Thirty years ago this past October 25th, the Caribbean island of Grenada was invaded by the United States. The subsequent military actions, involving over 7,000 US troops, led to hundreds of casualties including Grenadians, resident Cubans, US soldiers, and Regional Security System soldiers (RSS) from neighboring islands. Once on the front page of every newspaper, Grenada, the island of spice, has been driven back to anonymity by the passage of time and the economic woes visited upon most small Caribbean islands that depend on tourism for survival. However insignificant in today’s discussion of US hegemony around the world, the invasion of Grenada was the first of the post-Vietnam imperialist wars and provided for a testing ground for weapons and policy.
Lying at the end of the Grenadines and at the outer rim of the southeast Caribbean, Grenada seems a world away today. Very close to Venezuela (more and more strategically important) and virtually alone in the southeast corner, Grenada once had a thriving community of indigenous Caribs. Once becoming a French colony (1649-1763) and later a British colony (1763-1974), the indigenous population quickly disappeared through early bloody wars, and constant marginalization that moved the last Caribs to neighboring islands where they perished. Grenada, like many Caribbean states, has suffered through harsh imperial occupation which lasts still today. Grenada is no stranger to conflict.
Britain still counts Grenada as a Commonwealth while overtly proclaiming its independence. Having one of the only natural harbors in the area, Grenada was highly prized by colonial powers seeking to expand toward the Americas. The French period, the British period (which arguably continues) and the independence movement, while very significant to the welfare and history of the island, does not compare to Grenada’s status within the long reach of the United States (US) —the last imperial power. At the end of the Spanish American War, the US reached deep into the Caribbean and Latin American States, cruelly putting down insurrections and independence movements and gave them territorial status. Teddy Roosevelt’s expansionist policies dubbed “Manifest Destiny” included the provision that it was natural that islands off the shore of the US would be part of the US sphere of influence. In fact, the entire Caribbean basin was at one time, at the turn of the century, a virtual playground for US citizens and quickly became pockets for economic exploitation. Such was the reach and power of the US. Grenadians, so far from the mainland US, believed themselves immune to the US hegemony, especially with their semi-independent status granted by the British. In this, they were wrong.
Prior to this invasion, Grenada was in a severe economic downturn due to lagging tourist dollars and storms that had battered the islands arable land. And despite reaching out to the United States and the United Kingdom (UK), who were both suffering from a recession, they found no significant relief.
It wasn’t until 1974 that Grenada was granted special independence by England and a limited autonomy to conduct its own affairs without much of the previous interference. Eric Gairy, English educated elite, was elected the first Prime Minister of Grenada in 1974. And, with this election came discontent. An Anglophile, Gairy ruled under strict scrutiny by the English community on the island and ever mindful of British power abroad. This government, perhaps unwittingly, created a deep chasm between economic and political classes on Grenada. And, hence, between 1974 and 1979 civil unrest ruled the island’s politics. Many resented the wealth of the European elite classes while the local population barely survived under an agricultural and infant tourist economy. Even today, the per capita income is barely over 7000.00 yearly. The separation of classes created demonstrations, disruption of business, and revolts not easily assuaged by the Gairy government. The island was in turmoil.
In 1979, Maurice Bishop, leading a revolutionary party, successfully ousted the Prime Minister, Sir Eric Gairy. Bishop, the “New Jewel Movement” party and the Grenadian army established a Marxist government that satisfied much of the discontent that had swept the island’s residents. Expectations ran high for the socialist leaning government. In full view of British and US interests, Grenada would turn away from the west and to Cuba and the Soviet Union for the aid that failed to arrive from the British or US governments. Grenada would reach out to Cuba and the USSR for economic support, trade, building technicians, health care technicians and infrastructure development. And, along with the aid came military support in the form of antiquated weapons and training. In “The Grenada Papers”; an apologist attempt to justify the Reagan administrations illegal acts on a sovereign country and ignore their autonomy, the author presents many once confidential papers that lists the weapons, constructions supplies, and technical support promised by the Soviet government and the Cuban task forces. This evidence is unremarkable considering two facts. One, at the same time the US was exporting weapons and training death squads in Latin America. Two, the author fails to remark that these weapons and subsequent training, while earmarked for Grenada, was never received by revolutionary forces on the island. The only weapons used by Grenada’s forces and Cuban forces were existing and antiquated supplies while the Cubans had brought along light weapons for themselves.
Yet, in the first days of the revolutionary government on Grenada, the ministers planned a swift expansion and improvement of infrastructure with help from Cuba. Development of the tourist sector of the island, medical help, and other infrastructure support was the priority. The expansion of the airport, now named after Bishop, was the focus for the government under the first revolutionary government. Militarily, Grenada, alone and forgotten by the west, aligned itself politically with Cuba and the USSR, supporting their revolutionary foreign policy and hence taking a seat in the Cold War. Yet the revolutionary government of Maurice Bishop, which clearly attempted to engage socialist states and increase infrastructure development, achieved some advances for Grenada. But this slow pace did not satisfy the extremists who saw the government as corrupt, slow and impotent. Promised improvements proved too long a road for a moderate government, according to many members of the parliament.
In 1983, when Deputy Prime Minister, Bernard Coard, with a “People’s Revolutionary Army” insisted government programs increased, and hurried along as well. Maurice Bishop, the sitting prime minister was imprisoned with eight of his ministers. After a poorly organized counter-coup attempt, the People’s Revolutionary Army with Coward’s blessing, shot and killed Bishop and seven of his government members. Now, Grenada—a tiny island far away from the US or USSR came to the attention of the world. It became a Cold war victim.
In 1983, the Reagan administration considered the socialist leaning nation of 100,000 people, which was in the throes of a bloody coup, as a “direct threat” to regional interests and the US itself. The Reagan administration announced that a military intervention was necessary to protect US citizens enrolled in the Medical School (no students were threatened or injured) and to curtail further violence. They went further to state that intervention was invited by neighboring island nations who saw the incident as threatening. The US ignored the protests of the United Nations (UN) and other unilateral warnings from other nations. Even the United Kingdom and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, always a staunch ally of the US, was severe in its vocal censure of the invasion. The UK saw the interference of the US in a member of its Commonwealth of Nations as an illegal action of international importance. Ignoring world opinion, UN condemnation, and warnings from its closest allies, England, the US sent a combined Naval, Air and Ground force to Grenada.
The international community, led by the UN, condemned the attack. They saw the interference of the US as meddling in the self-determination of an independent nation. The US government ignored this criticism, stating that it was legally justified—a big stretch of the turn of the century Manifest Destiny policies. Hence, the Reagan administration was to fight a proxy war, on a tiny island, although extremely peripheral to the Cold war itself. The Reagan administration was determined to oust the socialist government and militarily defeat what it saw as a USSR and Cuban advance into its backyard.
The US military was in a post-Vietnam, directionless, and uncertain stage. At that time, the “Reagan doctrine” had its hands in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Afghanistan, and Angola in a global attempt to “roll back” communist governments, socialist successes and revolutionary efforts. US backed death squads including the Contras in Nicaragua savagely attacked their own populations with the arms and political support from the Reagan administration. The existing political and social enmity towards Cuba and Castro was strengthened. Nuclear arms treaty talks with the Soviet Union (USSR) were abandoned. The Global political and economic influence of both the US and the USSR saw the most pronounced polarization since the 1960’s. In the midst of this Cold War paranoia and the Reagan administration’s policies of containing and extinguishing communist states around the world, Grenada, a tiny island paradise, became a target of those policies and a proving ground for the US military.
The attack was badly coordinated by the US forces including multiple instances of friendly fire casualties, unavailability of maps and embarrassingly poor leadership. Despite these drawbacks, in just three days, US forces had defeated a poorly equipped Grenadian and Cuban combined force, secured the medical school students, ousted the revolutionary Prime Minister, and clearly turned back any Soviet or Cuban influence. The socialist experiment was over. Many Grenadians, who cheered the US interference in Grenada as a sign of economic help, were quickly disappointed as the US withdrew quickly and provided no new or significant economic or infrastructure support. As soon as the US landed, they disappeared. Still, 30 years later, US support for Grenada’s economic initiatives is lukewarm, and serious financial troubles still haunt Grenada.
The legality of the invasion and support for the US intervention is still debated in Grenada. The local population is split on the issue. While there is a commemorative plaque, which has been in place for some time, celebrating the US invasion, and the renaming of the Point Saline’s Airport as Bishop Airport is an indication of his continued popularity among many residents. There are many Bishop, socialist leaning supporters in the government and among the lower class population. Debate over releasing the seventeen jailed members of Coard’s coup, attempts at re-establishing some of Maurice Bishop’s initiatives, has found its way into the government debate. A once confidential document from the Grenada Embassy, released by Wikileaks, highlights the attempts by some to recognize the socialist experiment and Bishop’s influence as Grenada struggles with its economy and the historical place of the invasion.
Whatever the political landscape of Grenada, thirty years later there is ample evidence that the island nation of Grenada has established solid western leaning principles. However, while US influence over the region is established, the Association of Caribbean States (ACS) and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) have grown into an influential hemispheric power. But these institutions are dominated by US policies and conditional support. Voting is normalized and Grenada’s elections are closely monitored by the CARICOM and the Organization of American States (OAS) but the candidates are much like each other and offer little to the island nation and it’s people.
In February 2013, Grenada watched as the “New National Party” (NNP) and a new government was established in a sweep of all fifteen parliamentary contested seats. Keith Claudius Mitchell was elected in a landslide. Presently, the government’s stance is directed at the island’s perpetual economic problems, and its place in the wider Caribbean Community. The February election was a generational change in governance. How this new nationalist government will deal with the legacy of Bishop’s socialist reform’s and the US invasion is yet to be seen. This new generation of leadership, which grew up after the invasion, may put an end to any revolutionary initiatives or perhaps they may rediscover the use of socialist programs to ease economic problems. Venezuela, a successful and thriving socialist state, lies only 366 miles away on the South American continent. The recently deceased Hugo Chavez, founder of the Venezuelan socialist state, remains the most popular figure in the region.
The Grenadian populace remains divided over the socialist experiment and the invasion’s historical place. Both support and condemnation of the invasion thirty years ago has not disappeared and it remains in the popular culture still. Grenada, while enjoying a stable government, still suffers under the tutelage of the US, as do many Caribbean and American states. Their economic woes have not dissipated and have been exacerbated by their isolation and “in-between status”. Are they independent, a commonwealth of the UK or indeed simply a backyard for the US military?
JP Miller is a writer and journalist who lives in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. He has published stories in The Greanville Post, The Literary Yard, The Southern Cross Review, and Potent Magazine.