The United States marines and small contingents of military personnel from neighboring countries on October 25, 1983 launched a military invasion of the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada (121 miles long, 10 miles wide, population 110,000). The Reagan Administration falsely claimed that the invasion was motivated to save 600 American medical students from a possible Iran-style hostage taking and to restore freedom and democracy to the island.
The invasion by the Reagan administration was a fully-orchestrated media- censored operation without regard for international law, morality, and the safety of the citizens of Grenada. It occurred at a time when foreign policy elites were concerned that the public was afflicted with the so-called “Vietnam Syndrome.” This “syndrome” referred to the propensity of Americans to oppose further military interventions overseas (much like the clear opposition to U.S. military action against Syria today).
In addition, the Grenada operation, called “Operation Urgent Fury,” occurred two days after a horrific bombing killed 241 U.S. military personnel in a barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. President Reagan, despite much criticism, had sent U.S. troops to quell the Lebanese civil war and give support to the Israeli army which had invaded its northern neighbor. The Sunday New York Times headline of October 23, 1983 listing preliminary estimates of casualties in bold type declared “Beirut Death Toll at 161 Americans; French Casualties Rise in Bombings; Reagan Insists Marines Will Remain.”
Throughout its history, Grenada was victimized by foreign invaders. The island was originally occupied by the Ciboney Indians and then by the Arawaks. Later Carib Indians established control of the island. Over the centuries islanders were subjected to European invasion--Spain in 1592, the British in 1608, and the French in the 1650s. Grenada was declared a British colony in 1783, and was not “granted” independence until February 7, 1974.
Central to the history of the Caribbean states, the industrial revolution, and the rise of capitalism out of feudalism was the slave trade. The French, who had massacred the Carib Indians, and later the British, brought African slaves to Grenada. By 1763 Grenada had 82 sugar estates. Slave laborers produced sugar, cotton, and tobacco which was transported to Europe for processing, and then for sale on the European continent, Asia, and Africa. Slavery, which brought 9.5 million kidnapped Africans to the Western Hemisphere, was a system of forced labor that generated profits for European imperial powers.
During the twentieth century, 20 years before formal independence, Grenadian politics was dominated by a charismatic and corrupt politician, Eric Gairy. He collaborated with the small class of domestic elites as well as foreigners to push back against workers and peasants who opposed economic exploitation and British colonialism in general. After independence in 1974, Gairy continued to rule the island with an iron hand. Health care, education, and public services worsened during the Gairy years after independence while personal corruption was rampant.
As independence approached, a political party, known as the New Jewel Movement emerged. Led by Maurice Bishop, a charismatic figure, the party called for policies that would focus on the enormous problems workers and peasants faced. The New Jewel Movement seized power in a bloodless coup in 1979, five years after independence. Maurice Bishop then began to plant the seeds of a modern mixed economy, including state and private sectors and a newly created cooperative sector.
The public sector revitalized the 30 state farms that were stagnant during Gairy’s rule. The government opened agro-processing plants, created a state fishing and fish-processing industry, built a public component in the vital tourist industry, and established public banking institutions to provide loans for small farmers, owners of small businesses, and fishermen. The public sector thus served as a stimulus to the private sector. In addition, the cooperative sector, in farm inputs and marketing, was designed to appeal to the community spirit characteristic of Grenadian culture.
In other actions, the government instituted a literacy campaign, popular education particularly in mathematics, and English and Grenadian history. Teacher retraining programs upgraded the largely unskilled corps of teachers. Education from primary grades to college became free. Also in 1980, the Grenadian government instituted a program of free medical and dental care. Health care delivery systems were decentralized prioritizing programs of preventive medicine and nationwide sanitation campaigns to combat communicable diseases.
In the political process, the New Jewel Movement created local bodies for popular participation in politics. Parish Councils were further decentralized into smaller “Zonal Council” meetings. The National Women’s Organization and the National Youth Organization were created to articulate political interests parallel to existing organizations for labor and farmers. Particular programs were instituted to redress the historic inequalities between men and women. The Grenadian government placed significant numbers of women in key decision-making positions and hoped to expand political representation of women in policy-making positions.
The U.S. government during both Carter and Reagan administrations opposed the Bishop government because some of the technical assistance it received came from Cuba and the Soviet Union. Cuban work on the expansion of the country’s major airport to facilitate tourism was particularly controversial even though the largest share of its financing came from the British.
In October, 1981, the U.S. government held massive military maneuvers in the Caribbean simulating an invasion of a small enemy country holding Americans hostage. In addition, the United States opposed International Monetary Fund and World Bank aid to Grenada and organized Eastern Caribbean island-states to oppose the dangers that Grenadian democracy and economic change represented.
Unfortunately, two weeks before the Reagan invasion of Grenada, a faction of the New Jewel Movement ousted Maurice Bishop from power .In the midst of a heated battle within the leadership, Bishop and several of his colleagues were tragically killed. By most accounts at the time, the factional dispute was self-destructive and the outcome was contrary to the wishes of the masses of the Grenadian people who applauded the new economic policies and participatory democracy the government had put in place since 1979. Bishop, himself, was a revered leader among his people who also had close ties with members of the Congressional Black Caucus in the United States Congress.
Despite the foolhardy policies of the anti-Bishop faction of New Jewel, there was every reason to believe that, despite the factional disputes, the policies that New Jewel had initiated would have continued. But the Reagan administration used the domestic turmoil in Grenada as an excuse to invade the island, depose the New Jewel party from power, abolish all the economic and political changes carried out between 1979 and 1983, arrest Cuban airport construction workers, and put in place a neo-colonial government that would reverse the policy trends toward grassroots democracy and human need fulfillment that had been gaining popularity, not only in Grenada but around the Caribbean and Central America. In the months following the invasion, the United States expunged every vestige of progressive institutions and policies installed by Maurice Bishop’s New Jewel Movement.
The marine invasion of tiny Grenada constituted a guaranteed military victory and over the years would lead to a decline in Americans’ reluctance to send more troops overseas. And the invasion of Grenada took the tragedy of 241 marines killed by a terrorist attack in Beirut, Lebanon off the front pages.
Thirty years ago the United States joined the Spanish, French, and British as the latest colonial power to determine the destiny of the Grenadian people. At the same time, and despite remaining skepticism, the Grenada invasion put the United States back on the path toward military interventionism around the world.