Grenada: 40th Anniversary of the Revolution

Forty years ago this March, the Caribbean island nation of Grenada, population 110,000, made a revolution.

Prime Minister Eric Gairy had for years headed a neocolonial dictatorship on behalf of Grenada’s minute capitalist class and British and US interests. A private and brutal militia known as the Mongoose Gang was tasked to silence Gairy’s political opponents. Though the island was rich in agricultural resources, like nutmeg, mace, cacao and bananas, too much of its population lived in poverty.

On March 13, 1979, after years of unarmed struggle, the New Jewel Movement, under the charismatic leadership of Maurice Bishop, successfully executed a nearly bloodless coup. The new government built a mixed economy on socialist principles. With the organizational, administrative and economic planning genius of Bernard Coard, Bishop’s childhood friend, Grenada made rapid social progress. The revolution became immensely popular, with good reason.

With the new government, aided and advised by Cuba, literacy rose from 85% to 98%; the ratio of doctors to patients doubled; new labor laws brought 80% of the population into unions; unemployment plummeted from half the population to 14%; new laws criminalized the sexual victimization of women, ensured equal pay for equal work and mandated maternity leave. Free health care and secondary education were introduced, and scholarships provided free college education abroad.

In the first four years of the revolution, Grenada’s economy grew by 9%, in the midst of a worldwide recession. Agricultural diversification brought significant reductions in food imports and increased exports.

But from its birth, the revolution was menaced by the US. Though tiny, Grenada greatly troubled the US. State Department memos revealed why: Grenada’s population spoke English and was predominantly of African descent, so the revolution and its success would have special appeal to African Americans.

President Carter’s administration welcomed exiled ex-Prime Minister Gairy to the US, where he made broadcasts against the Grenadian government. The Carter administration also worked to cut US tourism to the island and denied recognition to Grenada’s ambassador.  President Reagan’s administration followed suit, blocking economic development assistance from international finance institutions.

The US invasion and takeover of the island on October 25, 1983 was plotted years in advance, rehearsed in exercises called “Amber and the Ambergines,” a transparent reference to Grenada and the nearby Grenadine islands. 100s were killed battling the invasion, including two Soviet military officers and 24 Cuban engineers.

Bishop and other leaders were killed in a tragic conflict within the government days before the invasion.  After the invasion, soldiers and surviving political leaders, including Coard, were tried for the killings on scant and dubious evidence.  The trial was paid for and managed by the US and denounced by Amnesty International. The defendants, known as the Grenada 17, spent decades in prison.  The circumstances of the killings remain mysterious, in part because of the US theft and concealment of much documentary evidence.

But for a time a tiny nation in the belly of the beast made a beautiful revolution.

The Grenadian Revolution, ¡Presente!

Roger Stoll is a Latin America/Caribbean solidarity activist with the Task Force on the Americas, a three-decades-old anti-imperialist human rights organization. He has published articles, book reviews and political poetry in Dissident Voice, Counterpunch, Popular Resistance, San Francisco Examiner, ZNet, Jewschool, and New Verse News. Read other articles by Roger.