The Last Prisoners of the Cold War Are Black
by Rich Gibson
In 1979 a revolution took place in Grenada, the first in an African-Caribbean country, the first in the English-speaking world. The people who made up the revolutionary cadre were quite young, average age around 27, and the uppermost leadership was mostly middle class, educated abroad. They called themselves the New Jewel Movement (NJM). The revolution, or coup as
some called it, was popular, a move to replace a somewhat mad dictator named
Eric Gairy who spent much of the tiny country's (pop 100,000) resources on investigating the reason Grenada was a key landing point for flying saucers. When I interviewed Gairy in 1996,
he told me he was immortal, God. He died in 1997; has not been seen since.
Gairy had modeled his rule on a mix of Papa Doc's Haitian thuggery and populist appeals to workers and small-land-holders, a powerful constituency in Grenada. But he brooked no opposition and shared with no one. The educated classes, and many others, were restive. The NJM "revo" of 13 March 1979 took 24 hours, at the end of years of unarmed struggle. It was no mistake that but two people were killed in the revolution. Grenada's size means that everyone knows everyone. Each death is a personal and collective tragedy. The NJM leadership never fit the bloodthirsty caricature stamped on them by U.S. officials. Gairy was in Miami visiting with war criminal (and United Nations leader) Kurt Waldheim. Gairy simply didn't return. Maurice Bishop and Jacqueline Creft, Bernard and Phyllis Coard, were among the key New Jewel leaders. Bishop and Coard had known each other from childhood.
The NJM leadership were socialists, though their socialism was really quite eclectic--hardly the doctrinaire image the U.S. later created. They borrowed and 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 did begin a mass literacy project (led by Paulo Freire), quickly improved medical care, began to set up processing plants for fish and spices, and started building a jet-port. The country only had a landing strip able to introduce prop planes, a problem for an economy tied up with tourist interests. The plan, in general, was to build national economic development by expanding existing forms of production (agriculture, tourism, etc.) and by creating a new class of technologically competent workers who might use their skills to create a roll for Grenada in the information-economy as well. The educational programs had a critical part in that project.
To claim that the NJM rule was a model of egalitarian democracy, as much of the chic left did at the time, would be off-point. It wasn't. Democracy and equality went on the back burner in favor of national economic development, and the party became privileged in terms of decision-making power and the distribution of goods: the shipwreck of most socialist movements. Women cadre were often doing the work (as well as the home work). Some men issued orders and took advantage of prestige. The NJM arrested many people and held them without charge. A few citizens were killed under circumstances which were at best questionable. But NJM was under terrific pressure. The US quickly moved to crush the revo, made tourism nearly impossible for U.S. citizens, and it is fairly clear that the CIA made several attempts to murder key leaders. In four years, by 1983, the NJM was in real trouble.
NJM grew more isolated from the people. Rather than reach out, the party turned inward. The leadership tried to rely on a correct analysis and the right orders rather than to build a popular base. The NJM top central committee remained a very exclusive bunch. In 1982 and 1983, clear disagreements began to emerge within the entire organization. The central committee passed motions blaming the people for the crises in the economy. In 1983, the whole 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. The move to shared leadership was made in the context of a revolution already in crisis. Bishop agreed to the plan, but expressed concern that his work was being repudiated, that this might be a vote of no confidence. A veritable parade of party members, in a 15-hour meeting, assured him this was not true.
In any case, 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 Castro, who considered the young leader as "a son." On October 12, 1983, the day after his return. Bishop initiated a rumor to be circulated by his bodyguard that Coard was planning to kill him. In tiny Grenada, such a rumor can circulate throughout the country in less than a day. This set in motion a series of events that finished off the revo. The assembled party witnessed a meeting in which Bishop was exposed as having caused the rumor. Even so, the party members also all 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 was functioning.
On 19 October 1983, led by people who had traveled to Cuba with Bishop, a mob walked
by APC's (armed personnel carriers) lined up in front of his home, freed "We Leader" Bishop, and (under odd banners like "we love the US") began to move to the town square. No one in the APC's moved to stop the crowd. Microphones were set up in the square, where rallies were traditionally held, for Bishop to speak to the people. But now 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. An award winning Grenadian journalist saw the crowd move to the fort and bolted home, rather than cover the news. Bishop moved his cadre to seize the radio and telephone centers, as had the NJM a few years earlier. From another fort on a mountain about two miles away, Peoples Revolutionary Army APC's were ordered to quiet the mob.
I interviewed people who were on the APC's and many people who watched what followed. The soldiers on the APC's were, for the most part, hardly crack troops. They were mostly youths who had enlisted to get the money to buy shoes for their families. They rode on top of the carriers, in full view. As they approached the fort, fire came from the mob. The commander of the first APC, one of the few experienced soldiers in the group and a respected officer, was killed. Fire was returned. No one knows how many people were killed. No count was ever made. There are films of people leaping over a wall at the fort (why a filmaker was so poised with such a powerful camera is an interesting question). In any case, Bishop and other top leaders of NJM, including his companion Jackie Creft, were killed. The remaining leadership of NJM imposed a curfew. In part because important documents taken from Grenada during the invasion remain classified in the U.S., no serious investigation of this day's events has ever been conducted.
Shortly afterward, US troops were blown up 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 in grave danger, said that the NJM was a threat to all regional security, got the organization of 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 were radioing out that they were in no danger, US rangers "saved" them, after U.S. jets bombed a mental hospital. Remarkably, it appears that Castro was forewarned of the invasion. Films verify the claims of imprisoned NJM leaders that the Cubans at the airport, the key landing spot for the invasion, after having informed the Grenadian Army that Cuba would defend the airport, 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, like the commander of the fort who was locked in a cell. According to affidavits filed by former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark, the NJM leaders were denied attorneys. They were tried by jurors who chanted "guilty" at them during jury selection, in trails led by judges hand-picked and paid by the U.S. They were unable to make a defense in the kangaroo atmosphere. Their lawyers fled Grenada after a series of death threats. Key witnesses, like a bodyguard who was present when Bishop created and ordered the death threat rumor, were denied the right to testify. Fourteen of the NJM members were sentenced to death.
In prison, they were tortured for eight years, according to statements made to me be a former prison warden. Torture was especially horrible for the lone woman, Phyllis Coard, who was held in real isolation for years simply because few women are jailed in Grenada. 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 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. Their health is rapidly fading. Despite tremendous obstacles created by prison officials over the years, the NJM prisoners are conducting one of the most successful literacy campaigns in the country. Nearly eight of ten prisoners who do not go through the prison education program are recidivists. Less than two in ten of the program' grads return to the Richmond Hill jail. As of October 1998, the NJM prisoners, will have served 15 years.
I have filed a Freedom of Information suit demanding documents which were seized by the US and kept out of the trial. This suit came to court in Detroit on November 10th, 1997. Judge Hood's decision is long overdue.
I spent 1996 in Grenada on a Fulbright interviewing many of the jailed NJM leaders. To say they are innocent of everything is not the case. To say they are innocent of the charges
brought against them is. And to say they are being subjected to horrible conditions and denied due process is also true. While it may not be politic to argue for the freedom of people with whom I have disagreements, it remains that their imprisonment is a great wrong that needs to be righted.
And the truth of the Grenada revo, and its destruction, needs to be