Grenada: A big revolution in a small country

Maurice Bishop (center) flanked by Fidel Castro Right) and Daniel Ortega (File Photo)

ST. GEORGE’S, Grenada, Mar 16, CMC – Former St. Lucia prime minister Dr. Kenny Anthony earlier this week delivered a lecture marking the 40th anniversary of the Grenada revolution, which he described as “a truly remarkable event in the political life of the people of Grenada and indeed, the wider Caribbean and the world.

“It is perhaps a good thing that so many of the actors, so many of the personalities who participated in the events which led to the revolution, who watched the revolution unfold then consume itself in a singular suicidal act, are alive today to share their stories, opinions, explanations, and, yes, their pain and their grief,” he said.

Maurice Bishop led his New Jewel Movement (NJM) in the overthrow of the Sir Eric Gairy government on March 13, 1979. But the first ever coup in the English-speaking Caribbean came to an end in 1983 when the United States led a military invasion of the island, following a Palace coup that had resulted in the death of Bishop and several of his ministers.

“When I think that the revolution occurred some forty years ago, and many of those who witnessed and or participated actively in constructing its future are still alive today, I am reminded that the Grenada revolution was, by and large, a uniquely “youthful” revolution, having been largely masterminded by a relatively young, idealistic, courageous and ideologically grounded leadership,” Anthony said.

The former University of the West Indies (UWI) law lecturer said that the burden of dealing with the inconvenient truths” of the revolution is not just that of the Grenadian people, however, but indeed, the entire region, its intellectuals and ideologues alike.

“Anniversaries are celebrated in life and in death. For my part, the revolution did not die on that fateful day in 1983. It may have suffered the loss of its own soul, but ‘The Revo’ did not die – certainly, not in the hearts and minds of those who lived through it and those who struggled to keep it alive. Either way, whether as witnesses or participants both knew that a unique experiment was underway in Grenada to construct a new society, economy and polity.

“It is an unfinished business left now to the new generations that will soon replace us. After all, many of us are, in the words of Owen Arthur, the former Prime Minister of Barbados, in the departure lounge awaiting our own boarding call to the great beyond”

Anthony said that the coup in a small three-island nation in this small part of the world that is “Our Caribbean”, left an immediate and indelible impression on our hemisphere, and I daresay, on the entire world. It maintained curiosity and attention for nearly four-and-one-half years.

As Fidel famously said, “It was a big revolution in a small country,” and Anthony notes that the revolution and its demise, have attracted a voluminous number of books, articles and commentary.

“We have also had the opportunity to read the recent accounts of some of the key personalities of the Revolution. Most of the accounts and analyses have, understandably, focused on the internal dynamics of the revolution.”

The Sir Arthur Lewis Institute for Social and Economic Studies (SALISES) of the UWI in Trinidad and Tobago, hosted a symposium reviewing the Grenada Revolution, four decades later earlier this month.

The “Call to Papers” inviting contributions, describes what happened there on March 13,, 1979 as “the first non-democratic transfer of power in the Anglophone Caribbean by a Marxist-Leninist movement.” Anthony argues whether or not it is accurate to say that the transfer of power was to a “Marxist-Leninist Movement”, is in itself a healthy subject for debate.

But he acknowledges that all accounts are important and all versions have a place in Grenada’s still continuing story and indeed, in the politics of the wider Caribbean.

In his lecture, the former St. Lucia prime minister said he had decided to contribute to redressing that imbalance and share a different story, the impact of the revolution on the Caribbean region generally and on St. Lucia specifically. He wanted to demonstrate how it influenced and shaped the post-independence politics.

“It is a small contribution towards completing the circle of history because we all are, in our own ways, children of the Grenada revolution.”

Anthony is clear that he is not offering any rigorous, structured analysis of the revolution.

“Rather, I have decided to be reflective and anecdotal, filling in pieces of history, perhaps sharing with you unknown facts and events. I shall focus on the confluence of external forces that created the conditions for revolution in Grenada and the drive for radical change in the Caribbean and more specifically, St. Lucia. I shall argue that the collapse of the Grenada revolution led in turn to the demise of the Caribbean left and an adoption of alternative routes to political power which, I will suggest, awaits the judgment of history.”

He said he would avoid visiting the ugly events of October 1983, “the costs of which continue to be paid across the region and the world, but even more so in Grenada, where the bullets flew, bombs exploded and so much blood was shed”.

He is also avoiding commenting on the account of the Grenada revolution as given by Bishop’s deputy, Bernard Coard “as the jury is yet to pronounce its judgment. Nevertheless, too many issues continue to be shrouded in mystery”.

But he said to be sure, there are other aspects of the revolution yet to be explored and gives as an example, the matter of the “remarkable ability” of the leadership of the Grenada revolution to have safely steered through the turbulent political waters in the region at the CARICOM and OECS levels.

“The political dexterity of Maurice and Bernard to navigate those waters was truly remarkable. Their respective roles in the eyes of people beyond Grenada’s shores commanded the kind of respect for the revolution that empowered its voluntary political ambassadors across the region to sell the revolution’s story with pride and confidence.

“There is also the fascinating question as to whether the revolution paved the way for its own demise by choosing to operate its constitutional order by retaining the “Queen’s Representative” in a hybrid legal system, a mixture of home grown laws based on principles of Socialist Legality if ever that term could be used, side- by- side with a largely common law legal system with its Caribbean peculiarities.

“Arguably, the legal arrangements which underpinned the revolution, pragmatic as they may have been, may well have helped to suffocate it,” the lawyer added.

Anthony believes that there can be no doubt that 1979 was a momentous year in the calendar of world history. The stage for the events of 1979 had been set decades earlier.

The Liberation struggles in Southern Africa had gained new momentum, thanks to the support of Muammar Gadhafi and crucially, the sacrifice of Cuban soldiers. The struggle to dismantle Apartheid had become unstoppable. Robert Mugabe was just months away to becoming the Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, after chipping away at the apartheid regime constructed by Ian Smith, in that country. The Middle East was in ferment inspired in large measure by the extraordinary leadership of PLO Leader, Yasser Arafat.

“There can be no doubt that 1979 must remain etched in our collective memories. Still few expected that 1979 would bring such dramatic and fundamental political changes to the Caribbean, Latin America and the Middle East.

“We cannot detach Grenada from these wider events because they provided inspiration to the revolutionaries of Grenada and much needed space in the early days of the revolution.”

Grenada joined Iran as the second nation in early 1979 to present the world with another classic example of revolutionary change. Grenada’s revolution sent shock waves through the State Department. Grenada’s proximity, like that of Cuba, unleashed paranoia, fear and concern among policymakers in Washington and to some extent, in London.

“Then, while the Americans were preoccupied with the implications of the Iranian Revolution for US policy and hegemony in the Middle East and of the Grenada revolution in its own hemisphere, there came the third major political upheaval, again even closer to the US mainland than Grenada: The Nicaragua Revolution led by the Sandinistas.”

Anthony said that these three revolutions – one each in the Caribbean and Latin America and the third one in the Middle East – would fundamentally change the course of political events in the respective regions.

He said before March 13, 1979, the stage for the Grenada revolution had been set. The region was just emerging from what some have described as its “Black Nationalist” phase, influenced unquestionably, by the Black Power Movement in the United States and in the United Kingdom and the events in Jamaica, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago.

“Political challenges had been issued to the Eric Williams led People’s National Movement (PNM) regime in Trinidad and Tobago, the Hugh Shearer led Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) Government in Jamaica and the Forbes Burnham led People’s National Congress (PNC) in Guyana.

“In Jamaica, following its accession to office, the People’s National Party (PNP) led by Michael Manley had embraced Democratic Socialism as its guiding philosophy. However, gentle as Democratic Socialism may have been, it unleased fierce ideological battles in Jamaica, ferocious resistance from its ruling elites, and uncompromising opposition from the United States. Michael Manley had presented to Jamaica and the Caribbean an alternative path to governance and development.”

Anthony said, make no mistake, this period helped to excite and “radicalize our generation. What, until then, had been a complacent and dormant political culture, suddenly came alive.

“Our generation was brought face to face with our political inheritance, who we were, what we were, and what we should be. It unleashed a wave of “Black Consciousness”, challenging us to re-define ourselves, our culture, beliefs and image. We discovered our “Blackness” and what it meant.

“To crown it, the music of the times echoed our rebellion and resistance, gave us new rhythms and lyrics and played to our consciousness.”

He said nearly every Caribbean island was affected. In St. Lucia, the leading activists and advocates, George Odlum, Peter Josie, Calixte George Sr and Hilford Deterville grouped themselves under the umbrella of the “Forum” and proceeded to articulate its own message of Black economic enfranchisement and consciousness.

“No other period has shaped Caribbean consciousness as the decade of the seventies. More pointedly, some governments were compelled to make adjustments to accommodate the rising tide of frustration, anger and disappointment.

“The People’s National Movement (PNM) in Trinidad and Tobago was one such example. Following massive public protests and a near mutiny in the army, Eric Williams moved quickly to review the Constitution of Trinidad and Tobago and to create a state sector in the economy of that country. It is only now, after some fifty years that the National Joint Action Committee (NJAC) is being given the credit it deserves for shaping post-independence Trinidad and Tobago. “

In his lengthy lecture in which he examined the relationship between the St. Lucia Labour Party (SLP) and the New Jewel Movement in Grenada, Anthony noted that the “bulk of open, public support for the Grenada revolution came from supporters of the SLP” and other stakeholders “which, by March 13th 1979, was quietly but well entrenched in the leadership of the most important political, trade union, youth, women and student groups on the island”.

He noted that the general elections in St. Lucia, coming three and a half months after the Grenada revolution allowed for Odlum faction to immediately latched on to the revolution.

“The events in Grenada had captivated the imagination of the electorate and appeared to validate their own robust challenges to the ruling United Workers Party (UWP), led by John Compton, as he then was,’ Anthony said, noting that the UWP “relentlessly attacked Odlum, told the electorate that Allan Louisy was a mere figurehead and that Odlum’s ambition was to transform St. Lucia into ‘another Grenada’ and/or ‘Another Cuba’.”

Compton had already made it known that he was fiercely opposed to the revolutionary events in Grenada. “Indeed, just hours after the events on March 13, 1979, he dispatched St.Lucia’s High Commissioner in London, Dr. Claudius Thomas, to meet with the Foreign Office to persuade the British Government to intervene in Grenada.”

For all practical purposes, Grenada, in its revolutionary days, was the intellectual and ideological capital of the Caribbean left and the “Progressive Movement” as a whole, howsoever defined, Anthony said.

He said Grenada provided a natural opportunity for the region’s progressive parties and movements to gather annually, to express political support and solidarity and of course, to share experiences.

“Such gatherings gave an opportunity to those who argued for building parties of a new type to address the new challenges, to share their views and gauge reactions,” Anthony said, acknowledging though that the “regional left was also sharply divided over what these parties of a new type should look like”.

The issue was, by then, reduced to two choices. Some argued for “vanguard parties” in the Leninist mode purely based on the stereotypes from Eastern European experiences 60 years earlier, others argued for mass-based parties with broader-minded home-grown Caribbean leaders committed to a politics of a new type, adopting, where appropriate, a version of Jamaica’s Alternative Path.

“Grenada also provided a canvas for the regional progressive movements in the region to review their strategies and tactics. In many cases, in nearly every nation in CARICOM and every island in the OECS, parties either tweaked their organizational structures or new structures emerged, spurred either by the inspiration of Grenada or the strength of the propaganda against it – or both.”

However with the demise of the Grenada revolution, the Caribbean left disintegrated and splintered into different directions.

“It is now for history to deliver its verdict on our generation, our decisions, choices and actions. We were all witnesses to the birth and the demise of the revolution.

“What is often not realized is that the events in Grenada were as deeply troubling, hurtful and traumatic experience for us as it was for the people of Grenada. How we felt about the Grenadian events have never been understood, explored or measured. True, there have been personal statements but I doubt the full story has been told. Perhaps with hindsight, it was difficult to find the right words. It is still the case today,’ Anthony argued.

He said in nearly every Caribbean territory, the radical left renounced its left- wing credentials and aspirations and joined the mainstream political parties, albeit in different directions. Many also quickly embraced the trappings of Westminster democracy.

Anthony said that Dr. Ralph Gonsalves, a former radical member of the Youlou Liberation Movement (YULIMO) joined the St Vincent and the Grenadines Labour Party (SVGLP), and symbolized his entry by successfully renaming and rebranding ex-Premier Milton’s Cato’s Party as the Unity Labour Party (ULP). He has won three successive elections, albeit by slim majorities and is now the longest serving CARICOM Prime Minister.

Trevor Munroe’s Workers Party of Jamaica, the WPJ, ceased to exist and Munroe now manages an NGO focusing on fighting corruption and entrenching new standards of accountability in public life.

Much the same thing happened in Dominica. Some joined the Dominica Labour Party (DLP) in the footsteps of Rosie Douglas while others made their way to the Opposition United Workers Party (UWP).

In the case of St. Lucia, Peter Josie abandoned the SLP and joined the UWP. Odlum before his death served as the UWP’s Ambassador at the United Nations in New York.

Anthony said he is constantly pre-occupied with how “history will judge us, all of us, we the offspring of the Radical left.

“Will history treat us as opportunists who denounced our faith or as converts to pragmatism? Or are we the new neo liberals?

“Perhaps we may be spared a harsh judgment and be credited for reading correctly, the future of the left,” he said.

But Anthony says the truths from Grenada over the past 40 years are both comfortable and uncomfortable

“It will be for the people of Grenada, Carriacou and Petite Martinique to make the real decisions on the future applicability of the revolution’s lessons at home,” he said, adding “what I do know is that the time has come to elevate Maurice Bishop to the pantheon of revered revolutionaries”.


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