Government, Economy Remain Shaky Despite High Hopes, U.S. Aid : Five Years Later, Grenada Still Bears the Scars of War

Times Staff Writer

The last step toward putting Grenada's recent bloody past to rest is being played out with an agonizing deliberation that some see as a metaphor for the gentle island nation's halting return to democracy.

In a sweltering courtroom where the local Lions Club used to meet, 13 men and one woman who were once the Marxist elite here are appealing their sentences to be hanged for the executions of 11 comrades, including their longtime revolutionary leader, Prime Minister Maurice Bishop.

Those murders on Oct. 19, 1983, accompanied by the killings of a still-unknown number of supporters of Bishop and of bystanders, strengthened assertions in Washington that the lives of 500 American medical students in Grenada were at risk and established the basis for the U.S. invasion six days later.

In what most Grenadians still call "the rescue mission," 6,000 U.S. airborne troops and Marines overwhelmed the revolutionary government that most of its neighbors had long wanted to quash. Ironically, when American forces landed, the revolution already was devouring itself.

Still Picking Up Pieces

Nearly five years later, under a democratically elected government that is widely viewed as honest but incompetent, Grenada is still picking up the pieces left when the Americans went home.

Almost no one in the population of 94,000 says he regrets the U.S. intervention, and almost everyone is better off than in 1983--but there have been disappointments.

Among them, the largest five-year U.S. aid program in the region's history, about $110 million, has slowed to a trickle of less than $7 million a year, most of it earmarked for health and rural development.

The heavy U.S. investment of what some Grenadians call "conscience money" for damage done and lives lost during the invasion went mainly toward improvements in the island's infrastructure that would lure foreign investors. Instead, it drew speculators and promoters. So far, only four small American assembly plants that together employ fewer than 200 people have settled on the island.

Almost 20% of the American aid money was spent to complete the modern international airport at Point Salines, 15 minutes from the capital, St. George's, where American troops fought Cubans for the first time since the Spanish-American War. It was this Cuban construction project, about four-fifths finished at the time of the invasion, that raised fears in Washington of a new Soviet bridgehead in the Americas.

When President Reagan formally dedicated the airport in February, 1986, expectations were high that a flood of American tourists would follow. They did not, despite the now-tranquil island's reputation among travel writers as perhaps the most beautiful in the Caribbean.

Shunned by U.S. Airlines

No U.S. airline will schedule regular flights to Grenada because, they say, there are not enough hotel rooms to make scheduled traffic profitable. At the same time, international hotel investors complain that they cannot risk building the needed tourist facilities until Grenada gets on the airlines' schedules.

"It's 'Catch-22.' Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?" sighed Royston Hopkin, president of the Grenada Hotel Assn. Other, less tangible influences also have curbed the growth of tourism, he said, such as reminders of the invasion by Reagan and Republican presidential nominee George Bush that Hopkin claims send a subliminal message that the easygoing island is still a battle zone.

As a result, the current 45% annual occupancy rate of Grenada's 1,038 hotel rooms is "disastrously low," Hopkin said.

Although Prime Minister Herbert Blaize has set the promotion of foreign investment and tourism as high priorities, both receive minuscule sums in the country's $96-million annual budget. Indeed, after paying fixed costs and salaries to a bureaucracy of 7,000--about one-fourth of the national work force--there is not enough money left over to do much else.

Tax collections under a reformed tax structure designed to encourage private enterprise have fallen woefully short of expectations, forcing the government to borrow heavily from local banks to make up its budget deficit. In the process, that borrowing has soaked up funds that might otherwise have been available for local business expansion.

Described as incorruptible but plodding, Blaize, 70, is an old-line Grenadian politician who has political problems as well. The center-right New National Party that he headed when he was elected in 1984 fell apart last year when six of the brightest men in his government quit to form a centrist opposition party, the National Democratic Congress.

The best known among them, educator George Brizan, 44, complained that Blaize is too autocratic and "helter-skelter with his hodgepodge planning. In small countries where you have limited resources, planning is critical--otherwise, your resources are squandered."

Although the government acknowledges unemployment to be 20%, most foreign and Grenadian experts say it is much higher.

And the split in the Blaize government has raised the specter of worse--and, possibly, unmanageable--political problems to come. Far removed from power but close by Blaize's office sits Eric Gairy, the bizarre and sometimes brutal head of the Grenada United Labor Party, who dominated Grenadian politics until ousted by the leftist revolution in 1979.

Lost 1984 Vote

Although considered offbeat for his fascination with unidentified flying objects, and widely hated for the brutality of his personal militia when he was prime minister, Gairy nonetheless won 36% of the vote in 1984 and still commands substantial loyalty among farmers and fishermen.

Blaize's chief government adviser, Albert Xavier, acknowledged the problems in a recent interview but said there are bright spots as well.

About half of the island's 700 miles of potholed roads have been paved, noted Xavier, who also serves as ambassador to the United States and to the Organization of American States. And, he said, electricity now extends more or less reliably to most rural areas, while a digital telephone system permits direct dialing of overseas calls. Also, recent peace and stability have stimulated a surprising amount of local investment--much of it from Grenadians living in the United States and Britain.

The country's annual economic growth now stands at 4% to 6%.

Another bright spot has been increased enrollment at St. George's University School of Medicine, where the largely American enrollment provided the ostensible reason for the 1983 invasion. Images of students being protected by artillery fire as U.S. helicopters lifted them from the beachside campus sharply discouraged new admissions, which hit a low of 37 two years ago, according to school administrator John Kopycinski. This year, however, the incoming class numbers 87.

But the trauma of the events of October, 1983, has not ended for many other islanders, and its most nettlesome remnants are to be found in the hilltop courtroom.

The 14 people convicted of murdering Bishop, along with three others who are appealing long prison sentences for manslaughter, include most surviving members of the Central Committee of the People's Revolutionary Government, which had held the country in an iron grip since 1979.

Fervent Marxist

Chief among them are Bernard Coard, the U.S.- and British-educated ideologist of the revolution, and his wife, Phyllis, a one-time teacher and fervent Marxist said to have been the toughest of the Central Committee members.

Each day in court, the 17 defendants have sat relaxed as their battery of defense lawyers argue the law to three distinguished and patient Caribbean judges.

The four-year courtroom confrontation, often reduced to chaos by outbursts of chanting from the Coards and their comrades, is now expected to end by Christmas.

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