The San Juan Star / December 1, 1997
By Larry Luxner
Prime Minister Keith Mitchell, 51, is a mathematician by profession who studied and later taught at Washington's Howard University for six years before returning to Grenada in 1984 and winning a seat in the national parliament. In June 1995 his New National Party won elections, and he became prime minister. Mitchell, a championship cricket player in his younger days, is also the incoming chairman of the 14-member Caribbean Community (Caricom), whose annual summit will take place in Grenada next March. Here are some highlights of our recent nterview with Mitchell:
Q: How have things changed in Grenada since you took office two and a half years ago?
A: "There is an upbeat mood as far as a willingness of people to take initiative, to do things for themselves. We came in on a platform that government is not the best avenue to create opportunities or jobs. I think the message is getting out. People are now getting involved in little businesses, setting up manufacturing and microenterprise activities. The perception of Grenada as a country that's not willing to settle down has certainly changed. I think we're settling down politically, and that is convincing people of the need to invest in this country."
Q: Given that tourism is your largest source of foreign exchange, what is your administration doing to promote tourism to Grenada?
A: "Our task is to market the beauty of Grenada. We have to be more aggressive and use more innovative ways, such as the Internet, to promote our country. We're now appointing honorary consuls in strategic cities in Europe (Sweden, Austria, Germany, Italy). This is paying paying tremendous dividends, because we're now seeing an increase in tourism activity. We need more hotels, though we're attracting some pretty good groups. The Ritz Carlton hotel project is scheduled to start soon, and the Blue Lagoon marina project is going to transform the city of St. George's. These developments will attract other serious business to the country."
Q: Grenada's banana industry appears to be in crisis, with exports suspended for the time being. What will your government do now that the WTO has rejected European preferential quotas for Caribbean banana-producing nations such as Grenada?
A: We're quite past that stage. We've wasted enough time on that issue and we're now looking at the future. We believe we have an idea how we can market what we grow. In another 9-10 months we'll be exporting again, and we've also identified farmers who have shown the interest, commitment and skills to promote a quality fruit. That's not been the case in the past. We also intend to use local production to make secondary products such as poultry feed."
Q: Your government is predicting GDP growth of 5% this year. If the banana industry is in crisis, and tourism hasn't been growing as fast as you'd like, where is all this growth coming from?
A: "Things are improving, and there is growth. It's just that we cannot [yet] feel any sense of comfort. The construction industry has been booming. More people are buying homes, not just those coming from England. Since we removed income tax, people have more disposable income and we've seen a lot of construction. There's no income tax in Grenada. That's why all these offshore companies want to come here."
Q: Speaking of that, your administration recently passed legislation to promote the development of offshore banking. How will this benefit Grenada?
A: "We are convinced this is the way to go. We are quite aware of the possibility for misuse and money laundering. You'll never be able to prevent the possibility of someone slipping through the system, but we -- like many other countries -- will do everything possible to get the business. So far things are looking pretty good."
Q: Earlier this year, you visited Cuba, and we understand you've invited President Fidel Castro to pay a state visit Grenada in February 1998. Given Grenada's recent history, are you worried about angering Washington?
A: "I hope they won't be concerned about our inviting a Caribbean head of state to Grenada. I think we have made our position very clear. Cuba was very helpful to Grenada in the 1979-83 period, particularly in the building of our international airport. That cannot be questioned. Besides that, it played a very crucial role in the development of our human resources, the education of hundreds of children of very poor parentage who would never have had an opportunity to become doctors and engineers. We therefore believe that if a country has gone out of its way to support you, the least you can do is recognize them for it. We are not doing anything behind the scenes, and we are not against anyone's security or national interests."
Q: What impact will NAFTA and the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas have on small Caribbean islands such as Grenada?
A: "While the issue of free trade sounds like a worthwhile goal and while philosophically we all believe in it, the process to which we get there has to be looked at very carefully. Some countries are better-equipped in terms of human and material resources to compete and take advantage of this so-called trade liberalization. Obviously, others are not so lucky. Without the mechanism to protect and help those countries prepare themselves to compete, we'll be creating a dangerous social situation and marginalize those countries in a very serious way. If we're serious about having a stable world, we must make sure our islands have an opportunity to survive in this new world order."