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Grenada's Democracy Thrives - 2004-03-16


In late October 1983, U.S. forces invaded the island of Grenada, overturning a Marxist government with close ties to Castro’s Cuba and plans for expansion elsewhere in the Caribbean. Granted Independence only in 1974, Grenada had little experience in self-government and was thrown into turmoil. But in the two decades since, it has developed a vibrant democracy with two closely competing political parties and a vigilant press. VOA’s Ed Warner, who visited the island shortly after the U.S. intervention, recently returned and has this report.

There is much to celebrate in Grenada today – a still unspoiled picturesque Caribbean island with a sturdy democratic government and considerable prosperity that attracts many tourists – with the prospects of still more as development proceeds.

Not so long ago there was less to celebrate. In 1979, a charismatic Marxist, Maurice Bishop, seized control of the island and imposed a harsh rule that offered some advantages to the poor. But he ran afoul of a more hard-lining faction that led to his execution on October 19, 1983.

Since this group was in close alliance with Castro’s Cuba and was clearly threatening the peace of the region, the Reagan Administration chose to intervene. After a short intense fight, U.S. troops took control of the island and the Marxist leaders were confined to a prison where they remain to this day.

Despite the turmoil, democracy quickly took root in Grenada. Prime Minister Keith Mitchell, who has been in office close to nine years, says an atmosphere of freedom prevails in the country. Democracy is alive and well.

He cites the progress that has been made under his administration. “I think we have come a long way in building the physical image of the country,” Mr. Mitchell says. “The infrastructure has substantially been improved. The days of lack of water supply and basic services for the people of the country and for the investment potential of the country are gone. We have rebuilt our road network. Our telephone system is second to none in the region. Our electricity is almost there for 99% of the population. I think over all we have set the tone and basis for serious economic takeoffs.”

But since Grenada is a democracy, the opposition New Democratic Party, or NDC, has been making gains and may well win the next election – time for a change.

Even so, the NDC is not expected to differ that much in office. Nazim Burke, an NDC leader and member of parliament, says his party will shift the emphasis from infrastructure to social programs to combat the rising cost of living. He recognizes the need for building more roads and an up-to-date athletic stadium. “But that has been done to the exclusion of economic activity that has the capacity to generate sustainable employment and increase the productive base of the national economy,” Mr. Burke says. “What we have found is that the government has been borrowing large, large sums of money. All of those monies have been placed in some big monuments, big structures, none of which have the capacity to generate income.”

Mr. Burke says Grenada with its natural beauty should negotiate abroad for more hotels that provide jobs while they are being built and then afterwards when they are occupied.

While Grenadians go about their business under a benevolent government, the prisoners on Richmond Hill above the port of St George’s are still an issue, and so are the events that put them there. People do not talk a lot about the episode, says Mr. Burke, but it is not forgotten. “Of course, it has left a big scar on the psyche of the Grenadian people,” he says. “I think it is something that no one expected, no one anticipated and no one likes. What happened really is that people became impatient and intolerant. In times like those when discussions and arguments get heated, nobody steps back and says, ‘Let’s take a second look and see how we can resolve it.’”

The 1979 revolution, as it is called, that brought Mr. Bishop to power, was not all bad, says Carla-Rae Briggs, editor of the weekly newspaper, Grenadian Informer. It made advances in health and education while suppressing dissent and imprisoning some 2000 people.

Now the oppressors are in prison themselves, serving a life sentence. Amnesty International has called for their release, but Editor Briggs doubts the populace would stand for it. Too many were killed in the violence, and the perpetrators have shown no remorse. “Many lives were lost and lost brutally on the 19th of October 1983,” she says. “We have heard many different versions of the story about what really happened. If the 17 at Richmond Hill came forward during their trial or even in the years since and said, 'Look, things got out of hand. We are sorry that all these people had to die,' I think that the Grenada people would be able to forgive them and move on.”

Forgiveness is less the issue than having a fair trial, says Leslie Pierre, editor and publisher of the weekly Grenadian Voice. He does not believe the ‘Grenadian 17’ got one and were railroaded on the basis of flimsy evidence.

He speaks with some objectivity since he was imprisoned for over two years by the Bishop government for the offense of launching a newspaper. “When I invited people to join me in starting this newspaper, I said to them: ‘This newspaper is going to be shut down, but I want to demonstrate to people who are beginning to accommodate what they were doing, that this government is not about freedom and democracy. They are going to shut down this paper, and somebody is going to go to prison for it. So I will be the one to go to prison.’”

As it turned out, he did not expect so long a sentence, but the thought of deliverance sustained him: “I always relaxed in my cell confident that America would have to come in. Maurice Bishop used to say that Grenada is not in America’s back yard. I agreed with him 100%. Why? Because I considered that Grenada is in America’s front yard. And they would have been foolish not to find whatever excuse they needed, given the situation in the world at that time, to come in here and put an end to this spread of Communism.”

He and the other political prisoners were freed with the arrival of the Americans. Some have questioned the necessity of the invasion and U.S. motives, he says. And it is true that the Reagan Administration may have exaggerated the danger to American medical students on the island as well as the support of neighboring Caribbean countries.

But Washington knew what it was doing, says Mr. Pierre. “When the end came and the arms and ammunition were found, for the 100,000 souls approximately that we are supposed to have in Grenada, there were twenty bullets for each one of us. These arms and ammunition and also the beginning of the airport at Point Salinas were all part of a plan in my view to export communism to the other islands.”

The Grenada situation was the beginning of the end of Communism in the world, says Leslie Pierre with a touch of local pride. Forget the critics, he adds. Grenadians are as free as they are today largely because Americans came to their rescue.