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Caribbean Cold War: The Other Iron Lady

By Gary Oswald

Eugenia Charles of Dominica. Photo by Bernard Gotfryd, is in the Public Domain.

Unlike many of its neighbours, the Commonwealth of Dominica was granted independence as a republic, with a President rather than a Governor-General. Had it not been, Eugenia Charles would have become Elizabeth II's third Female Prime Minister, after Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Margaret Thatcher, taking power just over a year after the latter. Both women, Thatcher and Charles, earned the nickname the Iron Lady, both were transformative leaders in their own ways, both were to the right of their countries politics and both had good relationships with Ronald Reagan. Charles stood alongside Reagan when both their countries would send troops into Grenada to overthrow the communist government there in 1983 and is perhaps best known for being an anti Cuban US ally during the Cold War.

Eugenia Charles was born in 1919, into a society much like the rest of the Antilles, still dominated by a white minority. But Dominica had the smallest white minority of all the British Caribbean Islands and so also had a coloured bourgeoisie, descendants of free people of colour who had become landowners themselves. Charles was from that elite, her father founded the Dominican Cooperative Bank, and had a good education, becoming Dominica's first ever female lawyer after passing the bar in London in 1947, where, as a black woman, she was very much the exception among her year group. Any abuse she received then would serve as good practice for the reception she, as a woman who never married or had kids, got when she entered the male dominated Dominican national politics.

Much like what happened in St. Kitts and Grenada, post war Dominica was dominated politically by the trade union leaders who had risen to prominence during the strikes of the 30s and 40s. The Dominica Labour Party won four consecutive elections from 1961 to 1975 meaning that when Dominica got independence in 1978, Patrick John, leader of the Waterfront and Allied Workers' Union as well as the Dominica Labour Party became their first Prime Minister. Charles was a member of the right-wing Dominica Freedom Party, which quickly became the main opposition in the new country.

The Freedom Party got its name because Charles had written anonymous newspaper columns for The Herald and The Star criticising the Dominica Labour Party government during the 1960s. In response the government passed the Seditious and Undesirable Publications Act, which regulated the press. Charles called it the 'shut your mouth bill' and her and her supporters called themselves the Freedom Fighters against this authoritarian law and so formed the Freedom Party out of that. Standing up against censure of civil rights was a big part of Charles' message. In Parliament, she once showed up in the legislature wearing only a bathing suit, for a session in which a restrictive parliamentary dress code was attempted to be introduced.

The Freedom Party were not the only people unhappy with the Dominica Labour Party. John, while a socialist, was also attacked by the left for being too cosy with foreign capital. Rosie Douglas, a left-wing firebrand who had been jailed for protesting while studying in Canada, wrote a series of articles during John's time in power demanding more radical change and calling for Dominicans to follow the same path as the Cubans and Grenadians had, a communist revolution.

But the government's biggest problem came from a criminal gang of Black Power Rastafarians known as the Dreads, led by Henry Esprit and Leroy Etienne. The Dreads grew marijuana in remote farms and raided nearby towns and plantations for food, money, and young girls who they kidnapped. When three tourists were killed by Dreads, tourism numbers dropped. John reacted by passing the Prohibited and Unlawful Societies and Associations Act, better known as the Dread Act, which made it illegal to be a Rastafari, to have dreadlocks or to support the political philosophy of the Dreads, who had openly talked about burning down Dominica's towns. More than that, anyone who was covered by this law, could be arrested without cause and if killed or injured by anyone, within a dwelling, the person who assaulted them was immune from prosecution.

Essentially John had made it legal to kill anyone with Dreadlocks, despite committees he appointed to look into this confirming that the vast majority of Rastafari on the Island were peaceful activists with the violent criminals being a small minority. Eugenia Charles opposed it in debate, but ultimately abstained on the vote. For the next year, the police and Dreads would fight a guerrilla war in the mountains. In reaction, John would create a full-time professional army called the Dominica Defence Force, which John was personally in charge of, and which was de facto a militia of men loyal to Patrick John as a person rather than the government he represented. Charles and her Freedom Party roundly criticised this as both a waste of money and a step towards tyranny, but the government justified it by the way the DDF fought in the Police's war against the Dreads.

Patrick John

The year after independence was a bad year for John's Government, there were civil service strikes, loss of banana crops due to the banana board's failure to provide antiviral sprays and constant stories of John attracting dodgy foreign investment. He gave permission to Sidney Burnett-Alleyne, a Barbadian arms dealer to build a refinery on the Island which would supply Apartheid South Africa and help it dodge sanctions. Burnett-Alleyne would later be arrested after trying to overthrow Tom Adams, the second prime minister of Barbados, with the intent of installing John as ruler of a united Barbados-Dominica, though John claimed to have no knowledge of this plan once it came out. John would also attempt to sell one tenth of the island to a Texan company as a free port for only 100 dollars a year and he would offer Dominican passports to the entire government of Mohammad Reza Shah during the beginning of the Iranian Revolution. All these plans were furiously opposed by both Charles and Douglas and ultimately came to nothing.

In May 1979, John banned public gatherings, protests and strikes altogether, a desperate attempt to silence his critics. It didn't work. Huge crowds gathered outside the Government Headquarters and when the DDF came to move them on, they threw rocks at them. The DDF then opened fire, wounding several protestors and killing Phillip Timothy, a nineteen-year-old. That violence shocked the country and ended John's time in power. Shoot on sight policies were tolerated against the Rastafari but not a clean cut Christian student protestor.

One by one the members of his government crossed the floor to join a newly united opposition, while trade unions shut down the country until John resigned, which he did. Oliver Seraphin, John's Minister of Housing, would serve as interim Prime Minister until the 1980 elections, when, predictably, Charles would take power, becoming the first female head of government in the Anglophonic New World.

Charles had talked about immediately revoking the Dread Act, it ill-matched her liberal politics, but, shortly before the election, Hurricane David had torn down the walls of Dominica's main prison, releasing many of the most feared Dread criminals back into the wild. Then, shortly after the election, Dreads kidnapped the father of Charles' Press Secretary. To be seen as soft on them at that moment would have political suicide so Charles compromised on her principles and the law would remain in force for a year, before it was finally revoked in February 1981 and replaced by a Terrorist Act which kept the draconian punishments for criminals but not for non violent Rastafari.

Charles' delay would have its own consequences, because the Dreads were not the only enemies of her government during 1980. For a start, Douglas, now working for the Libyans, was no happier with this government than he had been the previous one. More importantly, the Dominica Defence Force, well aware that Charles wanted them shut down after the death of Phillip Timothy, were openly hostile to her government, especially after she started trying to prosecute DDF members who were involved in drug dealing. By the end of 1980 Charles had decided that the DDF must be disbanded and publicly suspended those leaders who she felt were still John's allies and followers. She suspected, rightly, that John had not yet given up on returning to power.

In January 1981, John's close friend, Defence Force deputy commander Malcolm Reid, had a meeting in Antigua to organise a coup. Reid had previously assured John that the majority of the DDF would support him, but the police would not. To carry out a coup, they would need allies against the police. And after numerous police raids on Dread farms and the Dread act still in place nearly a year after the election, Reid was sure that the Dreads would happily ally with their old enemy against Charles.

Which is why invited to that meeting in Antigua was Fordie Algernon Maffei, who John had played football with as a youth. Algie was a friend of Rosie Douglas but had also been one of the more violent of the Dreads, a second in command to Leroy Etienne and a man who had been on trial for murder when Hurricane David had freed him from prison.

Reid wanted Algie to gather up 20-30 Dread fighters to aid the DDF in overcoming the police. The Dreads viewed lawmen as criminals with uniforms, there is evidence that the police routinely tortured Rastafari for information, and relished the chance to turn the tables on them and wipe them out. The Dreads also wanted to burn down the city and kill Charles and her cabinet, but John's faction asked for them to agree to accept a peaceful surrender in return for the Dread act being replaced by legalisation of the growing and selling of cannabis, which would /make them considerably richer.

According to his own account, given after he turned state's witness against the other participants, Algie agreed to the deal but had never planned to follow through on this promise to allow a peaceful takeover by John, the man who had ordered all Rastas to be shot on sight. The Dreads were going to double cross John and take advantage of the chaos to attack both sides. He also claimed that he had kept Rosie Douglas informed of the plan so that the socialist organisations would likewise be able to take advantage.

However, even with the Dreads, seemingly, on board, John's men were still severely outnumbered and outgunned. But there was another man at that meeting in Antigua, an American named Mike Perdue. Perdue introduced himself as an ex-marine and soldier of fortune. He had initially worked with Eric Gairy, when the latter had attempted to recruit mercenaries to take back Grenada from the communist revolutionaries there but had concluded that Bishop's military was too strong for that to work. Dominica, however, was a much easier target. Perdue never explicitly claimed to be a CIA agent, but he certainly hinted that he was or at least that he was being backed by rich, powerful American interests. On the day of the coup, he and around 20-50 other mercenaries would arrive on a boat they would charter with hulls full of weapons, enough to turn the tide in favour of John's men.

In return Perdue was asking for a lot of money and his Company, Nordic Enterprises, to operate in Dominica without needing to pay taxes for 20 years, running logging and tourism activities on the Island, though John would personally get 15 percent of the profits and the company would be obligated to both train and employ Dominicans and invest in infrastructure. Of all the dodgy deals John had proposed to get foreign investment, this was the dodgiest. Beyond the violent overthrow of a democratically elected government, it involved essentially handing over the Dominican Economy to foreigners. And not just any foreigners, Perdue's economic plans were heavily based on those of the Mafia in Cuba. He was interested in making the island a criminal's paradise, a centre for cannabis and cocaine production and trafficking, to meet the increasing demand in American cities as well as a hub of the arms trade and a gambling centre where dirty money could be spent in casinos. In that context, turning a blind eye to the crimes of the Dreads was small potatoes.

Whether John ever actually intended to follow through on this deal or if he was also planning to backstab both the Dreads and the Americans once restored to power is unclear but in January 1981, the three sides agreed a contract and were ready to act.

Flag of Dominica

By February 1981 word of this alliance had come to Desmond Blanchard, head of the Dominican Special Branch and he started an investigation into it. In early March they managed to find a letter to be delivered to Fred Newton, who had been made Chief of the Defence Force after Charles had suspended Reid and the rest of the leadership, warning of a planned assault on the Police Station. It was in Reid's handwriting and name checked Patrick John and several of his allies. This was the smoking gun that the Charles government needed.

Charles went into her parliament and gave a rousing speech, as she ordered the arrest and trial of John and his allies (some of whom such as reggae musician Dennis Joseph, who was not named in the note and was found innocent on all charges, have claimed they were included, despite there being no evidence of their involvement, to give Charles an excuse to tarnish all her political rivals) and the complete disarmament and disbandment of the DDF. Caught unaware, the arrests went smoothly with little resistance from the soldiers. The DDF were removed from the board as a threat, at the same time that the war against the Dreads was finally achieving results. The replacement of the Dread act with the Terrorist act in February had given the Dreads an out, one only possible because of the reconciliation of the Dreads with Orthodox Rastafari, something that had begun after the Hurricane of 1979. While before that Dreads had held more peaceful Rastafari in contempt, their shared struggles had bought them closer and with the Dread act, which criminalised all Rastafari, removed, most Dreads simply left the gangs to join the orthodox branches. The die hards were then killed.

Despite these two major victories, Charles was not yet secure. The mercenaries were still out there, and the Dominican police were told to prepare a Bay of Pigs style ambush for their arrival. It was a Sword of Damocles hanging over her government for another month and a half. And then on April the 27th, word came from the USA and Canada that Perdue and his men had been arrested.

The truth, as would rapidly come out in his trial, was that Mike Perdue was a fraud. He had never served as a marine, or as a mercenary before, he was just a petty criminal with the gift of the gab. His financial backers weren't either the CIA or the Mob but rich men from the Deep South who Perdue was sleeping with, and the majority of his recruits were unemployed untrained members of white supremacist hate groups like the KKK, whom Perdue had long admired. There were some genuinely dangerous men within Perdue's gang, Roger Dermee was a mercenary who had served in both Katanga and Algeria while Charles Yanover was a capo in the mob, but those were the exceptions. The opportunities for money to be made were real and that attracted some serious players, but the majority were just your average American racists.

Perdue had sold this adventure as a chance for both easy money and for patriotic Americans worried about the advance of communism they constantly heard from the media and politicians to make a stand. He repeatedly called Eugenia Charles a communist, making much of the aid Cuba had offered to help her rebuild from Hurricane David and the Dominican students taking advantage of free education in Cuban colleges. Meanwhile he claimed that Patrick John was a firm anti-communist and the best chance to stand up to Grenada. The fact none of this was true, that Charles was a right-wing politician who hated communism and John was a socialist, didn't really matter. This was before the internet, after all, so nobody could fact check him easily and it sounded right given how much the US talked about Cuba spreading its influence.

The problem Perdue had when organising a coup was that he wasn't good at secrecy. He liked to boast, liked to tell tall tales. He repeatedly told potential investors that he was planning a coup, which even the most cut-throat capitalists tended to respond to with 'I can't hear that, talk to me again once you're in power'. He also let the entire story slip to a reporter, who he knew was a reporter. The man then anonymously informed the police. He even openly advertised for mercenaries in flyers. By the time he was even remotely ready to sail to Dominica, he'd been infiltrated by the authorities in at least three different ways and the arrest was only a matter of time.

It is interesting to imagine what would happen if John's plan succeeded, but to get that you really need Mike Perdue to be somebody else other than who he actually was. Possibly if someone like Charles Yanover had taken over operations, it could have been pulled off, but it's also not a coincidence that the only man John could find to work with him was someone like Mike Perdue. After all John had no international backers, the obvious outcome of his invasion winning is NATO then stepping in to remove him again. That in itself could be an interesting story, how is Reagan's Caribbean policy viewed if he intervenes in both Dominica and Grenada, but it meant the more far-sighted criminals would avoid the gig.

But there were those who had nothing to lose and were still willing to die to return John to power. On December 19th, 1981, around 12 sacked officers of the DDF, knowing that their mercenary and Dread allies would not come bringing more guns, launched the attack with what they could scrounge up anyway. They entered the police station and opened up fire, killing at least one policeman and wounding the commissioner until numbers told and they were forced to retreat.

Charles declared a state of emergency until the police could finally track down the officers. That did not take long, half of the rebels were shot to death on the street, the rest were rounded up and sentenced to death, though in the end only their leader, Fred Newton, would actually be executed, with the other sentences reduced. Newton remains the only person executed in Dominica since independence. If the original planned coup in early 1981 had only a slim chance of succeeding, this desperate attack had no chance at all. It was essentially suicide by cop.

Patrick John would also be found guilty of treason and would serve five years before being pardoned by Charles in 1990. Two years after his release from jail he would become President of the Dominica Football Association and would later be banned from working in football by FIFA for corruption.

Eugenia Charles survived the dangerous early years of her rule to serve for fifteen years from 1980 to 1995, winning two further elections, each fairly. As I said in the opening paragraph, she was one of the most enthusiastic supporters of Reagan's invasion of Grenada, sending in Dominican police during the occupation to free up American troops. This enthusiasm was perhaps partly moulded by her own experiences of facing violet revolution and the Grenadian example being used by her enemies as a model to follow.

Dominica remained poorer than her neighbours during Charles' time in charge, but she maintained the social welfare policies of Labour while reducing corruption among the government and the unions. Violent crime became less common after the destruction of the Dreads, and tourism recovered somewhat but remained low due to other factors, such as a lack of beaches and infrastructure. No major international criminal gangs ever set up on the Island, though it was used in a small way in the drugs and weapons trafficking trade routes from Venezuela and Colombia to the USA. The Dominican Rastafari remained outsiders persecuted by the Government, but their relationship with Charles, while still very bad, never quite reached the nadir of John legalising killing them. Rosie Douglas continued to oppose the Freedom Party but stopped writing about revolution and started competing in elections, becoming Prime Minister in 2000. Slowly the Island healed.

Certainly, the relatively peaceful rule of Charles and the peaceful transition to her successor (Edison James of the United Workers Party) secured a level of stability and faith in democracy in Dominica that avoided a situation like in Grenada. As this article should make clear, that was by no means certain given John and Gairy had a lot in common and Douglas was a Bishop in waiting had the parliamentary opposition been discredited. It is very easy to imagine a much more violent and less democratic 1980s for the island if Charles does not make it to the top.


Gary Oswald is the editor of the 'Grapeshot and Guillotines' and 'Emerald Isles' Anthologies.


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