Small islands watch helplessly as their green gold is devalued by vengeful US

THE PEOPLE of this little Caribbean island have always been a little confused. They are the first to admit it. Since an Italian named Columbus discovered the island on behalf of Spain but moved on, its inhabitants have been seven times under French rule, seven times British. For the past 20 years, they have been very much independent, though they still speak a French patois while driving on the British side of the road.

Whoever was in charge, they always knew they would be all right. They had what they call "green gold." By that, they mean bananas, as vital here as "black gold" - oil - is to Texas. More so. You can eat bananas.

Now, the people of St Lucia, the other Windward Islands and most of the Caribbean - renowned for reggae, rum, calypso and "chillin'" - are upset. They feel a modern-day friend, the United States of America, has let them down. Despite their independence - in the case of St Lucia granted by Britain 20 years ago last month - they are turning their glance back towards the old colonial powers.

They had lost touch with British politics, football, Coronation Street, even, in some cases, cricket. Instead, they had looked north to the US, flying to Miami for holidays, putting basketball hoops in their yards and wearing their baseball caps backwards. Now, "Come back, Britain, all is forgiven," is the sentiment, though only, of course, as allies, not masters.

They are talking about the US decision to launch what is effectively a trade war against Europe, ostensibly over European concessions towards bananas from former colonies. To be honest, folks in the Caribbean, even banana farmers, are not only concerned about themselves. They are mystified as to why the US has picked on Caribbean bananas - which make up only a few per cent of the world banana trade - as a weapon of "war" against the European allies which helped it bombard Iraq.

Many feel that the US is simply flexing its muscles towards a changing Europe that could pose a threat to the supremacy America has enjoyed since the collapse of the Soviet Union. "The US is ruthless," St Lucia's Prime Minister, Kenny Anthony, who is also the Caribbean's chief banana industry representative, told me in an unusually frank interview. "Our islands have lost their geopolitical value to them. This is no longer a threat against bananas. This is a political threat against Europe."

Mr Anthony and many other Caribbean officials believe the US used the banana issue as an excuse to launch a trade war against Europe, to "get even" for anti-US trade measures by Europe in the past. "It's really very clear that we're not just dealing with an issue of bananas," Mr Anthony said. "In selecting bananas, they utilised a very important weapon against Europe. First, they knew we, in the Caribbean, were defenceless and couldn't fight them. Secondly, they knew full well that the allegiance of Europe on the question of bananas would always be fragile.

"I have absolutely no doubt at all that Bill Clinton was fully aware of the consequences of the US actions. We had made it very clear to the US that this would severely compromise the industry, our social stability. If the US goes ahead with sanctions, it will cause permanent damage to relations between the US and the Caribbean. For the first time, the US is at war not with governments but with small farmers attempting to eke out a living."

James Fletcher, a senior official of the St Lucia agriculture ministry, said: "I think the Americans are worried about the perceived unity of Europe, the euro and that sort of thing. Washington is saying `We'd better dismantle this. We'd better shake them up.' The banana issue is a red herring. They're trying to keep Europe down."

Banana farmers here and on other Caribbean islands consistently told me they are disillusioned not only by what Washington's supposed banana policy is doing to them, but what it is doing to totally-unrelated people such as cashmere producers in the Scottish borders. That is in the short term. Long term, the banana farmers in the Caribbean are anxious. They feel the US, at the behest of big American banana corporations, is effectively trying to throw this region back into the Dark Ages.

"Crushing our banana industry could cause total anarchy," said Mr Fletcher. "It's widely accepted that our currency [the East Caribbean dollar] would be devalued. To the Americans, we're just dots in the ocean. We stopped becoming a threat to them after they solved the Grenada problem [when the US intervened in Grenada in the Eighties because of a small Cuban presence]. The Americans wanted to get at Europe. As we say here in our patois, they jumped where the fence was lowest - in the Caribbean."

The Prime Minister said: "I have no doubt whatsoever that the agony that our [banana] industry is going through was orchestrated by Chiquita Brands [the big American banana corporation]." He was referring to his belief that it was Chiquita, based in the US, which pushed the US administration to oppose Europe's banana concessions to its former colonies. Chiquita subsidiaries in Central and South America produce cheaper bananas thanks to cheaper labour and, its opponents say, by providing inhumane conditions for its workers. "We cannot ignore the horrendous social conditions under which Chiquita produces bananas in Latin America," Mr Anthony said. "It is well known that Chiquita has had a sordid political history in Latin America."

Mr Fletcher explained: After independence [from Britain], we looked to the US, our closest neighbours, to protect us. We saw a need to distance ourselves from the colonial power. But now we realise that they [the Americans] are, for want of a better expression, shafting us. We realise what British manufacturers are going through because of the banana issue. Through all of this, we have not lost sight of who our true friends are."

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