National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  November 28, 2003

Looking back at the invasion of Grenada


Last month marked the 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Grenada, ending that Caribbean island nation’s four-year socialist experiment. No bigger than Martha’s Vineyard, with a population that could barely fill the Rose Bowl, the country was overrun, with relatively few American casualties.

American troops patrol in Grenada in 1983.
-- Zuma/Arthur Grace

One of the tiny island nations that grew out of the British colonies in the eastern Caribbean, Grenada -- like its neighbors -- was populated by descendents of black African slaves. Receiving independence in 1974, the island was ruled initially by the despotic and eccentric Prime Minister Sir Eric Gairy, whose murderous secret police -- known as the Mongoose Squad -- and passion for flying saucers, the occult and extraterrestrial communication had brought him notoriety throughout the hemisphere.

On March 13, 1979, in an almost bloodless uprising, a young attorney named Maurice Bishop seized power with the backing of the New Jewel Movement and 200 dreadlocked Rastafarians.

They proceeded to impose an ambitious socialist program on the island, inspired at least as much by Bob Marley as Karl Marx. Dramatic gains were made in health care, education, nutrition, employment and infrastructure.

It was an accessible revolution carried out by English-speaking people influenced more by Black Power and New Left politics than by Soviet-style communism. Ultimate control remained in the hands of the party with the popularity of the regime centered around the charismatic personality of Prime Minister Bishop. At the same time, the development of parish and zonal councils along with “mass organizations” insured a degree of grass-roots democracy and a reflection of the government’s desire to create a “popular socialism.”

Considerable evidence suggests that the Reagan administration had long been planning to invade Grenada. What was missing was an excuse. It was given to them when the Grenadan revolution self-destructed.

The New Jewel Movement also included a minority of hard-core Marxist-Leninists like Bernard Coard, who led a military coup on Oct. 19, 1983, and placed Bishop and other leading moderates under arrest. In response, there was a nationwide general strike and other protests. When a crowd of Bishop supporters liberated the ousted prime minister and his allies from prison, army troops massacred dozens of protesters and executed Bishop and two other cabinet members.

Less than a week following the coup, U.S. troops invaded the island, ousting the government and taking full control of the country within three days.

The U.S. invasion of Grenada was the first major U.S. military operation since the end of the Vietnam War. The media was denied access to the island until it was secured by U.S. forces.

As with the recent U.S. invasion of Iraq, the initial justification for the invasion proved to be demonstrably false, yet it still received bipartisan support in Congress and the approval of nearly two-thirds of the American public.

The major justification for the invasion was the protection of American lives, particularly the 800 American students at the U.S.-run St. George’s University School of Medicine. However, a later Congressional investigation revealed that students were never actually in any danger. Indeed, there were no confirmed reports of any American civilians harmed or threatened before or during the invasion.

Claims of massive weapons stockpiles proved to be false and the purported Soviet-Cuban air base under construction was actually a badly needed civilian airport to improve the tourist trade. The letter requesting U.S. intervention from neighboring islands was actually written by the U.S. State Department.

Why, then, did the United States invade? Many believe that Grenada was seen as a bad example for other poor Caribbean states. Its foreign policy was not subservient to the American government and it was not open to having its economy dominated by U.S. corporate interests.

A show of force by the United States, however, would cause states with similar leftist nationalist ideals to think twice. If a country as small and poor as Grenada could have continued its rapid rate of development under a socialist model, it would set a bad precedent for other Third World countries. In short, Grenada under the New Jewel Movement was reaching dangerously high levels of health care, literacy, housing, participatory democracy and economic independence.

Of particular concern was the influence Bishop and his supporters could have on African-Americans. A successful socialist experiment by English-speaking blacks just a few hours by plane from the United States was seen as a threat.

This invasion was also an easy victory for the United States eight years after its defeat in the Vietnam War and just two days after the deadly attack against U.S. forces in Lebanon. It established the precedent for “regime change” by U.S. military intervention.

It also led to a sudden rise in Reagan’s popularity, according to public opinion polls. Despite the fact that the invasion was a clear violation of international law, there was widespread bipartisan support for the invasion, including such Democratic Party leaders as former Vice President Walter Mondale, who would be Reagan’s Democratic challenger for the presidency the following year.

World reaction to the invasion was overwhelmingly negative, with the United Nations citing it as an act of aggression. There was strong criticism from America’s allies, particularly Canada, which had a sizable contingent of development workers in Grenada. Upon taking over the island, most foreign doctors, teachers, and other civilians were summarily arrested and expelled by U.S. officials. Shortly after the invasion, U.S. forces raided and ransacked the Pope Paul Ecumenical Center due to its supposedly “subversive activities” of aiding the poor.

On the island during the ensuing months, the mass organizations were dismantled, the labor unions were reorganized, over half of all medical personnel were expelled, investment and tax codes were revised to favor foreign investment, and cooperatives and states enterprises were sold to private interests. Billboards that had inspired the population to work for justice, equality, development and national sovereignty were quickly replaced by those designed to inspire them to buy American consumer products. The quality of life for most islanders deteriorated in the period following the invasion despite infusions of American aid.

Over the next several years, U.S. forces loosened their grip and allowed for popular elections that have tended to favor traditional elites. Although Grenada’s economy has been expanding, poverty is widespread. Though there is political freedom, the government is conservative and corrupt. And, in this era of neoliberal globalization, the island’s brief socialist experiment is but a fading memory.

Stephen Zunes is an associate professor of politics and chair of the Peace & Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco.

National Catholic Reporter, November 28, 2003

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