Thirty years ago this coming week American and Caribbean forces landed in Grenada. Depending on one’s point of view, it was a rescue mission to restore democracy and civil rights, an illegal invasion of a sovereign Caribbean nation, or possibly both.
At the time it divided the region’s governments. For those who supported the US, it enabled the emergence of a strong alliance of conservative Caribbean interests in government and the private sector just as it appeared that the Caribbean and Central American region was fracturing ideologically, and becoming divided in its political and social thinking.
Seen from an alternative perspective, it was, for the Caribbean left, and those who aspired to fundamental change in the region or the adoption of aspects of the Cuban socialist model, a defeat. It made clear that factionalism would destroy political objectives and that holding elections, even in situations deemed revolutionary, provided legitimacy to a government.
It indicated too that the US would not hesitate to act unilaterally in the Caribbean if it felt its interests were threatened. It marked a moment when the UK was no longer the nation that was considered by the region or by the US as having the primary responsibility to respond in a crisis within the Caribbean. It demonstrated that the UK had considerations and concerns independent from the US, and it revealed before, during and after the intervention, significant differences in the ways that Cuba and the Soviet Union thought about the hemisphere.
More generally, the US intervention in Grenada played a pivotal role in the Cold War, enabling President Reagan to demonstrate US will to the Soviet Union; showed that no President would ever again accept hostage taking situations, real or implied; removed Grenada from US concerns and considerations about the insurgency and political situation in Central America; and met many of the Republican Party’s late Cold War ideological requirements in the Hemisphere.
With hindsight, it is clear that the US and Caribbean military operation brought to an end the increasingly unpredictable and dangerous internal situation following the execution, for ideological reasons, of the island’s charismatic and genuinely popular Prime Minister, Maurice Bishop; although with the loss of many Grenadian, US and Cuban lives.
Now, three decades later, much of the hurt has healed; the airport which was both literally and figuratively fought over, has been renamed Maurice Bishop International, and as originally planned is now facilitating tourism’s growth; and the new Grenada government is trying to return the economy to growth through the encouragement of investment and the delivery of new initiatives.
In the years since the 1980s, the world and the US have moved on. The Cold War ended, economic globalisation proceeded, trade preferences were eroded, and the Caribbean became largely marginal in US and European thinking as new priorities and strategic concerns emerged.
Today, the region’s relationship with the US could not be more different.
So much so that when the US Vice President, Joe Biden, met with Caribbean heads of government in Trinidad in May, just days before the arrival of the Chinese President, Xi Jingping, Trinidad’s Prime Minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, characterised the exchange as being at times, brutal.
In Trinidad, the Caribbean made clear its perception that US interest in the Caribbean had become marginal, that relations have been soured by a number of trade disputes, and that the US is not providing enough assistance in relation to security, tax and other issues on which the US is seeking Caribbean compliance. Since then little has been heard about a planned summit with President Obama.
In the past such differences and new ideas to strengthen the US-Caribbean relationship would have been discussed at the annual Miami conference on the Caribbean. These events, organised by the Washington based body, Caribbean Central American Action (CCAA), enabled Caribbean governments, the private sector and interested parties from Canada, Europe, Japan and elsewhere to focus on the region and its needs.
Since its high point in the years before and after the Grenada invasion and, with CCAA’s help, the legislating of the Caribbean Basin Initiative, the Conference has gone through highs and lows, but as its Executive Director, Sally Yearwood, points out, it has never deviated from its central purpose of bringing the issues of the region to the forefront for debate and for action.
This year, in a long overdue move designed to place the conference at the heart of discussion on future US-Caribbean policy and the changing investment and trade relationship, it has relocated the November 20-22 event to Washington.
Speaking about the objectives of the conference, which is co-sponsored by the US Chamber of Commerce and the Organization of American States, Ms Yearwood said that the decision to hold it in the US capital will enable Congress, the administration and key bodies to hear and meet with participants at the conference and representatives from the region.
“CCAA has always committed itself to holding a Conference where business and policy meet,” she says. “The conference is not a single-issue or single-country event but offers a wide ranging agenda that focuses on policy, specific sectors, and new trade and investment opportunities. It is intended to offer a space for the Caribbean and Central America to address common goals and concerns within a public forum.”
She also suggests that the conference enables, at a time when budgets are tight, participants to pursue either their own commercial or government agendas while being able to understand from the plenary sessions the bigger picture driving the private or public sector decision-making process in the US.
Participants already confirmed to speak include representatives of the US administration, business leaders, international financing institutions, and government and private sector leaders from the region.
Much of what happened in Grenada in the early 1980s, and in the region or beyond, has never been fully or honestly explained, but these are matters one day to be written about at length.
More importantly, there is now a pressing need for a much stronger but balanced US-Caribbean relationship that recognises that the US, with Europe and Canada, remain the most significant trade and security partners at a time when, quite rightly, the region’s relationships are diversifying in ways that embrace the interests of nations that are relatively new to the region.
David Jessop is the Director of the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org