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How a Revolution on the Tiny Island of Grenada Shook the World

On this day in 1979, the most remarkable social revolution in the modern history of the Anglophone Caribbean began. Today, we remember not only the crisis and imperialist invasion that brought the Grenadian Revolution to an end, but its tremendous accomplishments.

Maurice Bishop, prime minister of Grenada (second from L), walks with (L-R) Michael Manley, prime minister of Jamaica; Kurt Waldheim, secretary-general of the United Nations; and Cuban president Fidel Castro, during arrival ceremonies in Cuba on September 2, 1979, for the Non-Aligned Countries Summit. (Bettman via Getty)

I left Grenada in late September 1983, to begin work on my thesis on the living Grenada Revolution as a PhD student at the University of the West Indies at Mona, fully intent on returning to do further research the following year and without any forewarning of the disaster that would occur in the coming weeks. I come therefore with the perspective and biases of someone who lived and worked in the Revolution in its final days.

In spite of new and refreshing writing in recent years, there is, nevertheless, a certain established and encrusted narrative structure of the Revolution which goes something like this: Power was taken from Eric Gairy in 1979; four and a half years intervene; then there is a leadership crisis which we need to understand and apportion blame; the crisis itself is explanatory of the revolution. We can therefore assign blame and come to one of two conclusions: either avoid in the future the ideology, tactics, or even the very people who were guilty of despoiling the process, or, conversely, avoid revolution altogether, for the proof that Saturn always devours his children is evident once again in the Grenadian instance.

There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong in trying to understand the origins and course of the 1983 crisis. This is necessary and much of my own work on Grenada has tried, agonizingly, to walk and re-walk those moments to try to grasp what went wrong. Yet, this exercise inevitably obscures the day-to-day reality of some four and a half years — more than 1,670 days of the most remarkable social experiment in the Anglophone Caribbean since emancipation in 1838. My argument is straightforward: It is that lost in the detritus of the 1983 tragedy, there were initiatives taken that went beyond any experiment tried anywhere in the history of the Anglophone Caribbean. And that if in the future, we are to rethink and rebuild a Caribbean that is more in the interest of the people, we must learn not only from what the Grenada Revolution did wrong but also what it did right.

Living the Revolution

The first is to trace what I call the sublime moment of revolution. It was Marx who considered revolutions the locomotives of history, that is, the fastest possible vehicle to institute change in the descriptive language (locomotives) of his time. And it was William Wordsworth who in his well-known references to the early days of the French Revolution penned his famous lines:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven.

Of course, the subsequent path of the French Revolution, the guillotine, the wars, Napoleon, and the restoration of the monarchy are only too well known. But what did it mean to live in an actual moment of popular upheaval, when the integuments of an old society are dissolved and, for a moment, all that is solid melts into air? What does it mean when you wake up in the morning and the possibilities for a new world, for dramatic, transformative change, are placed on the table by the leader of the uprising himself, who proclaims that this is a revolution and it is for work, bread, and dignity?

For many among the poor, and particularly the young of Grenada, the revolution of March 13, 1979, was a new day. Let us recall a few of their voices.

This is Patsy Romain, shop assistant, twenty-six years old in 1981:

On March 13, following the radio message when the Revolution took over the radio station, we marched to our local Police Station at Birchgrove — about 200 of us, mostly women — and told the police to put up the white flag. Then we took up positions in different areas, cooking for our soldiers, running messages and keeping guard — and also listening out for any counter-revolutionary plans.

I attended many seminars and conventions for women, and I began to notice that in Byelands the women were not organized, even though they were supporters of the Revolution. So we organized the women for a meeting and formed a N.W.O. [National Women’s Organization] group there.

The group looked at the needs and problems of the area. There were pipe stands with no taps, so women had to carry water a long way to their homes. So we went to the Ministry of Communications and Works to apply for pipe taps, and we got them in a few days. So that was our first concrete gain. Then we had a problem with the roads. Byelands had been neglected by Gairy so we combined with the Farmers’ Association, the N.Y.O., the Militia, the Party Support Group and made a joint complaint to the same Ministry. So now the road is being fixed. And we spend our own Sunday mornings in community work, clearing drains and cutting overhanging branches.

And this from Roy Cooper, mason, aged forty:

When the Revolution came I greeted it with glory. It was the only democratic process that could rescue the people from poverty and backwardness. After the Revo I came here [the Queens Park Quarry] to work. Gairy had closed the works down, so the Party decided to give the people work. We had to re-make everything here. But the workers were feeling real happy when we re-opened and they worked harder, with a better understanding. And we have a lot of improvements. There is better discipline, the workers realize they must work hard if the Revolution is going to grow and their children are going to enjoy a good life. . . .

. . . We have 75 women workers here and they are particularly grateful for the law against sexual exploitation. We had a foreman who tried to seduce the women before giving them work, and he once slapped up a female worker on the job. We stepped on him and he was fired forthwith. The women were glad. They saw it as another revolution!

And thirdly, Theresa Simeon, sixty years old, returning home from the United States:

Then when the revolution happened, I was in the States. So I came back here, I really wanted to make up for not being here. I started going to the rallies. The first one I went to was with Kaunda [Zambian President], and I was so impressed, I’d never seen people so together and united like that before in Grenada.

I was thinking how can I help? I knew we needed a lot of money, and I wondered, how could I raise some? Then in November 1979 we heard about the International Airport idea. So I called all of my friends together, and twenty-two of us met and decided to form the St. George’s Airport Development Committee. . . .

All this involvement has changed my life so much, you know, and all the members of the Committee say the same thing. We are much more involved in the Revolution, and we are always being called upon to help.

I landed in Grenada for the first time in the summer of 1981. The revolution was a mere two years old, but it had already gone through major challenges, among them the confrontations with Rastas in Tivoli, the closing of the Torchlight newspaper, and, most violently, the Queens Park bombing, in which an attempted assassination of the leadership of the People’s Revolutionary Government (PRG) had led tragically to the deaths of three young girls and a hundred others being wounded.

Nevertheless, coming from the first year of Edward Seaga and the conservative Jamaica Labour Party’s triumph in the 1980 Jamaican elections, and the drastic rightward turn in Jamaican politics, there was still a palpable sense of energy, excitement, and possibility for the future in the air. The daily and weekly agenda of activities was relentless. There were the openings of new facilities, like the Cuban-funded Sandino construction facility, the Beausejour radio transmitting station, the new National Transport Service bus system, and overarching them all, the work on the international airport at Point Salines, which was transforming an impossibly hilly and swampy area in the south of the island into what would be a runway for full-sized commercial jets.

Grenadians rally in support of the new People’s Revolutionary Government, March 1979. (Government of Grenada)

These were interspersed with international solidarity conferences, among them the 1981 Intellectuals Conference, which brought Caribbean writers and thinkers from across the region and the diaspora and heads of state, among them Zambia’s president Kenneth Kaunda, Mozambique’s Samora Machel, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, and (when he was still in power) Jamaica’s Michael Manley. And then there were the famous personalities, among them Angela Davis, Harry Belafonte, and Barbados’s own George Lamming. In this tsunami of popular activity, in which crowds intermingled with leaders, both visiting and local, and in which voluntary Sundays working to fix roads was just another excuse for a rally, to work together and come together, there was a noticeable loosening of the traditional distance between the formalities of officialdom of the state and the celebratory space of the people.

If we think of Mikhail Bakhtin’s development of the notion of carnival as a revolutionary space, a space of transgression and subversion, then turning it around, “the Revo,” as it was fondly called by supporters, was a carnival of popular expression and empowerment through mutual association, participation, and voluntary engagement.

Nowhere was this more fully on display than in the militia. I say this with some trepidation in the full knowledge that of all the dimensions of the Grenadian Revolution, many of which were cause for concern in the rest of the “decent, normal, and parliamentary” Caribbean, the one which led to the greatest consternation was the policy of arming the people. Let us for a minute trace a little history. The origins of military force in the Caribbean follow an unbroken line of ancestry back to slavery and the plantation. The notion of the state as holding a monopoly over force and the legal use of violence is considered sacrosanct. This proscription was turned on its head in revolutionary Grenada, where the people were given arms to defend their Revo, without the state apparently harboring any fear as to whether this might endanger its own survival.

In illustration of this point, I was witness to the 1982 “Heroes of the Homeland Maneuver,” which was designed to help prepare for an anticipated mercenary attack against the country. After a weekend of mobilization and arduous exercises aimed at preventing a beach landing of hostile forces, “Heroes” culminated in a huge armed rally filling two football fields at Seamoon near Grenville on the east coast. My rough estimate of perhaps ten thousand armed militia members, or roughly ten percent of Grenada’s entire population, may be slightly inaccurate, but not far off the mark.

What was noticeable, however, amid the elation and carnivalesque atmosphere at Seamoon, was the discipline and order. No shots were fired. No one hurt. There was just determination, solidarity, and celebration. I remember, shortly after this, traveling to Trinidad and seeing how this event had been transformed in the newspapers and television into a wild, anarchic display of banditry. The distance between the Trinidad perception and what I perceived to be the real mood at Seamoon was equivalent to the distance the Revolution had taken the Grenadian people beyond the spaces and limited horizons of liberal Caribbean Westminster democracy.

From a position of extreme alienation from the state under Gairyite authoritarianism, Grenadians had traveled some distance toward altogether erasing the boundaries between the people and the state. Popular power was to be determined not via the brittle integument of elections every five years but, in part, through the very possession of the means of power by the people themselves. However, in a point that I will return to again, this transition was young and tender and itself subject to a certain brittleness. It would eventually break.

The Economic Transformation

If little time is spent in the literature reflecting on the revolution itself, even less is spent on the Grenadian economy as a wellspring of originality. This may in part be due to the absolute triumph of neoliberal notions in the decades since 1983 and the ways in which the initiatives taken in Grenada ran counter to these. Yet, at this moment of the collapse of the neoliberal sandcastle, it’s worth remembering another moment of world recession in the early 1980s.

When all its neighboring economies were stagnant, the Grenadian economy grew robustly, reduced unemployment drastically, and was considered, ironically by the IMF and World Bank, to be a star performer. Yet these surprising indicators are not what I want to focus on. Rather, I want to suggest there are three lessons to be learned from Grenada: the first is the need for alacrity and flexibility in leadership; the second is the question of credibility; and the third is the importance of democracy and transparency.

On the question of leadership: when the first manifesto of the New Jewel Movement (NJM) was released in 1973, the economic agenda suggested, following the influence of the New World Group and the dependentista school, an import substitution, community-based approach to development. However, in the decade that followed and in the lead up to March 13, 1979, it became very apparent that such a model would be politically very difficult to implement and defend on an island which was used to a relatively high level of consumption.

Put crudely, a model tending toward autarky would likely alienate most of the PRG’s support base, bringing to a halt any attempt at transformative change. The decision arrived at was to pivot away from this to a foreign investment–led model of infrastructural development, led by the construction of the airport and followed by roads, the seaport, housing, and the like. This was wise, as not only was the airport the dream of most Grenadians, but it provided a concrete, achievable objective around which to mobilize loans from overseas and engender support at home and in the region.

Of course, there were numerous questions to be asked, for instance, what would happen after the airport was finished and the fairly extensive foreign lines of investment dried up? And, if Grenada’s hostility to the United States continued unabated, where would the tourists come from on the new jetliners which would now be able to land at the airport? The point here is that the ability and willingness of the leadership to pivot, bob, and weave to the exigencies of the global economy had yielded enormous benefits in the choice of the airport model in the first place, and this flexibility augured well for the future.

Revolutionaries gather at Radio Free Grenada on the morning of March 13, 1979. (Government of Grenada)

Surely, in light of this, further turns in response to new exigencies would be possible, particularly considering the fact that a tiny island, in the scheme of things, needs relatively small injections of capital to make a difference. All this, of course, was made moot by the tragedy of October 1983.

The second point of the credibility of the regime relates to a central, though insufficiently illuminated, aspect of the revolution: its honesty. When the PRG came to power, civil servants, used to Gairy’s authoritarianism and arbitrariness, braced for dismissal if not worse. This did not happen, and in the months beyond, many pro-Gairy workers turns to the PRG for this reason alone. Alongside this, the conscious decision to avoid petty favoritism and corruption, as in the instance of longtime NJM supporter Ralph Thomas, who demanded a job and favors and was promptly expelled from the party as a result, won often grudging support.

This was most evident in the dealings with the IMF and World Bank, which, as Claremont Kirton, who worked as an economist with the PRG, pointed out, know from long experience when books are being cooked, but this was never perceived in the case of the PRG; and though it is difficult to quantify, there is no credible narrative of corruption from the leadership to be found in the archival records or any of the many commentaries.

The final factor relates to the emergence of a new kind of economy, based on democracy and accountability. More than anywhere else in the Caribbean up to that moment in time, the revolution sought to bring people into the process of economic planning and management. Through a layered process of critiques, proposals, and responses that began in zonal councils, went up to parish councils, and ended in national budget debates (of which three were held), the mystery of the economy (and of economics) was slowly being unraveled. Some of this is already evident in comments quoted earlier, but let us return briefly to the voices of Grenadians as they engaged in the profound act of understanding their economy and lives and helping to determine their own futures. First, the “Summary report of the St Patrick Workers Council Meeting February 18, 1982”:

Workshop 1:

  1. More community work should be done on weekends on the roads of the country. Materials and technical manpower should be provided by the PRG.
  2. More local foods should be grown, e.g. peas, vegetables, etc. as too much of these are now being imported.
  3. The production of coconuts should be increased. New plantations should be established as well as 1-2 acres of idle land on large estates can be used for that purpose.
  4. The preparation of a softer textured saltfish should be looked at. More sales can be achieved if this is done.
  5. More use should be made of compost so as to cut back on the use of artificial fertilizers, thereby saving foreign exchange.

And second, these from “Farmers Workshop 3, St David’s Parish Council, February 15, 1982”:

  1. What was responsible for decrease in manufacture, wholesale, and retail hotel and restaurant?
  2. In order to determine whether there is growth or decline, where do they get their first figure?
  3. How did consumption manage to fall in 1981?

Suggestions:

a. Build cement factory

b. Instead of subsidizing saltfish, subsidize water rates, since cost of saltfish is so high and the ordinary man can’t buy it.

c. Strict supervision and control on the use of Government transport, because it is affecting the farmers in terms of tax.

d. Subsidies to farmers.

e. Farmers are paying too much in taxes.

I wish I could go on. It is not that all of these suggestions were wise and implementable, though, indeed, many of them were. Instead, what is evident is the gradual erosion of the barrier between the experts and the ordinary people, between the producers and those assigned to manage them, in ways that empowered both and began to lay the foundations for a different kind of economy. This meant a transformation not only in the notion of who is capable of making decisions but also in the sharing of responsibility for both good and bad decisions that follows inevitably with the sharing of power.

The Question of Politics

Commonly understood, however, it was politics, not economics, that led to the demise of the revolution, with divisions in the NJM, often perceived as stemming from the desire for power, leading to fatal attempts to readjust power in the direction of the deeply flawed notion of “joint leadership,” which saw a jostling for control between Prime Minister Maurice Bishop and Deputy Prime Minister Bernard Coard. I want to follow a somewhat different path, however, in trying to trace, as I have done elsewhere, how the notion of the Leninist vanguard came to dominate as a political strategy in the party, how it served the insurrectionary moment of 1979, and how subsequently it became its opposite and contributed greatly to the disaster of 1983.

The 1973 manifesto of the NJM, which we have already referenced, conceived a political strategy, along lines loosely adapted from the work of C. L. R. James, as one built around popular assemblies. These were conceived as organs of popular power, located in villages and townships, and were presented as an alternative to the typically centralized governmental apparatus of Westminster-style parliamentary democracy. Somewhat sketchy in outline, one feature nonetheless was prominent: there was no place in the structure for political parties. This shift away from the party, even at the very moment of the drafting of a party manifesto, is, I suggest, adopted from, and a recurring proclivity of, the Caribbean left as it evolved out of the New World / Black Power moment of the 1960s.

From this perspective, and more than implicitly influenced by James, political parties in general were part of the problem, not part of the solution. So, it was two-party politics that divided the people into warring factions, or tribes, if you will, and the purpose of revolutionary politics was to transcend this divide and unite the “tribes” as one impregnable populace. The dangers of monolithic power embodied in the adage that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” were far from the imagination of young radicals who, particularly in the Grenadian, Gairyite context, understood just how parliamentary democracy could be abused and elections corrupted to benefit the incumbent parties.

A second feature that was noteworthy was the history in Latin America and the Caribbean of the overthrow of democratic regimes by the CIA and local right-wing forces. Jacobo Árbenz in 1954 in Guatemala and Juan Bosch in 1965 in the Dominican Republic were known, but the two most immediate examples were the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973 and the nearby undermining of the Michael Manley government by finely honed techniques of destabilization, followed up by punishing economic policies until defeat in “free and fair” elections was inevitable. This led to the view that dominated in the NJM, but also other left-oriented organizations in the Caribbean, that parties that did not prepare for the most thorough and determined resistance to imperialism would suffer ignominious defeat.

Let us put these ideological and tactical inclinations against a specific history of Grenada from December 1973 through the spring of 1974, when there is an uprising against the notion of Gairy taking the country into independence, because it is felt that his abuses of power, legion under the British, would now have even greater sway without the Crown present. Huge swathes of the population are mobilized, the country is shut down, people are brutalized, and Maurice Bishop’s father is killed. However, not only does Gairy remain in charge but he wins, and against the popular will, takes the country into independence. The NJM leadership is now convinced that the tactic of popular mobilization that had carried them through the turbulent year of 1973–74 was insufficient in the face of what they saw as a consolidating dictatorship.

What seemed to provide the appropriate organizational and tactical tools was a very specific interpretation of Leninism, which included the following playbook.

First, according to this approach, popular mobilization alone could not defeat Gairy, as it had been tried and didn’t work. Second, while the tactic of contesting elections should continue, Gairy would never concede to the popular will via an electoral process over which he had ultimate control. Third, therefore, underground forms of organization must be put in place to remove Gairy if and when the appropriate time came. One could not wait until that moment to begin the process of preparation. Fourth, in order to simultaneously sustain both a legal, parliamentary organization and an underground, military one, particularly in the context of tiny and porous Grenada, where everyone knew everything, it was necessary to develop a secretive, highly disciplined cadre of party members, in whom there could be absolute trust. Fifth, as in any insurrectionary organization, discipline and order must always trump democracy and debate.

Nothing fit this framework more appropriately than Leninism, as it came to be popularly understood, with its emphasis on selectivity of cadres (“better fewer, but better”), discipline (democratic centralism), and willingness to engage in clandestine insurrectionary tactics when necessary. The Jamesian notion of popular assemblies was not so much defeated in debate as shunted aside, because it did not seem to provide a credible set of tools for an insurrectionary moment.

And the Leninist tactic as applied in Grenada had, at first, stunning results. The willingness to adapt legal forms and participate fully in elections led to the emergence of the NJM as dominant party in the alliance that led to Bishop becoming leader of the opposition in 1976. While he, and the party more generally, contested the results and argued that there was massive rigging, he now held a constitutional position and had unprecedented national, regional, and international access and exposure. When, therefore, it was alleged that Gairy had planned to arrest and incarcerate the Jewel leadership in the days leading up to March 13, 1979, the other element of the new approach rose to the fore: the underground insurrectionary force was mobilized and power was taken.

Army Rangers parachute into Grenada during the US invasion of the country on October 25, 1983. (United States Army)

The NJM’s popular support, and the widespread distaste for Gairyism, ensured that in the following days power was consolidated, with hundreds of people, like Patsy Romain suggests, taking to the streets and putting their bodies on the line in support of the Revo.

Here, however, is where the plot should have changed. Lenin, in the peculiar conjuncture of seizing power in St Petersburg in October/November 1917, understood that the restricted size and structure of the Bolshevik party, designed initially to operate under tsarist repression and clandestinity, could not work in the new conditions that were emerging. Requirements for membership were loosened and thousands of new cadres drawn into the party.

In Grenada, the realization of the need for an entirely new model came too little and too late. The party, for much of the four and a half years, was now required not only to run itself but rule a country with all of its complexities, and it was entirely unprepared for this. Despite heroic efforts, overburdened cadres tired and got sick. Duties were often unfulfilled. Others left the party.

In particular, at numerous times in the process, but with increasing urgency in 1982 and ’83, women party members had protested at the lack of time available for them to spend with their children and families. How, they argued, could they be expected to recruit other women and men into the party when they were increasingly perceived in their communities as being irresponsible to their own homes by virtue of their preoccupation with party duties?

It was the women’s protests, along with other signs of flagging efforts in the overburdened vanguard, that led not to a rethinking of the entire utility of vanguardism but rather a doubling down on the very principles that had brought the party to the point of disintegration in 1983.

It was, therefore, this flawed decision to reassert the unyielding “rightness” of Leninism that was the background to the party meetings of mid-1983 and to the highly flawed joint leadership proposals that led, at least retrospectively, in lockstep fashion to the house arrest of Bishop, the murders at Fort Rupert, and the US invasion.

Revolutions are, inevitably, fraught periods of great danger and uncertainty. At their moment of triumph, the old order is temporarily prostrate, but there remains great hostility to the new regime both internally and internationally. The chances of initial consolidation and success are slim, and the very act of asserting authority in order to survive becomes the definitive and often negative signature of revolution.

However, if the brief history of the Grenada Revolution is to serve as a lesson, then lost in its tragic ending and the US invasion is another narrative that traces its origins back to emancipation and the post-slavery struggle for black self-realization. This is a story of creativity, popular assertion, self-determination, and liberation that urgently needs to be remembered and told.