Twenty-six years ago the dormant island of Grenada became the unlikely host of a 7,000-strong invading force primarily consisting of US Marines and other US military personnel. It was the first time since the Vietnam War that the USA was involved in a major military offensive and it was received with widespread condemnation from the international community, who saw in the initiative the latest instance of the country’s imperialistic attitude towards the Caribbean, Central and South American regions. A generation later, the jury is still out as to whether the actions of the US Government had any legal justification. Strikingly, however, it remains an incontrovertible fact that, outside political circles, the popularity of the move among Grenadian locals living under the despotic rule of the military council led by Hudson Austin was tremendous.
To say that the atmosphere in Grenada prior to the invasion was tense is an understatement. The second coup d’etat in less than five years had taken place in the country, but this time the revolt carried a lot less popular support than was required for it to make a rightful claim to a just cause. Maurice Bishop, leader of the New JEWEL Movement (Joint Endeavor for Welfare, Education, and Liberation) had been deposed from government on October 13, 1983, after four and a half years in power, by a group of dissenters who were largely at odds with his Marxist-Leninist ideals. One week later came the military council, General Hudson Austin and the widespread distribution of terror. A strict curfew was put in place with a draconic order to shoot on-sight to enforce it. Suddenly, the popular dissent which had been felt against Bishop’s government turned against the military council, making Bishop once again the most popular man in the island. A demonstration was organized for October 20, but things got out of hand. Forces loyal to the provisional government of the military council opened fire against the mob and the ensuing carnage was inevitable. Still today the number of dead and wounded remain a mystery. What isn’t so much of a mystery is that General Hudson Austin ordered the summary execution of Maurice Bishop, along with five other members of the cabinet of his government. The levels of extremism necessary to prompt foreign powers to intervene had been reached. The USA, along with nominal troops provided by the governments of Barbados and Jamaica, would walk into the Spice Island just about five days later.
The debate about the legality of the invasion has resurfaced with the recent publication of Edward Seaga’s book, The Grenada Intervention: The Inside Story. Seaga was the Prime Minister of Jamaica at the time of the “intervention”, and this technical text examines with careful detail the arguments presented to the members of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States before they resolved to seek aid from the United States. Seaga’s book is structured as an argument before a court of law, where the reader acts as judge. Consequently, its language is sparse and measured – designed to allow the facts that come to light throughout the narrative to speak for themselves.
Essentially, such facts boil down to the reasonable conclusion that Grenada during the government of Maurice Bishop had been lined up by the Communist bloc – in particular by Cuba, with considerable assistance from the Union of Soviet Socialistic Republics and North Korea – to act as an additional strategic center within the Caribbean wherefrom to deploy forces, both ideological and military, for the furtherance of destabilizing proletarian revolutions across the region. In this respect, the most alarming numbers provided by Seaga correspond to the amount of guns and ammunition captured in Grenada during the invasion: close to 10,000 rifles and over 5 million rounds of ammunition, plus 2,000 grenades and 200 pieces of heavy artillery.
Indeed, new material published in this account reveals that North Korea and the Soviet Union had agreed to provide Bishop’s Grenada with US $38 million’s worth of military equipment between 1981 and 1983. This equipment included 15 radio stations and uniforms for 12,600 soldiers. The entire population of Grenada at the time was of 110,000 people, and their general disposition was hardly of the type to require this sort of heavy guarding.The politician in Seaga is inclined to believe that the threat posed by yet another focus of Communist activism in the Caribbean, added to the fact that Bishop, however popular, had seized power in Grenada through unconstitutional means (i.e. by organizing a coup d’etat against the democratically elected Prime Minister of Grenada, Eric Gairy, in March, 1979) gives sufficient moral, as well as strategic, justification for the attack.
His argument, however, when it comes to the legal justification, hinges on the presence of mercenary forces acting against the will of the people in Grenada. He refers to the eight hundred Cuban journeymen who ostensibly were in the island assisting in the construction of the airport at Point Salines. These construction workers proved more able in the handling of weapons than one would have expected, and it was them who posed the greatest resistance to an invading force that took all of seven hours to secure the island. The argument is as weak as it is convoluted, and serves best to expose the frailties of the International Law system. Indeed, one of the most amusing moments of a book that is more informative than entertaining comes, perhaps unintentionally, when Seaga explains that it was the intention of the members of CARICOM to expel Grenada from the bloc after the coup of October 13, 1983 – until, that is, “it was discovered that CARICOM had no provision for expulsion”.
Seaga’s sterile analysis of the conflict brings to mind V.S. Naipaul’s account of the situation in Grenada a couple of weeks after the American invasion just because the two contrast in tone and style so sharply. Seaga’s legalistic jargon dehumanizes the events to the point where there hardly is any breathing room. Meanwhile, Naipaul depicts a detailed picture of a routine disrupted by elements that make everything seem out of place: the Americans, the Cubans, the helicopters, the prisoners, Rastafarians by the side of the road, reporters in taxis. As usual, Naipaul combines his superb observation skills with his natural inability to understand, or even sympathize, with the experiences of the other. Consequently, his description of the context in which he finds himself highlights the absurdity of the entire episode. Nevertheless, in the absence of an agenda of any kind, Naipaul is able to see with more clarity the nature of Bishop’s appeal, the extent of his popularity and the effect of his charisma. Humorously, Naipaul describes how Bishop was able to provide a full blown socialistic revolution, down to an appropriately tropical slogan for “de revo”, without even having to call for elections. For Naipaul the revolution was a revolution of words – of mimic men, copying a foreign model. Through Seaga’s lucid clarification we now know that there was more to Bishop’s “revo” than just words. And while this fails to provide a legal justification to the actions of the United States, it does place the invading forces on a higher moral ground. They might have broken the law, but they certainly prevented a greater evil.