Grenada – an invasion that worked

Most Caribbean islands, barring Cuba and Hispaniola, do not have a colourful recent history of revolutions and invasions, other than for the battles fought between their former colonial masters—the British, Dutch, French, and Spanish—for the possession or exchange of these volcanic outcrops. But Grenada has one, as recent as 1983, and it was interesting to hear the story from those who lived through it.

I went to Granada for a week’s vacation because it was the last stop on my bucket list of Caribbean destinations. I wasn’t disappointed. Everyone speaks excellent English, and that made getting around easier. The island has rebooted its tourist product after a brief flirtation (and stagnation) with Socialism in the 70s and 80s, and Grenadians have now declared their hand in favour of private enterprise. Being at the southern end of the Windward Island group, with St. George, Grenada’s capital, facing the gentler Caribbean Sea, the temperatures in February were in the high 20s each day with the occasional passing shower. The sea was mostly calm and warm, except that our property had some no-go areas of abrasive corral, seaweed, and sea pencils. The food was great! And for the first time, I even had a butler. Didn’t I feel like Bertie Wooster? You bet!

We met Jimmy, a weatherbeaten, fifty-something Grenadian, looking a lot older, hovering around the steps leading up to Fort George on the hill, where the revolution and subsequent invasion unfolded in 1983. As Canadians, we had been fed the story that the US arbitrarily invaded this island to keep it from becoming another Cuba, and to recover some street cred after their stalemate in Korea and defeat in Vietnam. The UN condemned the invasion as “a flagrant violation of international law.” But Superpowers generally don’t give a hoot – just ask Putin, or little-big-man, Netanyahu.

Jimmy’s story changed my erroneous history lesson. He showed us the scars on his head and chest, received when he was a 14-year-old who got caught in the crossfire up on the hill. I guess that was credential enough, so we let him take us on the unofficial walking tour, past the Fort which is now under renovation and St. George’s General Hospital which sits across from the fort on the hill overlooking the city. St. George’s University School of Medicine is top-ranked in the Americas, giving the US another reason to invade– they were ostensibly trying to protect their 600 medical students studying on the island and avert another Iran hostage crisis that had been resolved only three years earlier.

Things didn’t go right for Grenada after it became independent from Britain in 1974. Under founding PM Sir Eric Geary, the country went into economic decline, and corruption was rife. The Marxist New Jewel Party led by Maurice Bishop, overthrew Geary in a coup in 1979 and took the country down the Communist path, supported by the Soviet-Cuban lobby who used the island and its airport to spread their influence across the region – Nicaragua was already in the red bag, Belize and Surinam were next on the list.  According to Jimmy, PM Bishop had a spat with his deputy PM and his military commander in 1983, was put under house arrest, and executed along with some of his cabinet ministers to the chagrin of the nation. Protests mounted, and people rushed to the fort, schoolboy Jimmy among them, to protest this Communist regime that was slowly squeezing individual freedoms and hastening more serious economic decline than under Geary. The military opened fire on the protestors, and Jimmy jumped off the parapet wall of the fort, falling down the hill and hurting himself seriously. A friend picked him up and drove him home where he had to remain in hiding. He could not visit the world-famous hospital because an indefinite curfew was introduced immediately.

On the sixth day following Bishop’s execution, on the entreaties of Caribbean neighbour countries, the US cavalry arrived. It was like a sledgehammer used to kill a fly: 7500 US troops and allies vs. a 1500-person local force and 600 Cubans. It was all over in three days. Communism was rooted out and Democracy was restored. Grenada hasn’t looked back.

The city of St. George is a mix of the new and the run down. New includes the expanded cruise ship terminal and mall built on reclaimed land from the sea, as well as the Fort when it will be ready in a couple of years, and the hospital; Old represents the abandoned British hotel (collapsed and weed-strewn), the museum (closed until further notice), the slaveholding pens (left to rot and not even restored for tourists). The island rises like a volcano towards the centre with terraced roads and houses spiralling around the core. The houses are large with lush gardens, and I suspect many foreigners buy property here as Grenada has one of the lowest costs of living in the Caribbean.

The rustic chocolate factory is worth a visit – imagine eating ginger fudge with tamarind balls, followed by a pollen health bar, while rubbing your skin down with nutmeg butter (nutmeg is the national spice, oleander the national flower, and “oil down” the national dish which I couldn’t get to sample as it is not easily available). I was ready to take on anything after my energizing visit to the chocolate factory. And that’s exactly what I did, for next door, I saw the sign of a government ministry called the Ministry of Mobilization, Implementation, and Transformation. I promptly walked in and asked them what the heck they did because aren’t all ministries supposed to do that with their respective mandates? The very polite officer informed me that this ministry worked across all ministries to do just that: mobilize, implement, and transform. This was a non-partisan professional group, good at doing, while the other ministries were simply good at making plans that never went anywhere. Perhaps other countries should adopt this bureaucratic best practice.   

Later, looking over the calm waters of the Caribbean and at the port of St. George where a giant cruise ship was drawing in to discharge its 3000 passengers and bestow their valuable foreign exchange upon the island—a daily boost of wealth during the tourist season, I’m told—I wondered how deceptive this outward calm and endowed prosperity was. What discontents lie under the surface of these islands, we tourists will never know, until we read about the next eruption in the news – be that geological or political. Let’s just give credit to the fact that since its independence, Grenada experienced violence, poverty, and corruption, including Hurricane Ivan in 2004 that devastated the entire island, yet carved out a new future for itself, and boxes on, just as the permanently scarred Jimmy continues to ply his trade as a friendly guide and extol the virtues of the US invasion that saved him and his country.

The 1983 invasion did not leave the devastation of later US intrusions on foreign lands such as Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan. If I am to believe Jimmy, and when I look at the smartly dressed people of Grenada going about their daily lives with vigour and enthusiasm, this invasion seems to have worked. 

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