Global, Opinion

Spicy world politics on the Island of Grenada

16.01.2023, International cooperation

The small Caribbean island of Grenada is also called Spice Island. In the past, the French and the English fought over the island. Today, other powers are fighting to gain more influence on Grenada and thus in the world. By Karin Wenger

Spicy world politics on the Island of Grenada
Even today, two wrecked aircraft at the old airport are a reminder of how important Grenada was for the USA during the Cold War.
© Karin Wenger

Carib’s Leap or Leapers’ Hill is the name of the cliff in northern Grenada from which the Caribs, the last remaining original inhabitants, hurled themselves into the ocean in 1651. Where there must have been jungle and bushes at the time, today there is a church and a commemorative plaque. Cutty, a local tour guide, has brought me here. He points to the roaring sea far below us and says: "The Caribs chose certain death over being taken prisoner and enslaved by the French colonial masters."

What led up the fatal jump is easy to explain. While Christopher Columbus still sailed past Grenada, the French recognized the island’s treasures and wanted to claim it for themselves. They bought land from the Caribs in exchange for a few knives, glass beads and alcohol. But before long, the islanders regretted the deal, attacked the French fort with bows and arrows in an attempt to drive the French from the island. Equipped with cannons and firepower, the French repelled the Caribs and drove them all the way to the north, to the edge of the cliff and to their death.

Colonial past

Today, the small Caribbean island of Grenada is no more than a one-day excursion for many cruise passengers – they visit waterfalls, buy nutmeg, vanilla, cinnamon and rum, then move on to the next sunny destination. Grenada’s colonial past and that of the other Caribbean islands is forgotten. Forgotten is the bloody heritage of the Europeans, who were still major powers at the time, dividing up the world amongst themselves. Grenada too, changed hands between the French and the British. In the late 18th century, the British brought a large number of people from Africa and forced them to work as slaves on sugar plantations. Today, more than 80 per cent of the population are direct descendants of these slaves. It was also British traders who, in the mid-19th century, brought nutmeg from Indonesia to Grenada and began growing it here.

Grenada currently produces 20 per cent of the world's supply of nutmeg, making it the world's second largest nutmeg producer after Indonesia. "Today, Europeans come here because of our spices, our nutmeg. European colonial rule has long ended, today there are others fighting over us and trying to colonize us," says Cutty, pointing to the cricket stadium which we have now reached, and which Chinese workers started building in 2005, with Chinese money. "We call it the Chinese bribe. Projects funded by China, so that we vote for China and against Taiwan at the United Nations."

Cold War

Today, like yesterday and beyond, Grenada is at the centre of geopolitical squabbling; it is being kicked around like a football by major powers. No longer are France and England in the forward positions, instead, it is China and the USA. In this game, China is venturing ever farther into America's backyard, to which several Caribbean countries belong, including Grenada. Even today, two plane wrecks at the old airport bear witness to Grenada’s importance to the USA during the Cold War. At the time, on 25 October 1983, one week after a military coup on the island, Ronald Reagan sent 8,000 American soldiers to Grenada. Officially, their mission was to protect American students at St George's University, but even then, it was already about something different. It was the Cold War, and Reagan feared that the putschists would side with Cuba. The US troops therefore deposed the putschists, and a pro-US civilian government took power.

Selling out to China

China does not send soldiers, but money, workers and covert diplomats. Construction work on the cricket stadium was completed in 2007. The Chinese Ambassador arrived for the inauguration ceremony, but instead of the Chinese national anthem, Grenada’s police orchestra played the Taiwanese national anthem…a mistake and political faux pas, which cost the orchestra director his job. After a brief period of awkward political relations, other Chinese projects followed the building of the stadium: residential settlements, agricultural aid, and currently, expansion work on Grenada’s new airport, paid for with a Chinese loan of over USD 60 million. Cutty the tour guide is worried that China will simply appropriate land or the airport if Grenada is unable to repay the loan – for the island nation is not rich.

Diplomatic mercenary

Is Grenada selling itself out? It seemed that way, at least until recently. Grenada also sells citizenship. Since 2016, foreigners have been able to legally purchase Grenadian citizenship under the "Grenada Citizenship by Investment" programme for at least USD 150,000, which allowed them visa-free travel in the Schengen area for example. By this means, Chinese national, Yuchen (Justin) Sun, became a Grenadian citizen – and more. The world-renowned Chinese cryptocurrency and blockchain entrepreneur was appointed Grenada’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Geneva last December. The fact that it was never entirely clear which interests he was representing – his personal business interests, Chinese, or Grenadian State interests – seemed not to bother the Government of Grenada. Nor was it troubled by the fact that there were several charges hanging over Sun in the USA, including money-laundering, and violation of the regulations of the Securities and Exchange Commission and of the tax authorities. Since his appointment as Grenada’s representative to the WTO, Switzerland has withdrawn the legitimation card, for mixing personal business dealings with diplomacy. That ended his diplomatic immunity, his right of residence in Switzerland, and also the possible purchase of a house in Switzerland. Yet, Sun is no exception in Grenada’s diplomatic circles – dozens of Chinese nationals are travelling around the world as diplomats of the small island nation. According to several media reports, they have all bought their diplomatic passports. In return, Grenada has become pro-China, has committed to the One China policy and severed ties with Taiwan.

New government, new hope

It would seem that many in Grenada no longer want to see their own government selling out their small Caribbean country, so that major powers can use the island for their geopolitical games. This was certainly one of the reasons why Prime Minister Keith Mitchell was voted out of office in elections held in late June 2022. The 75-year-old politician had held the reins of power for 23 years and been running Grenada more and more like a family business. It seems a universal principle that whoever stays in power for too long becomes greedy. The new Prime Minister, Dickon Mitchell, has pledged to fight corruption and announced an end to the sale of diplomatic passports to foreign nationals. Tourist guide Cutty says: “We are pinning our hopes on Mitchell, the island’s best advocate." The 44-year-old now plans to work to advance the interests of his homeland and all its citizens. He has already announced his intention to recall all ambassadors and introduce new policy priorities. In his address to the United Nations General Assembly in September, he named one first priority: that of climate change. It is likely that the Chinese diplomats who have so far pretended to be serving Grenada will now have to look around for new occupation.

© zVg

Karin Wenger

The author: Karin Wenger

Karin Wenger was South Asia and South-East Asia correspondent for Swiss Radio SRF from 2009 to 2022, based in New Delhi and Bangkok. In the spring, she published three books about her time in Asia. Since summer, she has been sailing the world’s oceans and writing about forgotten political events and conflicts in the Global South. For more information, see or

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