By Bernard Coard
The Grenada Revolution: Some key lessons from 1979-1983, and especially October 1983
(1). The manner of taking power: armed overthrow, and the emergence of armed forces controlled by the ruling party, not by law or the constitution.
(2). The absence of checks and balances: within the party, the government, and the society.
(3). The failure to hold elections and to restore in full the constitution, within the first six to twelve months of taking power by armed overthrow.
(4). The continuation of a political culture of suppression by force of opposing views, individuals, political parties, and the media, inherited from the colonial and Gairy eras.
(5). The emergence of a culture of ‘political fratricide’ from the earliest days and throughout the life of the revolution.
(6). The development of military ‘rules of engagement’ from the earliest days and throughout the Process of ‘taking no prisoners’, once anyone took up arms to challenge the revolution or its leadership.
(7). The making of fundamental – strategic – errors in internal party structures and operations, in the context of what was required to run the country and transform its people’s economic and social circumstances.
(8). The encouragement/facilitation of personality cultism, and the failure to institutionalise/constitutionalise/give legal teeth to the organs of mass popular democracy which emerged and grew during the life of the Revolution; making their abandonment, instead of use, possible, during the gravest crisis faced by the Revolution and the country.
(9). The making of fatal errors by the revolutionary leadership in its relations with the United States, born of inexperience and immaturity.
(10). The making of quite different but equally fatal errors in the Revolution’s relations with Cuba.
GRENADA: lessons of ’79-’83 in the context of October 19th, 1983
(1). The manner of taking power (armed overthrow, not the Cheddi Jagan model)
(i) Gairy’s military, police, paramilitary, secret police, and Mongoose Gang had to be smashed, in order to take power by armed struggle.
(ii) This in turn led to the replacement of Gairy’s armed forces by one which was, by the very definition or nature of how power was taken from Gairy, responsive to a sole political party and cause: NJM and the Revolution.
From the outset, there was an absence of checks and balances:
* within the ruling party, NJM,
* within the government or governing structure (the PRG), and
* within the country as a whole – the entire political system of the society.
While it was true that we inherited a political system with few checks and balances, we not only did nothing to change that reality; we unwittingly, unthinkingly, made it worse!
I will develop these points as we go along, but what needs to be emphasised here is that this mistake – the absence of checks and balances – formed the cornerstone of many if not most of the other major mistakes made, and was a critical factor in making the catastrophe of October 19th, 1983 possible.
The failure to
* hold elections within the first 6-12 months (at the latest) of taking power (it is universally agreed that we would have swept the polls, had we chosen that path); and to
* restore the constitution in full.
Had we done those two things, it would have gone some way towards
* offsetting the dangers created by the manner of our taking power, and
* provided – even though inadequately – some checks and balances (in place of the total absence of such, which was our reality in the absence of elections, a not fully restored constitution, and armed forces monopolised by the ruling party).
Continuation of a political culture of repression of opposing views, individuals, political parties and media inherited from the colonial and Gairy eras – even as the economic and social life of the vast majority of the people was transformed. We mistakenly believed that criticism and opposition generally, would inevitably play into the hands of those foreign forces intent on overthrowing the revolutionary economic and social transformation of the country, which was, of course, the raison d’ête of the Revolution.
We saw how domestic opposition forces and media had been used to do this in many countries, including in Guatemala, Chile, Guyana, and Jamaica. We however failed to see that the very success of our repression of elements within the society who could have been mobilised and used by foreign interests to electorally replace the PRG made military invasion the only option that these interests had for getting their way!
Moreover, our concern that local opposition, co-opted by foreign powers, could be used to overthrow the revolution, failed to grasp the strategic perspective: Once the Revolution’s economic and social projects and programmes were executed in the first five years – as they were – any electoral setback engineered by foreign powers would be just that: a temporary setback.
The people would soon be clamouring for the return of people-oriented policies and programmes, and for honest and efficient government and this would mean the return of NJM and the PRG even stronger than before (because the people would have had a taste of the alternative!).
A culture of political ‘fratricide’ was added to the colonial era and Gairy era inheritance of repression of the political and human rights of those in opposition. This was most tangible and vividly demonstrated by the cases of Lloyd Noel, Teddy Victor, Strachan Phillip, and Ralphie Thompson.
From the earliest days of the Revolution – literally in its first months of existence and throughout the revolution’s life – persons who had previously occupied positions in the top leadership of the party in the bitter and hard days of struggle against Eric Gairy were ruthlessly detained – indefinitely – without charge or trial, for non-violent opposition or even mere criticism, of the PRG and the Revolution! This culture of ruthless political fratricide made the tragedy, the disaster of October 19th 1983, easier to happen – on both sides of the divide.
Once again, however, we see the importance of the factor of the absence of checks and balances permitting the exercise of growing political fratricide throughout the revolutionary process, culminating in the events of October 1983. Linked to the above were the Revolution’s Military/Security Forces’ Rules of Engagement; rules which were unwritten but which emerged, from the early weeks and months of the process (beginning with the killing of Strachan Phillip, and continuing with people like ‘Duck’ and ‘Ayub’).
The ‘Rules of Engagement’ as clearly understood (and demonstrated by their actions) within the armed forces can be stated thus (my own language for them):
* opposition unarmed (or located unarmed) = capture and indefinite detention (e.g. non violent Lloyd Noel et al); violent but found unarmed: Buck Budhlall et al);
* resisting capture with weapons (OR initiating violence with weapons) = ‘Take No Prisoners’ (eg: Strachan Phillip, ‘Duck’, ‘Ayub’, et al).
This, again, helped pave the way – unwittingly – for October 19th, 1983.
The combination of
(a) The manner of taking power,
(b) The absence of checks and balances, the
(c) Continuation of the historical political culture of the violent suppression of opposition,
(d) The addition of political fratricide to this, and
(e) Those military rules of engagement, proved a lethal cocktail in the context of October 19th, 1983.
On that day a crowd of Bishop supporters, led by him and a few others, stormed and seized army headquarters. They disarmed all the soldiers there, held their officers at gunpoint, opened the armoury, distributed weapons to the crowd, and made concrete preparations to launch attacks on and seize other security and army installations.
The army unit sent to recapture the army’s HQ was fired upon by some in the crowd (eyewitness account of no less a person than the late, renowned Grenadian journalist, Alister Hughes, plus the testimony of some prosecution witnesses in the subsequent ‘trial’ of the Grenada Seventeen).
Four soldiers were killed (and others injured), including the hugely popular young commander of the army unit, O/C Conrad Mayers.
In retrospect, the above series of actions or events, when combined with the lethal cocktail of five factors detailed above propelled Grenada and Grenadians over the political precipice, into the abyss of collective trauma and unimaginable catastrophe.
Fundamental – and strategic – errors in internal party structures and operations.
Internal party structures (of NJM) were far too Top-Down. While this is true for most if not all Caribbean political parties of all ideological persuasions, it was fatal for us, given the lack of checks and balances at the state level, and given the absence of any effective ‘civil society’.
It meant that the party had no internal capacity to resolve conflicts at the level of its top leadership without fratricidal consequences, and there were no ‘outside’ forces, at state or civil society levels, to reign in or constrain the party’s actions.
Failure to move quickly – within 12-24 months of March 13th, 1979 – from a Vanguard to a mass party.
It is my considered view that power could hardly have been taken by means of armed overthrow of the Gairy regime without a tightly knit, well trained and disciplined vanguard party.
However, the building of a revolutionary process, the effective control and operation of all arms of the government, the building of mass organisations and organs of popular democracy, and the delivery of the many (and multi-faceted) programmes and projects of the revolution to all of the population mandated the need for a mass political party. A different type of party in terms of size, structure, and orientation was required to BUILD the revolution, as distinct from that which was required to topple the old regime. This was grasped too late, and efforts to shift gears came far too late.
* In like manner to how the holding of elections in the country and the full restoration of the constitution shortly after taking power may have acted as an antidote to the dangers inherent in the manner of taking power, the building of a mass party may have created a better climate for conflict-resolution within the party. Of course, this is not something that we can be sure of, but a mass party provides greater room for “mass opinion”, whereas a tightly knit vanguard party provides little room for this as a constraining influence on the leadership.
The party (because it was in vanguard form throughout the Process) began to literally break down in the final 12 or so months of the Process from excessive overwork piled on top more overwork, leading to large-scale physical illnesses, including three quarters of the top leadership, and growing difficulties in the functioning, therefore, of the many organisations and structures that each party member was responsible for. To sum it up: ‘Too few were being asked to do too much, in far too little time’. Our goals and time frames were utterly unrealistic, a product of both our passion to transform the society as quickly as possible, and our inexperience.
(No, this had nothing to do with trying to “build Socialism” too fast. NONE of the projects and programmes involved nationalising any companies or other property of either citizens or foreigners. ALL the programmes (and projects) were of two basic kinds: physical and human infrastructure, and Basic Needs’ requirements of the vast majority of the people living, as they were, in relative poverty.) Our mobilisation and organisation of the people, while highly commendable in most respects, contained errors with, in hindsight, strategic consequences:
( i) We used mass rallies, on a regular basis, as a major political forum and tool. By definition, it was top-down in character. Moreover, it also enhanced personality cultism (a problem faced by most if not all poor countries, without the need to breed more of it!). By itself, this was a relatively minor side-effect of the mass mobilisation of the people aimed at energising them to build the revolutionary Process.
However, when this was combined with the active insistence of the Cubans that, in effect, we must abandon our collective leadership management style of decision–making and decision-implementation and adopt a one-man, ‘maximum leader’, ‘Commander-in-chief’ approach, personality cultism reached new heights and led, ultimately, to tragic results (as will be summarized shortly).
(ii) We developed monthly Zonal and Parish Councils throughout the country, as also the annual NATIONAL CONFERENCE ON THE ECONOMY.
Ministers as well as Senior Civil servants were regularly summoned before those Zonal and Parish Councils to explain their actions, outline their future plans for their ministry or department, listen to the complaints and suggestions of those present, and report back to them in one, or two months’ time regarding what steps they had taken about the complaints, etc.
The National Conference on the Economy was the final stage in a process lasting several weeks of extensive consultation with the population about the budget for the upcoming year prior to its formal presentation. It involved a total of 1,000 delegates representing every village, parish, and mass organization in the country. These bodies – or ‘Organs of Popular Democracy’ as we referred to them collectively – helped in achieving:
* Transparency in government;
* Accountability in government;
* Genuine and widespread consultation; and
* A sense of ownership of the process by the people as a whole.
What, therefore, was the mistake, given the extremely laudable objectives and practice of these popular bodies?: OUR TAKING TOO LONG TO INSTITUTIONALISE THEM; INCORPORATE THEM, WITH FORMAL CONSTITUTIONAL TEETH, WITHIN A NEW (OR AMENDED) CONSTITUTION.
This could have been the genesis of the checks and balances needed, had we had the wisdom, the foresight, to realise how critical this could have been for the long-term success of the revolutionary process. Instead, at the outset of our first major crisis, we ignored/abandoned these embryonic organs of popular democracy and instead fell back on:
* Mass mobilisation (street action) and
* Recruiting foreign (i.e., Cuban) military intervention – the Bishop camp; and
* Top-Down thinking by the party executive, the Central Committee, on the other hand;
‘The party will choose (and alter, as and when appropriate) its own internal leadership. ‘Party leader’ is not a state position or office, and therefore not a decision for the masses to make; only for the General Meeting of all party members to meet and decide (which was done on September 25th and 26th, 1983, and reaffirmed on October 13th, 1983)’.
This would have been valid reasoning, perhaps, for the traditional Caribbean political parties. But a Revolutionary process, built by definition by and for all the people, needed to involve them all in deciding even party matters, especially the leadership.
The army became involved (even though all its personnel had been off the streets and confined to barracks throughout the crisis, from October 12th up to and including on the 19th October itself).
This involvement commenced once “the masses” (sections thereof led by individuals on one side of the crisis) made the serious political crisis into a military one by seizing the army’s HQ, disarming its soldiers, arming the civilian crowd gathered there, and organising them into units to go and take over by force other military installations. In other words, preparations for imminent civil war. Throughout human history nearly all wars – including civil wars – have been products of miscalculation or misjudgment by one or both sides.
In October of 1983 in Grenada, both sides did this. Each side mobilised its natural ‘constituents’ or ‘forces’ or ‘allies’; each side not appreciating that neither side could win; only everyone could and would lose. Neither side recognised, in the heat of rapidly unfolding events and in a context where each side believed that it had ‘right’, it had legitimacy on its side, that Armageddon awaited us all. October 19th, 1983, was Greek Tragedy, revealing its final Act.
Fatal Errors in our Relations with the United States
In our relations with the US we pursued policies which were, in retrospect, immature, naïve, dangerous, and ultimately fatal. Our revolutionary process was unfolding in the context of the Cold War at its height, and with the most right-wing government (to that point in time), the Reagan administration, in power in the US. We failed to adequately appreciate just how ‘ballistic’ the US would become as a result of ever-closer ties with Cuba (and, by Cold War extension, the Soviet Union.)
We saw ever closer ties with Cuba (and therefore the Soviet Union) as vital for the success, and the defense, of the revolution from external aggression. Such ties, however, the United States perceived as a strategic threat to its hegemony in the region; requiring, therefore, its overthrow, by military invasion, since such seemed the only way to dislodge the deeply entrenched revolutionary process and its growing international communist links.
We did all the right things in our relations with other countries and international organisations. We developed excellent relations with the IMF, The World Bank, the UK, Canada, the European Community (as the EU was then called), and so on. It was the Margaret Thatcher government which defied Washington and gave us a substantial soft loan to complete our international airport, and voted with us in the IMF Board so that we could receive substantial funds from the IMF on favourable conditions, where the US vigorously sought to block this.
As a result of these excellent relations with Europe and with international financial institutions, we had French, Italian, and British investors literally knocking on our doors, by the summer of 1983; wishing to develop hotels and other tourism related facilities to capitalise on the soon-to-be-completed Point Saline International Airport.
As a result of the combination of prudent – and innovative – domestic economic and social policies and programmes, and excellent and growing relations with everyone EXCEPT THE US, we were able to massively expand Grenada’s social wage, reduce unemployment from 49% to 12%, raise substantially households incomes, transform the country’s physical and human infrastructure, and achieve GDP growth each year of the Revolution, including in the period of the worldwide recession of 1981-1982, then considered the worst since 1929-33. We believed, fervently, in ‘the equality of all nations regardless of size’. Each time the US did or said something displeasing to us, we pounced on it and launched powerful verbal counter-attacks.
In effect, we baited the US. Each time the lion growled at us, we pulled its tail, or its whiskers. This made us immensely popular amongst many Third World nations and their peoples – including amongst those too scared (too wise?) to themselves bait the lion.
United States foreign policy (including its use of military action) is driven by more than just cold, calculating, rational considerations.
‘Pride’ and other ‘irrational’ considerations do enter into its decision-making mix from time to time. After all, it is a country of proud people, not machines, with a fervent belief in their “manifest destiny” to tell others how they should live; what is and is not acceptable. Many countries have learned how to keep a low profile, maintain good diplomatic relations with the US, but pursue – quietly – their own chosen domestic and foreign policy agenda.
We in the Grenada Revolution knew not how to do this. We shouted from the roof tops at every opportunity. If there was any chance of the US believing it could influence our behaviour through diplomatic channels and efforts, we told them, with an international megaphone to our lips, that this was just not on. In effect, we told them that, short of massive military invasion, they could do us nothing, exert zero influence on us, and moreover, we would continue to thump our noses, publicly, at them. Our naivety, our immaturity, in dealing with the greatest threat which we faced, was, in retrospect, staggering.
(The above were excerpts from a document produced by former deputy Prime Minister, Bernard Coard who was released from prison two weeks ago after serving 26 years in jail after being convicted for the brutal murder of leftist Prime Minister Maurice Bishop on October 19, 1983)