square miles into independence after 350 years of British rule.

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Following in the footsteps of Dominica, Grenada, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent - the other ministates of the Eastern Caribbean - Antigua became the world's 167th nation Nov. 1 in yet another of those colorful ceremonies that have marked the end of British rule in so many places around the world in the past 25 years.

For Mr. Bird, known widely among Antiguans as ''our bird,'' the move is frought with dangerous implications. Can a 170-square-mile nation go it alone successfully?

Antigua will continue to get some help from Britain - a total of $18 million until 1991, which is a rate of assistance comparable to what Britain has given the island in recent years.

Moreover, Antigua can expect to benefit from the fledgling Caribbean Basin program being studied by the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Venezuela. Canada's individual role is highly visible on the island, and has been highly praised by Mr. Bird. During independence ceremonies, a Canadian-financed airport terminal at Coolidge Field was dedicated.

Even so, whether Antigua can make it as a nation remains to be seen. The basic industry, sugar, is troubled, and unemployment is estimated at more than 20 percent. Tourism, which has grown in recent years, is hardly an industry on which Antiguans want to base their whole livelihood.

Moreover, the island nation is faced with a secessionist problem. Actually, it is two islands - Antigua and Barbuda, and it will officially be called by both names.

Barbudans are not particularly happy about being part of the two-island arrangement. Last month a delegation from the island (which has 62 square miles, over a third of the total, but only 1,500 inhabitants) went to the United Nations to protest the arrangement, arguing that it does not guarantee ''sufficient autonomy'' for Barbuda.

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The issue of viability for the ministates of the Caribbean has long been debated. Efforts at forming a federation of the islands have gone aground on the shoals of individual and national rivalries. With Antigua and Barbuda now independent and the twin islands of St. Kitts and Nevis not far behind, the fragmentation of the Caribbean is growing.

Moreover, the Dutch government Oct. 28 agreed on independence for the southern Caribbean island of Aruba.

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