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With Economy in Doldrums, Grenada Courts Cuban Ties
CubaNews / December 1997

By Larry Luxner

ST. GEORGE'S, Grenada -- Fourteen years after U.S. Marines invaded Grenada to overthrow a Marxist regime that had just executed the country's prime minister, tourists -- if they search hard enough -- can find scattered reminders of that bloody episode.

On the northern side of the Caribbean island, along an abandoned airstrip, sit the bombed-out hulks of Aeroflot and Cubana planes, goats and sheep tied to the rusting fuselages. In the capital city of St. George's, motorists are still greeted by fading graffiti that says "Thank You U.S.A. for Liberating Us."

But the most enduring reminder of the 1983 U.S. invasion, Butler House -- the regime's bombed-out headquarters overlooking St. George's harbor -- will soon be torn down and replaced with a $140 million, five-star luxury hotel and marina. If this project comes to pass, it'll be a shot in the arm for Grenada -- where small hotels are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, the banana industry is in crisis and efforts to attract foreign investors to industrial parks have fizzled more often than flourished.

Rupert Agostini, chairman of the Grenada Industrial Development Corp., concedes that "manufacturing investment has been very slow, almost insignificant," while the number of stayover tourists during the first half of 1997 rose only 0.4% and cruise-ship visits fell 1.2% from the same period last year.

Besides being the world's second-largest producer of nutmegs, Grenada's chief claim to fame is its 1979 Marxist coup that toppled Prime Minister Eric Gairy and brought Maurice Bishop to power.

"It was an experiment that was doomed from the very beginning," nutmeg exporter Pilton Campbell says of Bishop's revolution. "It was not in our tradition. Those who spoke out were locked up, and the majority of people were simply silent."

Bishop's eventual execution by supporters of fellow revolutionary Bernard Coard led to President Reagan's Oct. 25, 1983, invasion, the re-establishment of democracy in Grenada, and Washington's eventual passage of the Caribbean Basin Initiative to stem Communist influence in the region.

Yet despite CBI benefits and years of European preferential quotas for its bananas, Grenada is still a poor country whose per-capita income hovers around $2,300. As such, Grenada -- whose population of 98,000 makes it one of the Caribbean's smallest independent nations -- has decided to resume its once-close ties with Cuba, a potential market of 11 million.

Last year, Prime Minister Keith Mitchell toured Havana as Fidel Castro's guest, and has invited Castro to visit Grenada next February, just before the beginning 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.

Despite Washington's unhappiness over the general warming of ties between Cuba and its Caribbean neighbors, Mitchell says his position is quite clear.

"Cuba was very helpful to Grenada from 1979 to 1983, particularly in the building of our international airport. That cannot be questioned," the prime minister said in a recent interview. "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 provide support, the least you can do is recognize them for it. I don't see how anyone can have difficulty with this. We are not doing anything behind the scenes, and we are not against anyone's security or national interests."

Mitchell said his country 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.

"We're in discussions with people to set up a business using cocoa to make cocoa products," the prime minister told CubaNews. "The Cubans are prepared to set up the machinery and operations here, or do it in Cuba. The decision will be based on feasibility and cost factors."

Asked if Clinton administration officials have raised objections over Castro's proposed trip, Mitchell responded: "They have never spoken to me about specifically not associating with Fidel. That would not be a wise thing anyway, even if they felt so. Their only concern has been that we should be a lot more vocal about the human-rights situation in Cuba." He adds: "I am concerned as a Democrat about the trampling of rights of human beings in every part of the world, and clearly there are weaknesses in that area [in Cuba], and they'll have to work on this in the eyes of the international community."

Yet many Grenadians -- including former prime minister and current opposition leader George Brizan -- remember the events of 14 years ago and remain suspicious.

"Grenada must be developed by Grenadians, and we should appreciate assistance from friends all over the world," warns Brizan, "but we should not get involved in superpower politics."

Denis Antoine, Grenada's ambassador in Washington, 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."

Referring to Helms-Burton and a recent warning letter from Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the ambassador adds that "the United States puts a certain price on our heads for associating with Cuba, but that "if we don't take what we get from Cuba, we would get nothing. It's a bread-and-butter issue for us."

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