Residents on the 121-square-mile tri-island nation of Grenada, Carriacou, and Petit Martinique (population 110,000) awoke on the morning of March 13, 1979, to radio reports that the elected government of Prime Minister Eric Gairy had been replaced in a relatively bloodless coup by the New Jewel Movement (NJM). The NJM set up the People’s Revolutionary Government (PRG) with the avowed task of transforming Grenada’s society and political culture and creating a socialist state.
Seeds of this revolution had been sown during the previous twelve years of Gairy’s rule, during which he had alienated many Grenadians through his increasing use of legal and extralegal means to silence his critics. Chief among these techniques was his seizure of the lands and property of his political opponents, intimidation of civil servants, the establishment of a system in which decisionmaking depended on the Gairy-dominated Cabinet, and the establishment of an extralegal paramilitary body that inflicted bloody beatings on his political opponents.
The emergence and rise of the NJM must be seen within the context of several international movements of the late 1950s and 1960s that had a great impact on the Caribbean. The Cuban Revolution, successful independence struggles in Africa, the growth of Rastafarianism, and the U.S. civil rights movement were all inspirational in the English-speaking Caribbean. By the 1970s, the flourishing of new ideas shaped by these international developments had produced a generation of young people who openly questioned the appropriateness of the inherited British political system. Guyanese-born university lecturer Walter Rodney had also shown the relevance of Black Power to the cultural and political situation in the Caribbean.
In Grenada, Maurice Bishop was among this new generation of Caribbean activists. On returning home from England, where he had studied law and had been politically active, Bishop teamed up with another London-trained lawyer, Kendrick Radix, to form an urban-based study group, the Movement for the Assemblies of the People (MAP). At the same time, Unison Whiteman founded another group to promote rural development, the Joint Endeavour for Welfare, Education, and Liberation (JEWEL). In March 1973 these groups merged into the NJM, which advocated agricultural and educational reform, preventive medicine campaigns, social planning, the nationalization of banks, the phasing out of foreign-owned insurance companies, an end to party politics, and the institution of People’s Assemblies as the mechanism to ensure participatory democracy and the permanent involvement of the working people in decision-making. Their model was Tanzania’s Ujaama system.
The NJM flourished during a period of pervasive clientelism, political conservatism, and corruption on the part of Grenada’s two main political parties. As its influence grew and the number of its sympathizers and followers increased, the NJM was increasingly attacked by Gairy who sought to silence its supporters. As the NJM made increasing inroads into the trade union leadership, Gairy passed laws in early 1978 prohibiting strikes and introducing compulsory arbitration to settle disputes where “essential” services were affected.
Partly because of the terror he had unleashed on his political opponents, particularly NJM members, Gairy’s political base was being systematically eroded. A history of dubious electoral practices, including alleged use of rigged electoral lists, caused the NJM to despair of effecting governmental change at the polls despite the fact that by 1978 some of their members had won election to the legislature. By then, most Grenadians were apparently fed up with Gairy’s misrule. Thus, when the NJM seized power in 1979, few Grenadians complained.
Once in office, the PRG consolidated its power by forming a government that included members of the mercantile community and persons of middle class background. This temporarily allayed the fears of individuals concerned that the country would soon be turned into a Cuban-style socialist state. Though they suspended the 1974 constitution, the PRG retained the office of governor general in an obvious attempt to gain the support of the politically conservative Grenadian and British Caribbean peoples. As prime minister, Bishop signed into effect laws that were passed by the Parliament, of which he was a part, in the name of the PRG.
While pledging to observe fundamental rights and freedoms of Grenadians, the PRG also declared its determination to eradicate all vestiges of Gairyism and to protect the revolution. It established a People’s Revolutionary Army (PRA), whose members had the same powers of arrest and search that members of the local police force enjoyed. By using preventive detention without bail, the PRG could detain indefinitely persons suspected of activities aimed at undermining the revolution or deemed prejudicial to public safety or public order. This proved to be a sore point for Grenadians who had expected the PRG to respect their human and civil rights. Although the government had pledged a Consultative Assembly where Grenadians would participate in shaping a new constitution, by 1980 PRG members were openly asserting that elections and a return to parliamentary government were no longer priorities.
The revolution did have positive effects on Grenada, however. The awakening of national spirit on an unprecedented level was evident in the widespread use of voluntary labor for community development. Educational and medical improvements stemmed from the generous assistance provided by Cuban doctors and teachers. Farmer cooperatives expanded agricultural output. Marketing boards regularized the availability of these goods locally and in neighboring Caribbean countries. Agribusiness initiatives transformed surplus fruits into canned nectars and juices. A spice-grinding project brought to the marketplace a range of locally produced and ground packaged spices. The Livestock Production and Genetic Centre set out to enhance the island’s livestock industry to remove the need for importing meats. Government promoted “new tourism” aimed at attracting visitors from Latin America, Africa, and the United States. The centerpiece of this tourism initiative was the construction of an international airport to accommodate large jet aircrafts.
Financing these ambitious programs was challenging. The PRG initially sought support from moderate foreign-owned banks operating locally. Later it purchased one of them and enhanced the capitalization of the government-owned Grenada Development Bank. But these resources remained inadequate, forcing the PRG to increase its requests for aid from Cuba and the Soviet Union. Cuba provided technical expertise, heavy equipment, and skilled labor for the construction of the airport. Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Algeria provided more than US$19 million, while Venezuela donated much-needed diesel fuel.
This reliance on aid from leftist countries irked the United States, which, increasingly concerned about the leftward drift of the revolution, feared that Grenada would become a proxy for the Soviets. President Ronald Reagan openly declared that the new airport was for military rather than economic purposes. PRG fears that the United States would destabilize its experiment in socialism forced the revolutionaries to boost the country’s military preparedness through a series of secret agreements with Eastern European countries. According to these agreements, Grenada would receive counterintelligence equipment, agent training, and arms and other military materiel. Local preparedness was enhanced through participation in the army, militia, and other neighborhood bodies geared to protecting the revolution at home.
The greatest threat to the revolution eventually came not from the United States or local counterrevolutionaries, but from the revolutionaries’ own actions. Long-suspected though rarely publicly articulated ideological differences within the NJM leadership came to light in October 1983. Minutes from Central Committee meetings reflect a sharp divide centering on leadership issues and the direction the revolution should follow. It appears that revolutionary élan was receding partly because the revolutionaries had allowed their rhetoric to exceed the possibilities the situation allowed. An awareness of the revolution’s failure to achieve its full potential led to serious self-reflection and evaluation of both the leadership and the governmental structure. In addition, personal differences contributed mightily to the internal crisis that the PRG experienced in the autumn of 1983. Bishop’s detractors accused him of being inefficient and middle class, and of lacking political leadership skills and sufficient ideological coherence. After much debate over three days, the party proposed the institution of a joint leadership structure, with power to be shared by Bishop and Bernard Coard. Bishop initially accepted this proposal. Two days later, he left for a visit to Hungary and Czechoslovakia.
On his return via Cuba on October 8, Bishop told Central Committee members that he was no longer willing to go along with the power-sharing proposal the party had approved. Committee members then sought to impose this agreement without the support of Bishop. In response, Bishop, who was for many the personification of the revolution, set out to turn the people against Coard by spreading a rumor that Coard was conspiring to kill him. Confronted at a Central Committee meeting with his security guard’s testimony about this plot, Bishop remained silent. Convinced of his guilt, the Central Committee placed him under house arrest.
Bishop’s house arrest failed to neutralize him; instead, it roused the people. After days of unrest, Unison Whiteman and George Louison, two of Bishop’s faithful supporters, began organizing protestors for a rescue attempt. By this time, all the ministers, except Bishop, Selwyn Strachan, and Hudson Austin, had resigned their portfolio. Government was in disarray. On October 19, 1983, Whiteman and a group of Bishop loyalists freed Bishop. Bishop then led a crowd to Fort Rupert, the headquarters of the Grenadian armed forces, with the apparent goal of using the military to reassert his authority. Accounts of what transpired there differ. Speaking for the PRA, General Hudson Austin later claimed that Bishop’s group disarmed the soldiers guarding the fort and declared their intention to eliminate the entire Central Committee—the senior members of the party—and to smash the revolutionary armed forces. Thus, Austin declared, relief soldiers were sent to reestablish control of Fort Rupert. Bishop and his group fired on the soldiers, prompting them to retaliate. In the crossfire, Bishop, a number of his colleagues, and an unknown number of citizens were killed in what many regard as an execution. The bodies of Bishop and the ministers were reportedly burned beyond recognition and then secretly buried. Some suggest that U.S. forces removed the charred remains from the island.
The killing of these ministers created a leadership vacuum that the PRA under Austin initially sought to fill. Because the army lacked popular support, it declared a twenty-four-hour curfew to both maintain order and impose its will on the people. Fearful of governance by the group that had killed their popular prime minister, Grenadians panicked. At the request of Governor General Sir Paul Scoon, who invoked the doctrine of necessity embedded in the 1974 constitution and assumed plenipotentiary powers, forces from the United States and the Caribbean staged a military intervention that quickly eliminated remaining pockets of resistance from the PRA and Cuban sympathizers. Grenadians viewed the foreign troops as liberators rather than as invaders.
In an attempt to restore a state of political normalcy, Sir Paul appointed a broad-based advisory council to form an interim government that would help in the country’s administration. Among its most memorable achievements was paving the way for the elections that took place in December 1984.
By then, Coard and those suspected of involvement in the killings at Fort Rupert had been detained. They were tried and found guilty of murder, but their death sentences were later commuted to life imprisonment by the governor general. A successful appeal to the Privy Council resulted in a 2007 ruling that they should be resentenced because of the unconstitutionality of the original sentences.
SEE ALSO Anticolonial Movements; Black Power; Caribbean, The; Castro, Fidel; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Colonialism; Cuban Revolution; Haitian Revolution; Human Rights; Left and Right; Left Wing; Reagan, Ronald; Revolution; Rodney, Walter; Social Movements; Socialism; Terror; Tourism
Heine, Jorge, ed. 1990. A Revolution Aborted: The Lessons of Grenada. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.
Lewis, Gordon K. 1987. Grenada: The Jewel Despoiled. London and Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Mandle, Jay R. 1985. Big Revolution, Small Country: The Rise and Fall of the Grenada Revolution. Lanham, MD: North-South Publishing Company.
O’Shaughnessy, Hugh. 1984. Grenada: Revolution, Invasion, and Aftermath. London: Sphere Books.
Payne, Anthony, Paul Sutton, and Tony Thorndike. 1984. Grenada: Revolution and Invasion. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Scoon, Paul. 2003. Survival for Service: My Experiences as Governor General. Oxford: Macmillan Caribbean.
Valenta, Jiri, and Herbert J. Ellison, eds. 1986. Grenada and Soviet/Cuban Policy: Internal Crisis and U.S./OECS Intervention. Boulder, CO, and London: Westview Press.
Edward L. Cox