Grenada 1983: Part 3, Restoration

by Joe Morby on November 7, 2013

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Control the Narrative

With media access to the island stymied by the military, it was easy for the US administration to write its own account of what happened. The official line said that the bulk of fighting had come from the Cubans on the island, while the Grenadian PRA forces had melted without much resistance. The number of Cubans said to be on the island was inflated, while journalists were escorted by the military to observe the ‘taking’ of PRA stronghold Fort Frederick which, having been already deserted for at least a day, seemed to present an image of a walkover victory.

In reality, Grenadian resistance represented the bulk of the conflict and was fierce enough to prolong the invasion past the 24 hours the administration had hoped for. The Cuban presence on the island was corrected after Cuba released details of all its nationals on the island, a total of 784 and far less than the figure of 1600 the US authorities had given out. The number of US marines and soldiers involved was initially stated to be 3000, making the operation seem smaller than it was; a few days into the invasion, and it was admitted that 6000 US troops were involved.

Much of this disinformation came from the work of PSYOPS, the US military’s Psychological Operations unit. Specializing in propaganda, PSYOPS had landed on the island and set up its own radio transmitter, that broadcast instructions to the Grenadian civilians, demoralising rhetoric for the combatants and misleading rumours that would be picked up by the  information-hungry journalists trying to cover the invasion. Thousands of flyers and posters were disseminated across the island- some exhorted the Cubans to give up, others offered rewards for turning in weapons or PRA combatants, others stated the official mission plan: “US forces have come to Grenada to restore democracy and evacuate US citizens. Stay out of the conflict”. Some of the flyers distributed showed captured members of the coup faction, including RMC leader Hudson Austin and former deputy Prime Minister Bernard Coard; photographed stripped half-naked, manacled and blindfolded, the pictures were quietly indicative of the dark side of how the US treats its prisoners, as more recently witnessed by the disturbing images from Abu Ghraib, Iraq.

US_Marines_with_prisoners_Grenada_1983

Rewrite the Revolution

US post-invasion propaganda had a harder time with its attempt to alter opinions of Grenada’s four-year revolutionary government.  In particular they had a problem with the memory of the assassinated revolutionary leader Maurice Bishop, whose death had shocked the island and elevated him to martyr status. Initial efforts revolved around painting Bishop as a hardline communist, essentially extrapolating the line the administration had taken since the beginning of the revolution. But it soon became clear that Bishop was still too popular amongst the Grenadian people, so the official version altered to make former Deputy Prime Minister Bernard Coard and the coup leaders the focus of opprobrium.

Specifically, the explanation was given that Coard and the RMC were a doctrinaire ‘ultra-left’ communist faction while Bishop was a more amenable kind of democratic socialist, the idea being that the latter had been killed for being too moderate. This contributed to the lasting idea that the island was about to descend into a totalitarian nightmare that, coupled with tall tales of Soviet bases and Cuban soldiers, made the invasion seem reasonable. In reality, rather than any ideological difference, it had been paranoia and petty disagreements over the balance of power in the ruling party that had caused the crisis in the revolution, with a lack of communication and hasty, reckless opportunism from the military causing Bishop’s death.1,2

The discovery of stores of agricultural equipment, including overalls and shovels, prompted the ridiculous claim that Grenada was heading for a kind of Pol Pot-style forced collectivism. Reagan’s claim that captured PRA armoury storehouses were “stacked to the ceiling” with enough weapons “to supply thousands of terrorists” was greatly exaggerated, but not before it had helped mould opinion; in reality, the weapons the US found were antiquated and vastly fewer in number than they had stated, and were most likely for arming the several thousand-strong militia and army on the island.

URGENT FURY

Control the Election Process

US occupation of the island would last for a year. Under the guidance of the US Scoon set up an interim government that announced that elections would be held the following year, 1984. The US would keep a close hand in determining who would come to replace the revolutionaries; in particular they were keen to keep out what remained of the leftists, who had formed a party in memory of Maurice Bishop, and the old mini-tyrant Eric Gairy, who had returned to the island from exile in America hoping to return to power and pick up from where he had left off. After a few false starts, the US helped cobble together a coalition of smaller nationalist and conservative parties into a new entity called the New National Party (NNP).

After open and extensive contribution to its election campaign from US conservative organizations, and after claims of irregularities with the voter registration process, the NNP won the 1984 elections in a landslide, taking 14 of the island’s 15 seats. The US had its preferred government, “favourable to the way of life we espouse” as the old training exercises had called for, in power. The political extent of this would be seen in 1986, when the thoroughly US-centric government would side with America in the UN over Reagan’s bombing of Libya, and also when Grenada, bafflingly, joined the US and Britain in voting against sanctions on apartheid South Africa, the only nation with a black population to do so .

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Keep a Handle on Political Opponents

In the weeks after the invasion, some 1000 people linked or suspected to have been close to the revolutionary government were detained and interrogated by the US forces; they were assisted by former members of Gairy’s thug group the Mongoose Gang, whom the invasion forces had freed from prison. Troops with lists of suspected sympathisers put up checkpoints on roads and at the airport and conducted house-to-house searches, aided by a new ordinance passed by Scoon’s interim government that allowed detention without charge. Foreign workers, including the remaining Cubans from the airport project, were expelled. Over the coming years, political activists associated with the left would find their travel restricted, as did journalists and trade union representatives asking awkward questions. The ruling NNP also banned certain media and cultural materials, including books on leftist politics or by authors such as Malcolm X or Nelson Mandela, under a colonial-era decree controlling political literature; absurdly, their lists of banned books included Graham Greene’s comic novel Our Man In Havana. Radio stations were ordered not to play calypso songs containing “politically sensitive matters”, while members of the opposition parties complained that they were not being given access to state media platforms.3

With the majority of US troops leaving the island, the US created and trained a Special Service Unit (SSU) paramilitary to take over security, a force that “acquired a reputation for brutality, arbitrary arrests and abuse of authority”, according to a report by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, an American NGO.3 Other problems included the harassment of political activists, including the arrest of 25 people when an anti-Reagan poster was put up in a poor area in anticipation of the Gipper’s visit in 1986. Over the coming years, the US would pour millions into SSUs across the Caribbean, giving it a strong hand in Caribbean security and authority.

Roll Out Neo-Liberalism

No sooner had the process of invasion ended, the process of restoring Grenada to dependent capitalism and introducing neo-liberal reform began. The socialist experiment over, the island was to be a showcase for American-led free-market development, the panacea that would show up the faults of socialism, enhance America’s economic influence in the region and add further justification for the invasion. At least, that was the plan.

In practice, this meant a programme of severe cuts, imposed by the US-backed NNP government, that were designed to roll back all the social and economic progress the revolution had made. Massive reductions in the public sector workforce brought the new government into conflict with the unions, who accused the government of making the cuts for political reasons (many of those made redundant had worked under the old revolutionary order). Within a couple of years of the invasion unemployment soared to 30%, double its rate under the PRG.3 The massive cost of redundancy payouts, paid out at the same time as the government introduced tax reforms that decreased business rates and income tax (particularly for the wealthy), led to a cash flow crisis that almost bankrupted the island; only frantic borrowing and reluctant largesse from the US kept the system afloat.

Desperate to keep to the Reaganomics dream of low taxation to attract investment while in dire need of income themselves, the government sold off stakes in public companies and introduced stealth taxes that hurt the poorest the most, such as increasing the margins on price-controlled goods. Under the PRG poorer families paid no tax at all, with high earners and businesses taxed at between 40% and 55%. After a couple of years of business-preferential neo-liberal reform the tax burden had shifted onto the shoulders of low and middle-income earners, through big increases in VAT, import duties and the addition of low-value housing to the property tax base. Under the PRG, small and local businesses had been encouraged to work in partnership with state-owned operations; these businesses soon found themselves being squeezed by new export duties and surcharges designed by the American agency USAID to offset the tax cuts being given out to foreign companies and wealthy individuals.

With cuts to government spending plus wide privatisation and a keenness to promote private enterprise over social projects, Grenadians found their quality of life slipping. Healthcare suffered as funding was cut, Cuban medical assistance was sent packing and private practices were encouraged to set up; these days, getting adequate medical attention involves leaving the island. Education assistance for poorer families disappeared, as did adult literacy programmes; the pass rates plummeted. With few new homes being built and the government’s repair scheme cut, many Grenadians continued to live in typical third-world squalor.

Enter the Agencies

The post-invasion period was to be directed and defined by the work of US government agencies such as USAID, the US Agency for International Development, and AIFLD, the American Institute for Free Labour Development. USAID brought with it a neo-liberal plan for the restructuring of Grenada’s policies and government, along with  millions of dollars of cash to kickstart free-market development on the island (although much of the ‘development’ involved repairing the damage caused by the invasion). Frank Coffin, one time deputy administrator for USAID, aptly described the mindset of the agencies in an interview from the late 70s: “It is not development for the sake of sheer development… an important objective is to open up the maximum opportunity for domestic private initiative and to ensure that foreign private investment, particularly from the United States, is welcomed and well treated”.3

Ironically, much of the work of the US agencies involved continuing projects that had been introduced or developed by the PRG. US aid money was initially used to keep up the food and housing programmes started under the revolution, and continue the PRG’s public works programme; popular improvements would include electrification for rural areas and better water and sanitation infrastructure. US funding for community self-help projects mirrored the PRG’s own voluntary work programmes. With the flow of donations and investment that had been denied to the PRG now open, USAID continued with the PRG’s plans to improve tourism on the island. It didn’t take long before they concluded that what Grenada needed was… another airport. The Point Salines airport, begun by the PRG and denounced as a military threat by Reagan, was now to be finished with US money.

But along with the welcomed development came restructuring along neo-liberal lines. It was USAID that directed the roll-back of the Grenadian state sector, cutting public sector jobs and either closing or selling off virtually all state-owned enterprises, including the mass privatisation of the island’s important agricultural sector. State ministries that were particularly associated with the revolution were cut or dissolved, including those for social mobilisation, culture and women’s affairs. It was USAID that directed the changes in taxation, reducing income tax and increasing VAT, to make Grenada seem attractive (read ‘exploitable’) to foreign investors. At the same time, only 7% of USAID’s spending was on “social services and basic human needs”.3

With the onus being placed on making the island amenable to outsiders, little emphasis was placed on long-term economic security. The agencies didn’t work to diversify Grenada’s economy, that was still heavily dependent on just a handful of key crops, including cocoa, spices and nutmeg, for which the island is famous; no sooner had any progress been made, the opening of new markets in Asia and the terrible damage done by the Caribbean’s regular storms would whip the rug from under the island’s feet. The island ended up banking on tourism, another capricious industry, which suffered for years due to fluctuating visitor levels and gave the most benefit to the private companies who now ran the sector.

Excerpts from "Grenada: Rescued From Rape and Slavery", a CIA-funded propaganda comic that was published in the US the year after the invasion. Despite being wildly fantastical and slightly hilarious, the comic pretty much summed up the official version of history

Excerpts from “Grenada: Rescued From Rape and Slavery”, a CIA-funded propaganda comic that was published in the US the year after the invasion. Despite being wildly fantastical and slightly hilarious, the comic pretty much summed up the official version of history

Promise the Earth, Get Bored and Leave

The proposed vision for Grenada was one of free-market development fed with unhindered foreign investment, much of which was to come from the US. But despite USAID-sponsored visits by business delegations and encouragement from the US government, the rainfall of dollars never materialised. The investors, on whose participation the whole programme depended, were not biting. Either unenthralled by the island’s conditions, confused by its bureaucracy, cautious of the fragility of the new government or still spooked by several years’ worth of negative press, they stayed away; by 1990, only four significant US investors had set up shop.

Meanwhile, the neo-liberal reforms that had rolled back the revolution to make way for the multinationals could only be sustained by massive borrowing and aid from the US. In 1982, Grenada’s debt servicing had been an incredibly low 3% of GDP; by 1987, it stood at an eye-watering 42%.2,3 With the island becoming more and more of a hopeless drain, the US started to wind down its funding, hoping the island would continue with help from other countries or the IMF. By 1989, USAID was gone.

Not that any of this hindered the US’ prestige. The invasion was heralded as a foreign policy success; in particular, it proved to be extremely beneficial for President Reagan’s popularity, pushing his poll ratings up and helping him sail to an easy victory in the elections the following year. After the failure of Vietnam, it represented an important victory for American prestige in the Cold War. American dominance was reasserted in the Caribbean basin in a way that would define Reagan’s own personal doctrine: the Reagan doctrine. While the Monroe Doctrine had spelled out the US’ claim to the continent, and the Roosevelt Corollary had shown the US’ desire to supplant the old European powers in the region, Reagan’s doctrine showed that it was not averse to using force to impose its ideology. But by the end of the decade, American involvement in Central America would be dominated by the Nicaraguan Contra scandal and the invasion of Panama, and Grenada quickly became a footnote in the history of US intervention. It is only by looking back that we can see that all the typical elements of US imperialism were present.

For the Caribbean, it spelled the end of progressive politics and a resignation to US-dominated dependent capitalism; after Grenada, the Caribbean left, after a bare decade or two of experiment and progress, was left demoralised, scattered and cowed; even now, the memory of the invasion looms in the back of the Caribbean’s mind, a reminder of what it is like to live in the US’ backyard.

The PRG certainly had its faults: it had been paternalistic, overly dependent on ideology, reliant on media suppression and political detention and obsessed with out-of-place ideals of revolutionary discipline and cultural correctness. Especially after the coup that destroyed it, many Grenadians were glad to see the US step in. But the four years of its revolution had represented an important step of self-realisation for the English-speaking Caribbean, an experiment in self-determination and an attempt at socialism that it was important West Indians knew they were capable of, an experiment that would be ended by American force. This ambivalence over the memory of the invasion is evident today on the island: the date of the invasion, October 25th, is observed as a national holiday, ‘Liberation Day’, in Grenada; at the same time, the island’s main airport, subject of so much drama thirty years ago, is now nostalgically named the ‘Maurice Bishop International’.

References:

1: Caribbean Revolutions and Revolutionary Theory: An Assessment of Cuba, Nicaragua and Grenada by Brian Meeks, UWI Press, 2001

2: The Grenada Revolution: Setting the Record Straight by Richard Hart, CLS/SHS, 2005

3: Grenada: Revolution in Reverse by James Ferguson, Latin America Bureau, 1990

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