HAVANA TIMES — For some of us, the mention of the Caribbean island country of Grenada brings a vague visceral feeling of discomfort, like a tragic accident in the family never again discussed.
Scattered images return to us: the “New Jewel Movement”, whose name says everything about the promise of it; Maurice Bishop leading the first popular leftist revolution in the English-speaking Caribbean. Then, a brief four years later, the anguish of witnessing US battleships steaming towards the tiny island.
These images are accompanied, perhaps, by the nagging feeling that “something else happened”, something even more disturbing than the widely broadcast images of US soldiers being overwhelmingly welcomed by the native population.
Perhaps we remember and perhaps we don’t that the US invasion was preceded by a split in the revolutionary party and a brief but traumatic struggle in which the popular Grenada leader Maurice Bishop, along with seven of his followers, were killed by their former comrades. Less than a month later, the “victorious” US forces returned home, and for all intents and purposes the world closed the curtain on the Grenadian drama.
Shalini Puri’s book brings us back to this landscape, these events, not to explain them away, justify them, or pack them into a neat academic study, but to examine the “unsettled truths and restless memories” they have left, 32 years later. She also asks the more pressing question: How do these events haunt the Caribbean in the present?
Her method and vision are best summed up by the scene that comprises the book’s front cover:
“In the north of the island is the old airfield at Pearls, which the Revolution sought to replace with the new airport at Point Salines. On its crumbling runway sit two planes, one Aeroflot and one Cubana. They have remained there for 30 years… Left there as debris… resistant to interpretation as a “message, their persistent presence is a powerful provocation. To see them is to confront the stubborn residue of history.” (p. 17)
The Grenada Revolution in the Caribbean Present leads us on a journey through Grenada’s physical, historical, social and cultural landscape in search of exactly such stubborn residue.
Using elements of the landscape -“Wave”, “Fault-line”, Continent”, Stone”, “Archipelago” – as metaphors and chapter themes, Puri returns us again and again to the events of the “Revo” and its violent unraveling, each time seeing them under a different light.
The book dazzles, provokes, turns us around, and at nearly every turn brings us up against some new angle on the events of 1979 – 1983, and far far beyond.
Recapping the events
Puri is clear that her intent goes beyond assemble and recounting. Nonetheless, the initial chapters do reacquaint us fully with the island’s immediate history.
We learn of Eric Gairy’s gradual transformation from a champion of the underclass in the fifties to a harsh and corrupt messianic dictator in the 70s; the rise of the popular New Jewel Movement under the charismatic young leader Maurice Bishop, a rise that echoed so many other popular movements of the times; the NJMs nearly bloodless capture of Gairy’s barracks followed by Bishop’s “Bright New Dawn” speech, assuring democratic freedoms, respect for personal safety and property , and full acceptance of all citizens who peacefully accept the new government.
As in similar movements, these events were followed by an outpouring of the Caribbean’s best and brightest, including many Cubans, to dedicate their youthful creativity and idealistic energy to the New Jewel project.
This project, affectionately known as “the Revo”, involved, “the radical rethinking of governance and political culture, a series of ambitious economic undertakings and far-reaching transformations in the fields of health, culture and the arts.” (p. 41)
During these short years, tiny Grenada assumed a leading role on the world stage, as the protagonist of “the first socialist-oriented revolution in the Anglophone Caribbean.” (p.5)
We witness all these things through the voices, photographs, calypsos, excerpts from plays and novels, etc. that Puri assembles as relics of the joyous memories of those years.
The chapters “Fault-lines” and “Fort” bring us back to that involuntary tightening of the stomach, as Puri chronicles the movement’s inexorable change from an open popular movement to a closed Government/Party structure.
This change, as we see it, came at a high price: “Each Leninist measure which made the party capable of taking power also increased its tendency towards hierarchical decision-making and enhanced the autonomy of the leadership, both from ordinary party members and the people.” (Brian Meeks, Caribbean Revolution and Revolutionary Theory, 1993, as cited on p.65).
Eventually, the party closed in on itself, believing “that it had nothing to learn from anyone beyond its inmost circle.” (p. 82). With this came a rising ethos of militarism; censorship, arbitrary detentions, fear of being called a “counter”; and the Party’s mistaking itself for the Revolution.
Then, the tragic unraveling: in Sept. 1983 there was a split in the leadership of the NJM followed by a Party vote to establish joint leadership.
Refusing to abide by this decision, Maurice Bishop was placed under house arrest. And finally the trauma of Oct. 19th, when a crowd of jubilant grassroots supporters freed Bishop and he led them to Fort Rupert for reasons never completely ascertained.
Here, Bishop and his followers were disarmed and then killed by members of the “People’s Revolutionary Council”, later known as the Grenada 17. Their bodies were never recovered. The Revolutionary Military Council then imposed a 24 hour “shoot on sight” curfew, further horrifying and alienating the residents of the island.
“On October 19, 1983, night fell over Grenada. Desolate.” (p.97)
In the chapter “Continent” Puri pores over the details of Ronald Reagan’s decision to launch Operation Urgent Fury, sold to the US public as an operation to rescue 750 US medical students in Grenada.
In reality, it represented “a perfect public relations opportunity: a short war, a decisive and showy victory, minimal US casualties and maximum fanfare” (p.106). The statistics offered on the invasion speak for themselves:
- Total population of Grenada in 1983 – 111,000
- US troops on active duty for “Operation Urgent Fury – 7,355 with 20,000 more stationed offshore
- US soldiers killed – 19, of which 17 were killed by accidents or friendly fire
- Cubans killed – approximately 24
- Grenadians killed in action – the United States declined to disclose the number during war, later estimates were 45 dead, 350 wounded. (statistics, p. 110).
The media were kept out and no press conferences were offered until 48 hours afterwards. The chronicled failures of this operation would be laughable if they weren’t so tragic:
The US accidentally bombed the island’s mental hospital because it was near the military target, Fort Frederick. Then, “Having rescued the medical students from the True Blue campus, the US troops began to celebrate… only to learn from the medical students that there was a second medical school campus… where the majority of medical students were. “ (p.105) These were finally rescued two days later.
The US forces mistook the bodies of 13 fallen members of the People’s Revolutionary Army soldiers for Cubans and sent their bodies to Cuba. Cuba returned them.
Although most of the US Special Forces missions ended in tragedy or failure, no one was ever fired or disciplined. Instead, some 19,600 medals were awarded for Urgent Fury.
Despite this, “in the over 40 times since 1898 that the United States has intervened with direct and overt military action in the Caribbean and Latin America, rarely has it had the unambiguous support of the majority of the local population. In Grenada, it did.” (p. 99)
Confused, fearful, grief-stricken, the population saw the US invasion as deliverance from the Revolutionary Military Council which had assumed power and assassinated their popular leader.
The United States was careful to maximize their advantage when they abandoned the island, leaving behind 100 members of the Psychological Operations Unit of the US armed forces (PSYOP) to write the story of saving Grenada from Cuba and the communists in comic books, textbook and on stone monuments, beginning with the replacement of “Radio Free Grenada” with “Spice Island Radio”, which shortly after the invasion began playing the Beach Boys.
Restless memories persist
These events could be seen in many ways: as a bitter lesson for the Left, as a tragedy for those who invested the best of themselves, as a condemnation, or a challenge. However, casting judgment is clearly not the author’s intention.
“This book is not a history of the Grenada Revolution. It is a meditation on memory.” (p. 12)
In subsequent chapters, Puri addresses the many ways, choreographed and spontaneous, in which these memories pervade Grenada. She examines the monuments, erected mostly by the US to commemorate its own fallen soldiers, and the more recent renaming of the highway and airport for Maurice Bishop.
She finds other memories she terms “volcanic” – “involuntary and restive… unauthorized, unexorcised, unsanitized… latent and potentially explosive.” (p. 151)
In the voices of people interviewed, in newspapers, in calypsos, paintings, drawings, photographs, poems, narratives she moves beyond Grenada to examine the “deep regional linkages” in the Caribbean and how the Grenadian events impacted, and continue to impact the entire region.
In the later chapters we move a bit closer to the present. Puri sees the catastrophic Hurricane Ivan (2005) as a catalyst, stirring up the old, restless memories by echoing the Oct. ’83 political devastation with a purely natural disaster.
We also take a look at the prison experiences of the Grenada 17, and their eventual release in 2009. By this time, many had contributed their memoirs, and many others had renounced Marxism and turned towards religion. Moreover, the prison experience had brought them into contact and a curious solidarity with some that they themselves had imprisoned.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has produced its two-volume, several-hundred-page official report. Nadia Bishop, Maurice Bishop’s daughter, pronounced her unconditional forgiveness in 2008, and today “most Grenadians confront questions of ethics and forgiveness… in the register of… daily life – for example, as they decide… whether to invite someone differently positioned from themselves to a relative’s wedding.” (p. 265).
It remains to be seen whether the 50 percent of Grenadians under the age of 30, which Puri terms the “postmemory generation” will someday want to recover this history – which forms no part of their formal secondary school curriculum – and, if so, what they will make of it.
The final chapter, “Straits” brings Puri as close as she will come to a summary and a direct personal statement:
“As an outsider and a latecomer to Grenada, I grasp the burden of October 19 only partially… through imagination and analogy, through distant solidarities and close friendships. From those positions I have tried to look at the range of ways in which Grenadian and Caribbean people have remembered the Revolution and mourn. I am inspired by those who have found ways for their memory and sorrows to deliver them to action, to lead them toward Grenada rather than away from it… To both recognize one’s responsibility and not be paralyzed by it: that is one of several straits the Left has to navigate in relation to Grenada.”
Banquet of new perspectives
As a reader with little knowledge of the Caribbean but a passionate personal involvement in the general events of the period, I found this book extraordinary. It is suffused with Puri’s exhaustive knowledge of the island: music, personalities, history, art, literature, traditions, politics, and regional links.
Her writing itself finds a novel terrain where the academic meets the poetic, and she shows a rare ability to interpret the microcosm and find in it the elements that connect us all, returning us again and again to the key events, each time with new depth of understanding.
The book is rich in scholarship, but defies the traditional, neat structures of academic prose, foregoing pat conclusions in favor of asking questions, myriads of questions:
“How do people live with deep disagreements?” How do they remember, cherish and guard against the past?” (p. 24) “Given the might and antagonism of global capitalism and Rightist forces, how can the Left democratize its internal processes, civil society, and the state?”(p. 256)
There were innumerable points where I found myself pondering some new image, idea or question raised. And even as I write this review, every time I near the “send” button, some new thought or perspective floats into my mind and I feel the need to reexamine the text to be sure I have reflected it accurately.
In terms of difficulties, I missed the faces and colors of present-day Grenada, whose towns and cities we are left to imagine. Similarly, I missed the sights and voices of Grenada’s younger generations who are mentioned but never quoted.
On a lesser note, at points the detailed scrutiny of artwork and literature seems excessive and mildly frustrating, as we can see only small black and white reproductions of the visuals, we will never hear the calypsos, and the novels are not easily available outside the region.
These, however, are trifling concerns. Generally, I take my hat off to Shalini Puri for her knowledge of the island and its people, her principled concern for facts vs. truth, and her willingness to pose the hard questions.
If you are looking for a book that offers pat answers and reinforces traditional left ideas, with the usual cast of heroes and villains, this is not for you. If, however, you are still plagued, as I am, with images of joyous revolutionary movements followed by tragedy, and the question: “What did they leave behind?” this book will offer you a banquet of new perspectives to ponder.