The second half of October is always a time of reflection amongst progressive forces in Caribbean, but especially so in Grenada. This is because October 19 marked the 29th anniversary of the death of Maurice Bishop, the Prime Minister of the People’s Revolutionary Government of Grenada. In addition, October 25 will mark the 29th anniversary of the invasion of Grenada—where the United States attacked the island’s population of 110,000 with 7,000 troops via land, sea, and air.
The right wing Heritage Foundation described the 1983 invasion as “The Reagan Administration's bold action to restore democracy and a free market economy to Grenada.” Ronald Reagan himself stated that it was “no invasion; it was a rescue mission.” Guyana’s Stabroek News was more precise, calling it “one of the most egregious examples of asymmetrical warfare in modern times, the United States of America, the world’s most powerful state, invaded Grenada, one of the world’s weakest mini-states.”
Given the context of the Cold War, the United States under Reagan had been busy undermining the revolutionary government in Nicaragua, aiding the right wing paramilitaries in El Salvador, and destabilizing the progressive government of Michael Manley in Jamaica. Reagan was also eager to score a military victory and restore the confidence that had been lost after the Vietnam War and the overthrowing of the Shah in Iran. This victory was to come at the expense of the Grenadian people, and the wider hopes of the Caribbean, in constructing a model of society based on social justice.
The Grenadian Revolution began on March 13, 1979, when the New Joint Endeavor for Welfare Education and Liberation, or the New Jewel Movement, overthrew the corrupt and increasingly oppressive government of Eric Gairy. Bishop described life under Gairy as one of “a total dependence on imperialism, a reality that meant extreme poverty, characterized by massive unemployment, with more than half of the work force out of work, high malnutrition, illiteracy, backwardness, superstition, poor housing and health conditions combined with overall economic stagnation and massive migration.”
The role of the Grenadian Revolution, its importance to the wider Caribbean, and the threat it posed for the United States was best summed up by Bishop who remarked in 1980 that “We are obviously no threat to America, nor is Cuba for that matter. I think Washington fears that we could set an example for the rest of the region if our Revolution succeeds. In the Caribbean region you’re talking about small countries with small populations and limited resources, countries that over the years have been classic examples of neo-capitalist dependencies. Now you have these new governments like Nicaragua and Grenada that are attempting a different experiment. They are no longer looking at development as how many hotels you have on the beach but in terms of what benefits people get. How many have jobs? How many are being fed, housed, and clothed? How many of the children receive education? We certainly believe in Grenada that the people of the English-speaking Caribbean want to see an experiment like that succeed. They want to see what we are trying to build come about. America understands that and obviously if we are able to succeed where previous governments following different models failed, that would be very, very subversive.”
According to Jorge Heine, the Grenadian Revolution “stands as the single most advanced effort to bring socialism to the English speaking Caribbean, regionally the Grenadian Revolution stands only after the Haitian Revolution of 1804, and the Cuban Revolution of 1959 in the scope and degree of change brought to political institutions.” As such, the Reagan administration had to figure out a way to portray Grenada as an immediate threat to the world’s preeminent superpower.
This was done by portraying the construction of the Port Salines International Airport as the latest Soviet attempt to launch an attack on the United States. Despite the airport being a project planned by the British and Canadian government, assisted by Cuban construction workers and a Miami-based dredging firm, Reagan spun the project as something much more sinister, calling Grenada “a Soviet-Cuban colony being readied as a major military bastion to export terror and undermine democracy.”
In 1982, Bishop invited Congressman Ron Dellums to Grenada on a fact-finding mission. Upon his return, he told Congress that "Based on my personal observations, discussion, and analysis of the new international airport under construction in Grenada, it is my conclusion that this project is specifically now and has always been for the purpose of economic development and is not for military use.... It is my thought that it is absurd, patronizing, and totally unwarranted for the United States Government to charge that this airport poses a military threat to the United States’ national security."
October 19, 1983 marks the date when a personal and factional rivalry began between Bishop and Bernard Coard. Bishop was regarded as being more pragmatic, while Coard on the other hand was seen by many as being much more “Stalinist” and doctrinaire in character. Coard’s ultra-left counter-revolution was extremely bloody, killing Bishop, his pregnant girlfriend, and many of his supporters in the Revolutionary cabinet. With the killing of such a charismatic and visionary leader, this was the date when the Grenadian Revolution was dealt its hardest blow; the invasion simply finished things off.
Before this could happen, one of the most vital elements which helped Reagan build his case for invasion came in the form of a request by the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States to invade Grenada to restore democratic institutions. The OECS leader and Prime Minister of Dominica, Eugenia Charles, made the request. William Blum argued about the controversial nature of this request for intervention, remarking that “Even if the fears were valid, it would constitute a principle heretofore unknown under international law, namely that state A could ask state B to invade state C in the absence of any aggressive act toward state A by state C.” Declassified records have since shown that the CIA had given Charles $100,000 for making the request to intervene in Grenada.
One year after the U.S. invasion and the deaths of hundreds of Grenadian people, the World Bank hypocritically argued that the lack of an international airport “was the most limiting single factor in achieving the island’s growth possibilities.”
The Grenadian Revolution was notable in the English speaking Caribbean for its firm declaration of anti- imperialist politics and the advancement of grass roots democracy, economic self-reliance, and agricultural cooperatives. Fidel Castro referred to it as both “a successful Moncada” and “a big revolution in a small country.”
In many ways, the Grenadian revolution was also traumatic blow to the wider Caribbean left, revealing sharp warnings about ideological factionalism and ever-present U.S. destabilization campaigns and military intervention. It was a violent reminder that broad societal change would not occur easily or without repercussions. That said, we can see signs of hope. As a sign of the transition towards recognizing the good of the Revolution, in 2009, the Point Salines International Airport—the target of so much U.S. propaganda efforts—was renamed the Maurice Bishop International Airport. The move was significant after so much time and money had been spent to demonize Bishop and the revolution since the invasion.
With the deterioration of living conditions and limited opportunities for so many people in the Caribbean, the words of Bishop and the positive lessons from the Grenadian Revolution are now more important than ever. While August 2012 marked the 50th Anniversary of independence for Jamaica and Trinidad, the current levels of poverty, inequality, violence, and lack of opportunity across the wider Caribbean, reveal that political independence is often a hollow prize if not reinforced by efforts to remake society along the lines of greater equality and justice.
Kevin Edmonds is a NACLA blogger focusing on the Caribbean. For more from his blog, "The Other Side of Paradise," visit nacla.org/blog/other-side-paradise. Edmonds is a former NACLA research associate and a current PhD student at the University of Toronto, where he is studying the impact of neoliberalism on the St. Lucian banana trade. Follow him on twitter @kevin_edmonds.