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March 13, 1979: Another memorable occasion

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The great social upheavals sweeping through the Middle East have had to take second place over the past week to the cataclysmic tragedies affecting the people of Japan. It is not easy to have to deal with an earthquake of the magnitude of the one which struck that country last week, but when in its wake there comes an enormous destructive tsunami, then one can say truly that fortune seems to have deserted the Japanese people.{{more}} However, that is not the end of the story, and the nuclear catastrophe now threatening Japan has far-reaching implications for nuclear power and the environment. Our thoughts and fervent prayers are with the people of Japan.

Even though overshadowed by the developments in the Japanese archipelago, the struggle continues – in Libya, Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen and several other countries in the Middle East. It has given rise to all sorts of band-waggoning on the part of politicians in the Caribbean and far beyond, loosely talking about “revolution” and trying to garb themselves in revolutionary credentials. With so much talk of “revolution” and “People’s Power” in the air, it is perhaps appropriate to recall a real Revolution that took place virtually on our shores some 32 years ago.

It was on March 13, 1979, that the English-speaking Caribbean woke up in a daze to learn that a Caribbean government had been forcibly removed from power. Grenada was where this bit of history was made, with the Maurice Bishop-led New Jewel Movement declaring that the Grenadian Prime Minister Sir Eric Gairy had been overthrown in his absence and that a People’s Revolutionary Government (PRG) had been established. Parliament was dissolved. These shocking developments followed a bitter struggle for democracy in Grenada, with Gairy employing all sorts of methods, more foul than fair, to try and preserve his increasingly repressive rule. Appeals to CARICOM, the Commonwealth and other international bodies about Gairy’s abuse of democracy and his cynical use of thugs called the “Mongoose Gang” to terrorize the Grenadian people went unheeded. Bishop’s own father was one of the Grenadian patriots to lose their lives struggling against Gairy’s terror.

It all came to a head on that fateful March 13. Luckily such was the revulsion and loathing of Gairy’s rule that the overthrow took place without blood being spilt, and the Governor General of the time, Sir Paul Scoon, the official representative of Queen Elizabeth II, agreed to stay on as Head of State, even though Parliamentary democracy was ended with the dissolution of Parliament. Bishop and the PRG had solemnly promised to hold new elections within a year, but never honoured this promise, an omission for which the Grenadian people were to pay dearly.

When the revolutionary epoch in Grenada’s history is remembered by all sorts of quack historians, the events that are mentioned first are those relating to arrests, torture, the alleged lack of democracy and, of course, the bloodbaths of October 1983. Even those whose knowledge of Grenada is limited to the tales of reactionary authors and CIA manuscripts have tried to write “books” about a subject about which they have little or no understanding.

The tragic misdeeds of the Grenadian revolutionaries in 1983 are acts for which history is unlikely to absolve them. But that is not the sole lesson of Grenada 1979-1983. Lest we forget, Grenada, in 1979, was in the same position as Dominica and St. Vincent and the Grenadines where air travel was concerned. You had to fly over mountains and through valleys in order to land at Pearl’s Airport in the north-east. That airport was regularly traversed by domestic animals, a potential hazard. It was Maurice Bishop and the PRG which, with the generous help of the Government and people of Cuba, built the international airport at Pont Salines, now rightly renamed the Maurice Bishop International Airport. Cuba is now doing a similar favour for the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, making the biggest single contribution to civil aviation development in our region.

There were other major successes in Revolutionary Grenada as well. Education was one such, a major literacy campaign having been launched under the PRG’s Centre for Popular Education. In addition, Grenadian young people were afforded all kinds of opportunities for studying abroad, which gave their country a strong intellectual and professional base. Not much is said of this by people who could only see Grenada through cold-war spectacles. The developments in revolutionary Grenada also galvanised strong manifestations of regional co-operation, with Caribbean professionals of all kinds of skills going to Grenada and placing them at the service of the Grenadian people.

Another forgotten but nevertheless vital area of progress was in regard to agro-processing. For the first time, a regional small-island government took this seriously, establishing processing plants to utilise the produce of Grenadian farmers and fishermen. Do the detractors know that Grenada was using fish species like shark, ballahoo and flying fish to make by-products, demonstrating what is possible if one is thinking of indigenous development.

Those chapters in Grenadian and Caribbean history cannot be swept under the carpet. Yes, we must never forget the negatives, or ignore the tragedies, but there are many positives which emerged and which hold lessons for us in our struggle for socio-economic development. March 13, 1979, was indeed a momentous day in Caribbean history.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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