Sunday, December 8, 2013

Russia had no stomach for the Grenadian revolution



IT is often said that the marginal Marxist-Leninist Caribbean state of Grenada under Maurice Bishop's New Jewel Movement (NJM) of 1979-1983 was a satellite of Russia. But many readers of this column may be surprised to learn that Moscow had no desire to aid the spice island economically or otherwise, at levels the native revolutionaries expected.

Shortly after seizing power on March 13, 1979, the NJM's expectation of fraternal assistance from Moscow went into overdrive based on the assumption that communist countries had a greater concern than the West for the plight of Third World peoples.

BISHOP… seized power on March 13, 1979
And given the large cache of Russian-made guns, ammunition and military hardware that found their way in the control of the People's Revolutionary Army (PRA), the outside world also formed the impression that Russia was backing, unconditionally, the aims and objectives of the revolution.

But documents on Grenada-Russian relations released by the United States, after the 1983 invasion which it dubbed 'Operation Urgent Fury', tell an interesting story: Moscow did not want, nor could it afford, any more Cubas in the Caribbean.

Though somewhat dated, the documents referenced the deep involvement in the revolution of several prominent middle-class Jamaicans who are today comfortably ensconced in academia and the private sector with possible knowledge of how Bishop and some of his Cabinet colleagues were murdered and the location of their remains.

The documents also show Moscow's reluctance to commit itself to the Grenadian revolution to the same extent it did for the Cuban revolution 20 years earlier. This means that the Grenadian revolution was running on ideological fumes only for much of its existence.

"The Soviet Union is very careful, and for us sometimes maddeningly slow, in making up their minds about who to support," the Grenadian ambassador to Russia at the time is quoted as saying in the documents.

We can only imagine how disappointed Bishop and his band of revolutionary leaders must have been on learning of this Russian foreign policy attitude towards their country, given that in capturing State power they clearly felt that they qualified for Russian aid and support far beyond the levels that were actually forthcoming.

After all, the NJM had modelled itself on the Soviet Communist party even before it took State power, and in the United Nations, Grenada's voting pattern under the NJM favoured Moscow on important issues, more than other Third World Socialist-oriented states.

Even the NJM's party structure followed a Leninist pattern: a Politburo, Central Committee and the rest. The ruling party also had overriding control over the army, and imposed strict censorship on the media.
So, what could have prevented a major injection of Russian aid and support for revolutionary Grenada? Why wasn't Grenada benefiting from Russian developmental aid to the same extent as Cuba, which was estimated then at US$6 million per day?

Truth be told, the Grenada revolution came about at the wrong time, because the cost of Cuba was a price Moscow paid as a result of Russian policies in the Third World under Kruschev. In the post-Kruschev era in the early 1980s, the Russian leadership was far more cautious and selective in choosing the recipients of Russian economic aid and had become increasingly more cost-conscious and economically more self-interested. On reflection, Russian foreign policy was about concentrating on the problem of protecting established Soviet positions.

Russia's lack of involvement in the construction of the Point Salines International Airport (renamed appropriately the Maurice Bishop International Airport in 2009) bears this out. The airport project was the NJM's major economic preoccupation, and was the priority heading on the agenda of most Central Committee meetings, as well as being the main plank of the first Five-Year plan. The ruling party had hoped that the airport would go a long way in boosting the island's tourism trade and foreign exchange reserves.

But when Bishop, in a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko in April 1983, appealed for a Russian grant of US$6 million toward the airport project, the Russians turned down the request. Ultimately, the NJM had to turn to western donors for the funds to boost construction of the airport.

Bishop had even expected the Russians to purchase 1,000 tons of nutmeg on an annual basis. But the Russians replied that Moscow was only willing to import what it consumed each year, about 200-300 tons, and then "only at the world market price or below".

What is clear from all of this is that post-Kruschev Russia was not prepared to bail out the Grenadian economy, despite the fact that trade relations between the two countries had increased slightly. Neither was Grenada, under Bishop, blessed with observer status in the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA) — a status Mexico had enjoyed for a number of years.

Kruschev clearly had global ambitions for Russia in a practical sense: he considered the support of nationalist Third World leaders as a way of increasing Russia's role in the international political system outside Eastern Europe. Hence, by 1956, Moscow had begun to establish diplomatic relations with all Latin American states on the basis of non-interference in each other's domestic affairs and to develop a broad range of economic relations on the principle of equality and mutual advantage.

In the final analysis, Russia did not support hardline policies in Grenada during the period of the counter-revolution when Socialism became equated with murder and mayhem.

To be sure, it did not condemn the Bernard Coard faction, as explicitly as did Castro, for its part in provoking the split in the NJM's leadership and putting Bishop under house arrest.

Such was the character of Russian foreign policy towards Grenada in the early 1980s. Moscow was able to provide loose political and ideological support for the NJM while not committing itself to providing assistance in the reconstruction of the Grenadian economy or in defence of the revolution from counter-revolutionary forces — home-grown and foreign.

December 08, 2013

Jamaica Observer