United States soldiers with prisoners in Grenada: 1983.
By Rufus Tyler
“There was a rebel village five clicks down the road. Word came down from top brass: make it disappear. We…we didn’t know any better. We were…we were kids. I watched myself pick up the flamethrower…I just…went…off.” - SNL Introduction to Puppetry skit, illustrating popular culture's impression of the 1983 invasion of Grenada.
It's often considered a forgotten, but righteous, war by the soldiers who took part in it. At the same time, it seems to have traumatised a lot of them. Grenada veterans have a lot in common with Vietnam vets.
Carib Indians inhabited Grenada when Christopher Columbus discovered the island in 1498, but it remained uncolonized for more than a century. The French settled in Grenada in the 17th century, established sugar estates, and imported large numbers of African slaves. Britain took the island in 1762 and vigorously expanded sugar production. In the 19th century, cacao eventually surpassed sugar as the main export crop; in the 20th century, nutmeg became the leading export. In 1967, Britain gave Grenada autonomy over its internal affairs. Full independence was attained in 1974 making Grenada one of the smallest independent countries in the Western Hemisphere. Grenada was seized by a Marxist military council on 19 October 1983. Six days later the island was invaded by US forces and those of six other Caribbean nations, which quickly captured the ringleaders and their hundreds of Cuban advisers.
In 1967 Grenada was granted self-rule. By the early 1970s, class tensions were rising. In an effort to cut across these, the ruling class pushed for outright independence, which was achieved in 1974. Up until this point two parties, the conservative National Party and the left-leaning Labour Party dominated politics.
The Eric Gairy-led Grenada United Labour Party had created the “Mongoose Gang”, so-called because it was originally meant to take care of a mongoose pest problem on the island. It turned into a paramilitary organisation, supplied with weapons and training by Chile's Pinochet, it was used to intimidate, and if necessary kill opposition. Officially, Mongoose Gang members were called Special Reserve Police, or Volunteer Constables.
Thanks to the Mongoose Gang Gairy won the 1973 elections, when independence from Britain was granted in '74 he became the first prime minister.
In 1976, a new group, the New Jewel Movement, a marxist organisation lead by a lawyer called Maurice Bishop [pictured balow], partnered up with the National Party for that year's elections. Bishop's father had been killed by the Mongoose Gang. The Labour Party won, but the results were disputed, mostly because of the Mongoose Gang's activities. Civil unrest broke out on the streets, discontent continued to rise.
In 1979, a rumour circulated that Gairy would use the Gang to eliminate leaders of the New Jewel Movement while he was out of the country. When Gairy was in the US addressing the UN, the New Jewel Movement took power through a coup, establishing the People's Revolutionary Government. It banned all other parties and suspended the constitution. Bishop was popular because he granted women and workers rights and improved the healthcare system. He kept the same Governor-General and Grenada remained in the Commonwealth but he aligned the country with the Soviet Union and Cuba.
These two countries, plus a couple of others like East Germany and North Korea, provided foreign aid to the impoverished country.
In 1983 a faction within the New Jewel Movement, lead by Deputy Prime Minister Bernard Coard, demanded that Bishop share power with them. He refused and was placed under house arrest. The Governor-General, Paul Scoon, asked the US and other Caribbean nations for help so he too was placed under house arrest.
Protests broke out and Bishop managed to escape but was ultimately captured and executed. The head of the army formed a new government that declared a four day, 24-hour curfew. Originally it was said that this was a shoot on sight curfew.
Eugenia Charles, the conservative prime minister of Dominica and Chair of the Organisation of East Caribbean States asked her organisation and the US for help in removing the military government. The curfew was used as a pretext for the invasion. Much propaganda used the plight of about 1,000 American medical students on the island. They were portrayed as hostages that needed to be rescued. Together with the threat presented by the new airport, this was the stated reason for “intervening” in Grenada.
Pro-capitalist sources used the rescue of American medical students as the pretext to invade Grenada. These sources never mention why the students were there or what they were doing. The same sources portray the Cuban presence as a sneaky, underhanded, covert invasion – the Cubans were soldiers posing as construction workers and medical staff. These Cubans were, according to right-wingers, including Reagan himself, a threat to US national security – Soviet agents biding their time, waiting for an opportunity to destroy America.
In reality, the vast majority of Cubans were civilians. While there were a few military advisors most were construction workers. In Latin America most armies are conscript armies, typically, when boys turn 18 they have to do “National Service”, most serve two years in the army. Some, usually the brighter or more athletic, will join the more prestigious Air Force or Navy. Bourgeois kids have their “National Service” deferred because of either study or marriage, then they age out and end up not serving at all. Militant left-wingers and pacifists sign up early, while still in high school, and serve three or four years part-time in civil positions – doing volunteer work (like say, forest rangers or admin work for a government department, for example). The point is that just because a Latino has military training it does not make him a soldier. The Cuban construction workers were in this situation. Other Cubans present were medical workers, administrators educators, and translators. A few were military advisors.
The construction workers were involved in upgrading island infrastructure, the main project was a 10,000-foot long runway for an airport that would allow big, heavy transport planes to bring supplies into the country. Grenada was, and still is, underdeveloped, in need of schools, hospitals and industry to improve the needs of the locals. The new airport was the key to this.
Reagan portrayed the new airport as a place for Soviet planes to refuel. The implication was that from there they would bomb the US.
Operation Urgent Fury, the American code name for the invasion of Grenada, was a kneejerk reaction to wider world events. It was a small set piece in the Cold War. American forces had been attacked in the Middle East. Military top brass expected to retaliate there: they had drawn up plans to attack Beirut, where peacekeeper barracks were bombed on October 23, 1983, killing 307 people; and had contingency plans to attack Lybia, suspected of planning, financing and backing the bombing. They were ill-prepared to go to a small island in the Caribbean, famously lacking military maps of Grenada, having to make do with outdated tourist maps that came up short when it came to pertinent data like elevation, obstacles, key locations and infrastructure, et cetera.
Fidel Castro criticised the coup that removed Bishop but maintained that remaining behind to help Grenada repel the US invasion was the right one. Cuba, he said, was placed in a complex and difficult position.
“Under these conditions we, under no circumstances, could abandon the country. If imperialism really intended to attack Grenada, our duty was to remain there. To withdraw at that moment would have been dishonourable and could have stimulated the aggression, now in Grenada and tomorrow in Cuba”
“The US government despised Grenada and it hated Bishop. Bishop was not an extremist, although yes, he was a true revolutionary, conscientious and honest. Never could we disagree with his intelligent and realistic policies” - Fidel Castro
7600 US military personnel plus some 350-odd troops from six Caribbean countries took part in the operation, the most important contributors were Barbados and Jamaica. This far outnumbered the Grenadian forces and their military advisors which included people from Cuba, the Soviet Union and East Germany, maybe some 2,000 soldiers in total. The local forces had no air support and virtually no anti-aircraft weapons and no modern ones. The American forces consisted of Navy SEALS, Marines, Army Rangers and Delta Force, all elite units which included many paratroopers. The invasion was over in 4 days. 45 Grenadians, 25 Cubans and 19 Americans died.
The invasion was popular in the US but faced backlash internationally, Britain was especially sore because Grenada was a Commonwealth realm, part of their sphere of influence. Reagan personally apologised to Thatcher and said that because of its urgency, by the time the invasion began it was too late to ask for British input. The invasion was widely considered illegal under international law.
Some facts about Grenada
Grenada is located in the Caribbean, between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, north of Trinidad and Tobago. It is the southernmost of the lesser Antilles, about 160 Km North of Venezuela.
The total land area is 344 sq km, roughly twice the size of Washington, DC, making it the 11th smallest country in the world. The climate is tropical; tempered by northeast trade winds. The terrain is volcanic in origin with central mountains, the highest point is Mount Saint Catherine at 840 m. Natural resources include timber and tropical fruit. Tourism is the biggest earner; Grenada is the world's second-biggest producer of nutmeg (after Indonesia), sometimes it is called the Island of Spice. The US is the main trading partner, followed by nearby Caribbean nations. Japan and China are important sources of imports, too. Approximately 1/3 of the 111,724-strong population live in Saint George's, the capital, most other people live along the coast. The population is overwhelming of African descent (some 82.4%). 86% or so are some kind of Christian. English is the official language, Grenadian French Creole is also spoken there. The country's called Gwenad in this language.
The legal system is Common Law, based on the English model. It is a Commonwealth realm with a parliamentary democracy.(Bourgeois democracy). The national holiday is Independence Day, celebrated on the seventh of February. It has been “independent” since 1974. There is universal suffrage at eighteen, the Queen's the head of state, represented by the Governor-General. The Prime Minister's the head of government.
The median age is 31.5, life expectancy is 74.5. Although it's considered a middle-income country 38% of people live below the local poverty line; wealth is concentrated among the urban elite. There are 3.5 hospital beds per 1,000 people - for comparison Italy has about 7/1,000.
Grenada lies on the edge of the hurricane belt, hurricane season is between June and September. Deforestation causing habitat destruction and species loss; coastal erosion and contamination; pollution and sedimentation; inadequate solid waste management are some of the most pressing environmental problems.
Operation Urgent Fury (documentary)- Invasion of Grenada: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LTJEI4yeVSY
US Invasion of Grenada | 3 Minute History: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QiqCX2efipc
US invasion of Grenada | Operation urgent Fury | TV Eye | 1983: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-LMKyx67nQc
CIA Comic: http://www.ep.tc/grenada/
Grenada: lessons from a Cold War conflict: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Baw9wiayaWQ
CIA World Factbook 2018-2019
CIA World Factbook 2015
NBC News Special Reports: October 25, 1983: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jl9nTxdJUY0