Annals of American Imperialism: The U.S. Invasion of Grenada

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On this day in 1983, U.S. armed forces attacked the small Caribbean island nation of Grenada, intent on restoring a pro-imperialist government like the one that had been ousted by the New Jewel Movement. The Cold War was still on, and there would be no abiding another “communist” country in the U.S. backyard.

United States imperialism is nothing if not consistent. Mess with its interests, and you’re going to provoke a response. It might be sanctions that starve an entire population and keep medicines from being obtained. It might be a coup d’état organized and supported by the Central Intelligence Agency. Sometimes, it’s an out-and-out invasion.

It was the latter that confronted Grenada. As the day dawned on October 25, 1983, the United States — with a coalition of six other Caribbean nations — invaded the tiny island 100 miles north of Venezuela, in the West Indies. Within a few days, Grenada was under a U.S. military occupation.

What happened in Grenada is instructive, because it reveals just how imperialism works. In Grenada’s case, just as Jamaica before it — a point explained below — it was economic threats to and manipulation of a key industry, undertaken by the United States, that formed the first bookend of imperialism’s assault. Invasion was the other.

Backdrop to the Invasion

The population at the time of the invasion — less than 100,000 people, mostly of African descent — had won independence from Britain fewer than 10 years earlier, but remained a member of the Commonwealth, with Queen Elizabeth II as the head of state. Five years later, the New Jewel Movement (NJM) overthrew Prime Minister Eric Gairy — a pro-imperialist who enjoyed the support of the U.S. government. The NJM was a self-described “Marxist-Leninist vanguard party” led by Maurice Bishop, and had been the main opposition party in Grenada even prior to independence. It had formed a military wing in 1973, the National Liberation Army (NLA), and it was the NLA that seized the radio station, police barracks, and other key locations while Gairy was on a trip outside the country.

Bishop sought a meeting with Ronald Reagan and requested American aid — but was denied. So, the NJM indicated its willingness to engage with Cuba for assistance, provoking the U.S. ambassador to warn, “The United States government would dislike any inclination on the part of the Grenadines to develop closer ties with Cuba.”

On March 13, 1979, the NJM declared itself a Provisional Revolutionary Government. The government converted the NLA to the People’s Revolutionary Army (PRA). In a speech one month later, Bishop articulated the reasons for what he called Grenada’s “historic people’s revolution.” He warned, quite presciently, of “a real and present threat of mercenary invasion” faced by the country, and spoke of how well the tourist industry — very important to the country’s economy — was doing in the immediate aftermath of the PRG assuming power. He then noted the threats by the U.S. ambassador, couched in foreign capital’s interest in the tourist industry. It is worth quoting from at length, because it reveals how imperialism works to undermine the economic independence of the world’s dependent countries.

We want the people of Grenada and the Caribbean to realize that if all of a sudden tourists start panicking and leaving the country, or stop coming to our country, then they should note that this came after veiled threats by the United States ambassador with respect to our tourist industry.

The ambassador, Mr. Frank Ortiz, on his last visit to Grenada some days ago, went out of his way to emphasize the obvious importance of tourism to our country. He argued that as Grenada imported some $32 million a year in goods but exported only $13 million, we had a massive trade deficit of some $19 million which earnings from the tourist industry could substantially lessen. His point was, and we accept that point, that tourism was and is critical to the survival of our economy.

The ambassador went on to advise us that if we continue to speak about what he called “mercenary invasions by phantom armies” we could lose all our tourists. He also reminded us of the experience which Jamaica had had in this regard a few years ago.

Bishop went on to recount the “intense destabilization” Jamaica had undergone at the hands of imperialism.

Under this process the people of Jamaica were encouraged to lose faith and confidence in themselves, their government and their country, and in the ability of their government to solve the pressing problems facing the country and meeting the expectations of their people. This was done through damaging news stories being spread in the local, regional, and international media, particularly newspapers, aimed at discrediting the achievements of the Jamaican government. It was also done through violence and sabotage and by wicked and pernicious attempts at wrecking the economy through stopping the flow of tourist visitors, and hence much needed foreign exchange earnings of the country.

The experience of Jamaica must therefore remind us that the economies of small, poor, Third World countries which depend on tourism can be wrecked by those who have the ability and the desire to wreck them. In his official meetings … the [U.S.] ambassador stressed the fact that his government will view with great displeasure the development of any relations between our country and Cuba. The ambassador pointed out that his country was the richest, freest, and most generous country in the world, but as he put it, “We have two sides.”

We understood that to mean that the other side he was referring to was the side which stamped freedom and democracy when the American government felt that their interests were being threatened. “People are panicky and I will have to report that fact to my government,” he advised us. However, the only evidence of panic given by the ambassador was the incident which took place last Monday when the People’s Revolutionary Army, as a result of not having been warned beforehand, shot at a plane which flew very low, more than once over Camp Butler. He calls that panic. The people of Grenada call it alertness.

At the end of our discussion on Tuesday, the ambassador handed me a typed statement of his instructions from his government, to be given to us. The relevant section of that statement reads, and I quote: “Although my government recognizes your concerns over allegations of a possible counter coup, it also believes that it would not be in Grenada’s best interest to seek assistance from a country such as Cuba to forestall such an attack. We would view with displeasure any tendency on the part of Grenada to develop closer ties with Cuba.”

Bishop continued, spelling out the “full, free, and unhampered right” of countries “to conduct their own internal affairs” and Grenada’s refusal to “recognize any right of the United States of America to instruct us on who we may develop relations with and who we may not.” And he added that the people of Grenada had not gone through the past nearly three decades of its fight for independence and then the pro-imperialist Gairy government “to gain our freedom, only to throw it away and become a slave or lackey to any other country, no matter how big and powerful.” He characterized Grenada and the fight against imperialism more concretely:

We are a small country, we are a poor country, with a population of largely African descent, we are a part of the exploited Third World, and we definitely have a stake in seeking the creation of a new international economic order which would assist in ensuring economic justice for the oppressed and exploited peoples of the world, and in ensuring that the resources of the sea are used for the benefit of all the people of the world and not for a tiny minority of profiteers. …

Grenada is a sovereign and independent country, although a tiny speck on the world map, and we expect all countries to strictly respect our independence just as we will respect theirs. No country has the right to tell us what to do or how to run our country or who to be friendly with. We certainly would not attempt to tell any other country what to do.

We are not in anybody’s backyard, and we are definitely not for sale. Anybody who thinks they can bully us or threaten us clearly has no understanding, idea, or clue as to what material we are made of. They clearly have no idea of the tremendous struggles which our people have fought over the past seven years. Though small and poor, we are proud and determined. We would sooner give up our lives before we compromise, sell out, or betray our sovereignty, our independence, our integrity, our manhood, and the right of our people to national self-determination and social progress.

Not long thereafter, the government of Grenada appealed to Cuba for assistance. Cuban construction workers were brought in to assist in the construction of a new international airport.

Limitations of the New Jewel Movement

The PRG took all sorts of positive measures to raise the people out of poverty: strong education initiatives, including a national literacy campaign; free healthcare (also with the help of Cuba, which provided doctors); and the distribution of free milk to pregnant women and children. Road construction and updates to the power grid began. The government began to develop agricultural cooperatives and established a system of financial and equipment loans for farmers.

But on the political front, the New Jewel Movement left much to be desired. The PRG suspended Grenada’s constitution, issued new laws by decree, and banned all political organizations other than the NJM. No elections were ever held. Positions in the government were doled out based on adherence to a “Marxism” defined by the NJM. There was never any effort to engage the Grenadian masses in running the country; this was a top-down “revolution” executed and controlled by a narrow elite.

Imperialism, meanwhile, continued its assault, unwilling to have another “communist” beachhead in the Caribbean; remember, the Cold War was still raging. The country’s economic woes were exacerbated. Britain suspended its economic assistance. The United States blocked loans to Grenada from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Internally, there was some strife and, in June 1980, a bombing at a meeting Bishop attended. He blamed “American imperialism and its local agents.”

In 1983, the PRG had a split, with Bernard Coard, the deputy prime minister, leading a group that demanded Bishop share power — which he refused. Coard’s group placed Bishop under house arrest and took control of the government, which sparked large demonstrations around the island. Bishop escaped, took refuge at a PRA fort, but was then captured by forces loyal to Coard. He and several cabinet ministers and labor union leaders were executed.

A new government led by General Hudson Austin was formed, called the Revolutionary Military Council (RMC), and announced a curfew under which anyone on the streets would be summarily executed. Austin’s forces also placed Paul Scoon under house arrest; he was the last governor-general during Grenada’s years as a British colony and still officially held the position.

Six days later, The RMC was ousted in the U.S. invasion.

The Invasion and Aftermath

It was Scoon and the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) that gave cover for the United States to invade; both requested the invasion through secret diplomatic channels. When the forces landed on October 25 in Operation Urgent Fury, the United States stated it had been done at the request of Tom Adams and Eugenia Charles, the prime ministers of Barbados and Dominica, respectively. Over several days, some 7,000 U.S. troops and 300 others from the Organization of American States (OAS) battled with about 1,500 Grenadian soldiers and about 700 armed Cuban nationals who had taken defensive positions. Some of the U.S. forces set out to “rescue” American students at the medical campus of St. George’s University on the island; this was to become a key component of U.S. domestic propaganda to justify the imperialist assault.

By the time the fighting was over, U.S. military superiority had prevailed — with only 19 U.S. forces killed. Cuban and Grenadian forces suffered greater casualties, as did civilians, including 18 who died in the “accidental” bombing of a mental hospital.

The U.S. government defended the invasion: it was an action taken to protect American citizens living on the island, especially those medical students. The OAS charter, argued the U.S. State Department, refers to situations “that might endanger the peace” and the OAS and United Nations charters “recognize the competence of regional security bodies in ensuring regional peace and stability.” The OCES approval of the invasion thus, American imperialism argued, cleared the United States of any wrongdoing.

Of course, that was all a lie. The UN Charter prohibits the use of force by member states except in cases of self-defense or when specifically authorized by the UN Security Council, neither of which applied. The UN General Assembly condemned the invasion as “a flagrant violation of international law,” and the Security Council overwhelmingly passed a similar resolution that the United States then proceeded to veto.

The cynical justification that the invasion was to protect the medical students largely worked in the United States. Their school was near the Cuban-built runway — which the United States had claimed was for military purposes and not for an international airport — and the U.S. corporate media pushed the lie that the proximity threatened students with being taken hostage, just as American diplomats in Iran had been four years previously. Most Democrats lined up behind the Reagan Administration; House Speaker Tip O’Neill, for instance, changed his position to one of support. The few exceptions were the Congressional Black Caucus and a small group of seven Democratic members of Congress who filed an unsuccessful resolution to impeach Reagan.

The U.S. attack on Grenada aimed at restoring a bourgeois-nationalist government that would do imperialism’s bidding. The U.S. and Caribbean governments did just that, and quickly reinstalled Scoon as Queen Elizabeth’s sole representative in Grenada, with full authority of law. He organized carefully orchestrated new elections that in December 1984 brought a new pro-imperialist prime minister, Herbert Blaize, to power.

Imperialism Knows No Bounds

There was another reason U.S. imperialism invaded Grenada. It was only made explicit a couple of months after U.S. troops had landed.

On December 13, 1983, Reagan gave a speech in New York City to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. He confirmed that the last of the combat troops were “on their way back” from Grenada, but that other military personnel would remain for what he described as medical, construction, and police work. Then he declared, “We have tried turning our swords into plowshares, hoping others would follow.”

It was the height of cynicism from the leader of the most brutal, murderous regime in the history of the world.

“Well, our days of weakness are over,” Reagan continued. “Our military forces are back on their feet and standing tall.”

During his 1980 presidential campaign, Reagan had given a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars that had become quite famous for his mention of the Vietnam Syndrome — only five years after the United States had been defeated for the first time ever in a war.

For too long, we have lived with the “Vietnam Syndrome.” Much of that syndrome has been created by the North Vietnamese aggressors who now threaten the peaceful people of Thailand. Over and over they told us for nearly 10 years that we were the aggressors bent on imperialistic conquests. They had a plan. It was to win in the field of propaganda here in America what they could not win on the field of battle in Vietnam. As the years dragged on, we were told that peace would come if we would simply stop interfering and go home.

It is time we recognized that ours was, in truth, a noble cause. A small country newly free from colonial rule sought our help in establishing self-rule and the means of self-defense against a totalitarian neighbor bent on conquest. We dishonor the memory of 50,000 young Americans who died in that cause when we give way to feelings of guilt as if we were doing something shameful, and we have been shabby in our treatment of those who returned. They fought as well and as bravely as any Americans have ever fought in any war. They deserve our gratitude, our respect, and our continuing concern.

There is a lesson for all of us in Vietnam. If we are forced to fight, we must have the means and the determination to prevail or we will not have what it takes to secure the peace. And while we are at it, let us tell those who fought in that war that we will never again ask young men to fight and possibly die in a war our government is afraid to let them win.

It was a declaration of U.S. imperialism’s intent to avenge its defeat by the Vietnamese people. In Reagan’s speech in December 1983, his words made clear that Grenada had been attacked in large part for that very reason. Imperialism was out to teach the less-developed world a lesson, and in doing so overcome the Vietnam Syndrome. If some people had to die to send that message, that was, to Reagan (like so many of his successors) an acceptable tradeoff.

About author

Scott Cooper

Scott Cooper

Scott is a writer, editor, and longtime socialist activist who lives in the Boston area.