[R-G] The Grenada 17 - The Last Prisoners of the Cold War are Black
info at cinox.demon.co.uk
Sun Jun 6 01:13:21 MDT 2004
June 5 / 6, 2004
The Grenada 17
The Last Prisoners of the Cold War are Black
On June 28, 2004, the Organization of Eastern Carribean States High Court
will hear a Grenadian government appeal seeking to set aside a lower court
ruling in favor of the Grenada 17. The lower court ruling would, in essence,
overturn the convictions of the Grenada 17 on murder and manslaughter
counts, stemming from unjust trials nearly twenty years ago. The Grenadian
government, staggering from a series of corruption charges that have roiled
the little island nation off the coast of Venezuela, is vigorously pursuing
a legal strategy that would keep the prisoners in jail_well beyond the
length of their initial sentences-on the grounds that the judiciary should
not be able to negate the executive branch. The lower court has declared the
convictions, "null and void."
The invasion of Grenada, more than 20 years ago, presaged many of the events
that blowback on the US today: unilateral warfare, official deceit about the
motives for war, a massive military moving against an imagined foe, stifling
the press, leaders proclaiming their guidance from God, denials of human and
civil rights, systematic torture and subsequent cover-ups-and a hero who
refused to go along. Many of the players in the Bush administration who
promise perpetual war today cut their teeth on the invasion of Grenada. It
is more than worthwhile to review the events that lead to the upcoming
On March 13, 1979 a revolution took place in Grenada, the first in an
African_Caribbean country, the first in the English_speaking world. The
people who made up the revolutionary cadre were young, average age around
27. The uppermost leadership was predominantly middle class, educated
abroad. They called themselves the New Jewel Movement (NJM). The revolution,
or coup as some called it, was popular, replacing a mad dictator named Eric
Gairy who spent much of the tiny country's (pop 100,000) resources
investigating the reason Grenada was a favorite landing point for flying
saucers. When I interviewed Gairy in 1996, he told me he was immortal, God.
He died in 1997.
Gairy had modeled his rule on a mix of Haitian Papa Doc Duvalier's thuggery,
populist appeals to peasant- workers and small_land_holders, and claims to
mystical-sexual powers, a powerful constituency in Grenada. Gairy had been a
teacher and union leader, was instrumental in winning Grenada's independence
from Great Britain. Gairy was entrancing but he brooked no opposition and
shared with few. His Mongoose gang was implicated in several murders, served
as the stick to Gairy's charm. The educated classes, and many others, were
restive. The NJM "revo" of 1979 took 24 hours, the culmination of years of
unarmed struggle. It was no mistake that but two people were killed in the
revolution. Grenada's size means that everyone knows nearly everyone. Each
death is a personal and collective tragedy. The NJM leadership never fit the
bloodthirsty caricature later stamped on them by U.S. officials.
At the time of the uprising, Eric Gairy was in the US visiting with Nazi war
criminal (and United Nations Secretary General ) Kurt Waldheim. Gairy simply
didn't return. Maurice Bishop, Jacqueline Creft, Bernard and Phyllis Coard,
were among the key New Jewel leaders. Bishop and Coard had been childhood
The NJM leadership were socialists, though their socialism was
eclectic__hardly the doctrinaire image the U.S. later created. They borrowed
judiciously and won investments from any government they could, from the
British to the USSR to Iraq and Cuba (which provided mostly doctors,
construction specialists, nurses, and educators). The exacting
Brandeis-educated Bernard Coard, leading the financial sector, was
recognized throughout the Caribbean as a rare, honest, economist.
They began a mass literacy project (led by Paulo Freire), quickly improved
medical care, began to set up processing plants for fish and spices, and
started building a jet_port. The country had a tiny landing strip only able
to land prop planes, a problem for an economy tied up with tourist
interests. The plan, in general, was to magnify national economic
development by expanding existing forms of production (agriculture, small
industries, tourism, etc.) and by creating a new class of technologically
competent workers who might use their skills to create a role for Grenada in
the information_economy as well. The far-sighted educational programs had a
critical role in that project.
To claim that the NJM rule was a model of egalitarian democracy, as much of
the chic left did at the time, would be off_point. It wasn't. While
international tourist-socialists danced during carnival in the beautiful
houses allotted to revo leaders, democracy and equality went on the back
burner in favor of national economic development. The party leadership
became privileged in terms of decision_making power and the distribution of
goods: the shipwreck of most socialist movements. Women cadre were often
doing the work (as well as the home work). Some men issued orders and took
advantage of prestige. The island was rife with rumors about the dissolute
behavior of some party leaders, especially charismatic Maurice Bishop,
though in some ways his populist reputation was enhanced. The NJM arrested
people and held them without charge. A few citizens were killed under
circumstances which were at best questionable.
But New Jewel under terrific pressure. The US quickly moved to crush the
revo, made tourism nearly impossible for U.S. citizens. It is fairly clear
that the CIA made several attempts to murder key leaders.
Pressed externally, NJM grew more isolated from the people. Eager volunteers
at early literacy classes later found themselves ordered to attend by youths
with small arms. Rather than reach out to expand its initial popularity, the
party turned inward. The leadership tried to rely on a correct analysis and
precise orders rather than to build a popular base. With a dwindling
activist base, the party's leaders, especially women, doubled their own work
time, exhausting themselves. Even though there was no question that Bishop
would win elections, the NJM leaders refused to hold them. The NJM top
central committee remained a very exclusive bunch. In 1982 and 1983, sharp
disagreements began to emerge within the entire organization. Within four
years, by 1983, the NJM was in real trouble.
The central committee passed motions blaming the people for the crises in
the economy. In 1983, the whole party voted overwhelmingly to reduce
Bishop's role and elevate Coard to an equal spot, though the entire party,
and Coard, knew he would never be as popular as the charismatic Bishop, and
could never rule without him. There were many reasons for the move, one of
the more important being Bishop's lack of personal discipline, called
"waffling". The shift to shared leadership was made in the context of a
revolution already in crisis. Bishop agreed to the plan, but expressed
concern that his work was being repudiated, that this might be a vote of no
confidence. A veritable parade of party members, in a 15_hour meeting,
assured him sincerely that this was not true.
Bishop accepted the joint command. He left Grenada for Eastern Europe with a
small group of cadres. On his return trip, Bishop held an unscheduled
meeting in Cuba with Fidel Castro, who considered the young leader as "a
On October 12, 1983, the day after his return, Bishop initiated a rumor to
be circulated by his bodyguard that Coard was planning to kill him. In
Grenada such a rumor can circulate throughout the country in less than a
day-and can be deadly. A similar rumor, that Eric Gairy intended to kill
Bishop and others, preceded the initial NJM revolution in 1979.
Bishop denied he started the 1983 rumor.
This set in motion a series of events that finished off the revo. The
assembled NJM party witnessed a meeting in which Bishop was exposed as
having caused the rumor. Even so, the party members also all knew that
Bishop was the key to whatever credibility the party still had among the
people. They also knew the U.S. was openly threatening the government. The
US had staged widely publicized invasion exercises, "Amber and the
Ambergines," making its intentions clear. By a wide majority party vote,
Bishop and Coard were both ordered to their homes, Bishop under arrest.
Negotiations began to overhaul the way the party was functioning.
On 19 October 1983, a mob of thousands led by people who had traveled to
Cuba with Bishop marched past armed personnel carriers (APC's) lined up in
front of his home, freed "We Leader" Bishop, and (under curious banners like
"We Love the US") began to move to the town square. No one in the APC's
moved to stop the crowd.
As the crowd moved to Bishop's house, a Cuban military outfit arrived at the
downtown Fort Rupert (now Ft George). They had not reported in days and were
turned away by the commander on duty from the NJM. In the town square, where
rallies were traditionally held, microphones were set up for Bishop to speak
to the people. Bishop could have easily mobilized nearly the entire
population of the island to come to the square to support him-and that
probably would have been that.
But now led by Bishop and his friends, the crowd turned and marched on a
nearby fort where arms and TNT were stored. Bishop demanded that the
commander of the fort turn over his weapons. He did, and was locked in a
At this point, things become murky. An award winning Grenadian journalist,
Alastair Hughes, famous in the region for his resistance to the NJM and his
courage, saw the crowd move to the fort and bolted home, rather than cover
the news. Bishop moved his cadre to seize the radio and telephone centers,
as had the NJM in overturning Gairy a few years earlier. From another fort
on a mountain about two miles away, Peoples Revolutionary Army APC's were
ordered to quiet the mob.
I interviewed people who were on the APC's and many people who watched what
followed. The soldiers on the APC's were, for the most part, hardly crack
troops. They were mainly youths who had enlisted to get the money to buy
shoes for their families. One had deserted out of loneliness and been
brought back the previous day. They rode on top of the carriers, in full
view. As they approached the fort, fire came from the mob. The commander of
the first APC, one of the few experienced soldiers in the group and a highly
respected officer, was killed. Discipline appears to have evaporated on all
sides. Fire was returned.
No one knows exactly how many people were killed and wounded. No firm count
was ever made. There are films of people leaping over a wall at the fort
(why a film-maker was so poised with such a powerful camera is an
In any case, Bishop and other top leaders of NJM, including his pregnant
companion Jackie Creft, were killed- after they had surely surrendered. The
remaining leadership of NJM imposed a curfew on the island. In part because
important documents taken from Grenada during the invasion remain classified
in the U.S., no thorough-going investigation of this day's events has been
Shortly afterward, on October 23 1983, 241 US troops were killed, blown up
in their barracks in Lebanon by a truck bomb.
US President Ronald Reagan took to the TV, announcing he had discovered,
through satellite photos, that the Cubans were building a secret
Soviet_Cuban military airstrip in Grenada-a direct threat to US security.
Actually tourists were frequently taken to the construction site at the
airport-a widely publicized symbol of Grenadian pride. US students from St.
George's Medical school jogged by Cuban and Grenadian construction workers
each day on the airstrip. The main financial support for the airport came
not from the <U.S.S.R>. nor from Cuba, but from Margaret Thatcher's Britain.
Reagan declared the US medical students to be in grave danger from the
crisis in Grenada, said that the NJM was a threat to all regional security.
He got the organization of Caribbean nations to back him_with a big payoff
to those who went along-- and invaded a country the size of Kalamazoo with a
massive military force, under a precedent_ setting news blackout. The US had
practiced the invasion of Grenada as early as 1981.
Though the medical students were radioing out that they were in no
danger-except from the possibility of an invasion-- US rangers "saved" them,
after U.S. jets bombed a mental hospital.
Remarkably, it is clear that Fidel Castro was forewarned of the invasion and
that Cuban troops tasked to stop the US landing at the new airport never
fired their weapons at the Rangers making parachute drops on the
runway_until the Rangers attacked them. The Cubans had told the Grenadian
military that they would defend the airport area.
The invasion of Grenada (popular among most Grenadian people sickened by the
long collapse of the NJM) was complete in a week. It was, however, denounced
as illegal by the U.N. Security Council, by Margaret Thatcher and the
British government, and by a myriad of US congress_people.
The international press, including US reporters, was cordoned off from
Grenada during the invasion. US ships intercepted reporters who rented boats
trying to get to the island, arresting them and detaining them until after
the invasion was complete.
The US, however, quickly recaptured its post-Lebanon image as a military
Seventeen NJM leaders were charged with the murder of Bishop, Jacqueline
Creft, and others, though most of them were nowhere near the incident, could
not have participated, like the commander of the fort who was locked in a
basement Fort Rupert cell.
The NJM leaders were tortured and signed transparently bogus confessions.
According to affidavits filed by former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark,
and Amnesty International, the NJM leaders were denied attorneys. They were
tried by jurors who chanted "guilty" at them during jury selection, in
trails led by judges hand_picked and paid by the U.S. They were unable to
make a defense in the kangaroo atmosphere. Their lawyers were subjected to
death threats and some fled. Key witnesses, like a bodyguard who was present
when Bishop created and ordered the death threat rumor, were denied the
right to testify. Fourteen of the NJM members were sentenced to death. In
1991, after an international outcry, the sentences were commuted to life.
Typically in the Caribbean, a life sentence amounts to around 15 years.
The three remaining prisoners, low-ranking soldiers, were sentenced on
several counts of manslaughter. On appeal, their sentences were reduced to
fifteen years. With their time now served, the Grenadian government still
refuses to release them, the prime minister saying that the judiciary has no
right to override the government-or a possible vote of the people.
In prison, the Grenada 17 were systematically abused by guards and others
for eight years, according to statements made to me be a former prison
warden and several guards. Abuse was especially horrible for the lone woman,
Phyllis Coard, who was held in near_total isolation for years simply because
few women are jailed in Grenada. In 1991, after their children had been
introduced to the fellow who was to hang them from a prison courtyard
gallows, the Grenada 17 sentences were commuted to life.
Prison Commissioner Winston Courtney was pivotal to halting the torture.
Courtney had himself been held in Richmond Hill jail, imprisoned by the
leadership of the NJM without charge for more than a year. During that
period, Courtney's son was killed under questionable circumstances. He had
reason to believe that the NJM was involved. During the latter days of the
NJM's term of power, Courtney was expelled from the island. He returned to
be the warden of the prison in the early 90's, holding the prisoners who
once held him. Courtney immediately moved to stop the abuse, to create a
disciplined yet humane prison that emphasized rehabilitation. He worked 18
hour days to overcome the habits of Richmond Hill, eventually sacrificing
his health and eyesight. When asked why he did this, Courtney said, "I am an
ethical man and if I do not do this, I am nothing."
The New Jewel leaders are still serving time in a prison built in the
nineteenth century. The last prisoners of the cold war are black. Their
health is rapidly fading. Despite immense obstacles created by prison
officials over the years, the NJM prisoners are conducting one of the most
successful literacy campaigns in the country. Less than two in ten of the
program' grads return to the Richmond Hill jail.
As of October 2004, the NJM prisoners, will have served 21 years. Phyllis
Coard was released in 2000 to seek cancer treatment abroad, following an
international campaign on her behalf. She is still expected to return to the
jail following treatment.
I filed a Freedom of Information suit demanding documents which were seized
by the US and kept out of the trial. The US military commandeered tons of
documents in Grenada immediately following the invasion. The documents were
sifted and some of them later appeared in a book called the "Grenada
Documents," edited by Michael Ledeen, now an Iraq war hawk who calls for the
invasion of Iran. US intelligence agencies denied my request for more
documents. I sued.
The suit came to court in Detroit on November 10th, 1997, after delays of
more than one year. In October, 1998, Judge Hood gave the U.S. government
thirty days to give me the documents. To date, the US has released a ream of
blacked_out material, some of it indicating that the US clearly interfered
in the trial of the Grenada prisoners-and paid the trial judges. However,
the US insists that the remaining documents were all returned to Grenada.
The Grenada government denies ever receiving the material.
In October 2003 Amnesty International has issued a detailed report,
demonstrating their conclusion that the Grenada 17 were denied due process
in their trial: "the trial was manifestly and fundamentally unfair." The
selection of both judges and the jury were tainted with prejudice. Documents
that might have contradicted key prosecution evidence were denied the
defendants. Instead, prison guards forcibly took materials from the
prisoners that they had prepared for their defense. Defendants were not
allowed to present key witnesses whose testimony would have undermined the
testimony of the sole prosecution witness, Cletus St. Paul, one of Bishop's
bodyguards, who claimed he overheard Coard and others ordering Bishop's
liquidation. Errol George, also a Bishop bodyguard, was not allowed to say
that he was right next to St. Paul during the time in question, and heard
nothing of the sort.
In 2002 I interviewed Grenada's ambassador to the US, asking him why his
government is so determined to keep the Grenada 17 in jail. He replied that
he, and the nation's current leader, Keith Mitchell, believe there will be
riots if the Grenada 17 are set free. The possibility of serious civil
strife in Grenada, about anything but the corruption allegations aimed at
the Mitchell regime, are actually quite negligible, as leaders of the
opposition party and the country's leading paper, the Voice, tell me.
I spent 1996 in Grenada interviewing many of the jailed NJM leaders. To say
they are innocent of everything is not the case. To say they are innocent of
the charges brought against them is. Serious mistakes were made by the New
Jewel leadership. The prisoners have issued extensive, indeed insightful,
apologies to that effect, taking responsibility for the crisis of the
revolution, but not for the murders they did not commit. Their continued
imprisonment is a mysterious yet great wrong that needs to be righted. The
truth of the Grenada revo, and its destruction, needs to be known.
Rich Gibson is a professor of Education at San Diego State University. He
can be reached at: rgibson at pipeline.com
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