Diplomatic Pouch / May 1, 2014
By Larry Luxner
The leader of one of the Western Hemisphere’s tiniest nations came to the capital of its most powerful last week — sounding the alarm on climate change and urging U.S. investment in the Caribbean’s emerging “green economy.”
Keith Mitchell, prime minister of Grenada, gave an impassioned speech Apr. 10 at Washington’s Center for Strategic & International Studies. Speaking to an audience of 100 diplomats, policymakers, lobbyists and others, Mitchell said his nation of 105,000 — twice the size of the District of Columbia — is well-positioned to take advantage of the $6 trillion worldwide market for renewable energy and sustainable industries.
“The climate crisis creates a unique opportunity for islands in the Caribbean region,” Mitchell said. “Grenada is embarking on an exciting trajectory of sustainable development to spur jobs and growth, while lowering electricity costs. This incorporates energy, agribusiness, boutique tourism, marine tourism, deep-sea resources, international education, medical services and sports.”
The event, “Building Sustainable Nations and a Competitive Hemisphere,” also featured a panel discussion with K. Dwight Venner, governor of the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank; Albert Ramdin, assistant secretary general of the Organization of American States; Carlos Pascual, coordinator for international energy affairs at the State Department; Angus Friday, Grenada’s ambassador to the United States, and Carl Meacham, director of the CSIS Americas Program.
Mitchell’s roots to Washington are long and deep. Graduating from the University of the West Indies in 1971 with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and chemistry, he went on to earn a master’s degree from Howard University in 1975, and a doctorate from American University four years later. In 1984, the New National Party politician became a U.S. citizen, but relinquished his citizenship in 1995 upon his election as prime minister — a post he held until 2008.
Last year, Mitchell, 67, was once again returned to office as prime minister and is considered Grenada’s senior statesman. In introducing him, Ambassador Friday noted that despite his age, Mitchell “is up every day at 4 a.m., running on the treadmill.”
In February, the island celebrated its 40th anniversary of independence, following a very rough decade that brought two destructive hurricanes and a global financial storm (see “Grenada Goes Green” in the December 2013 issue of The Washington Diplomat).
“The external shock of that crisis reversed our earlier efforts to build back better, following the devastating effects of hurricanes Ivan [in 2004] and Emily [in 2005], whose damages were 200 percent of our GDP,” he said. “Imagine what 200 percent of GDP means — literally flattening the entire country. And not long after that, in 2008, when we started building back, the international financial crisis hit us again. In its aftermath, the Grenadian people have once again given me a mandate to restore hope, and to build back a strong and resilient economy.”
He added: “We have asked our people to make significant sacrifices at a very difficult time. That is why unity across our country has been so important.”
But Grenada can’t do it alone, said Mitchell, which is precisely why the prime minister came to Washington.
“My team and I are meeting with the World Bank, the IMF and international partners who are keen to be part of Grenada’s growth story,” Mitchell said. “Security, democracy and human rights will be severely undermined if the hemisphere does not offer hope, development and jobs to its young people. Growth that guarantees shared prosperity is essential.”
Tourism is a main driver of Grenada’s economy, but the island — which helped host the 2007 World Cricket Cup — has stayed away from the mass-market, all-inclusive Caribbean resorts so common in places like the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Bahamas and Mexico. Rather, it’s opted for more expensive boutique tourism.
“Our tourism relies on coastal and marine resources, yet coral reefs are threatened by a rise in sea temperatures. In 2005, some 30 percent of the Caribbean’s coral reefs were damaged or destroyed by bleaching,” he said. “This undermines tourism jobs and food security.”
This, he added, is why Grenada has committed 20 percent of its coastal areas to conservation.
“The key components of Grenada’s blue economy include fisheries, coastal boutique tourism, the marine and yachting sectors, and dive tourism. Moreover, Grenada has a rich marine genetic diversity thanks to this hemisphere’s most active submarine volcano. But all these efforts will amount to zero if climate change is not abated. Oceans will increase acidity to the point where major ecosystems will begin to collapse. This possibility impacts heavily on food security and must be seen as alarming. Therefore, Grenada is taking a more active role in international efforts to reduce carbon emissions.”
At present, fossil fuels supply 90 percent of Grenada’s electricity, but the government’s goal is for renewables like solar and wind energy to account for 50 percent of the total by 2030. To that end, the island has decided to abolish state-run electric utility Grenlec, whose monopoly was not supposed to end until 2073.
“There are pragmatic reasons for Grenada’s positions,” Mitchell said. “Electricity prices in the Caribbean range from 35 to 65 cents per kilowatt-hour. In Grenada, it’s 40 cents. This is more than double the rate paid in high-income countries and makes us less competitive in manufacturing and tourism. These prices are also a major strain on households, hotels and businesses. The fact is, many of our people are unable to pay for electricity, particularly in rural parts of our country.”
Declaring that Grenada — under his leadership — is “moving ahead with a bold agenda,” Mitchell called for a “new and invigorated OAS.” He urged the Washington-based regional body “not to abdicate its responsibility for integrated development,” but rather to “galvanize political will toward green energy.
“This is an opportune time to ensure that the OAS plays a strategic role in safeguarding growth,” the prime minister concluded. “We welcome the opportunity to work with the private sector and hemispheric partners who share our vision.”