New Internationalist

New jewel in the Spice Isle

Issue 094

Grenada is the first, and to date, the only English-speaking island in the Caribbean where a popular revolution has led to a new socialist government, Wayne Ellwood visited the Spice Island and reports on the revolution’s plans and progress.

Photo: Centre for Popular Education
A young Grenadian literacy worker (right) visiting one of her rural students. Photo: Centre for Popular Education

The concrete swimming pool in the back of the Prime Ministers’s office in Grenada’s capital,St. George’s,is empty, the fading blue paint bleached and cracking in the unrelenting tropical sun. Below on the great looping road that circles the ‘Careenage’, what some call the most perfect and beautiful natural harbour in the Caribbean, legions of American tourists disgorge once weekly from the visiting Cunard cruise ship. They nose around the small shops in search of souvenirs, scurry­ing past old women selling cachets of nut­meg and waving off hustling taxi drivers.

The busy streets of St. George’s haven’t really altered much since March 12, 1979 when former Prime Minister Eric Gairy left the island on one of his frequent jaunts to mysterious conferences in far-flung places. A UFO buff with a love of power and quixotic attitude towards exercising it, Gairy decided his departure was a good time to get rid of the young and pesky opposition New Jewel Movement (Joint Endeavour for Welfare, Education and Liberation). The NJM, led by young British­educated lawyer Maurice Bishop, had been pressing Gairy at the polls and on the streets.

The easiest way to squelch the opposition, Gairy decided, was to exterminate it. So he left orders with the police and his personal goon squad, the Mongoose Gang, to execute the top eight leaders of the NJM. Bishop and his followers got wind of the plan in advance and within 24 hours Grenada’s population of 111,000 had a new government. Resistance was minimal, three people were killed and 210 impris­oned in the old stone prison perched on the mountain top behind St. George’s.

The next day was a national holiday. ‘It didn’t even have to be officially announced,’ says Vinnie,a school teacher at the time. ‘When I went to school that morning people were everywhere in the streets. I told my students to "go home; this is a great day for Grenada." ’

Outside the Caribbean Gairy was just another slightly potty Third World dictator. In Grenada his image was not so benign. He ruled by a mixture of coercion, violence, corruption and superstition. Armed thugs from his Mongoose Gang regularly terrorized government oppon­ents. Bishop’s father Rupert was himself killed during a 1974 anti-government demonstration and many of those who now hold ministerial positions were brutal­ized and imprisoned. In the business community he was tolerated as a petulant nuisance.

According to one influential St. George’s businessman there was a collective sigh of relief when news of Gairy’s downfall was first heard. ‘Most of us were very pleased. There were some who were wary of the new government, but we knew anything would be better than Gairy. With the bribery and payoffs it was impossible to run an efficient business.’

The Grenadian economy is heavily dependent on agriculture. Though mostly mountainous the richness of the soil is legend. Mangos, breadfruit, bananas, yam, coffee, cocoa, nutmeg, grapefruit, pine­apples, oranges, limes and a whole variety of vegetables grow easily and prolifically. You can eat charcoal-grilled corn-on-the­cob seven weeks after the seed is planted. But because of low productivity, low crop prices and thousands of acres of idle land Grenada imports over $16 million a year in foodstuffs - a calamity in an island where foreign exchange is in short supply.

Under its ‘Idle Hands for Idle Lands’ policy the new government is attempting to plug the foreign exchange leak. Basically that means growing more food for local consumption. According to the govern­ment-sponsored Land Reform Commission (LRC) one-third of Grenada’s productive land is idle. Over half the land in parcels over SO acres is unused. The LRC toured the island making an inventory of land lying fallow and hearing submissions by groups of young people interested in working the land co-operatively.

Regina Taylor, head of the National Co-operative Development Agency, admits there are problems. Although most of the young people have backyard gardening experience, working on larger plots will take training in both agricultural and business skills. However, the main difficulty is negotiating the lease or purchase of the idle land from private owners.

As its linchpin in revitalizing the totter­ing economy the Government is pushing a new $20.8 million international airport in Pointe Saline near the capital and the tourist strip. The existing airport on the north-east coast is a ramshackle collection of huts with a short runway suitable only for prop-driven planes. It’s a harrowing 45­minute drive to St. George’s along a ribbon of road pock-marked with rib-crushingpot­holes and dizzying switch-backs through the central rain forest.

Although most Grenadians may never see the inside of an airplane in their lives the new airport is championed as one of the most important achievements of the Revolution. Prime Minister Bishop stresses the airport is ‘a matter of absolute prime necessity. Any country with serious dev­elopment plans today needs access to a means of international communication.’ Grenada is currently dependent on the regional carrier LIAT whose reputation for inefficiency is a standing Caribean joke. (LIAT, it is said, stands for Leaving Island Any Time).

The tourist industry and those in the export/import business are understandably ecstatic about the airport. And as the Prime Minister points out it could also aid agricultural trade with other islands and with the West.

The airport is financed largely by Cuba - 250 technicians, engineers and construct-ion workers are overseeing the project, so far without conflict. Apart from occasional Sunday afternoon outings to Grand Anse Beach the Cubans are invisible. They live within the boundaries of the construction site and there is no indication of any military presence. On an island only 11 miles wide and 24 miles long it would be hard to hide.

Although the government emphasizes that agriculture will continue as the main pillar of the economy, tourism is the dark horse. Through the state-owned Grenada Resorts Company the government wants to increase its activity in tourism. A joint venture with foreign investors may bring in up to 200,000 tourists a year after the airport’s completion, twice the population of the island. According to the Prime Minister the government is acutely aware of the possible disastrous effects of such a massive tide of rich, white, largely North American visitors.

We are very concerned about the real possibility that bringing in 200,000 tourists a year can cause the rest of the rural popu­lation to abandon the land to work in a tourist sector, as has happened in Barbados where they now have to import labour to work in the cane fields. Tourism has to develop in a phased and orderly way and to be carefully linked to local production.’

There is also talk of encouraging ‘new tourism’ - package tours designed to show tourists more than discos and beaches, to acquant them with what is being done in education, housing, health, fishing and agriculture. But that kind of tourism will never be more than a sliver of the total industry. Most tourists come for sun and surf and all they want is a tan to display to winter-weary friends back home. If Grenada wants the tourist dollar badly enough the island is going to have to put up with some of the inevitable by-products, the main one being the image of affluence and the desire for consumer goods sparked by wealthy outsiders.

Another major government concern is education. Like most of the islands in the area, Grenada inherited a British curriculum geared more to the needs of Newcastle than the rural Caribbean. Says Education Minister George Louison, ‘we must bring education into line with life in the rural communities. For example, most children in Grenada could probably tell you about the chemical composition of coal gas. But we are world famous for nutmeg and few could tell you anything about that spice. It is that kind of bias we’re attempting to change.’

Louison also wants to increase practical activity in the schools by introducing a work/study system ‘to bring students into real contact with what they will do later in life’. The goal is to have most students spend at least part of their day working on land close to their school.

After just 21 months in power most of these initiatives are little past the planning stage. Much farther along is the Centre for Popular Education’s literacy drive. Based on the Cuban and more recent Nicaraguan model, with a dash of Paulo Freire’s ‘conscientization’, the CPE has enlisted hundreds of young people to teach basic reading and writing to both old and young illiterates.

Unlike Central America, illiteracy is not wide-spread - perhaps 15 per cent of the population. CPE coordinator Didacus Jules says the programme is designed to help people learn about the problems Grenada faces as it helps them learn to read and write. The themes of the basic student reader Let Us Learn Together are all closely linked to the need for co-operation, the history of the island and the goals and achievements of the Revolution.

Some might call it blatant propaganda - and they would be right. Didacus Jules makes no apology for that. ‘Any education material carries some sort of ideology. Some things are just more subtle; even Mickey Mouse and Coca-Cola carry a political message.’

Re-building a tiny island economy fractured by 28 years of perverse dictator­ship and 300-odd years of colonialism is no mean feat. The country is still desperately poor. There is an enormous amount to be done in upgrading basic housing, sewage and fresh water availability. In the country­side men and women still make their way to work on the large estates in the early morning clutching their main agricultural tool, the machete.

Still, the People’s Revolutionary Government recognizes the problems, talks about them and is making strides to do something about them. Grenadians abroad are returning to lend their talents to reconstruction as are others from Jamaica, St. Vincent and Trinidad.

Grenada’s first faltering steps towards self-reliance are causing little ripples of anticipation throughout the rest of the region. And though some may be skeptical there is a genuine sense of renewal among most Grenadians. ‘Now Gairy gone,’ my cocky taxi driver told me, ‘unity must come.’

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