Grenada: Nutmeg, Cocoa, Bananas…and blood

In October 1983, taking the world by surprise, 6,000 US marines invaded Grenada in Operation Urgent Fury. James Ferguson draws some contemporary parallels...

July 1983: Maurice Bishop (centre) during one of his regular fortnightly visits to government farms. Photograph courtesy the Trinidad Express

How often does a small Caribbean island make headlines around the world? Probably the last time was 25 years ago, on October 25, 1983, when 6,000 US Marines took part in Operation Urgent Fury, the invasion of Grenada.

This event took almost everyone by surprise. In the Soviet Union, a bemused newscaster announced the invasion in front of a map showing the southern Spanish city of Granada. Journalists and instant experts scrambled to reach the island in search of a story.

The immediate reasons for the operation are well enough known. The charismatic Prime Minister, Maurice Bishop, and several of his Cabinet had been executed on October 19 after infighting within the People’s Revolutionary Government, a left-wing regime that had taken power in a bloodless coup in March 1979. A curfew had been imposed by the military-led group that had seized power after Bishop’s death. There were estimated to be about a thousand foreign nationals in Grenada, including American medical students at St George’s University.

The actual invasion was soon over. It pitted the most powerful military machine in the world against modest forces from an island whose population numbered around 110,000. The campaign cost US$75 million, and resulted in 19 US dead, 69 Grenadian fatalities and 24 deaths among Cuban construction workers building a new airport. Several hundred more were wounded, both combatants and civilians. In an early and gruesome example of “collateral damage,” the psychiatric hospital in the capital, St George’s, was hit by an American bomb, with over 20 deaths. What real resistance there was came from the Cuban workers.

In the aftermath, the leadership of the faction held responsible for Bishop’s murder was rounded up and eventually tried and sentenced to death, a sentence later commuted to life imprisonment. US advisers and technocrats stayed for a while in Grenada, raising hopes of massive aid and investment—which never materialised. Political normality returned, but the trauma remained, and remains to this day. The bodies of Bishop and his colleagues were never discovered.

There are two conflicting interpretations of why the Americans (with token Caribbean support from Jamaica and elsewhere) felt the need to crack such a tiny nut with such a large sledgehammer. Each depends on a very different set of political assumptions and values. A quarter-century after the event, certain questions—which relate very strongly to a more recent conflict in Iraq—remain unanswered.

The first view is that the US decided to liberate vulnerable Grenadians (and foreigners) from an unstable and potentially violent regime that had shown its true face in Bishop’s murder and subsequent repression. The invasion, so this version goes, was welcomed by neighbouring Caribbean leaders and authorised by the Governor General (the nearest thing to a head of state). It was also probably a good thing in that since 1979 Grenada had been drawn into an unholy alliance with Cuba.

The other claims the Americans had long intended to squash Grenadian socialism because the Reagan administration would not tolerate anything other than pro-US ideology in the Caribbean. It wanted to bloody Cuba’s nose without risking a rather more dangerous conflict with Havana itself.

Furthermore, the invitation to invade was invalid, making the action illegal under international law.

Not surprisingly, there has never been the slightest risk of agreement between exponents of these two interpretations. Supporters of the invasion point to the widespread welcome offered to American troops and popular revulsion at Bishop’s murderers. Opponents counter that Bishop himself enjoyed massive support and accuse the US of destabilisation and hostility against the revolutionary government from the outset.

But with recent history in mind, it is interesting to draw a few parallels (although Grenada, with its nutmeg, cocoa and banana exports, was never  as economically interesting as oil-rich Iraq). First, the “weapons of mass destruction” syndrome. Grenada, it was rumoured in sections of the US media, was becoming a heavily armed rogue state, keen to “export terror and undermine democracy” (the expression was the State Department’s).

Second, the “Axis of Evil” syndrome. It might now seem laughable, but Grenada (along with Suriname and Guyana) was at one time presented as a security threat to the US. The PRG’s close ties with Cuba placed the island in what the US authorities viewed as a subversive nucleus of left-wing states. Analysts warned that Grenada’s new airport was really a staging-post for Cuban troops en route to cause trouble in volatile Central America. (Anyone who cared to look at a map would see that Grenada was rather at the wrong end of the Caribbean to fill any such role.)

Third, the “human shield” syndrome. The US had to act, so the argument went, because the medical students and others were at risk. Yet according to Sir Paul Scoon, Governor General at the time, the military authorities who took over after Bishop’s murder were at pains to reassure the US that the students faced no danger. Indeed, they were entirely unaffected,  and even US Embassy officials from Barbados found them unwilling to leave.

Fourth, the “regime change” syndrome. Those responsible for Bishop’s murder were undoubtedly guilty of human-rights abuses (but so were several of the US’s allies at the time: the regimes in Guatemala, El Salvador, Chile, etc). Moreover, the overthrow of the military-led government might have seemed ethically more commendable if the invasion hadn’t been planned for months before the events that precipitated it.

So much for the official justifications of Operation Urgent Fury. As for the real motivation, one might look at the catastrophic suicide bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut on October 23 (two days before the Grenada invasion) and the Reagan administration’s need for a quick foreign-policy “success.”

Twenty-five years on, the short-lived Caribbean Cold War seems a distant memory. Except, that is, to those who lost loved ones, or who saw their dream of a better Grenada snuffed out in violence. As most Grenadians—and Iraqis—will testify, it is almost certainly better never to make it onto the front pages.