In 1979 a revolution took place in Grenada, the first in the English-speaking world. The revolutionary cadre called themselves the New Jewel Movement (NJM). The revolution, really a coup, was popular, a move to replace the mad Eric Gairy who spent much of the tiny country's resources on investigating the reason Grenada was a landing point for flying saucers. When I interviewed Gairy in 1996, he told me he was immortal. He died in 1997.
The NJM "revo" of 13 March 1979 took 24 hours, at the end of years of unarmed struggle. Maurice Bishop, a charismatic populist, and Bernard Coard, a meticulous strategizer and tactician, were key leaders.
The NJM leaders were socialists, though their socialism was really quite eclectic--hardly the doctrinaire image the U.S. later created. They 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). They began a mass literacy project, quickly improved medical care, set up processing plants for fish and spices, and started building a jet-port.
Democracy and equality went on the back burner in favor of national economic developed--the socialist shipwreck. The party became privileged in terms of decision-making power and the distribution of goods. NJM was harshly pressured. The US quickly moved to crush the revo, made tourism nearly impossible for U.S. citizens. Mysterious forms of sabotage hit tourism and agriculture. By 1983, the NJM was in real trouble.
NJM grew isolated from the people. The party's rather exclusive leadership turned inward. Disagreements emerged. In 1983, the party voted overwhelmingly to reduce Bishop's role and elevate Coard to an equal spot, though 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. Bishop agreed to the plan, but expressed concern that his work was being repudiated.
Bishop, who had accepted the joint command, left Grenada for Eastern Europe with a small group of cadres. On his return trip, Bishop held an unscheduled meeting with Fidel Castro, who considered Bishop a son. On October 12, 1983, the day after his return, Bishop initiated a rumor that Coard was planning to kill him. Such a rumor circulate fast. This set in motion a series of events that demolished the revo. NJM members witnessed a meeting in which Bishop was exposed as having caused the rumor. But party members knew that Bishop was the key to whatever credibility the party still had among the people. They also knew the U.S. was openly making threatening toward the government. Bishop and Coard were both ordered to their homes. Negotiations began to revamp the way the party.
On 19 October 1983 a mob walked past armed personnel carriers lined up in front of Bishop's home, freed him, and move toward the town square. No one in the APC's moved to stop the crowd. Microphones were set up in the square for Bishop to speak. 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. Bishop moved to seize the radio and telephone centers, as had the NJM four years earlier. From another fort on a mountain about two miles away, Peoples Revolutionary Army APC's were sent to quiet the mob. The mob opened fire.
Bishop and other leaders of NJM were killed. The remaining leadership of NJM imposed a curfew. No serious investigation of this day's events has ever been conducted.
Shortly afterward, US troops were killed in their barracks in Lebanon. 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. Actually tourists were frequently taken there, US medical students jogged each day on the airstrip. The main financial support for the airport came not from the U.S.S.R. nor from Cuba, but from Margaret Thatcher's Britain. Reagan declared the US medical students to be menaced, said that the NJM was a threat to all regional security. He got other Caribbean nations to back him, and invaded a country the size of Kalamazoo with a massive military force under a precedent- setting news blackout. Though the medical students radioed out that they were in no danger, US rangers "saved" them. Remarkably, it appears that Castro was forewarned of the invasion. The Cubans at the airport, the key landing spot for the invasion, having informed the Grenadian Army that Cuba would defend the runway, allowed U.S. paratroops to land untouched. The invasion of Grenada (popular among most of the people sickened by the long collapse of the NJM) was complete in a week.
Seventeen NJM leaders were charged with the murder of Bishop and the others, though it is clear that most of them were nowhere near the incident, or could not have participated. According to affidavits filed by former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark, the NJM leaders were denied a fair trial. Judges were hand-picked and paid by the U.S. NJM lawyers, threatened with death, fled Grenada. Key defense witnesses were denied the right to testify. Fourteen of the NJM members were sentenced to death.
In prison, they were tortured for eight years. Torture was especially horrible for the lone woman, Phyllis Coard, who was held in isolation for years. In 1991, after their children had been introduced to the fellow who was to hang them from a prison courtyard gallows, the sentences were commuted to life. The 17 New Jewel leaders are still serving time in a prison built in the late 1700's. The last prisoners of the cold war are black. It is great political irony and moral wrong.
On October 2, 1998, Federal Judge Denise Hood, ordered that documents possessed by U.S. intelligence agencies denied the initial defense be released to me within thirty days.
Rich Gibson is the Social Studies Coordinator at Wayne State University.
He is a former Fulbright scholar to Grenada, where he spent a year interviewing
the Grenada 17.
Rich Gibson's Home Page