On 25 October 1983, Ronald Reagan sent 8,000 members of the US Armed Forces to invade Grenada, an island with a population of just over 100,000 people, in an operation which he named ‘American Fury’. It is an operation he had been planning ever since the bloodless revolution of 1979 had displaced the US-anointed tyrannical Prime Minister, Eric Gairy.
Thirty years later, Dr Bruce Paddington, Lecturer at the University of the West Indies, has marked the anniversary of the massacre at Fort Rupert on 19 October 1983 and the US invasion with a truly extraordinary film (see trailer below.) I saw the film on Friday 17 January 2014 at a screening in the auditorium at The British Library, along with some 300 others.
The film takes you on a journey of hope and near despair.
First, one is given a graphic account of the brutal repression of the Gairy regime and its indiscriminate killing of those openly dissenting and challenging that regime, including the murder of Rupert Bishop, father of Maurice who helped plan and executive the overthrow of Eric Gairy while he was on an overseas visit. Ironically, Fort Rupert, formally Fort George which was renamed in honour of the martyred Rupert Bishop, was to be the place where Maurice Bishop and fifteen of his loyal supporters were massacred by machine gun on 19 October 1983.
You then share in the elation, sense of liberation and hopefulness of the Grenada people as they own the revolution and engage in building popular movements (women, youth, senior citizens, farmers, trade unionists, etc.) and local organs of government, including zonal and parish councils and forums for decision making that fed directly into government policy making.
The film explores the human rights record of the People’s Revolutionary Government and includes testimonies from former detainees, including those who sought to organise a ‘free press’, independent of the government and its channels of mass communication. Among those former detainees interviews were the recently voted out former Prime Minister, Tillman Thomas, and the veteran journalist Leslie Pierre.
The story continues with an exploration of the cracks that were begin to develop within the leadership of the Revolution, something which Chris Searle describes graphically in his foreword to my book, ‘Time to Tell – the Grenada Massacre and after…‘:
But something else was happening within the ‘Revo’s’ central structures that contradicted and attacked this democratic narrative. I can only describe this as a ‘commandist’ and over-centralist authoritarian strain that was completely contrary to the popular-democratic impulses and structures within the Revolution’s fabric. I began to notice this in mid-1982 when there was a concerted strategy by some of the younger and less experienced party militants to ‘take over’ the clerical trade unions, in particular the Public Workers’ Union by quasi-military sloganising and the beginnings of a culture intimidating to the broad membership.
Certainly, when I returned for two weeks in August 1983 to accompany a group of academic geographers who undertook an energy survey of the island, I quickly sensed a serious fall-off in people’s mobilisation as well as an ambiance of uncharacteristic near-stasis and nervousness amongst activists which I had not sensed before. Some of the leaders too whom I met and talked with, in particular Bishop and Creft, seemed exhausted and more edgy than before. I write about these events in more detail in my book Grenada Morning: A Memoir of the ‘Revo’ (Karia Press 1989).
And then comes the story of: the joint leadership proposal which Bishop had originally endorsed and then changed his mind about; Bishop being put under the spotlight by his comrades; his alleged responsibility for circulating or encouraging the circulation of a rumour that Bernard Coard was planning to kill him; Bishop being put under house arrest; the people mobilising and physically removing Bishop from house arrest in a gesture that symbolised that it was their Revolution, he was their leader and he was not going to be kept imprisoned without their consent.
Then comes the gruesome accounts of what transpired on Fort Rupert (see below), culminating in the massacre by machine gunfire of Bishop and most of his Cabinet, including his pregnant partner, Jacqueline Creft.
The most chilling part of that film for me was the account of Callistus Bernard, a former Army officer who, without emotion or any suggestion of remorse, told in detail how he organised the rounding up and lining up of those former colleagues of his before using ‘any weapons we had at hand’ to murder them. Bizarrely, he stated that after the massacre they decided to ‘burn the bodies in order to preserve them…’.
Survivors of the tragedy speak in spine chilling detail of their ordeal, including Ann Peters, then a senior nurse and ward sister at the St George’s general hospital and who until recently was Minister for Health in Tillman Thomas’ government.
The film was co-directed and edited by Luke Paddington, son of Bruce, whose editing was superb and ensured that the film told a very complex, gruesome and tragic story, unprecedented in the history of the Caribbean, economically and sensitively.
The film is for this and future generations anywhere one of the most important historical creations that tell the story of the Grenada Revolution and its demise. It provides for those who were too young to remember and those not yet born, but for whom the name ‘Maurice Bishop’ resonates with those of Patrice Lumumba, Samora Machel, Amilcar Cabral and more, a gripping visual account of the Grenada that shaped Bishop’s politics and gave rise to the overthrow of the tyrannical and murderous Gairy regime, the Grenada that was on a historic developmental path, propelled by Grenadians that owned the process of government and the Grenada that experienced a volcanic eruption when those same people determined that the revolutionary process which could not persist without them was not going to be hijacked by a clique in the ‘People’s’ Revolutionary Government, who had usurped the power and dismissed the wishes of the people and placed their revolutionary leader and Prime Minister under house arrest.
The rest as they say is History.
But it is not a history that is fully told, nor a history about which even the people most directly involved in the process and its implosion agree. In fact, the contributions of many former government and Party members to the film are unashamed attempts to rewrite that history and justify their part in the murderous events of 19 October 1983 on ideological and military grounds.
As the film showed, the person most adept at that practice is Selwyn Strachan. He and I engaged in a two day debate in London in July 2011 about ‘The Implosion of the Grenada Revolution’. Strachan’s position then and in his contribution to the film is that nobody was giving orders to anybody else to do anything on 19 October 1983. No order was given to kill Bishop and his comrades. It just happened in the midst of the chaos as people acted in fear of their lives as they genuinely believed that the armoury had been raided and the Bishop faction had armed the people, hence the killing of the four soldiers on the first armoured carrier that approached the Fort.
One could have gone on watching the film in the hope that it would tell more of the story. It is some 113 minutes long, reduced from two and a half hours, but it needs to tell us more of what, hopefully, Bruce Paddington found during his four years of research.
There is a number of issues that are central to the story which need to be addressed, especially for the benefit of those who did not live through those turbulent events. Much is made of the minutes of that crucial meeting of the Central Committee (CC) on 25 September 1983. But, there is not a general understanding of the ideological basis of the factionalising that emerged and was fuelled and nurtured within the Party and government. So, without asking for an epic in the fashion of ‘Ben Hur‘, some bits of the jigsaw the film might try and slot into place are:
On what was that factionalising based?
Had OREL re-formed within the Party and regrouped within the CC and government? Was it a straight OREL – v – New Jewel scenario?
Did it have to do with the claim that Bishop felt that a belated move to parliamentary elections would cement the Revo and ‘legitimise’ the people’s mandate in the eyes of the world, Reagan and the US in particular, especially as there were signs that the people were becoming disillusioned with the ideological battles inside the Party, which in their view were derailing the power and influence of the people and the political organs they managed at local level under the model of ‘people’s active democracy and participation in Government’?
Who took the decision to place Bishop under house arrest?
Who credited the Grenadian people with such little intelligence as to expect them to be believe that although Bishop was under house arrest, he was still their Prime Minister and running the country?
How long was he going to be held under house arrest if the people had not freed him?
When did what the majority of the Grenada people think and want cease to matter?
Richard Hart (recently deceased) was Attorney General in Grenada from 1982 till the Revo imploded. He was an avowed Communist and belonged to the radical wing of Jamaican politics. He and Trevor Munroe, among others, were trusted supporters of the Party and PRG. What were they advising Coard and all those who were responsible for placing and keeping Bishop under house arrest, knowing as they surely must have done what a kamikaze act of political suicide that potentially was?
Who started the shooting on the Fort while Bishop and his supporters were in the Ops Room?
When the armoured cars were despatched to go and ‘retake the Fort’ and secure the armoury, did those giving that order seriously believe that with the freed leader of the Revo and Commander in Chief of the Army on the Fort, in the company of the thousands of people who had freed him, they could take back the Fort without bloodshed?
Who gave the order to round up Bishop and those loyal to him in the government and Party and murder them, especially as it was clear that they had emerged from that room after it had been hit by a rocket launcher and had surrendered?
Who had tried to eliminate the lot of them gathered in that room and under whose orders?
Does the cold, emotionless, clinical and remorseless Callistus Bernard really expect the world to believe that he acted spontaneously and alone, and did what he felt the situation demanded at the time he rounded up Bishop and the others and cut them down?
Rather than sending armoured vehicles to’re-take the Fort’, why did Bernard Coard, the would be ‘Joint Leader’, and Hudson Austin, not go to Fort Rupert and appeal to the people for calm and tell them how they were going to ensure the safety of Maurice Bishop and go to the people of Grenada with the conflict within the Party and government?
Between October 19 and October 25, what was the leadership telling the people of Grenada about their future, except that they were under curfew and would be killed, again, if they tried to mobilise and hold Coard and the rest of them to account for the massacre on Fort Rupert and for the bodies of all those perished, whether from shooting or from hurling themselves off the Fort to escape gunshot?
Rather than ‘burning the bodies to preserve them’ (a bizarre substitute for refrigeration, no doubt), why did Callistus Bernard and his ghoulish acolytes not hand them over, identifiable or not, to the public mortuary for forensic examination and identification by loved ones?
The nearest the Caribbean came to what Grenada achieved in 1979 and eagerly engaged in building upon, until they were betrayed by their ideological ‘leaders’ were the mass uprisings by workers in the labour struggles of the 1930s and the trade union movement to which those struggles gave rise. The OWTU in Trinidad and Tobago (which marked their 75th anniversary in 2012) remains the most progressive of trade unions in the region, spawning entities such as the Assembly of Caribbean People and the Movement for Social Justice. As I said in my book, Time to Tell:
‘The Grenada Revolution… was a process that the people owned and guarded jealously. It provided them opportunities for the exercise of democratic citizenship and active engagement with the affairs of government. They were not passively waiting to be done unto, if not done for, once they had cast their votes’.
Above all, it was their ownership, guardianship and democratic propelling of it that gave a mandate to Coard, Bishop and all those in party and government, something they chose to forget as they bypassed the people and became embroiled in Cold War global politics, democratic centralism and soviet experimentation without regard for the history and demography of Grenada and the aspirations of its people and the people of the entire region. It is precisely that regional impact that so petrified the likes of Eugenia Charles, Tom Adams and Edward Seaga.
I suspect that all of the above matters will be debated and contested for years to come. It would be interesting to see what clarification and what level of truthfulness and honesty will come from Bernard Coard, Ewart Layne and whoever else is involved in writing their own accounts of the Grenada Revolution and its demise.
Picture credits (home): “Maurice Bishop” by “Paul Lowry” (Flickr)