Grenada re-visited 20 years on

On the 20th anniversary of the overthrow and execution of Grenada's leader and the US invasion that followed, Dominic Bascombe looks at how events are remembered.

Twenty years ago, the tiny spice isle of Grenada became the centre of international controversy.

Its Prime Minister was killed in a dramatic, bloody counter coup and within mere hours the country had been diplomatically cut off from the rest of the Caribbean.

Within days, the United States of America was baying at the chance to bomb the Russian and Cuban "terrorists" that were on the island as the rest of the world lobbied for a diplomatic resolution to the crisis.

In short, Grenada’s political situation was not much unlike that of Iraq in the days before the most recent Gulf war was declared.

Though the Grenada situation ultimately came to its bloody conclusion, the questions and uncertainty surrounding its sorry state of affairs remains to this day.

The questions recently came to the fore once more as the island played host to a party of US citizens, many of whom were actively involved in the infamous bombing of the island.

On 1 March this year, the US based Freedom Alliance and National Rifle Association (NRA) hosted a cruise to the island to “celebrate the 20th anniversary of the liberation of Grenada”.

The Freedom Alliance and NRA are well known for their advocacy of the right of US citizens to bear arms and encourage military service.

The Freedom Alliance is led by Colonel Oliver North who rose to infamy during the Iran-Contra affair of the late 1980s, when sales from illegal firearms to Iran were channelled to guerrillas in Nicaragua to undermine the Sandinista government.

The cruise - with cabins costing between US$1,500 and US$6,000 - started from Puerto Rico and stopped in Aruba, Venezuela, Grenada, Dominica and St. Thomas, before returning to Puerto Rico.

Speakers included Edwin Meese, former U.S. Attorney General, Duane Clarridge, former CIA Operative, and Michael Reagan, son of former President Ronald Reagan.

The trip raised the ire of many Caribbean nationals even as far away as in the UK.

The London based High Commissioner for Antigua and Barbuda, Ronald Sanders, has strenuously objected to the cruise since late last year.

Sanders has been quoted in Caribbean newspapers as describing the affair as “utterly insensitive and crass behaviour. The occupation of Caribbean soil by foreign troops and the circumstances that led to it should be a matter of deep regret to Caribbean people,” he has said.

For many present day observers, the occasion does not seem to deserve much attention.

After all, Grenada was and remains today little more than a dot on the world map.

The growing stomp of globalisation and a turbulent agricultural situation has seen declining reliance on the country, even though Grenada is known as the "spice isle" for its prodigious production of nutmeg and cinnamon.

Tourism has today become the island’s main source of income.

But nearly 25 years ago, the situation was markedly different.

Indeed, as North himself says: "It helped change the world."

After an extended period of dictatorship under Prime Minister Eric Gairy, the population of 100,000 was led in a coup by Maurice Bishop on March 12, 1979.

A lawyer by profession, Bishop rallied massive public support and the coup was virtually bloodless.

With the British-trained economist Bernard Coard as his right hand man, they engaged in a social revolution on the island led by the People’s Revolutionary Government.

Driven by quasi-Marxist and Leninist principles, the duo sought to develop an "economic integration of the Caribbean under popular ownership and control".

Their aims were lauded by Cuban President Fidel Castro who spoke with pride of "the big revolution in a little island".

All of this drew the concern of the United States, at the time caught up in the Cold War frenzy and anxious to stem the spread of communism in the Caribbean region lying literally at their doorstep.

When the Grenadian Government sought assistance from Cuba and the then Soviet Union for technical advice to build a new airport on the island among other projects, the threats were quick in coming from the US.

The US ambassador at the time delivered to Bishop a note from his government outlining that, “We would view with displeasure any tendency on the part of Grenada to develop closer ties with Cuba”.

The planned airport was a source of great concern to the US. Why did Grenada need an international airport? Would it be used by Cubans to expand communism?

An ever-developing relationship with Cuba and the supply of arms from the Soviet bloc to Grenada increased the Americans' fears even more.

True to form however, Bishop ignored these threats, condemning them as a threat to Grenada’s national sovereignty and instead concentrated on the education and development of his population amidst the flourishing economy.

All this was to change in October 1983, however.

To this day it remains unclear what sparked the internal political problems.

A rift had been developing between Bishop and Coard, and in particular the people within their own party who supported each side.

According to some, it was a blatant grab for power by Deputy Prime Minister Coard.

For others, Bishop seemed too willing to adopt his approach to strengthen a relationship with the US, largely following advice from the then Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister George Chambers.

Whatever it was, the rift widened and Bishop was soon denounced at a political party meeting and placed under house arrest.

The situation dismayed many observers, for "to arrest Bishop is to arrest the revolution itself," it was said.

There was little public support for the counter-coup by Coard however, and a crowd of people marched to Bishop’s home to free and take him to Fort Rupert.

It was there that the army crushed the group and Bishop and his colleagues were executed.

The situation now demanded some form of action from their Caribbean neighbours.

Eugenia Charles, then Prime Minister of Dominica, met with other heads of government of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) and imposed diplomatic sanctions on the tiny island.

Charles later met with Prime Ministers Edward Seaga of Jamaica and Tom Adams of Barbados and discussed the possibility of using force to restore peace on the island.

She then took the unprecedented step of inviting the US President Ronald Regan to send American troops to Grenada.

This was just the impetus the US was looking for, as they could now claim legitimacy in their actions.

This step was roundly condemned by Trinidad, Guyana, Belize and the Bahamas, all of whom disagreed with the use of force against the small island.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the affair was the British response.

A former British colony, Grenada is a member of the Commonwealth, but Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her government publicly denied any knowledge of any impending use of force in Grenada.

Indeed, when Reagan ordered the US invasion on October 25 1983, Thatcher claimed ignorance of the deed.

But the actions of the US were not ignored by the rest of the world.

At the United Nations, a General Assembly resolution condemning the action garnered 108 votes in favour and only nine votes against.

Displaying a frightening nonchalance with world opinion, the invasion went ahead, with bombs dropped on the small island and thousands of US troops sent to take on a handful of ill-equipped Grenadian and Cuban workers.

During the invasion, the US Government seized its opportunity to spread falsehoods alleging there were thousands of Cubans on the island and that Grenada was stockpiling weapons and ammunition, (in today’s parlance these would perhaps be re-named weapons of mass destruction).

The attack was inevitably over within a matter of days with the dead included 24 Cubans, 18 Grenadians and 18 Americans. The Grenadian figure remains disputed to this day .

But it is not fallen Grenadians that the Freedom Alliance cruise sought to remember.

Promotions for the Freedom Cruise advertised the fact that proceeds from the cruise were to go towards a scholarship fund for the children of US soldiers killed in Grenada .

The cruise came as the Caribbean region was seeking to forge stronger ties with Cuba.

Last December, Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago celebrated 30 years of diplomatic relations with the communist country.

The number is significant given that 30 years ago the world was at the height of the Cold War and Cuba was virtually isolated in the hemisphere.

The anniversary was feted in Havana, Cuba with the governments taking the opportunity to condemn US-led economic and commercial sanctions against the island.

The Bishop leadership in Grenada remains a strong influence in the region even today, for it showed that Caribbean states could successfully develop social policies and not be bullied by other larger imperialist states.

In Grenada, Cuban influence remains, as evidenced in the new hospital building made with the assistance of Cuba, and for the wider Caribbean region, Cuba offers dozens of scholarships to regional citizens.

It is also a regular source of medical assistance for other Caribbean states.

This, however, may not be the kind of liberation that North and his colleagues celebrated.