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The Grenada 17 : The Last Prisoners of the Cold War
Posted: Monday, June 7, 2004

By Rich Gibson

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 trial.

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 friends.

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 son."

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 cell.

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 interesting question).

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 possible.

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 super-power.

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. Reproduced from by concent of the author.

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