Commentary: The Grenada Revolution 40 years after: Commemoration, celebration and critique

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Dr Wendy C. Grenade, is a Grenadian who is a Senior Lecturer in Political Science and Head, Department of Government, Sociology, Social Work & Psychology, The University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus, Barbados

By Dr Wendy C Grenade

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way (Charles Dickens [1859], 1988, 7).

This oft-quoted excerpt from Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, provides a historical account of events leading up to and during the French Revolution (1789-1799). “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times” also captures the totality of the complexity that was the Grenada Revolution (1979-83). I must first point out that the making and implosion of the Grenada Revolution created much psychological trauma and pain for many within Grenada and beyond its shores. The pain, in turn, generated silence for decades. Grenadian Professor Merle Collins sums it up in her 2003 poem, ‘Shame Bush’:

Dust doesn’t disappear when you sweep it behind the bed
People stay quiet but all the questions in their head
Is true time could heal and bad times could change people mind
But we have to figure how to talk, leave hurt behind.

Forty years after the advent of the Grenada Revolution is an opportune time for honest reflection and critical analysis. The Grenada Revolution was a confluence of opposing tendencies: promises and possibilities; inherent flaws and contradictions within constraints and limitations. As such, for decades following its demise, there were two dominant schools of thought that either sought to demonise or romanticise it. As Guyanese scholar/activist Professor David Hinds observes:

…Since the demise of the Grenada Revolution, there has been a general avoidance of a comprehensive analysis of its relevance to a proper understanding of postcolonial Caribbean politics and society. Insofar as there has been a discourse on Grenada, it has been confined to shouting matches between supporters of the two sides that squared off in the final months of the revolution. While such an exchange is useful, it never gets beyond emotions and self-serving narratives, which by definition are counterproductive. …In the process, the larger significance of the revolution is either marginalized or erased. The revolution is reduced to an event with little significance to those who lived through it or to the construction of Grenadian and Caribbean history. Yet the events in Grenada from March 1979 to October 1983 deserve more scrutiny, not to determine who were the saints and the devils but to engage something that arose from the bowels of the Caribbean society and has since its demise greatly influenced the region’s political motion (Hinds 2015 Page 213).

Professor Hinds is spot on. A long-range historical gaze suggests that it was a significant critical juncture in the region’s anti-colonial struggle. As is similar throughout the Caribbean, Grenada’s political history evolved through oppression, resistance, and overcoming, in the long search for freedom. The late historian George Brizan in his book Grenada Island of Conflict (1984, 1998) reminded us that “Grenada’s constitutional experience manifested four major characteristics: political inequality of opportunity; external dependence on an imperial centre; no clear outline of a path to development, and the dominance of elitist groups in the economic, social and political life of the country” (Brizan 1998, 350).

Therefore, as was the case with Fedon’s Rebellion of 1795 and Gairy’s social revolution of 1951, the Grenada revolutionaries (1979-83) proclaimed “400 years we shall take it no more!” The Grenada Revolution held out the promise for not just society but a JUST society. It held out hope for a resilient, self-sufficient economy, where citizens worked harder, produced more and built Grenada. It held the possibility for a self-determined people, who defined and presented themselves to the world with dignity – “in Nobody’s backyard,” with the right to choose who their friends were. The revolutionary experience proved that Grenada is a small island with a big history. Consequently, the Grenada Revolution must be commemorated for its historical significance not only to Grenada but to the Caribbean region and the wider world.

Yet, while we must commemorate the historical significance of that period, the Grenada Revolution must be critiqued, given its inherent flaws, glaring contradictions, and fatal errors. March 13, 1979, cannot be ‘celebrated’ outside of an interrogation of October 1983, since both historical moments are inextricably linked.

Why do I say so? First, while the PRG was relatively successful in introducing social and economic programmes, politically it did not seek to transform the authoritarian state it inherited from Gairy and the colonial establishment that preceded the Gairy regime. In fact, the coercive arm of the ‘revolutionary’ state, with its mantra of “heavy manners,” would use the said heavy manners to destroy the very revolution the revolutionaries sacrificed for and fought so hard to build. In the same vein, the military arm of the state, while necessary to protect and defend the national sovereignty of the Grenadian state from external aggression (particularly in the context of the Cold War and US hostility to Grenada) instilled a culture of fear within Grenada, and violated citizen sovereignty. Thus, protecting national sovereignty was privileged over the rights and liberties of citizens.

Second, while one can accept that a revolution by definition is intended to break with tradition and create new governance arrangements, the architectural design of the PRG was diametrically opposed to the entrenched norms in Grenadian and Caribbean political culture. As prime minister, Maurice Bishop had legitimacy with the people who accepted the maximum leader as a normal feature of Grenadian political life. However, within the organs of the Marxist/Leninist NJM party, the notion of a maximum leader was heresy. This created a tension between the logic of party discipline, within the small NJM vanguard party, on the one hand, and the natural appeal a charismatic leader has with the masses on the other. Thus, the vanguard party may have been necessary to ensure secrecy in the anti-Gairy struggle. It was its propensity to organize and mobilize that ushered in the revolution and in fact sustained it for four and a half years. Yet, it was the same NJM vanguard party that struck the final blow to the revolution on October 19, 1983.

Third, during the period of the Grenada Revolution, Grenada was a one-party state with insufficient checks and balances. Instructively, the state, government, and party were fused. As such, there were no avenues for conflict resolution. This would prove fatal in the final moments of the revolution.

Fourth, popular democracy through parish and zonal councils aimed to expand democracy. Yet grassroots democracy occurred within a context of censorship, intolerance of dissent, arbitrary detentions and grave human rights violations. This created an increased divide between the PRG and the NJM party, on the one hand, and the masses on the other, many of whom became increasingly disillusioned with the revolution.

Even as we commemorate and critique the Grenada Revolution, I am of the view that the positive accomplishments of the PRG must be celebrated. The baby must never be thrown out with the bath water. That period was a refreshing awakening. Young women and men throughout Grenada, and indeed the Caribbean, sacrificed so much to build Grenada.

The PRG’s comprehensive developmental thrust cannot be denied, specifically its emphasis on: raising levels of social consciousness; building a national ethos that encouraged a sense of community; organizing agrarian reform to benefit small farmers and farm workers; promoting food security through an agro-processing plant, creation of the Marketing and National Importing Board (MNIB); promoting literacy and adult education; fostering child and youth development; enacting legislation to empower women, such as the maternity leave law; constructing low income housing and launching house repair programmes; improving physical infrastructure and in particular the construction of an international airport; providing an environment that encouraged popular democracy through Parish and Zonal Councils, etcetera.

One of the fundamental objectives of the Grenada Revolution was to improve the lives of the Grenadian people within a comprehensive social and human development framework, following a mixed economy approach. For a small developing country to achieve so much in only 4-1/2 years is commendable. I take this opportunity to salute all the workers and leaders/workers who sacrificed during that period.

There was a strong sense of volunteerism, civic responsibility, social consciousness, community pride and a commitment to building an economy and society. There was also regional solidarity as regional workers contributed immensely to building the revolution. Hence, within Grenada and beyond its shores the Grenada Revolution generated hope for an alternative path to development and meaningful independence.

When analysed in its totality, the story of the Grenada Revolution fits neatly into Charles Dickens’ notion of ‘the best of times and the worst of times.’ An important question arises, what lessons can be learnt from the making and implosion of the Grenada Revolution? I will mention a few:

1. Education (formal and popular) must be linked to consciousness-building

2. Women and youth empowerment are drivers for societal transformation

3. A combination of agri-business, fisheries development, and ‘new’ tourism can promote food security and sustainability

4. Infrastructural development creates a positive multiplier effect on the economy and society

5. All things being equal, a mixed economy approach, which involves strategic state planning, cooperatives, and the private sector, can promote sustainable growth

6. The development model must privilege human well-being [and the environment] over markets and profits

7. Popular democracy must allow for dissent, be genuinely inclusive and participatory

8. State-society relations must be guided by constitutionality

9. Military force must never be a substitute for dialogue

10. Dogma and ideology should never replace people’s humanity

11. Checks and balances are crucial ingredients for the viability of the state. There should be clear boundaries between the party, government, and state. Political parties should never usurp the power of the state or infringe on citizen sovereignty

12. Political maturity is a prerequisite for political success

13. Tolerance of the other is imperative for national cohesiveness

14. With time, forgiveness breeds healing and freedom

As Grenada approaches 50 years as an independent state, may we embrace the positive attributes of the Grenada Revolution and learn the lessons from its failures, in the continuous search for freedom, justice, and equality of opportunity.

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