After spending a couple of days in Grenada, it is clear that there are a couple of pivotal events in Grenada’s history – especially as far as the generations currently living there are concerned – which have made the island what it is today: the revolution of 1979 and Hurricane Ivan in 2004.
On 13 March 1979, Maurice Bishop, leader of the Marxist New Jewel Movement (NJM), seized power from then prime minister Eric Gairy, who had fled the island the previous day. The constitution was suspended, and Bishop’s government subsequently ruled by decree. This new regime encouraged heavy Cuban investment in civic assistance – doctors, teachers, and technicians in the fields of health, literacy, agriculture and agro-industries – during the ensuing period.
That same year, a young man named Tillman Joseph Thomas (born 1947) had just been admitted to the bar in Grenada, having returned in 1978 following studies in New York City, Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago. Of pre-revolutionary Grenada, he recalls: ‘There was a lot of conflict in society, and I became involved with a human rights office based in St George. Maurice Bishop was also associated with this office.’
In the wake of the revolution, Tillman Thomas and some colleagues started a local newspaper, The Grenadian Voice, which remains widely read to this day. However, in June 1981, on the night of its second publication, security forces surrounded the newspaper’s offices. People’s Law No 18 of 1981 had just been passed, banning the publication of any ‘newspapers or other paper, pamphlet or publication containing any public news, intelligence or report of any occurrence or any remarks or observations thereon or upon any political matter, published for sale, distribution or any other purpose.’ Mr Thomas was detained and subsequently spent two years and three months in prison. He vividly recalls his release: ‘The following morning I went up to the village. People were so pleased to see me – they thought I had died!’ Around that time, he resolved ‘to take a stand for what is right in our society and make a change’, and thus began his career in politics.
Meanwhile, tensions were boiling over between Bishop and certain high-ranking members of the NJM. Bishop had been taking his time in making Grenada wholly socialist, simultaneously encouraging private-sector development in an effort to make the island a popular tourist destination. As a result, hard-line Marxist party members deemed him insufficiently ‘revolutionary’. On 19 October 1983, Bishop was placed under house arrest. His massive support among the population led to street demonstrations in various parts of the island, and Bishop was eventually freed. But when he attempted to resume power, he was captured by soldiers and executed along with seven of his supporters.
The overthrow of a moderate socialist government by a strongly pro-communist one worried then US president Ronald Reagan. On 25 October, Grenada was invaded by combined forces from the US, the Regional Security System and Jamaica (much to the consternation HM Queen Elizabeth II and the governments of the UK, Trinidad and Tobago and Canada). Following the invasion, Grenada’s pre-revolutionary constitution was restored.
In spite of all this upheaval, Mr Thomas continued to rise through the ranks. In December 1984 he was elected to the House of Representatives, and from 1984 to 1990 he was a junior minister in the Ministry of Legal Affairs. In 1987 he was a founding member of the National Democratic Congress (NDC), eventually becoming the party’s leader in December 2003. Having spent 13 years in opposition, the NDC won the general election held on 8 July 2008. The following day, Mr Thomas was sworn in as prime minister at the Grenada Trade Centre in Grand Anse, St George’s. Speaking at the event, he promised ‘openness and transparency’ and assured listeners that he would practice ‘the politics of inclusion.’ In addition to his responsibilities as prime minister, Mr Thomas also took on the portfolios of Legal Affairs, National Security, Information and Public Administration. Quite a job to do!
I’m thrilled to have been granted 30 minutes of Prime Minister Thomas’s time during my visit to Grenada. A kind, quietly spoken and gracious man, he is clearly proud of all that he and his country have achieved over the years. ‘Despite our history, today Grenada is a safe, peaceful and friendly destination to both visit and live,’ he says.
Mr Thomas acknowledges that Grenada’s greatest diplomatic challenge is its size: ‘As a small nation, it is a challenge firstly to get noticed, and secondly to get financing, but as part of these groups [the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM)] and their common foreign policies, we can become far more effective.’ He proudly announces that earlier this year, Grenada signed a maritime delimitation agreement with Trinidad and Tobago, allowing for oil and gas exploration in Grenada. ‘This is good news,’ he observes, ‘as there’s a possibility there are hydro-carbon resources in our waters. We are now trying to engage Venezuela in discussions to demarcate the boundaries to see what further countries and companies are interested in financing and exploiting these resources.’
Following the devastation wrought by Hurricane Ivan upon Grenada in 2004, Mr Thomas’ government is ‘trying to restore some of [the] institutions that were destroyed, including the Parliament and the Governor General’s Residence’. Unfortunately, however, rebuilding the infrastructure so crucial to any democratic system remains hampered by ‘limited resources’. Mr Thomas acknowledges that the financial crisis of the past couple of years has made things ‘even more difficult’, through its dampening effect on the tourist trade from the UK and North America.
A couple of months after our meeting, during his national address of 7 September this year (the sixth anniversary of Hurricane Ivan), Prime Minister Thomas announced a package of measures aimed at improving the island’s economic situation. He confirmed that ‘Grenada is still engulfed in a severe economic crisis and is not alone in that predicament,’ but assured citizens that his government is ‘determined to work [its] way out of this crisis and to continue to look for ways to increase jobs, increase economic opportunities and sustain the livelihoods of [its] people.’
Not one to be downcast, Mr Thomas is excited about plans to develop ‘community tourism’ in Grenada, with a view to employing local people and promoting culture while also attracting tourists. As an example, he cites the ‘Fish Fridays’ currently being held in Gouyave, a local fishing town on the west coast of the island. Every Friday night, the streets of Gouyave are closed to traffic and local vendors offer inexpensive, freshly caught fish, crab, shrimp and lobster. (Roast bakes – effectively fried bread – are an absolute must for all visitors!) The locals play a key role in providing food and entertainment, the latter in the form of live music and dancing. Grenada is also launching two new festivals: the Spice Word literary festival in October and the National Folk Festival in December. Says the prime minister, ‘These festivals will serve to enhance our cultural heritage and diversify our tourism product.’
Another of Mr Thomas’ key practical objectives over the next 12 months is to stimulate Grenada’s agricultural sector. He is proud of the Grenada Chocolate Company (see page 41), which he says produces ‘excellent chocolate’, and recently announced a $300,000 injection into the island’s Cocoa Association. Another local product attracting his praise is Nut-Med, a nutmeg-derived pain relieving spray created by local legend Denis Noel, of Noelville Ltd, which is now in great demand from customers all over the world. In terms of exports, the prime minister cites Winfresh, a business based in St David’s which will go into operation before the end of this year, manufacturing juices, ice creams and smoothies from the abundant local stocks of delicious fruit.
The day before we met, Mr Thomas gave a speech on his vision for the future of Grenada’s public service, which he perceives as holding the key to the country’s development. ‘Historically, the workers in public service are not as productive as the private sector, but we must demonstrate the same kind of respect for the state and their property, also a kind of patriotism. We want to introduce a culture of productivity, respect and patriotism. This is how we will modernise the public service.’