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Grenada’s New War: Battling Climate Change

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In the annals of American warfare, the 1983 invasion of Grenada — which caused only 19 U.S. casualties — amounts to little more than a controversial blip on the Pentagon’s radar screen. But for this English-speaking Caribbean island, Operation Urgent Fury meant the end of a Marxist revolution that had begun with high hopes and gradually descended into murderous anarchy.

In October, Grenada’s 110,000 inhabitants marked the 30th anniversary of that invasion, even as they begin the countdown to celebrate the island’s 40th anniversary of independence on Feb. 7, 2014.

Angus Friday, Grenada’s affable new ambassador to the United States, was 14 years old in 1979 when the leftist New Jewel Movement — with assistance from the Soviet Union and Cuba — toppled Prime Minister Eric Gairy and brought Maurice Bishop to power. Only four years later, Bishop turned against his former comrades and was executed by a radical communist faction, triggering the Oct. 25, 1983, invasion by the U.S. Army’s Rapid Deployment Force, Marines, Navy SEALs and a regional Caribbean force.

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Photo: Lawrence Ruggeri
Ambassador Angus Friday

President Ronald Reagan feared the tiny former British colony, where Cuba was building an airstrip that U.S. officials suspected might be used for military purposes, could become a communist beachhead in the Caribbean. The invasion marked the only time that U.S. and Cuban forces directly clashed. In addition to the 19 Americans who died, casualties also included 45 Grenadians and 25 Cubans.

In all, nearly 8,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines participated in the invasion; U.S. troops remained on the island for another two months.

“I remember quite a lot of it,” Friday recently told The Washington Diplomat. “Just before the Americans came in, the entire island was basically put under curfew, with shoot-to-kill orders. When half of the cabinet were killed along with the prime minister on that tragic day, it was basically the end of a dream for many Grenadians.”

The U.N. General Assembly, led by the Soviet Union and China, overwhelmingly condemned the invasion “as a flagrant violation of international law.” When asked for his reaction to the lopsided 108-9 vote, Reagan famously quipped: “It didn’t upset my breakfast at all.” (In fact, Reagan’s critics say the Grenada intervention gave him a much-needed chest-thumping moment at home, just as U.S. troops were leaving Lebanon after the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut that killed 241 Americans.)

Ultimately, Operation Urgent Fury marked the re-establishment of democracy in Grenada, leading to Washington’s passage of the Caribbean Basin Initiative to prop up the region’s shaky economies and thwart Cuba’s influence in the region.

It also left an indelible mark on Grenadian society, said Friday, who in May took over as Grenada’s ambassador in Washington.

“We learned that freedom of expression and democratic principles are vital to maintaining equilibrium in society,” he said. “The other lesson is that national unity is really important. There’s an African saying: If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together.”

Those values served tiny Grenada well in the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan, which in 2004 swept across the tropical island, destroying 90 percent of its structures and leaving thousands of people homeless.

These days, with memories of Ivan still fresh on their minds, Grenadians seem less focused on the 1983 invasion that put their country on the map, and more on fighting climate change, rising seas and other natural forces that threaten to wipe it off that map.

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.

Traditionally an agricultural economy, Grenada is the world’s second-largest exporter of nutmeg after Indonesia. Until recently, it was also a major source of bananas, but that industry fell apart after the World Trade Organization ruled against banana subsidies for former European colonies in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific.

Despite years of those preferential quotas and similar benefits under the Caribbean Basin Initiative, this tourist paradise with lush rainforests and white-sand beaches is still a poor country, with a per-capita income of just over $10,000, according to the World Bank. Roughly one in four adults of working age is jobless.

“Grenada has had to diversify. We’ve moved into tourism, which is now the mainstay of our economy,” Friday explained. “The key issues for Grenada today relate to building a green economy and building a knowledge economy. In addition to tourism, conserving our marine environment will form the ongoing basis of our economy. Grenada wants to become a leading example for green technology.”

Just as the U.S. invasion of Grenada was a wake-up call that the hemisphere would become a frontline in Washington’s ideological battles during the Cold War, the devastation wrought nine years ago by Hurricane Ivan serves as a daily reminder of nature’s destructive force, and how humans might be inadvertently contributing to it

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Photo: Larry Luxner
Grenada is looking to ramp up high-end boutique tourism to the island, with a number of projects planned for Grand Anse Beach, one of its most famous beaches.

“We had two powerful hurricanes in 2004 and 2005 [Ivan and Emily] which we felt were, statistically speaking, highly abnormal and unusual,” Friday said. “The overall picture that emerges — the floods, hurricanes and storm surges — we see those all as the impact of climate change.”

In economic terms, Ivan was one of the most damaging storms in Caribbean history, causing $800 million in losses to Grenada alone — more than the country’s entire gross domestic product that year. By comparison, Hurricane Katrina shaved 2 percent off U.S. GDP, and last year’s Hurricane Sandy — bad as it was — came to only 0.5 percent of U.S. GDP.

“Grenada was so devastated by climate change that we don’t want to just talk about it. We want to show the world what can be done about it,” the ambassador told us. “Our emissions of greenhouse gases are minimal, but if we can show how electricity generation, building solutions and transportation can all be made greener, then we think that’s going to be an important example. That’s partly why I ride a bicycle to work.”

Friday may be one of the few ambassadors in this town who do — and he pedals his bike to and from the Grenadian Embassy on New Hampshire Avenue every day, weather permitting. In fact, the ambassador tweeted Sept. 8: “Completed first week at Grenada Embassy to US. Great cricket yesterday and refreshing bike ride this morning.” His next tweet is a photograph of Friday presenting his credentials to President Obama on Sept. 17.

Before taking on his current assignment, the 48-year-old diplomat was a senior climate policy specialist at the World Bank. Prior to that, as Grenada’s permanent representative to the United Nations, he served as chairman of the Alliance of Small Island States.

A graduate of Grenada’s St. George’s University School of Medicine, Friday also holds an MBA from Strathclyde Graduate Business School in Scotland.

“I have a passion for international development,” he said. “Growing up on an island, it occurred to me that we have much more resources in the sea than we do on land. And so my first love was actually marine biology. But there were no scholarships for marine biology at the time, so I studied medicine. That provided a professional grounding and deepened my understanding of life sciences.”

As Grenada’s ambassador to the United Nations, he frequently advocated for small Caribbean and Pacific island nations threatened by rising ocean levels.

“Grenada is used to punching well above our weight,” he said. “We were able to do that with the climate change negotiations and debt management. Our prime minister is taking an increasingly leading role in emerging issues like that.”

That’s a good thing, because most leaders seem to be taking an increasingly shrinking role in fighting climate change, if the recent summit in Warsaw is any indication. In the Polish capital last month, representatives from more than 190 nations essentially punted on the issue of curbing greenhouse gas emissions — yet again. Instead, they were expected to formulate the outline of a deal that could pave the way for a global agreement at the 2015 talks in Paris.

a4.grenada.glance.storyBut there seems to be little momentum to limit the increase in global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius (as agreed to at the 2009 climate conference in Copenhagen) — despite a mountain of evidence that the steady rise in temperatures is wreaking havoc on weather patterns and sea levels.

In addition to the destruction leveled by Typhoon Haiyan on the Philippines and the increasing ferocity and frequency of such mega-storms, the year 2013 will possibly go down as the seventh warmest since records began in 1850 (2012 was the hottest year on record in the United States). In September, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said scientists are 95 percent confident that humans are the main culprit behind the recent warming. They also warned that if emissions continue to climb unchecked, that the Arctic Ocean could be nearly ice-free during summers before mid-century and sea levels could rise 10 inches to 32 inches by the end of the century.

That could spell the end of low-lying island states like the Maldives and many others — which is why these governments have been at the forefront of sounding the climate alarm. So far, though, their pleas have largely fallen on deaf ears. Emerging nations such as China, the world’s current top carbon polluter, and developed ones like the United States, which were historically responsible for spewing greenhouse gas into the atmosphere during their industrial growth, can’t agree on who should do more to rein in future emissions. There’s also little consensus on who should foot the bill for a $100 billion fund to help poorer nations adapt to climate change.

In the meantime, Grenada, like many small nations disproportionately impacted by climate disruptions, is trying to at least do its part by setting an example at home. For example, the island has decided to abolish state-run electric utility Grenlec, whose monopoly was not supposed to end until 2073.

“Climate change is here, but we still need to speed up the rate of innovation and the adoption of technologies that can reduce greenhouse gases. Our electricity costs, which are based on fossil fuels, are not working for our citizens and businesses,” said Friday, complaining that Grenadians pay roughly 45 cents per kilowatt-hour, more than four times the U.S. residential average of 11¢/KWh.

“The focus of our government is to dismantle the Grenlec monopoly and create a level playing field for providers of green energy. We’ve done a lot of testing, and the resources are clearly there,” he said.

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. Air-conditioning alone consumes large amounts of electricity, Friday noted, “so we’re looking at taking cold water from the sea for A/C systems.”

Grenada is lucky, Friday said, because the tourism industry is concentrated along the country’s west coast, while the strongest winds are on the eastern coast, making it unlikely that wind turbines would interfere with hotels or ocean views.

On the tourism front, Grenada  — 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.

“Grenada is one of the best sailing destinations in the world, and our tourism is being fueled mainly by yachting and diving,” Friday said, noting that 194,000 foreigners visited Grenada last year.

Sandals Resorts has invested $100 million to reopen the 100-room LaSource Resort following a government decision to grant the chain a 25-year holiday on corporate taxes and import duties, among other perks. Separately, Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris plans to construct three five-star hotels on Grand Anse Beach, with investment likely to total in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

But Friday said Grenada cannot depend on tourism alone.

“We want to support our existing manufacturing base and do more agro-processing, more value-added products,” he said. These include jams, jellies, fruit juices, spiced rums and nutmeg products such as Nutmed — a topical application of an analgesic available in spray form. “The nutmeg is still an important part of our economy, and our identity,” the ambassador noted.

In addition, he said Grenada is focused on three areas: health care information technology services such as call centers; offshore medical services; and medical products such as herbs with medical potential. Friday said about half the 6,000 students at his alma mater, St. George’s University, are Americans; the rest are from neighboring Caribbean islands and other countries.

“St. George’s is the best offshore medical school in the Caribbean,” he said. “It has become a center of learning not just for Grenada but for the world.”

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Photo: Sgt. M.J. Creen / USMC
A U.S. Marine Corps helicopter hovers above a Soviet anti-aircraft weapon before picking it up during the U.S. invasion of Grenada 30 years ago, a conflict that was sparked by American fears that the tiny former British colony might become a communist beachhead in the Caribbean.

Not everyone, though, is thrilled with Grenada’s efforts to attract foreign business and investment, including its reputation as an offshore tax haven and its controversial practice of selling citizenship to wealthy foreigners. In 2001, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) placed Grenada on an international blacklist after determining it was uncooperative in the fight against money laundering. It was later removed from the list after the Paris-based body determined that Grenada had sufficiently reformed its anti-money laundering laws.

“These are difficult issues,” Friday conceded. “Understandably, the OECD countries want to retain as much of their tax base as possible. But they haven’t made it easy for our islands to participate in the area of financial services, including internet gaming for example. The tax haven issue is related to that, but Grenada is seeking to establish double taxation treaties with as many countries as possible and is taking all steps to comply with international standards.”

Grenada has also gotten into the lucrative business of selling citizenship. A Grenadian passport costs $500,000 — far more than what most of its Caribbean neighbors charge. The program, less than two months old, has already attracted the attention of several wealthy Arabs and Asians.

Bernard Wiltshire, a former attorney general of nearby Dominica, said he’s disappointed with Grenada’s decision and warned that such schemes undermine security while cheapening the value of Caribbean passports.

“The present crop of Caribbean leaders is among the most unimaginative group of leaders in the world,” Wiltshire told the AP recently. “What they are doing with these citizenship programs at the moment is going to prepare the ground for great problems later on with our larger, more powerful neighbors. And this is apart from the fact they are endangering, in my view, the long-term security and safety of the Caribbean islands.”

Friday, however, bluntly defended the program — as well as the $500,000 price tag.

“Grenada has one of the lowest crime rates in the Caribbean, so we have the most expensive passport,” he quipped. “We think our low crime rate and the lifestyle opportunities that Grenada offers, from health care to education, make Grenada an attractive investment. We’re looking for people who want to commit to the island.”

Today, 30 years after the last of thousands of American troops left the small island after kicking the Cubans out, Grenada enjoys close relations with the United States. But, the eco-friendly ambassador said, that doesn’t mean the two countries agree on everything.

“We’d like to see the U.S. be more aggressive on the climate change agenda, and to do a thorough review of its policy toward Cuba,” Friday said. “We think the economic blockade of Cuba is a relic of the Cold War, and that Cuba has a lot to contribute as a full member of the international community. They are leaders in areas such as health care and disaster risk management. The world can learn a lot from Cuba, and we think this relationship should be normalized as soon as possible.”


About the Author

Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 2013

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