DOMINICA: Poor Little Paradise

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A banana republic's birthday

There were gifts aplenty last week at a birthday party for the world's newest nation, which happens to be a real banana republic. The tiny Commonwealth of Dominica (pop. 78,000), a 290-sq.-mi. speck in the Lesser Antilles, earns 70% of its $12 million export revenues from the serviceable fruit, and it has replaced Queen Elizabeth II as head of state with a ceremonial President. Nonetheless, the Queen's younger sister, a newly thinned-down Princess Margaret, presided over the independence ceremonies that made Dominica the Western Hemisphere's 30th sovereign state. As the Union Jack was hauled down in Windsor Cricket Park, it was replaced by the country's sassy new multicolored flag emblazoned with a green Sisserou parrot, the national bird.

The British gave an eminently practical birthday present: money. Westminster, which has ruled the island since 1805, signed over $20 million, half of that a no-strings grant, the other half an interest-free loan. Next in line were the French, who vowed to build a sports stadium, a jetport and a better road connecting the capital of Roseau (pop. 20,000) with the island's sole landing field, 36 jolting miles away. The U.S. anted up 250 reference volumes for the national library.

Dominica (pronounced Dom-in-ee-ka) will need it all, and probably more. Apart from bananas, limes and, that Caribbean rarity, fresh water from its more than 300 rivers, the island does not have a lot going for it. Even the banana trade has mottled, due to a worldwide glut. Unemployment hovers around 20% and is particularly devastating among youth.

The country's Prime Minister, Patrick Roland John, 40, believes the answer to Dominica's plight is in a local brand of socialism. John talks of "the populace of Dominica being able to manage their resources" and of agribusiness joint ventures involving foreign capital, local private investors and government money.

A key reason for Dominica's push for independence was dissatisfaction with its status as a British "Associated State," which meant that it was something more than a colony but something less than a sovereign nation. As an Associated State, Dominica could not apply for international economic aid or help from any nation other than Britain. Now the island seems intent on attaching itself to every organization with an aid program. Says Dominica's Foreign Minister, Leo Austin, 50: "We will join the Organization of American States, the United Nations, World Bank, all of them."

Dominica is only the first of a series of independent ministates about to pop up in the Caribbean. Within the next twelve months or so it will be followed by St. Lucia (pop. 120,000), St. Vincent (pop. 100,000), Antigua (pop. 75,000) and St. Kitts-Nevis (pop. 50,000). All the islands have been British Associated States, and all are leaving London's paternal embrace hungry for aid. They share one other trait: a capacity to cause problems for the 26-member OAS, which they all plan to join. Each will receive a vote equal to that of the U.S., Mexico and Brazil. Joining such other former British colonies as Jamaica and the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, the poor little paradises of the Caribbean could form a bloc with as many votes as all of South America.