I don’t suppose too many people would turn down the opportunity to spend nine days in the Caribbean during February. I must confess it made a pleasant early Christmas present when I was notified on 23 December 2005 that I had been selected to travel as part of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation to Antigua, Grenada and St Lucia.
As you might imagine there was plenty of good humoured teasing from other MPs and friends alike who were sceptical about just how much work would be involved in a nine day trip to the sun-kissed islands during a cold English winter. I had never visited the Caribbean before and the beauty of the three Windward and Leeward islands that we visited cannot be understated. However, I was also impressed by the calibre of the political leadership, especially when you consider that the three islands we visited probably have a total population only slightly greater than that of the City of Westminster.
I was pleased ? and I guess a little proud – to see that photographs of the Queen are positioned prominently in many public buildings. After all she is the Head of State in most of the West Indies. We spoke to the Prime Ministers of each of the three islands, whose clear grasp of international affairs was evident. They were all men proud of the connection the West Indies still has with the United Kingdom, but it is clear that the younger generation associate themselves more closely with the culture and institutions of the United States, even to the extent that basketball is replacing cricket in the affections of many youngsters.
Antigua is blessed by beautiful beaches and we were briefed about the burgeoning tourist industry, but also about the environmental challenges and disaster management plans that are in place on the island. Although the population is only around 85,000 the island has a parliament, a senate (each with seventeen members) and its own Prime Minister, who was keen to tell us more about the improvements that his government is making in education, health and policing on the island.
The political culture there is very personal and it was amusing to watch the Prime Minister as he walked about since he was clearly well known to most of the population. In Antigua we also had the chance to visit Nelson’s dockyard which is an almost intact Georgian harbour and marina, built initially in the late eighteenth century which has been transformed into a museum. It is now a World Heritage Site and is a wonderful showcase for large ocean-going yachts which make their way to the island. It is the only dockyard in the world which has survived this long.
In Grenada we saw the importance attached to disaster management at first hand. The island was devastated by Hurricane Ivan in September 2004. This hurricane was the worst for half a century and caused massive destruction, damaging over eighty percent of housing. The effect of the hurricane on the economic welfare of the island is expected to be long lasting and we visited a reconstruction project with particular emphasis on medical, educational and infrastructural works. One of the main crops on the island was nutmeg, the growing and marketing of which has been organised in recent decades through a co-operative. More than 80% of the agriculture had been destroyed by the hurricane. It was heartbreaking to see how many grown men and women found themselves unable to continue making a living and it was clear that both tourism and the service industries are a priority for the future.
We stayed at a hotel that was literally next to the sea and as we fell asleep and awoke, it was to the sound of the waves crashing into the sandy beach and shingle. Many of the island’s people have been much put upon as a result of the political upheaval ? you may remember Grenada as the island which, following the Marxist led revolution in 1979, was where US forces staged a counter-insurgency four years later to restore democracy. In spite of this upheaval, the effects of which can still be felt today in the heated way in which politics is conducted between the competing parties, whose politicians make highly personal attacks upon each other, the people of Grenada are unfailingly friendly
That is not to say that there are not some significant problems. HIV and AIDS are rife and the smaller Caribbean islands have increasingly become trading posts for illegal narcotics making their way from South America to the United States. Whilst the eyes of much of the western world are now firmly on the Middle East and concentrating on alleviating famine and poverty in Africa, much remains to be done in the West Indies. It is interesting how China has turned its attention to this region by providing aid and help in kind on construction projects. In this way it has ensured that many of the small nations in the Leeward and Windward islands (all of whom have votes in the United Nations) now recognise the disputed island territory off the southern coast of China as the People’s Republic of China rather than Taiwan. This has the makings of significant diplomatic problems for the future.
Our final port of call was St Lucia which has a population of 160,000. It also has an incredibly diverse micro-climate for an island of about seventy square miles. The rainfall in the north and centre of the island is about three times that in the south and west which is where most of the holiday resorts are located.
We saw a banana farm and learned how the crops are grown and harvested and discovered how the marketing of Fair Trade bananas is organised between consortia of banana farmers and British supermarkets.
We will all hear a lot more about St Lucia in the next year or so as the island hosts England’s group in next year’s Cricket World Cup. Obviously the islanders are greatly looking forward to this showcase. Enthusiasm is tremendous but there are already worries about how they will deal with the influx of the Barmy Army who will no doubt be supporting the English team with their usual vigour. As well as securing as many hotel spaces as possible the plan is to get two large cruise ships to dock and act as large-scale hotels for the period of the World Cup!
Finally, in case you were wondering ? we also had a chance to taste some of the Caribbean’s proudest export, rum. We visited a couple of traditional rum distilleries on the islands which make this sugar cane based spirit. Having dared to sip a tot or two of 90% proof rum, I decided to spend the rest of the day on some strictly non-alcoholic drinks!