CHATEAUBELAIR, St. Vincent — Lush marijuana fields covered the hillside above, and the sweet smell of ganja wafted through the crowd as one of this island nation's most popular politicians took center stage.
Cheers echoed as candidate Ralph Gonsalves--an opposition leader, respected member of parliament and defense attorney to accused drug lords--appealed through the reggae beat of his campaign song: "Those in the hills! You have a friend in me! Rastafari!"
The scene provided a backdrop to the growing concern among senior counter-narcotics officials in Washington and Western Europe who are watching closely as St. Vincent and the Grenadines prepares to vote Monday for the 15 elected members of parliament, including the prime minister.
Those officials assert that in recent years, this 30-island chain has become as strategic in the global war on drugs as it remains obscure to much of the Western world that consumes those drugs.
Better known in the tourism industry for the 29 Grenadine islands that attract millionaire yacht owners and rock stars--the winter homes of Mick Jagger and David Bowie are on Mustique--this nation has quietly become a major transshipment spot for South American cocaine, according to senior U.S. drug enforcement officials in Washington. They say bulk shipments are warehoused here en route to markets in the U.S. and Europe.
A recent U.S. State Department's counter-narcotics report states that St. Vincent has also become one of the region's largest marijuana producers. However, even some U.S. officials attribute that partly to the United States' own trade policies.
In the year since the Clinton administration won a World Trade Organization decision eliminating preferential European trade deals that had supported this region's vital banana industry, many banana farmers here have turned to marijuana for survival.
As one opposition leader wryly observed: "Thanks to the Americans, ganja has become our most successful agricultural diversification project."
Opposition leaders here allege that police and political corruption has fueled the narcotics trade--a charge the government denies. Yet Vincentian analysts fear that there will be little change in the drug trade if the opposition wins next week.
In interviews this week, leaders of both major parties acknowledged that cocaine trafficking, rising addiction rates and marijuana production are important campaign issues.
But several of them made a clear distinction. The leaders and independent political analysts say that the majority of voters supports a crackdown on the cocaine trade but that few endorse marijuana eradication.
At a time of soaring unemployment, ballooning foreign debt and flagging tourism, clearly there are other issues.
Prime Minister James F. Mitchell, one of the region's longest-serving leaders, tops the list. The opposition's theme in attacking his government on drugs, crime, corruption and cronyism is: "More than ready for the change."
Mitchell staunchly defended his record--especially on drugs--in an interview this week. And he lashed out at Washington.
The prime minister said he risked alienating St. Vincent's farmers by granting U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration helicopter crews permission to destroy marijuana fields, although he said they have done so only rarely.
Mitchell was also among the first Caribbean leaders to sign a treaty allowing U.S. vessels to chase drug traffickers into island waters--a power Mitchell says U.S. law enforcement has also used infrequently.
"I have reluctantly given up my sovereignty to the United States, and they refuse to exercise it," Mitchell said, adding that his nation lacks the resources to patrol against traffickers alone.
The prime minister also attacked the opposition Unity Labor Party on the issue, singling out the party's Gonsalves, who is running for reelection to parliament, as the region's "No. 1 drug lawyer"--a role Gonsalves acknowledged but attributed to his professional duty as a trial lawyer.
"How can I defend somebody on charges of murder or rape, which are far more serious offenses under the law, if I can't defend somebody on a drug charge?" he asked.
Gonsalves and other opposition leaders insist that they will crack down hard on the drug trade.