Reaction To Reagan’s Role In The Caribbean
HOUSE OF LABOUR: Reaction to last week’s column “Reagan’s legacy in the Caribbean", through e-mail and by way of telephone was swift and furious. It is perhaps articles like that one that answers the question "Is anybody listening?” In one of the e-mails sent, the reader wondered if this column could shed some light on the fate of the seventeen Grenadians charged and jailed with murder, and manslaughter in the political incident that ended in the death of Maurice Bishop- the former Prime Minister of Grenada and his supporters.
To be honest this was a tall order. I had long ago stopped following the development regarding those who were regarded as the counterrevolution in the experiment where Grenadians were attempting to establish the second workers state in the Caribbean. However, after considerable research and a few phone calls to some of my Caribbean comrade’s- one recent article by Rich Gibson a professor of education at San Diego State University provided some insight. What follows are excerpts from the lengthy article entitled “ The Grenada 17, The Last Prisoners of the Cold War Are Back” where Gibson argues: “The invasion of Grenada, more than 20 years ago, presaged many of the events that blowback on the US today: unilateral warfare, official deceit about the motives for war, a massive military moving against an imagined foe, stifling the press, leaders proclaiming their guidance from God, denials of human and civil rights, systematic torture and subsequent cover-ups-and a hero who refused to go along. Many of the players in the Bush administration who promise perpetual war today cut their teeth on the invasion of Grenada.
On March 13, 1979 a revolution took place in Grenada, the first in an African Caribbean country, the first in the English-speaking world. The people who made up the revolutionary cadre were young, average age around 27. The uppermost leadership was predominantly middle class, educated abroad. They called themselves the New Jewel Movement (NJM). The revolution, or coup as some called it, was popular, replacing a mad dictator named Eric Gairy who spent much of the tiny country's (pop 100,000) resources investigating the reason Grenada was a favorite landing point for flying saucers.
At the time of the uprising, Eric Gairy was in the US visiting with Nazi war criminal (and United Nations Secretary General) Kurt Waldheim. Gairy simply didn't return. Maurice Bishop, Jacqueline Creft, Bernard and Phyllis Coard, were among the key New Jewel leaders. Bishop and Coard had been childhood friends.
The NJM leadership was socialists, though their socialism was eclectic-hardly the doctrinaire image the U.S. later created. They borrowed judiciously and won investments from any government they could, from the British to the USSR to Iraq and Cuba (which provided mostly doctors, construction specialists, nurses, and educators). The exacting Brandeis-educated Bernard Coard, leading the financial sector, was recognized throughout the Caribbean as a rare, honest, economist.
They began a mass literacy project (led by Paulo Freire), quickly improved medical care, began to set up processing plants for fish and spices, and started building a jetport. The country had a tiny landing strip only able to land prop planes, a problem for an economy tied up with tourist interests. The plan in general, was to magnify national economic development by expanding existing forms of production (agriculture, small industries, tourism, etc.) and by creating a new class of technologically competent workers who might use their skills to create a role for Grenada in the information economy as well. The far-sighted educational programs had a critical role in that project.
To claim that the NJM rule was a model of egalitarian democracy, as much of the chic left did at the time, would be off point. It wasn't. While international tourist-socialists danced during carnival in the beautiful houses allotted to revo leaders, democracy and equality went on the back burner in favor of national economic development.
With New Jewel under terrific pressure, The US quickly moved to crush the revo, made tourism nearly impossible for U.S. citizens. It is fairly clear that the CIA made several attempts to murder key leaders.
Pressed externally, NJM grew more isolated from the people. Rather than reach out to expand its initial popularity, the party turned inward. The leadership tried to rely on a correct analysis and precise orders rather than to build a popular base. Even though there was no question that Bishop would win elections, the NJM leaders refused to hold them. Then In 1982 and 1983, sharp disagreements began to emerge within the entire organization. Within four years, by 1983, the NJM was in real trouble.
The Central Committee passed motions blaming the people for the crises in the economy. In 1983, the whole party voted overwhelmingly to reduce Bishop's role and elevate Coard to an equal spot, though the entire party, and Coard, knew he would never be as popular as the charismatic Bishop, and could never rule without him. There were many reasons for the move; one of the more important being Bishop's lack of personal discipline, called "waffling". The shift to shared leadership was made in the context of a revolution already in crisis. Bishop agreed to the plan, but expressed concern that his work was being repudiated, that this might be a vote of no confidence.
On 19 October 1983, a mob of thousands led by Bishop marched past armed personnel carriers (APC's) lined up in front of his home, freed "We Leader" Bishop, and (under curious banners like "We Love the US") began to move to the town square. No one in the APC's moved to stop the crowd.
As the crowd moved to Bishop's house, a Cuban military outfit arrived at the downtown Fort Rupert (now Ft George). They had not reported in days and were turned away by the commander on duty from the NJM. In the town square, where rallies were traditionally held, microphones were set up for Bishop to speak to the people. Bishop could have easily mobilized nearly the entire population of the island to come to the square to support him-and that probably would have been that.
But now led by Bishop and his friends, the crowd turned and marched on a nearby fort where arms and TNT were stored. Bishop demanded that the commander of the fort turn over his weapons. He did, and was locked in a cell.
At this point, things become murky. An award winning Grenadian journalist, Alastair Hughes, famous in the region for his resistance to the NJM and his courage, saw the crowd move to the fort and bolted home, rather than cover the news. Bishop moved his cadre to seize the radio and telephone centers, as had the NJM in overturning Gairy a few years earlier. From another fort on a mountain about two miles away, Peoples Revolutionary Army APC's were ordered to quiet the mob.
The soldiers on the APC's were for the most part, hardly crack troops; they were mainly youths who had enlisted to get the money to buy shoes for their families. One had deserted out of loneliness and been brought back the previous day. They rode on top of the carriers, in full view. As they approached the fort, fire came from the mob. The commander of the first APC, one of the few experienced soldiers in the group and a highly respected officer, was killed. Discipline appears to have evaporated on all sides. Fire was returned.
No one knows exactly how many people were killed and wounded. No firm count was ever made. There are films of people leaping over a wall at the fort (why a film-maker was so poised with such a powerful camera is an interesting question).
In any case, Bishop and other top leaders of NJM, including his pregnant companion Jackie Creft, were killed- after they had surely surrendered. The remaining leadership of NJM imposed a curfew on the island. In part because important documents taken from Grenada during the invasion remain classified in the U.S., no thoroughgoing investigation of this day's events has been possible.
Shortly afterward, on October 23 1983, 241 US troops were killed, blown up in their barracks in Lebanon by a truck bomb.
US President Ronald Reagan took to the TV, announcing he had discovered, through satellite photos, that the Cubans were building a secret Soviet Cuban military airstrip in Grenada-a direct threat to US security.
Reagan declared the US medical students to be in grave danger from the crisis in Grenada, said that the NJM was a threat to all regional security. He got the organization of Caribbean nations to back him with a big payoff to those who went along-- and invaded a country the size of Kalamazoo with a massive military force, under a precedent_ setting news blackout. The US had practiced the invasion of Grenada as early as 1981.
The invasion of Grenada (popular among most Grenadian people sickened by the long collapse of the NJM) was complete in a week. It was, however, denounced as illegal by the U.N. Security Council, by Margaret Thatcher and the British government, and by a myriad of US congress people.
The US, however, quickly recaptured its post-Lebanon image as a military super-power.
Seventeen NJM leaders were charged with the murder of Bishop, Jacqueline Creft, and others, though most of them were nowhere near the incident. The NJM leaders claimed they were tortured and signed transparently bogus confessions. According to affidavits filed by former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark, and Amnesty International, the NJM leaders were denied attorneys. They were tried by jurors who chanted "guilty" at them during jury selection, in trails led by judges hand-picked and paid by the U.S. They were unable to make a defense in the kangaroo atmosphere. Their lawyers were subjected to death threats and some fled. Fourteen of the NJM members were sentenced to death. In 1991, after an international outcry, the sentences were commuted to life. Typically in the Caribbean, a life sentence amounts to around 15 years.
The New Jewel leaders are still serving time in a prison built in the nineteenth century. The last prisoners of the cold war are black. Their health is rapidly fading. Despite immense obstacles created by prison officials over the years, the NJM prisoners are conducting one of the most successful literacy campaigns in the country. Less than two in ten of the program' grads return to the Richmond Hill jail.
As of October 2004, the NJM prisoners will have served 21 years. Phyllis Coard was released in 2000 to seek cancer treatment abroad, following an international campaign on her behalf. She is still expected to return to the jail following treatment.
In October 2003 Amnesty International has issued a detailed report, demonstrating their conclusion that the Grenada 17 were denied due process in their trial: "the trial was manifestly and fundamentally unfair." The selection of both judges and the jury were tainted with prejudice. Documents that might have contradicted key prosecution evidence were denied the defendants.
In 2002 Rich Gibson interviewed Grenada's ambassador to the US, asking him why his government is so determined to keep the Grenada 17 in jail. He replied that he, and the nation's current leader, Keith Mitchell, believed there would be riots if the Grenada 17 were set free. The possibility of serious civil strife in Grenada, about anything but the corruption allegations aimed at the Mitchell regime, are actually quite negligible, as leaders of the opposition party and the country's leading paper, the Voice, told Gibson.
Gibson concludes, “I spent 1996 in Grenada interviewing many of the jailed NJM leaders. To say they are innocent of everything is not the case. To say they are innocent of the charges brought against them is. The New Jewel leadership made serious mistakes. The prisoners have issued extensive, indeed insightful, apologies to that effect, taking responsibility for the crisis of the revolution, but not for the murders they did not commit. Their continued imprisonment is a mysterious yet great wrong that needs to be righted. The truth of the Grenada revo, and its destruction, needs to be known.”
Hopefully this information shed some light on the current status of these imprisoned as a result of the crushing of the Grenadian Revolution.
Charles Fawkes is President of the National Consumer Association, Consumer columnist for the Nassau Guardian and organizer for the Commonwealth Group of Unions, Editor of the Headline News, The Consumer guard and The Worker’s Vanguard. He can be contacted at his office in the House of Labour at [1-242] 326-6620. His e-mail addresses are: firstname.lastname@example.org