By *Jomo Sanga Thomas
(Plain Talk, March 15, 2019)
Forty years ago (March 13, 1979), Maurice Bishop led his New Jewel Movement in a military assault that overthrew Eric Gairy’s government. It was the first and last time a government in the English speaking Caribbean was overthrown by force of arms. In his first speech to the world after the revolutionary overthrow, Bishop said the revolution ushered in a “bright new dawn.” He also declared that the Revolution was for “bread, jobs and freedom for the people of Grenada, Carriacou and Petit Martinique”.
As former St. Lucian PM Kenny Anthony told a commemorative audience in St. George’s last Tuesday, the Grenada Revolution had an impact and influence that went way beyond its geographic size. After the revolution triumphed, every other politician in the region had to change and rearrange their method, and style of work. Every aspirant for political office either adopted some of the language of the revolution or displayed hostility if only to please America.
Two of the worst leaders of those crucial times were Tom Adams of Barbados and Edward Seaga of Jamaica, both of whom played key proxy roles in the Oct. 25, 1983 American invasion of tiny Grenada. Maurice Bishop labelled Tom Adams a “yard fowl” of American imperialism. He reminded the world that although American leaders saw Latin America as its primary sphere of influence and the Caribbean as an American lake, “Revolutionary Grenada was independent and free and in nobody’s backyard”.
The Grenada Revolution brought real and tangible benefits to the people of Grenada. In four years and 6 months of revolution, the government slashed unemployment from 49 per cent to 14 per cent, education, health and dental care was made free, Vincentians, particularly those living in the Grenadines, journeyed to Carriacou to take advantage of the free health and dental care. Young Grenadians were sent to all corners of the world to further their education, workers were free to join trade unions following the passage of the Trade Union Compulsory Recognition Act, women and youth organisations flourished across the land, low income homes were built for the needy and others were assisted to repair their homes, the Centre for popular Education taught thousands to read and write.
Grenadians were committed to adding value to their products and to move away from mono crop agriculture. Micro business enterprises were funded and given to small business people to operate; a fruit juice canning plant was constructed thus saving from spoilage the numerous fruits that generally went to waste.
The level of participatory democracy in Grenada during the revolution was remarkable. Zonal and parish councils became hives of lively discussions and decision-making. Budget making was democratised as Finance Minister Bernard Coard travelled across the country listening to the people’s needs, concerns and suggestions thus allowing for a more people-centred budget. During those revolutionary days the economy grew by an annual rate of 4 per cent. The International Monetary Fund credited the leaders for their astute management of the economy.
Grenada became the political capitol of the regional left. Each August progressive and revolutionary organizations met in Grenada to share experiences and analyse the local, regional and international situation. In those days solidarity and the wellbeing of comrades from across the Caribbean were of paramount importance. In 1982, a delegation comprising Ralph Gonsalves, Adrian Saunders and I represented the United People’s Movement. As a starry eye youthful upstart, I was overly excited for the scheduled 5 p.m. meeting with PM Maurice Bishop, Bernard Coard and Trevor Monroe of the Workers Party of Jamaica. The frankness, criticism, self-criticism and comradely concerns expressed in that meeting cemented my views on a multiplicity of matters. The jaundiced report to the UPM central committee on our return home was not only personally upsetting, it taught me vital lessons about life and politics.
In Grenada, everything was not only peaches and cream. The Revolution had to respond to pressures, stresses and strains. The constant threat of American military invasion, negative propaganda and economic destabilisation took their toll on the leaders. A seize mentality emerged, creating a fertile atmosphere for suspicion. “Enemies” and “counter revolutionaries” were detained and roughed up in what Maurice Bishop, in his famous 1982 Line of March speech, described as “heavy manners”.
It is worth noting that in the same ways in which President Obama and now Trump has declared Venezuela a threat to America’s National security interest, President Reagan, in an infamous 1982 national address, labelled tiny Grenada “a satellite of Cuba and the Soviet Union and a threat to the vital security interest of the USA”. Reagan described the international airport that was being constructed there as “Soviet military base”. Same criminal playbook, different times!
There were days when intelligence pointed to American warships just off the horizon. ‘What is to be done?’ became a central question. These vital decisions had to be made in the days before Soviet president Gorbachev’s (Glasnost) openness in terms of permissible ideas and the restructuring of the economy. There were still holy grails as to what should and could be said or done. Everyone wanted to be seen as the most committed and most disciplined. Everyone was or wanted to be known as an ideologue.
When the difficulties emerged in the Grenada revolutionary process there was no history or tradition of compromise. No room for give and take. So when rumours made the rounds about some leaders plotting to do harm to others an escalating slippery slope of events led to PM Bishop’s house arrest, mass demonstrations across the country, his freedom by the huge crowds, the ill fated decision by PM Maurice Bishop and his supporters to occupy the headquarters of the People’s Revolutionary Army rather than go to the market square as planned, the ill fated political and military decision to recapture the Fort and the unimaginable decision to assassinate PM Bishop, Foreign Minister Unison Whiteman, Education minister Jackie Creft, trade unionists Fitzy Bain, Vincent Noel and other persons killed in volleys of deadly fire on Oct. 19,1983. Outstanding revolutionaries killed and equalling committed revolutionary leaders jailed for 26 years. A hope crushed.
Six days after the suicidal tragedy, America seize the opportunity presented by the revolutionaries themselves and landed 7,000 aggressive marines thus bringing to an end the revolutionary process which had been mortally wounded. How must history judge the participants? Did they betray the dream of Grenadian and all Caribbean people? The dream is now deferred. The Caribbean left went into disarray and never recovered.
Forty years, on this generation will, must judge the generation of the 60s, 70s and 80s. But it must not only pass a verdict. This generation must commit to take up the challenge. It must ensure that the long dark shadow that descended upon our region following the implosion of the Grenada revolution and the invasion be lifted.
*Jomo Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
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