President Reagan Finds a Fast Friend in Eugenia Charles, Dominica's Plucky P.M.

updated 11/14/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/14/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

Small birds dart among the flamboyants, geraniums and carnations that riot in pink, blue and white around the veranda of the turn-of-the-century house. "Hullo, hullo?" says an imposing 64-year-old woman, sitting on the porch and speaking into a cordless telephone from her red leather Barcalounger, which is literally the seat of government on the island-nation of Dominica. Just days earlier, millions of TV watchers around the world had seen Prime Minister Mary Eugenia Charles standing side by side with Ronald Reagan. As chairman of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, she had induced the President to make his invasion of Grenada. But today she was back at her veranda "office" in the capital city of Roseau, fielding an inquiry about the new water system from a citizen whose name she does not ask but whose questions she gladly answers. Miss Charles, as she is known to the island's more than 75,000 citizens, is very much the mother of her people. "I think it's just as well," she says, "that I'm as single of mind as I am of marital status."

Indeed, it was this single-minded-ness that made her pay special heed to the rumors of political intrigue on Grenada. "You get little snippets," says Charles, who is plugged into the Eastern Caribbean grapevine. "I can't say we had the whole scenario." What alarmed her were reports from Grenada of Cubans, Libyans, Russians and "North Koreans with no visible means of support driving around in fancy cars," says Charles. "It didn't take a genius to figure out what was going on."

Nor was it difficult to figure out that President Reagan was the man to handle it. And yes, she, not Reagan, insists Charles, was the one to initiate their discussions just after the murder of leftist Grenadian leader Maurice Bishop on Oct. 19. "When I left here," she says, "I intended to press Mr. Reagan. But I didn't have to because of the position he has taken."

If there is scarcely an ounce of reticence in Miss Charles—even when it comes to President Reagan—it may stem from the fact that she was reared in a society dominated by women. The granddaughter of a former slave, Eugenia Charles is one of four children of a mason who rose to prominence as a fruit exporter and land speculator. J.B. Charles died last year at age 107. He was "as bright as a penny up to the last minute," says Eugenia, but his role was secondary at home. Because of the high percentage of illegitimate births and the consequent need for women to be both mothers and fathers, Dominica (pronounced Do-mi-NEE-ka) is basically a matriarchal society. "My mother was the boss," says Charles. "In Dominica we really live women's lib. We don't have to expound it."

Eugenia studied in Toronto and London during the post-WW II years and returned to Dominica with a law degree in 1949 to set up shop as an attorney. Increasingly irked by the autocratic ways of then Premier E.O. LeBlanc, she organized the Dominica Freedom Party in 1968 and gained a reputation as an orator; two years later she was appointed to the legislature. In 1977 she went to Britain with a delegation to sue for independence, which was granted in 1978. Thus Dominica, like Grenada, became a member of the British Commonwealth. Two years later Charles helped throw out the allegedly corrupt regime of Prime Minister Patrick John—who was said to be aligning Dominica, a black nation, with South Africa. She then ran successfully for the top job herself.

A thoroughgoing democrat, Charles finds it difficult "to attach a political 'ism' to myself, because if you want the greatest good for the greatest number, isn't that socialism? But if you want people to be free—to reelect or reject you, to criticize you—that isn't socialism. I think I'm a pragmatist."

She is indeed—and with sufficient cause. Her 298-square-mile island is stunningly beautiful, ribboned by 365 rivers, which are knotted in uncounted waterfalls. Yet the island is without decent roads, reliable electricity, a modern airport or deep-water shipping facility—not to mention a white sand beach. The island, therefore, holds few charms either for industry or tourism. It is, according to one U.S. official, the "basket case of the Eastern Caribbean," with a per-capita income of some $400 a year. So far Charles has discouraged offers from Cuba, Russia and Libya of college scholarships for her young people. "They are told they can study what they want, but they'll be required to study Marxism and military arts," she says. "I can understand learning different 'isms,' but when you offer only one it's not good."

It's no wonder that the Prime Minister is courting President Reagan, who has already promised $11 million to repair the 36-mile road that links the main airport to the capital. The President is also pushing the so-called Caribbean Basin Initiative, with a regional aid package of $350 million. Yet Miss Charles is refreshingly up-front about her designs. "I'm pro-American," she says, in her melodic Caribbean accent. "But if I knew how to do it, I'd go to Libya and say, 'Hi, I hear you're doling out money and I want my share.' "

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