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Caribbean Cold War: The Revolution eats itself

By Gary Oswald

Flag of Grenada

There is nothing particularly unusual about the history of Grenada. It had been conquered by Europeans in the 17th century, with its indigenous population largely exterminated. The last resisting native leader, Kairouane, threw himself and his last followers off a cliff to avoid being enslaved in 1654. Thousands of African slaves were then bought to the Island to farm sugar, coffee and cocoa in appalling conditions. In this way the island became valuable and was bitterly contested between France and the UK during the late 18th Century but by 1786, the UK had firmly established themselves in control. The Slaves were freed in 1838, but the political structure of the Island did not change, a small rich white elite remained in control and the black majority remained poor agricultural workers. And as a result, Radicals like T.A. Marryshow emerged in the trade union movement of the 1930s preaching pan-Africanism and the desire for an independent unified West Indies, a dream that never happened.

This, in broad strokes, was the story of pretty much all of the Anglophonic Caribbean Islands. In the Post War era, when de-colonisation became a serious policy in London, it was the union leaders who rose to the top in most of them, Bradshaw in St. Kitts came from that background and so did Eric Gairy, the leader of Grenada. Gairy's Grenada United Labour Party, was initially a trade union, and he came to global prominence by leading a general strike of agricultural workers against the British in 1951 after returning from working in the oil belt in the Dutch Antilles. Gairy's strikers were attacked by the planter class and became increasingly violent in response, burning down numerous estates and installations. The British arrested Gairy and bought in military forces to crush the uprising but ultimately were forced to compromise, agreeing for significant improvements in terms of wages and working conditions and implementing, the already promised, full suffrage.

These new wages and the damage caused during both the uprising and a later Hurricane, caused a rapid decline in the agricultural sector and the growth of other sectors in the economy. Gairy would eventually attempt to rectify that by confiscating the remaining estates, even the ones that had been workers co-operatives, and turning them into state farms, something that would eventually lose him his agricultural base but that was not until the 1970s. In 1951, for the first real general election held in Granada, Gairy was still the man of the working classes, up against the more right wing Grenada National Party. And as the West Indies Federation formed and collapsed in 1958 to 62, the UK began increasingly acting against Gairy, ousting him twice after accusations of misuse of public funds and violent intimidation of opponents.

Grenada meanwhile began the path to independence, which would finally happen in 1974, and in 1967, when Gairy returned to power, he had much more autonomy from London and so could return to his old habits. Like many post-colonial leaders, Gairy was both stunningly corrupt and shockingly brutal, a Kleptocrat with a UFO fetish who argued he was a prophesised ruler and who his opponents described as fascist (though to be fair, that last bit is true of everyone). He stripped the Grenadian state to enrich himself and his allies, through monopoly control, so that by 1979 Gairy was worth more than 25 million and the Island was desperately poor.

In 1970 Gairy reacted to the increasing Black Power movement across the Caribbean, which had led to riots in Jamaica and Trinidad and a crime wave in Dominica, by recruiting the Volunteers for the Protections of Private Property, the Night Ambush Squad and the Mongoose Gang, brutal militias who attacked and, in some cases, killed protestors and the political opposition. And, despite a trade union leader being in power, his targets were primarily from the left not the right. In 1973, after the shooting of a student, the left-wing organisers who had previously been Gairy's base, formed an anti-Gairy organisation called the New Jewel Movement. This movement was explicitly Marxist-Leninist in philosophy. Between 1973 and 74, the NJM would organise numerous protests, strikes and demonstrations against Gairy, though ultimately, they achieved little, beyond further pushing Gairy to the right, with Mongoose Gang members sent to Pinochet's Chile and Park Chung-hee's South Korea to be trained.

Eric Gairy, prime minister of Grenada.

Gairy won an election in 1976 against a coalition of the New Jewel Movement allied with the pre-existing conservative anti-Gairy Grenada National and Christian Democratic Labour Parties but there were widespread accusations of vote fixing and voter intimidation. The opposition leader, Maurice Bishop, a socialist lawyer whose dad had been killed by the Mongoose Gang, and who had, himself, been beaten up by the police on multiple occasions, refused to recognise the result. Many in the New Jewel Movement hadn't wanted to stand in the elections at all and took this result as a sign that armed resistance must be attempted instead. They formed the armed wing of their struggle, the National Liberation Army, led by the Soviet trained Hudson Austin.

On the 13th of March 1979, with Gairy rumoured to have ordered the deaths of all the NJM leaders, Austin's men struck. It was a stunning victory for the rebels, in just over twelve hours, they took control of the entire Island while Gairy was speaking to the UN, capturing the police headquarters in Fort George and Mt. Royal, nullifying a security apparatus of 1,390 people and declaring Maurice Bishop the new Prime Minister.

This was, obviously, big news. A member of the British Commonwealth had been overthrown by communist revolutionaries, revolutionaries who would openly talk about their admiration for Cuba and their desire for anti imperialist solidarity. And yet, most of the other anglophonic nations were reasonable optimistic about the development. Gairy had been deeply unpopular, not just on Grenada but with his neighbours, Jamaica, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago all recognised the new regime immediately. Pierre Trudeau, James Callaghan and Jimmy Carter, the leaders of Canada, UK and US, had also all been losing patience with Gairy, the NJM had even worked with the CIA to obtain arms from the USA, before the FBI shut that down. Bernard Coard, the deputy leader of the NJM, thus argued publicly prior to the revolution, that Gairy could expect no state support from abroad, and he was right in that analysis. Instead Gairy was reduced to openly trying, and failing, to recruit armed mercenaries and American criminals to retake his Island.

The capitalist powers, by and large, accepted the change in government with much less protest than you might expect. Grenada remained in the Commonwealth; Elizabeth II remained its queen. It was refused loan money from the USA, due to being communist, but still got money directly from the IMF, who actually offered some public praise for Grenada's handling of the economy under its new government. Despite horrified reactions by right wing groups and leaders across the New World, the NJM were essentially secure in control, especially once they reached out to the other major power bloc.

For the communist world, this was a massive opportunity. The Soviets and the Cubans had never really thought the NJM could pull it off and so had not really provided much aid to them as rebels. But in government, suddenly Castro was eager to talk to them and eager to start funding them. Castro was far from alone in this, even Bishop had also not thought it could be pulled off. He had only given Austin permission to launch his attack after calling off four previous planned assaults. The outside perspective was that the Mongoose Gang were much stronger than they actually were, nobody had really expected the NJM to win this easily.

Maurice Bishop in Niederkaina, Kreis Bautzen. Bundesarchiv photo shared under CC BY-SA 3.0 de licence.

Bishop was a man placed in power who was not used to it and one with authoritarian tendencies. As the NLA leader, Joseph Layne, put it in his autobiography written in jail 'since we took power despite the law, it was very easy for us to disregard the law'. Bishop never held elections or set up any form of democratic controls on his power, nor did he find any legal reason to justify the detainment of hundreds of Gairy's men, who were just imprisoned without trial, something that was later extended to any opposition or suspected opposition to Bishop. Several prominent members of the NJM were purged and killed by the leadership of Bishop, Coard and Austin and some religious minorities were persecuted. The new government invested heavily in education, healthcare and the economy and undoubtedly did much in terms of improving literacy, women's rights, public health and employment (largely by cutting food exports and returning the state-owned farms to the co-operatives meaning a greater demand for farm workers but also by a vast increase in construction), and so was probably quite popular, but the lack of democratic accountability would hurt it.

The NJM built two particularly controversial new projects. One was Hudson Austin's People’s Revolutionary Army which was armed and trained by Cuban officers. This was 1,200 soldiers strong, by far the largest standing army any independent government of the Antilles had ever had given most barely had an army, and did much to spook Grenada's neighbours though Bishop justified it by pointing at Gairy's open call for mercenaries. The second was a new airport, funded partly by the Commonwealth and partly by Cuba and Libya, in a rare example of Thatcher, Castro and Gadhafi all working together, with the hope of boosting tourism.

The combination of these two projects would be picked upon by Reagan's administration, who made much of the Airport being a military structure which could be used to aid a Soviet-Cuban military build-up in the Caribbean, though there is very little evidence to support this ever being the plan. The Cubans certainly had armed men on the Island, but they were primarily there as diplomats and labourers. It is possible that Castro and Andropov would have later asked for use of the airfield for military planes as part of a deal with Bishop, but it seems more likely that it would have remained a primarily commercial enterprise, especially since it wouldn't have been able to cope with the larger military planes.

In June 1983, Bishop visited Washington in an attempt to build bridges but achieved little and in the meantime his internal position was growing increasingly fragile. The hardliners disliked him because he maintained a mixed economy, encouraged private investment, accepted loans from the IMF and attempted to placate Reagan. But private investment was unwilling to invest too much into a government that they had reason to think might nationalise their companies and Reagan remained unrelentingly hostile. The airport was sucking up much of the government's budget and as a global recession hit, the economy was beginning to stagnate. Coard, Bishops deputy, and Austin, the head of his Army, felt Bishop was compromising for no real benefit. They also felt he was increasingly ignoring the committee and ruling as a sole leader.

On the 26th of August 1983, the radical wing of the party claimed at a Central Committee Party that they were losing the membership and after an investigation demanded that Bishop relinquish power. Bishop attempted to hang on but eventually, on the 25th of September, agreed to share power with Coard, who had resigned from the central committee in protest in 1982. And then, on the 9th of October, Bishop's intelligence service accused Coard of being behind an assassination attempt on him and on the 12th, Bishop rejected Joint Leadership. On the 14th, Coard announced to the Grenadian people that, 'for his own safety after an assassination attempt', Bishop was to be held under House Arrest.

This was a stunning message to hear. Bishop had been the voice of the revolution, the man who had spoken to the people for the government and now he was a prisoner of people they didn't know, protests broke out straight away. Coard had misjudged Bishop's popularity due to the lack of any democratic apparatus to poll his support. As it turned out, the people wanted him in charge and as this became increasingly apparent Coard panicked, on the 18th opening up talks with Bishop about a compromise. He was too late, on the 19th of October, a crowd of thousands of protestors marched upon Bishop's house and freed him, with the guards unwilling to shoot. The crowd, with Bishop now in tow, then marched upon Fort Rupert, the headquarters of the Army, where Bishop gave a speech and, according to some sources, one soldier was killed by the rebels. Here Bishop announced that he was ready to return to power, that Coard and his allies should be arrested, and messages should be sent to the international community to insist that the situation was in hand and that no US invasion, already rumoured, could be justified. In particular he asked for the support of the Cuban Embassy.

Coard and his men, retreated to the other military base, Fort Frederick and attempted to reach out to Bishop to negotiate but were rebuffed. Instead, they went to Hudson Austin, the head of the military, who promised to throw his support behind Coard, who he always had more sympathy with especially after the rumoured death of the soldier at Fort Rupert. 35 soldiers with armoured cars were sent after Bishop where they opened fire on a peaceful crowd with machine guns and killed around 40 of the protestors, injuring around 100 more. Bishop, who genuinely does not seem to have expected the Army to do this after his own guards had refused to shoot at his rescuers, surrendered. The army then lined up Bishop and 18 of his ministers and union allies and, after saying this was the order of the Central Committee, shot them all in the head, killing them.

Later that day Coard would be put into 'protective custody' and Austin, the de facto new leader of the country, gave an announcement of a four-day curfew, lifted on the 23rd, and that anyone breaking it would be shot on sight. The power struggle was over, the Army was now in charge. For two more days at least, until the United States invaded the island on the 25th of October and entirely overthrew the communist government of Grenada by the 29th. In the following year's election, the first since the revolution, the conservative Grenada National Party would return to power.

Those two months of 1983, from the meeting on the 26th of August to the Surrender on the 29th of October, saw the complete destruction of the New Jewel Movement, which had, until then, been one of the most successful Marxist-Leninist parties in the world, largely due to infighting between the major personalities. The problem is, because of its importance, most of the sources contradict themselves on what exactly happened as everyone wishes to deny responsibility.

General Hudson Austin

Despite it being claimed as the act of the 'Central Committee', who actually, if anyone, ordered the death of Bishop and his allies, is difficult to say and multiple court cases have been inconclusive. Was there any truth to the idea that Courd had tried to kill Bishop and did Bishop actually believe that? Nobody really knows. Were Courd and Austin backed by the Cubans and the Soviets or acting on their own? Was the CIA involved in sowing dissension between the NJM? Possibly, it seems likely that Coard would check with foreign backers before removing Bishop and that the CIA would see the split as an opportunity but there is no conclusive proof of any foreign involvement at all.

There were genuine ideological issues between Bishop, Courd and Austin, in terms of economic and foreign policy, certainly a state which proclaimed itself a non-aligned third world centered state and yet supported the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan reeks of consensus politics, and they had clashed many times previously. Bishop had been the one to four times call off Austin's planned revolutions and the one who had attempted to stop Courd's brutal purging of Rastafari Grenadians. There is evidence of deep divides within the party between Bishop supporters and Courd supporters from almost the moment of the revolution and that they had become gaping by 1982. There were also three men who had increasingly become used to smashing eggs to make omelettes, their way into power had always been via guns. Some kind of clash seems inevitable, only the suddenness and violence of it was shocking, but I don't think the specific result is inevitable. Bishop probably could have come out on top and so the invasion avoided had he been luckier.

So why exactly did the American invasion happen? Reagan justified it on the basis that over 600 US citizens were living on the Island and Austin had threatened to kill them along with everyone else if they left their homes. The fact they landed after the curfew was lifted did somewhat weaken that, as did the fact that there was only limited effort made for an evacuation despite Austin telling the US citizens that they could return home if they wished. Reagan had been actively talking up the danger of Grenada long before Austin took power, there is certainly evidence that he was looking for an excuse to do this all year but it took the drastic death of Bishop and the curfew order for the army to be convinced and so he wanted to strike while he could get away with it, before relations could be normalised. The international community generally were less convinced that the invasion was either moral or legal, the UN condemned it and even Thatcher, Reagan's closet ally, was privately against it.

The exact legal justification of the invasion was as of follows. With Bishop dead, the only legitimate authority on the Island was Queen Elizabeth's Governor-General, who represented the Monarch. This was Paul Scoon, a black Grenadian and ally of Eric Gairy, who had been appointed the year before the revolution and had kept his head down during the reign of Bishop. He was also placed in house arrest by Hudson Austin alongside Bishop but, after Bishop's death, saw visitors from Dominica and Barbados to whom he signed a letter asking, as the de facto leader of the Island, for foreign support. This letter was taken to the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States, who voted to military intervene in the Island on the basis that if they did not, Austin would invade them. The OECO then asked for support of this mission from their allies, which the Americans, worried about the safety of their citizens, provided. Jamaica and Barbados also agreed to provide troops to help out the OECO. The OECO would provide 150 of the total 7,653 troops used in the invasion, mostly police which arrived after the initial bridgehead. Thus, the argument goes, Americans were acting legally by only arriving at the behest of both the rightful government of Grenada and the regional organisation they were a part of.

This story however has some holes in it. For a start, the letter from Paul Scoon asking for intervention was signed the day after the invasion happened and was bought to him, prewritten, by Barbadian ministers. This has been used as evidence that no request happened, though Scoon himself has said that he asked for aid verbally prior to the invasion and the letter was just getting that down in writing for bookkeeping purposes. He has also said that he has no idea an invasion was coming, mind, and that his request was just hoping for personal aid. Having said that, his story has changed around three times over the years so we must take all of it with a grain of salt.

I will also say that I think it is far more likely that the US decided on an invasion and then asked the OECO if they were in, than the reverse. The idea that Antigua and Barbuda would declare war without knowing they had back up from anyone with an actual army is absurd. And it was probably only the OECO, made up of Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada, Dominica, St Kitts, St Vincent and St Lucia, that the vote was pushed through because the larger Carribean Community, which included left wing Guyana and Trinidad & Tobago, wouldn't go for it. I don't think that matters too much, ultimately it is reasonable for the OECO vote to be made after the members knew if their three allies were with them or not. Certainly, I think it is often unfairly overlooked that the governments of Dominica, Jamaica and Barbados were equally if not more hawkish on calling for war here as Reagan was, Edward Seaga of Jamaica recently wrote a book justifying the invasion and his part in it, after all. But the OECO request is pretty clearly a post facto justification, and I don't believe that Reagan wouldn't have acted without it.

There are also legal arguments that neither Scoon nor the OECO had the powers to do what they did by their own constitutions, but I won't get into that.

The US army conquered the Island relatively quickly and bloodlessly with just over a hundred total deaths, though there were reports of widespread looting in the chaos and the destruction of many homes, including the accidental bombing of a mental hospital. The Cuban work crews were the main targets, with anti-Cuban sweeps of neighbourhoods being particularly resented, and Castro was reportedly deeply angry with their inability to put up more resistance. The highest-ranking officer on the scene, Pedro Tortoló, tried to take refuge in the Soviet Embassy and was apparently reassigned to Angola as Punishment.

In the aftermath it became quite apparent that Grenada was nowhere near as militarised as had been rumoured. They weren't, despite US claims, building a submarine base for instance. In fact, while their army had quite a lot of equipment it was mostly guns and tanks with very few planes or boats. The Army was primarily looking internally for enemies, they aimed at governing by gun point not at expanding their power. I don't believe that Dominica was ever in danger, despite what Eugenia Charles, the Dominican PM, obviously felt at the time. Most tellingly, American plans to cancel the construction of the Airport were reversed on the basis that it actually did serve a valuable commercial purpose and in fact that is where most of the American rebuilding funds went to. Ironically enough it is now called the Maurice Bishop Airport. Beyond Seaga, few people these days think the invasion was really needed to prevent a Grenadian military build-up.

So what if the mob had arrived a day or two later to free Bishop and he had already agreed a power sharing agreement with Coard, thus preventing the violence and so Reagan being able to sell an invasion and the Communist government got a stay of execution? Well, the larger issues, in terms of divides within that government, hostility from the USA and increasing unpopularity within the island are all still there. The best the NJP can probably hope is to delay the split until after the global economy recovers and a less hawkish man becomes US president, I think if Carter had won his second term for instance, he likely wouldn't have gone in.

But ultimately Bishop was a moderate leading a moderate island with a government made up of radicals. Either Bishop slowly takes the government to a more reformist place or Coard and Austin get to make their Stalinist regime in the Caribbean. Both are interesting places to set a story, but neither would be particularly stable post-cold war.


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


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