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October – Still more questions than answers

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I am neither an historian nor a politician. In my perception, those in the former category, at least the genuine ones, tend to pursue the recording of facts over analysis and interpretation of events, while for the latter, the manipulation of facts, and misinterpretation of them, seem to have been made into a fine art. How then to handle and understand history?{{more}} Whatever the approach, the relentless pursuit of the ever elusive “truth”, and constant re-examination of past events, especially in light of new evidence, must be central to the everlasting search for understanding our past.

This week, I want to take that pursuit into one of the most momentous and psychologically most tortuous periods of Caribbean history. No, not the October 1935 uprising of the working people in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the anniversary of which will be next Tuesday, October 21. Rather, I invite my readers to take a trip south with me, and relive the tragedy which befell our neighbouring island of Grenada in October 1983, which had a major impact on the course of Caribbean political, economic and social development.

Up until then, I had considered that the worst week of my life had been experienced in the month of May 1973. It was on May 11, 1973, when Vincentians received the seismic shock of the news of the fatal shooting of Attorney General Cecil Rawle. For those accustomed to the almost daily murders, assassinations and the like in Caribbean society, not to speak of the horrors of terrorist and counter-terrorist actions worldwide, the killing of one person might seem relatively minor, but we must understand the context. SVG was, and still largely is, a rather peaceful country. Not without its share of political conflict, but not one where gunning down of persons, public officials especially, was a feature of life. So you can only imagine the shock, the fear, when not only was Mr. Rawle shot dead, but a prominent supermarket owner was shot in a botched robbery attempt the same night.

I still vividly recall my late father hurrying home on receiving the news that night and literally closing shutters, so horrified was he and confused about its implications. No call-in on radio stations then to fuel speculation as to what was happening, so it was a night of “what the hell is going on?” Next morning, Saturday, I was in for a rude shock. Still not cognisant of the realities of the night before, I remember being in the market among hushed whispers when suddenly, a gentleman known to me for his hostility towards the progressive ideas of black nationalism, then espousd by many of my generation, blurted out: “Yo’ wan’ know wha’ happen? Is dem dey kill Rawle”, he said looking in my direction. You can only imagine my shock and horror. I didn’t even know what had taken place, but there was I, virtually accused of complicity in a murder. Fortunately, all that is water under the bridge now, but for years that incident and the week that followed remained etched in my memory as WORST EVER WEEK.

It took ten years for May 11th to lose that doubtful distinction in my life. Fast forward to October 1983. The Grenada Revolution, enthusiastically welcomed and supported by many like me was gradually emerging out of the years of hostility from many of its neighbours. True, it had not yet been able to put the “Westminster-oriented” people of the Caribbean at rest by the holding of “democratic” elections, and arbitrary arrest and detention were major human rights concerns. But even its detractors were beginning to concede that Grenada was indeed progressing and there was grudging respect, if not admiration, for its achievements. The outstanding Grenadian leader, Maurice Bishop, was by then approaching hero status in the Caribbean, and way beyond as well. Grenada´s first-ever international airport at Point Salines was nearing completion, thanks to selfless Cuban solidarity and that country provided an impetus for progressive and Caribbean nationalist change throughout the region.

Then, BOOM! Seemingly out of the blue, first there began to surface rumours of leadership divisions in the revolutionary Government. The vehement denials of these were eagerly seized upon by the naive among us to denounce “imperialist propaganda”. But the rumours didn’t go away. They led to the report that Maurice Bishop himself was under house arrest. I recall my sister calling me from work concerned that her colleagues were repeating this and requesting of me, as someone close to the Grenada process, “the truth”. Poor naive Renwick! Bap! Phone call to Grenada. Strong denial. Triumphant call to my sister. “Dey lie”. But the rumour still wouldn’t go away. By the end of the week, it was painfully clear that Maurice was indeed incarcerated. It is not easy when your whole concept of truth and reality begins to evaporate in front of you. How to handle this? There must be an explanation. But what?

Why not go to the fountain? One of my political colleagues was departing for a youth meeting in Cuba, via Grenada. He was instructed to contact those in charge in Grenada, the infamous “Coard group”, and to let them know that YULIMO (our political organisation in SVG at the time), was sending me on a fact-finding mission to Grenada and that we were requesting to meet both factions and the incarcerated Maurice Bishop. Not knowing that the flood waters were raging under the bridge, we still believed that we could help in mediation. So, the Sunday morning of that fateful week of Oct. 19, I flew off to Grenada, young man with a mission. Illusion or delusion? The answer was not long in coming. At Pearl’s airport in Grenada, I was met by some of my Grenadian “comrades” in the security forces. A different type of welcome this. A polite explanation that as a journalist, (the listed occupation on my passport), I could not be allowed into Grenada and would have to catch the first flight out. “WHAT? Call someone in authority. They are expecting me”. “Sorry, you’ll have to go”.

So my only deportation came not from any of the Caribbean governments that I had so vociferously branded as “reactionary” and “oppressive” but from my own “progressive, revolutionary” Grenadian comrades. The irony is that a couple weeks later I was attacked in an article in the STAR newspaper, making reference to my “flying visit” to Grenada and alleging that I must have gone to assist in planning the killing of Maurice Bishop. The rest is now tragi-history. Maurice and a number of his colleagues were brutally slain. The door was thrown wide open to the US invaders, in spite of all our protestations, trying to hold the line as principle. That week completely put the events of May 1973 in the pale where my personal worst memoirs are concerned. I even had a repeat of the post-Rawle embarrassment mentioned above, when the morning after the slaughter at the Fort, I was publicly accosted with the words, “So, all yo’ kill Maurice, now!”

Twenty-five years have passed since those events which turned the tide of Caribbean history. Yet the truth is still to emerge. The Government of Grenada has followed the example of South Africa in establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But if the truth has not emerged, how could there be genuine reconciliation? If there is no genuine contrition, how could there be forgiveness? The events of Grenada 1983 are too vital to a concrete understanding of the Caribbean development process to remain shrouded in secrecy. What was the source or sources of the contradictions which plunged Grenada into a suicidal bloodpath? Was it mere power-hunger or were there fundamental errors in revolutionary theory and practice? Did it have its roots in the slighting of the traditional political, social and cultural practices of our people? What lessons can we learn about militarisation, about seeking alternative paths to develoment? I can go on and on. More questions than answers. It is vital that there be a full frank and honest delving into the facts, not for the purposes of recrimination, but so that we learn from the process and so avoid such tragic repetition.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.