Country Profile

St Vincent and Grenadines

Country profile
St Vincent & the Grenadines

Where is St.Vincent & the Grenadines? Half-way up the wild and scenic east coast of St Vincent lies Georgetown, once the bustling centre of the island’s sugar industry. Today it is a deserted and melancholic place. Georgetown’s prosperity disappeared overnight when the Government closed its sugar mill in 1972 and nothing has come to wake it from its torpor since.

Further up the coast are some of the island’s poorest villages. These remote settlements are home to the so-called Black Caribs, a community descended from a mix of the island’s indigenous people and African slaves. In the eighteenth century the Black Caribs were a fiercesome fighting force, harrying the British colonial forces and allying themselves with French revolutionaries from nearby Guadeloupe until they were defeated and deported en masse to the Honduran island of Roatán in 1797. The few isolated communities which remain are a poignant reminder of when European powers fought over the riches of the ‘sugar islands’.

The poverty of the east coast is a different world from the exclusive millionaire lifestyles to be found in the paradisical Grenadines, an arc of coral islands stretching to the south of St Vincent. In Bequia, Mayreau and Mustique the jet set relaxes on privately-owned islands or hires luxury yachts complete with local crews. Princess Margaret and Mick Jagger are two of the better-known regulars in Mustique, a six-square-mile tropical hideaway on which locals were until recently forbidden to give birth or be buried.

The contrast between rural hardship and enclave tourism has marked St Vincent’s recent history and is liable to become more marked as the banana industry – the main island’s economic lifeblood – enters a new crisis. The 1997 ruling by the World Trade Organization (WTO) that the European Union unfairly favours banana exports from ex-colonies like St Vincent means that the island will have to compete in a free market with large-scale, modernized producers such as Colombia or Costa Rica.

The National Farmers’ Union talks of the need to diversify and hopes that ‘fairly traded’ bananas from St Vincent can attract a niche market in Europe. Other options are few and far between. The island is the world’s leading producer of arrowroot, but this can only be cultivated on flat land. Urban unemployment is depressingly high at 30 per cent.

Under the leadership of veteran Prime Minister, Sir James ‘Son’ Mitchell, St Vincent & the Grenadines has adopted some unusual economic strategies to survive the harsh climate of the 1990s. The country is a major flag of convenience for international shipping and picked up many formerly Croatian-registered vessels during the Yugoslav conflict. Its new fish market, known as ‘Little Tokyo’, was a gift from the Japanese Government in return, say cynics, for St Vincent’s supporting vote on whale-fishing quotas in international fora. There are even dark rumours about alleged Mafia involvement in tourist developments in the Grenadines.

Yet little has been proved, and ‘Son’ Mitchell has ruled for much of the last 30 years. Whether even he, however, can steer St Vincent through the impending banana crisis remains to be seen, and there are many who remember that it was he who closed the ailing Georgetown sugar mill and started the town’s irreversible decline.

James Ferguson


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Leader: Prime Minister James Mitchell

Economy: GNP per capita $2,517 (UK $18,340).
Monetary unit: Eastern Caribbean dollar (EC$2.7 = US$1).
Main exports: bananas, arrowroot, garments.
Main imports: foodstuffs, machinery, oil.
Tourism earns about $60 million annually, approximately half the value of exports.

People: 110,000

Health: Infant mortality 19 per 1,000 live births (US 8 per 1,000). St Vincent has a network of rural clinics and has done much to reduce infectious diseases, although facilities are mostly based in Kingstown.

Culture: After decades of resistance on the part of the indigenous Caribs and conflict with France, Britain finally claimed St Vincent in 1783. The ‘Black Caribs’ are a minority community, and most Vincentians are descended from African slaves imported in the 18th and 19th centuries. Ties with Britain remain, but most migrating Vincentians opt for the US.
Religion: Mostly Anglican, about 20% Roman Catholic
Language: English

Sources: UNDP, Human Development Report 1997; Caribbean Development Bank; Caribbean Insight; World Bank, World Development Report 1997.

Not previously profiled

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INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Relatively prosperous farmers, but some serious poverty and unemployment. Luxury tourism is the preserve of a small local élite.

[image, unknown] LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
85 per cent and rising; education system receives adequate Government support, with an emphasis on primary schooling.
[image, unknown] SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Agriculture is export-oriented, and many basic foods are imported. Imports nearly all its energy requirements.
[image, unknown] FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Elections are free and fair, and there is an outspoken press which enjoys freedoms despite occasional Government pressure.
[image, unknown] POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Women have access to education and are well-represented in commerce, even if politics are highly male-dominated.
[image, unknown] LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
73 years, a good average for a country relatively poor by eastern Caribbean standards.


[image, unknown] NI ASSESSMENT [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
James Mitchell’s New Democratic Party has dominated island politics since the 1980s, largely because of the opposition’s weakness and squabbling. Politicians in the Grenadines occasionally threaten secession, but most Vincentians favour the existing links with the smaller islands.

NI star rating

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New Internationalist issue 302 magazine cover This article is from the June 1998 issue of New Internationalist.
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