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MITCHELL: Reagan legacy crumbling in Grenada
Democratic triumph threatened by oppressive investigative authority
Last week, a statue of Ronald Reagan was erected in London to commemorate the centen- nial of the American president’s birth. It would not be overstating the case to say that Reagan and Baroness Margaret Thatcher’s relationship defined a remarkable period in history. Neither before nor since has a partnership between two great nations and great leaders carried such ideological cohesion and improved the lot of so many citizens of the world.
The American invasion of my country, Grenada, was a rare disagreement in that special relationship. Nearly 30 years ago, after a tumultuous series of communist-backed coups had left us with a military government, a suspended constitution and a 72-hour curfew, President Reagan decided to send in U.S. troops to intervene, without Mrs. Thatcher’s knowledge or the consent of our head of state, Queen Elizabeth II. Mrs. Thatcher’s concern for national sovereignty was valid, but so, too, was the evil threat of communism. My country is perhaps the best, rare example of unilateralism functioning to the greater good. The Grenadian socialist government quickly toppled, and we held democratic elections within months.
The Thatcher-Reagan relationship survived the Grenada episode, and for many years, our small island nation thrived. I had the privilege of serving as Grenada’s prime minister for 13 years, during which time the country saw steady growth as we transformed our agriculture-based economy into a competitive tourism-services model. When Hurricane Ivan destroyed nearly 85 percent of Grenada’s infrastructure and agricultural sector in 2004, the country worked tirelessly to rebuild and was ready to host the successful Cricket World Cup by 2007.
Grenadians have watched the inspiring events in the Middle East and North Africa over the past few months with a mixture of excitement and empathy. I clearly remember the feeling of a new era, the boundless optimism saddled with caution, and a fear of replicating the status quo. Everything seems possible in a fresh new democracy, and no one wants to waste the opportunity to build a stronger society and better state, one with a government responsive to its citizens’ needs and, in turn, fully accountable to them.
Yet while the positive momentum of the “Arab Spring” is watched breathlessly around the world - a shining example for repressed and neglected populations to follow - I worry that a generation after Grenada’s rebirth, our tiny island nation is sliding backward, completely unnoticed.
The Caribbean is a collection of small, varying countries, some with fragile economies and difficult social problems (the rate of HIV prevalence in some Caribbean nations is second only to sub-Saharan Africa), each striving to create a stable and productive environment for its citizens. But perhaps it is precisely becausewe are small - both in population and on the world’s stage - that destructive policies and corrupt practices being challenged elsewhere are flying under the radar here.
Consider this example from Grenada: There is an unpopular bill being pushed through Parliament that aims to restructure the country’s Financial Investigation Unit (FIU). Under the guise of fighting financial crimes like money laundering and terrorist financing - crimes for which there is already existing legislation - this bill effectively weaponizes an investigatory body, taking the department out from under police command and installing the prime minister as its sole authority. Sweeping operational powers are also conferred to the director of the FIU, who would be compelled to share any information deemed relevant with government ministers - an appalling circumvention of existing legal procedures. The bill further indemnifies the director and much of his organization against prosecution stemming from the activities of the FIU.
This is a dangerous proposal. The simultaneous shedding of independent oversight and the special protection of powerful government actors, who would be free to operate without liability or the threat of legal consequence, would open the door for massive abuse of FIU’s substantial resources and reach. Potentially anyone who is critical of the administration - journalists, political opponents and concerned citizens - could be targeted by this newly muscular body without a thought to their constitutional rights. The Grenada Bar Association has objected strongly to this bill on these grounds.
At a time when accountability and transparency are on the lips of citizens around the world, this bill is seriously out of tune. Yet it represents the sort of incremental step that eventually leads to the oppression of entire citizenries. Here in the Caribbean, just as around the world, we must identify and preempt such regressive policies at this embryonic stage, before the vulnerabilities are exploited and before what seem like small problems mushroom into systemic ones. At this point, we can still avoid the public oppression, frustration, discontent and egregious poverty that fester, and in the end, make a population ripe for revolution.
Today’s protesters have inherited the legacy of the anti-Soviet activists who, with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher’s help, brought down the Berlin Wall. The demands on the state, both then and now, revolve around similar themes: fairer and more transparent governance, responsiveness, accountability and a fundamental attitude of humanity toward citizens. These are themes not just for countries in revolt, but for all of us. Identifying and halting backward-facing policies now will save everyone a great deal of turmoil later.
Keith Mitchell was prime minister of Grenada from 1995 to 2008 and is now leader of the opposition in the Grenadian Parliament.
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