The Washington Diplomat / February 1998
By Larry Luxner
Denis Antoine, Grenada's ambassador to the United States, says it's difficult to be noticed in Washington when your country has only 98,000 people and your entire embassy staff consists of only three officers and a secretary.
Nevertheless, says Antoine, "we think we're up to the task."
One of the smallest nations in the Western Hemisphere, 133-square-mile Grenada was discovered by Columbus in 1498 and settled by the French in 1650. After oscillating between French and British rule for 130 years, it was ceded to Great Britain in 1783, finally achieving independence in 1974.
Besides being the world's second-largest exporter of nutmegs (after Indonesia), Grenada's chief claim to fame is its 1979 Cuban-backed Marxist coup that toppled Prime Minister Eric Gairy and brought Maurice Bishop to power, and Bishop's 1983 execution by supporters of a radical Communist faction. That led to President Reagan's Oct. 25 invasion, the re-establishment of democracy in Grenada, and Washington's eventual passage of the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) to prop up the region's shaky economies and stem Cuba's influence in the region.
"As a consequence of the U.S. intervention in 1983, Grenada became more visible," said the 49-year-old diplomat during a recent interview at his country's embassy on New Hampshire Avenue. "When you say the name Grenada today, everyone knows where we are."
Yet despite CBI benefits and years of European preferential quotas for its bananas, this tourist paradise with lush rainforests and white-sand beaches is still a poor country whose per-capita income hovers around $2,300. The UN Development Program lists Grenada 54th in the world, with a human development index of 0.843 -- just ahead of neighboring St. Lucia and St. Vincent but way behind other Caribbean islands such as Barbados, Bahamas, Antigua, Trinidad and Dominica.
Grenada is in a particularly difficult position now due to the suspension of banana exports to Great Britain, its chief customer. The subsequent loss of European Union banana quotas at the insistence of the Clinton administration -- which had argued that such preferences discriminated against Latin American banana exporters -- only compounds the problem.
"Grenada will always be grateful and say thanks to the United States for what it has done, but our expectations are high, and whether or not we have benefitted as fully as we could from this relationship is still to be determined," Antoine says quite diplomatically.
"We recognize that as a young, developing country, there is much more room for cooperation. Facilitating the growth of a country like Grenada is to the benefit of the United States. We must be able to tell our people they have a livelihood. Grenada relies heavily on banana trade, and we cannot at all feel pleased [with the decision]. We hope the U.S. administration can provide alternatives until the day comes when we can transition into a more diversified economy."
Interestingly, Antoine's connections with Washington predate his political career. After finishing high school, Antoine left Grenada to attend the University of the District of Columbia, as well as the District of Columbia Teachers College and National Louis University in Virginia, where he earned a master's degree in organizational management.
After serving as charge d'affairs at the Grenadian Embassy from 1986 to 1991, Antoine got a job with the D.C. government as a program specialist, and in 1992 became an education supervisor with D.C. Public Schools -- a job he held until June 1995, when he was lured back to run the embassy by Grenadian Prime Minister Keith Mitchell (who himself had attended and later taught math at Washington's Howard University). Antoine expects to remain as ambassador at least until 2000, when Mitchell will run for re-election.
While the issues remain much the same, says Antoine, things are different in Washington this time around.
"I was here during two Republican administrations. There was a more conscious awareness of Grenada's predicament." Now, he says, "the window of opportunities are fewer now. There are so many competing interests that weren't there before, like the emerging Soviet republics. Foreign assistance that we knew then is longer a responsibility of the administration. It is now more a responsibility of private agencies and NGOs."
One of Antoine's perennial battles is to win greater U.S. market access for Grenadian products -- and that includes not only bananas but also garments, processed foods, rum, pharmaceuticals and electronic equipment. He also wants to boost the country's fledgling tourist infrastructure, and add at least 2,500 hotel rooms to Grenada's inventory over the next five years.
"What takes up a lot of my time is finding resources for Grenada," he says. "We need investors to know that in Grenada, they have a stable, vibrant and open economy that is market-driven. We provide an environment that can be of great importance because of our proximity and traditional trade links with the United States."
Yet for all their advantages, Grenada and its Caribbean neighbors still haven't been able to convince Congress to pass the CBI-NAFTA parity bill (also known as CBI enhancement), which would give these islands the same market access that Mexico enjoys under NAFTA.
"Look what has happened to CBI enhancement," says Antoine. "There is no parity for Grenada and the Caribbean to get access to the U.S. market. It would have been another step towards the Free Trade Area of the Americas. We all bought into this, but suddenly we see a home bias in world affairs."
Partly as a result of disillusionment with CBI and Washington's apparent lack of interest in the Caribbean, Grenada has quietly been resuming its once-close ties with Cuba. Prime Minister Mitchell toured Havana last year as a guest of Fidel Castro, and has invited Castro to visit Grenada in February, just before the start of the annual Caricom summit to be held there Mar. 2-3.
In addition, three pages of a recent government-produced "Year in Review" newspaper supplement on Grenada were devoted to Mitchell's five-day visit to Cuba, complete with photos of Mitchell shaking hands with Castro, touring a biotechnology institute and reviewing an honor guard in front of Havana's Plaza de la Revolución.
In fact, Grenada recently flew 42 students to Havana on engineering, medical and computer-science scholarships (while no scholarships have been forthcoming from the United States). On the same plane, Grenada also sent one ton of raw cocoa to be processed as the first stage of a planned $10 million joint-venture chocolate factory.
None of this, of course, sits well with the Washington-based Cuban American National Foundation and Miami's vociferous Cuban exile community. Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a well-known opponent of dialogue with Castro, recently sent a letter to Caribbean heads of state, warning them not to strengthen ties with Havana.
In defending the Mitchell government, Antoine acknowledges that "Grenadians are, of course, worried about having a repeat of the events of 1983, but this is clearly a relationship of technical cooperation. It has nothing to do with ideology."
Antoine complains that U.S. policy on Cuba is forcing the Grenadian government to choose between two longtime friends -- something it clearly doesn't want to do.
"The United States puts a certain price on our heads for associating with Cuba. It is your country's policy to be unkind to countries which trade" with the Castro regime, says the ambassador. But he adds that "if we don't take what we get from Cuba, we would get nothing. It's a bread-and-butter issue for us."