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close this bookThe Courier N 140 - July - Aug 1993 - Dossier: National Minorities - Country Reports: Dominica, Mozambique (EC Courier, 1993, 96 p.)
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close this folderDominica : Much ado about... bananas
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View the documentInterview with Prime Minister Dame Eugenia Charles
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Interview with Prime Minister Dame Eugenia Charles

Bananas: ‘The real issue is the survival of our country'

A recently published biography entitled 'Eugenia - The Caribbean's Iron Lady ' may refer to the Dominican Prime Minister's nickname acquired in the aftermath of the 1983 Grenada crisis, but in the meantime the lady has become a 'Dame'. A lawyer by training and a successful barrister thereafter, planter's daughter Eugenia Charles stepped into the country's very lively political arena in the late 1960s as leader of the newly created Dominican Freedom Party. In 1975 she was elected for the first time as a Member of Parliament. In the 1980 election, the first following independence in 1978, she led her DFP to a landslide victory, winning 17 of the 21 seats. The Dominican Labour Party, which had been in power for almost two decades, lost all of its seats, a fact some found difficult to swallow, as was clear from the failed coup by the former Labour Prime Minister in the following year. This earned him a 12-year prison sentence.

The Caribbean 's first woman Prime Minister came to the international forefront in 1983. As chair of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States at that time, she stood on the White House steps with US President Reagan to pledge full support for the American intervention in Grenada.

While her nickname dates back to those days, she remains the epitome of political firmness but always with the best interests of Dominica in mind. In the 1990 election she was reconfirmed for a third - and last, she says - five-year term, although her parliamentary majority has been reduced to only one seat. Today, Dame Eugenia Charles, who is in her early seventies, is more resolved than ever to win one last, decisive battle: securing Dominica's future in the banana trade and industry, which is both the country's lifeline and the basis for any further diversification.

· Dominica is said to have changed dramatically since the time you came to power in 1980.

-Well, we don't notice the changes because we are living it every day and there is so much more to do. You don't feel anything has happened.

· But what would you describe as being your principal achievement since then?

-We have put some infrastructure into place. Thanks to the EDF, for instance, we have been able to do something about our roads, which were in an appalling state. In fact, I refused to promote tourism when we first came in because I thought that it was unfair to ask anyone to drive on the roads that we had. Once we had done that, we felt tourism was the second industry that we should
look at, to try to gain some employment from it. We also brought electricity to the east coast and that led on to the establishment of a good overall telephone system. But, while we have managed to achieve some results in communications, we still have not done enough regarding air or sea transport, and we recognise that these two sectors need further improvement.

· One of your main priorities was to diversify in order to lessen your dependence on bananas. How far have you got?

- Sometimes we feel we haven't achieved anything and at other times we see that some things have happened. But what gives us a negative impression overall is that we don't really command the market. There have been occasions when we have diversified into a crop that looks promising but then the market has fallen away and the grower feels let down. He does not understand that we don't control the market, and that we always have to anticipate the way it is going to go. And of course, that is something that can change pretty rapidly. You can be left out in the cold, because you have been preparing for a particular market only to find that it has changed in the meantime or that there are other countries that can produce much more cheaply than we can.

· So market data and market assessment are vital at all times?

-Yes, but the problem we have had is that even the data and the assessments change so quickly. We started producing a very fine type of ginger-everybody thinks it is a good product-but then somebody else comes along who can produce it at a lower cost, or who is so keen to win markets that he is willing to trade at a loss. That is something we cannot do because all our farming is small peasant farming, and the farmer can't afford to take a loss of any kind. When you have large estates, then you are in a position to sell below cost for a while until things pick up again. But small peasant farming doesn't allow for that kind of marketing adventure.

· Would you agree with some critics who say that the banana boom of the mid and late 1980s put you in a relatively comfortable position, and psychologically prevented you from embarking on further diversification?

-The farmer, even during the socalled boom, has always felt he has not earned enough money for his bananas, so it didn't put him in a comfortable position. What makes the farmer want to continue with bananas is the fact that the marketing and shipping is well secured. He knows that every week, a banana boat will drop anchor in the harbour and every banana he has produced has a marketable export value and will be taken away. So that is the assurance that keeps him producing bananas. It is not possible for the moment to get any such assurance for any other crop. Whenever we talk to him about change, he will tell us: 'I have five acres in bananas. You tell me to put one acre in something else. How do I know when the time comes that I will be able to sell that something else?'

· It is also said that the profits are to be made in marketing and shipping bananas, and that the country has not been able to tap properly into that.

-Well, we are trying. We have been talking for a couple of years now about going into joint ventures with Geest. We hope to have this in place before the end of this year so that we get more of the money from the marketing and shipping than is the case at present. We already get some benefit from the shipping side in that the freight that comes out from the UK on the banana boat is shared among the Windward Islands. We want to do more of this, also from the point of view of shipping out of the islands, and so we are working with Geest to have some share of these profits. We think that, with all the changes that are happening now in the banana world, we can't just forge ahead on our own. There are too many risks involved. We should use the familiarity we have with this particular agent to work together to get more benefit.

· Is it correct to describe the relationship with Geest as a sort of love/hate one in which you are condemned to work together?

- We aren't condemned to work together. Had we taken the step twenty years ago, we could perhaps have gone out on our own, but with what is happening on the European market now, I think we must avoid taking too many risks. We need to secure our position. We realise that Geest is a private company and they are looking after their interests. Their business is to make profit, not to be charitable to people, and so we have to be very firm in our negotiations with them to secure the best deal that we can.

· Despite the Banana Agreement which gives you access to the European market, there is still a distinct feeling of insecurity in the country; a sense of not being sure about what is going to happen next.

-The people in your media have put over the Latins' point of view so much that even our farmers are getting to know that the Latins think they will be able to break that agreement. That is what this insecurity is about. There is the threat of the GATT negotiations and the threat of legal action by the Germans and this is frightening the farmer here. All of this is of course bad for business.

Everybody watches CNN; everybody knows what is happening and, of course, farmers often listen to the radio to hear the news from Caribbean stations and from the BBC. We hear all those declarations from different quarters and I suppose we don't have a big enough voice to put our ideas over on the radio as often as they do. But we keep telling the farmer that if he can produce excellent quality bananas consistently, then he will continue to have a place on the market.

· How do you yourself value the Banana Agreement as it stands?

-Well, it is not what we wanted. We felt that the Latins should never have been allowed more than 1.4 million tonnes in the first place, because that was what they were producing before the Berlin Wall fell. They boosted their production knowing this time was coming, so they started supplying more than 2 million tonnes. Now they have got 2 million which I really think is too much, but I am prepared to live with it because I feel both sides of the region have to live. Yet they are not prepared to live with it because, even if they don't mention it, they just feel we should not be in the banana business at all. They would like to throw us out completely, knowing very well that if they succeeded in doing that, they would be throwing out the country altogether; they would be destroying the lives of 72 000 people, but they don't care about that.

· So you are talking about the survival of the country...

-Yes, that is the real issue here; the survival of our country. The Latins are talking about losing some million dollars. We might not just be losing dollars, we might be losing a country too. I don't think that any European country, having gone through all the wars they went through, can want that to happen to a small island like ours.

· What other types of' diversification outside the agricultural sector do you see as having a potential?

-Tourism is the one we are looking at most. I don't think that eco-tourism goes together with charters. We want people to come here who like the country, to make friends with the people here and to come back eventually for that reason. So we are not talking of mass tourism. I don't think we are ready for that or that we will ever be ready for it. I would hope not. But I think there is money to be made out of tourists who enjoy what we have to offer -our people and our nature-and I think we must work increasingly on this. In the line of sports, for instance, there is a lot to be done: this is a good country for hiking and for those who like outdoor life. These could be tourists who can't spend a lot of money but they do bring a new vision into the place and it is good for us to have that sort of tourism.

But we think also that light industry is something we should look at. I have always said I don't want factories to come in and employ 2000 people, because factories eventually close down. This has happened throughout history. And to have 2000 people out of work at the same time in Dominica would be very bad for the country. So we want small factories employing 300-400 people, making something that you can sell elsewhere; something small and clean. We are not going to open factories that are going to pollute the air or the water.

We think that we can also do a lot more in fishing, not only on a commercial basis but also for feeding ourselves. At the moment we are far too dependent on the importation of protein from outside. So, it would be a good thing if we could develop a fishing industry. We have an agreement at last with the European Community in this area and we hope that this will help us. First of all, it will give extra training to our people. We want them to be trained to go into better boats so that they can stay out fishing longer. It is not only very important for our foreign exchange but also for our health. We really should be able to pull this off with the sea surrounding us.

· Whatever spokesman you meet from the different sectors, you always end up hearing about the new airport. Apparently you had a verbal agreement with the previous US administration for part of the vorks. What is the situation here?

-Well, they were interested in it, and still are. We will be talking about it with them very soon. We have not asked for cash, because many countries are not able for the time being to give large sums of money, but we want them to use their US Army Corps of Engineers to do some of the work for us. If they could level the site of the airport, it would halve the cost for us. That in itself would help us to get other countries to support us further. We are not looking for a strip for wide body planes. We want a long distance, 24-hour airstrip, that we can light up. That would help us greatly in further enhancing our diversification. We want to be able, for instance, to get our flowers out. That is one of the sectors we could diversify into. Today, to send flowers to Antigua and hope they get off the ground without getting scorched is asking for a lot; some people are doing it and some of them are succeeding but with a lot of headaches. There are a lot of other exotic things which should go, but by air. So that airport is not only for tourism; it is for industry and trade as well. Also, if we want industry here, obviously we are talking about somebody who already has business in another country. Nobody is going to build a factory here if he can't get in and out of the country easily, which is not the case today.

· But the cost of building a new airport is so high compared to the size of the economy. Many feel that it is too big a project.

-Yes, I know that some donors say this, but it is a step we must take if we want to be able to have the growth we need. And we can't achieve that with the existing two small airstrips. We will never make a fortune on the new airport, but without it we won't get investment which will result in job creation and foreign exchange revenue.

· As one of the longest serving political leaders in the Caribbean, you have witnessed many attempts to achieve breakthroughs at regional level, be it with Caricom, the Windward Islands or the OECS. Is there still a lack of political will to establish meaningful regional cooperation?

- Caricom is finally taking hold of itself. It has recently really started to look at the things we can do together. I think it is wrong for Caricom to think in terms of an integrated country. You only need to look at how long it is taking Europe. That can be a lesson for us here. But I think that Caricom has begun to show where the weaknesses are so that it can begin to strengthen and restructure its own Secretariat and improve the way they run it. I must say we are very fortunate to have Edwin Carrington as our Secretary General because he had a lot of experience with the ACP, when he had to pull together a lot more people than is the case in Caricom. I believe we are making major strides now because there is the will to do it. Looking at what is happening in the broader context, we cannot stay isolated. We have to get together on many issues if we are to get things done, even if it doesn't mean becoming one country.

· There was a very good report from the West Indian Commission, but many of its key proposals were not adopted.

-We did not accept all the proposals because there is a cost to all of these things and accepting them all would have meant that we had to find a lot of money. So we took the ideas from it and looked at how we could restructure the Secretariat to achieve reasonable results.

· What do you think of the new Caricom Bureau?

I think it is going to work; in fact, it has already worked. However, I have suggested a refinement. I think we should divide the islands so as to give each of the three members of the Bureau responsibility for three or four of them. He would then make it his business to get things done on time.

· On another level, there are also attempts to enhance cooperation based on solidarity between the smaller islands: the OECS which, unlike Caricom, already has a monetary union. There are those in the Windward Islands who want political union. Do you think that we might soon see a breakthrough in this area?

-I am not sure that we are going to get the Windward Islands to unite politically because I don't think people are ready for it. I am one of those who have always said that there is no way we will go ahead with this unless the people concerned really want it themselves. They must not just accept it from their leaders; they themselves must want it. I think we have to proceed with further integration in many more areas. I think we must have an integrated police force, for instance, because having a small police force in one island makes it difficult sometimes to discover what is really happening. In education, too, a lot more could be done. In fact our aid donors look at it that way too and want to help us here because they realise there are not enough experts, not enough qualified people here for every island to go its own way.

· On the international level you are increasingly being confronted with economic blocs, such as the new North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA) . Given the widespread disappointment in the Caribbean over the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) in the past, how do you feel about NAFTA in the future?

-I have no hope that NAFTA will be of any use to us, but then I did not think that the CBI would be of any use either. I said so at the time: that we didn't have the infrastructure to get a real grip and make use of the CBI. But I believe that what was good about the CBI is that the American Administration discussed it with us beforehand. For the first time, the US as an aid donor asked us how we felt they should go about it and, as a result, we were able to get some measures into the CBI which we had never had before from the United States. But I have always argued that the CBI was meant for countries that already have a platform to take off from. Essentially, therefore, it would be places like Jamaica, Trinidad and some of the Latin countries that would benefit from it. Of course, I have always felt that we should not be lumped together with the Latin countries because they are too large, their problems are different and their economies are also too different from ours. We really require a specific initiative tailored to our small scale and our particular requirements. So both at the level of Caricom and the OECS, we must look more and more at what our likenesses are and try to put them together to give us strength.

· NAFTA sets out to achieve reciprocal trade liberalisation. This, presumably, could be to the detriment of smaller countries?

-Oh yes, it may hurt us and I don't think it is going to help us small countries. Of course, we have to keep our eyes open for any opportunity, but I don't think we are really going to be able to take advantage of it. After all, we have free trade with the EC and we are not getting a lot out of this because so many of us produce the same things and even some of the members of the Communtiy have offshoots of their countries that produce those same things.

· Talking about the European Community, it is sometimes said that you are 'in the heart of France', situated as you are, between Guadeloupe and Martinique.

-France has been very good to us and we get a lot of assistance from them. I think France recognises that we are a close cousin but not a brother and so we have assistance. I think it is to France's benefit to make sure that we do not fall far behind the French islands. We still have a lot of scope for enhancing trade with the DOMs. Sometimes difficulties arise with them, but I believe we are able to come to a solution whereby we are able to market our goods in Guadeloupe and Martinique without detriment to French farmers.

· As far as the EEC at large is concerned, how do you view Lome cooperation so far and how do you see it evolving?

-It has been very good so far but I feel that Lome IV has tightened up a lot, making it more difficult for things to come through. I very much fear that this is a sort of preview of what may happen if there is a Lome V. But we have, nevertheless, benefited a great deal from Lome. There are a lot of things that would not have happened here without the Lome agreement. I have always felt that the EDF is among the quickest donors in delivering aid. Once you have agreed on what the facilities and the programmes are, and what you are going to do with them, they are among the quickest. We have some feeder roads here that the EDF can be proud of. Each of them is also a tourist route, perhaps not planned that way, but Dominica is so beautiful anyway, that as soon as you go inland you have so much to see. We have had some other very good schemes, such as the microprojects, and I hope they will continue because they are very important for the community; they add a new dimension to life in the village

· You have said that this will be your last term in office.

-Yes, definitely. After 15 years, I think I've done my share.

· What sort of Dominica do you dream of leaving behind you?

- I would like a Dominica where everybody has employment, everybody has work to do. I would like everybody to have housing, not necessarily luxurious but providing the basic needs-running water, sewage systems and electricity. If you have those two things you have a peaceful and happy country.

· But the resource base of the country is so small...

-We only have people, land and water and we must do much more with our water.

· The economy itself is supported by only 20 000-30 000 people.

- Our workforce is about 22 000. There is an unemployment problem among young people who have been educated to secondary school level. They find it difficult to find a job. It has a lot to do with attitude and we have a lot to do to change that. Secondary education does not automatically give you a job in government as many think. Government must keep its numbers down, given the limited resources, to be able to do other things than just paying salaries. We have to look at our form of education and the motivation and attitude we instil in people so they realise that education doesn't just mean that you end up sitting behind a desk. You must also be educated to be a good farmer and you must have knowledge of arithmetic and English and of other things to be able to farm well. It means, for instance, if you want to export to the French islands as a farmer, you need to know French. Changing people's attitudes and thinking is not a very easy job to do. But we are trying hard, because education has to suit the needs of the people and not just a historical way of life.
Interview by R.D.B.