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Reliving a Caribbean Revolution

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March is certainly a most eventful month in Caribbean history. Vincentians have already dubbed it “National Heroes and Heritage Month,” replete with the epic Callinago defence of national territory, the birth month of such historical greats as George Mc Intosh and Hugh Mulzac, as well as the month in which the anti-colonial stalwart Ebenezer Joshua passed away. For us, it is a month to remember and treasure.{{more}}

If March 14th, 1795 marked the beginning of the closure of one era in our country’s history, then March 13th, 1979 witnessed the beginning of a so-far unique occurrence in the history of the English-speaking Caribbean. In our southerly neighbour of Grenada, that date marked the first and up-to-now only successful Revolution in the Eastern Caribbean. Prior to that, only Haiti’s stupendous victory over Napoleon’s army in 1803, leading to its declaration of independence on January 1st, 1804 and the Fidel Castro led Revolution in Cuba 155 years later, were examples of successful revolutions in the Caribbean.

However, armed conflict and overthrow of governments were not unknown to most of Latin America and the larger islands in the Caribbean. For the rest of us, steeped in colonial Westminster-style Parliamentary democracy, the removal of democratically-elected governments, was a no-no. Yet, in this supposed “sea of democracy,” there were, in March 1979, at least two governments in the region which were blatantly riding rough-shod over the will of the people. One of them was the government in Grenada led by the repressive and quixotic Eric Gairy. By March 1979, Gairy’s government was virtually an international pariah and used brutal force, via the notorious “Mongoose Gang” to maintain state power and violate the rights of the Grenadian people.

By March 1979, the contradictions in Grenadian society had reached their zenith. Gairy himself, after stealing the 1976 elections and resorting to murder, including that of Rupert Bishop, father of the man who was to succeed him as Prime Minister, had begun wildly accusing his opponents of trying to overthrow him, while blocking almost every form of legal protest and action. Whilst he was in the United States, the popular forces in Grenada moved in the wee hours of March 13th 1979, and in a bloodless revolt, Gairy’s rule was over. A People’s Revolutionary Government (PRG) headed by the popular barrister and patriot, Maurice Bishop, was declared, receiving broad support throughout Grenada, Carriacou and Petit Martinique.

It was a new situation for Caribbean governments and many, particularly in the smaller islands, like our own, were panic-stricken. Gairy himself had called on the governments of Britain, the United States and Canada for military intervention in Grenada’s internal affairs to restore his undemocratic regime. Fortunately his frantic appeal met with rebuff and one week later the British government recognized the Bishop regime. So too did the governments of Jamaica, Guyana and Barbados, to be followed later by Trinidad and Tobago. Meanwhile throughout the entire Caribbean region, and in the Caribbean diaspora abroad people of all persuasions, save for a backward few, not only welcomed the developments in Grenada, but gave active support.

For SVG and Grenada’s sister-islands, then joined in the West Indies Association States, WISA, (only Dominica and Grenada among the small islands were then independent), Gairy’s overthrow was seen as a frightening development. On Wednesday, March 21st, 1979, at the end of a day-long meeting in St. John’s Antigua, the WISA States (St.Lucia, Dominica, St. Vincent, St.Kitts, Antigua and Montserrat) issued a formal statement of non-recognition of the PRG. Some of these governments, including our own, were very sympathetic to the Gairy’ regime so much so that Gairy’s No.2, Derek Knight, was actually welcomed here in SVG after fleeing Grenada.

Fortunately our people responded warmly and at a mass rally held in the then Market Square, Kingstown, on Friday March 16th, a Resolution was unanimously approved.

  • DECLARING the full support of those gathered “for the new revolutionary government of Grenada.”
  •  CALLING on Commonwealth Caribbean governments and those of Britain, the USA and Canada “to immediately recognize the new government”
  •  LENDING full support to the call of the call of the Grenada government for the extradition of Eric Gairy to stand trial “for his many crimes.”
  •  CONDEMNING (a) all attempts or plans to interfere in the internal affairs of Grenada; and (b) the government of SVG for harbouring Derek Knight.

It was that kind of solidarity and support which was crucial to giving the new government of Grenada the space to govern. Political parties, Parliamentarians, trade unions, civil society organizations, from all over the world rallied in support of what they saw as a “new beginning for the Caribbean.” Such solidarity came from Day 1. On March 14th, one day after the Grenada “Revo,” as it was fondly called, I wrote, on behalf of the then existing organization YULIMO, to the local Deputy British Government Representative, Mr. Ted Lucas, calling on the government of the United Kingdom “as the power with responsibility for the external affairs of St. Vincent and the Grenadines to extend immediate recognition to the new government of Grenada”. The letter expressed our concern about the possibility of foreign military intervention, which we reminded Mr. Lucas “would be a flagrant violation of Grenada’s sovereignty and gross interference in her internal affairs.”

Such was the political climate in the Caribbean 30 years ago, today. These lessons of history must not be forgotten.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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