Frontlines

A Caribbean coup: revolt in reggae time

William Lowther April 9 1979
Frontlines

A Caribbean coup: revolt in reggae time

William Lowther April 9 1979

A Caribbean coup: revolt in reggae time

Frontlines

William Lowther

They interrupted the coup on the spice island of Grenada last month to announce that a lady had lost her red leather purse, and would anyone finding it please contact the police. Maurice Bishop, 35-year-old leader of the “people’s army,” had just finished his first major speech to the first mass rally of the new regime. His second-incommand was about to be introduced when, from amid the bristle of bearded guerrillas and guns, a little man in a blue hat took over the microphone. The lady who had lost her purse was “in distress,” he said.

It’s been that sort of uprising—considerate. As quixotic as it is exotic, the overthrow of the mystic Sir Eric Gairy and his much feared “Mongoose Gang” has been more Emily Post than Madame La Farge.

A small revolution in Grenada. Only three killed, and one of those by mistake. The hundreds of Canadians on holiday on the island hardly noticed it happening. One couple from Montreal complained to a diplomat sent by Ottawa that the music in their hotel had stopped for a day. Others, mostly from the Toronto area, carried on with beach

parties near the houses they own or rent on the north end of the island. “There were some kids running about with guns, but that was all,” said Jim Chandler, a semi-retired roofing dealer from Scarborough.

The new leader, Bishop, is of medium height, full bearded and handsome. Speaking to a reporter at the mass rally, attended by about 15,000 a week to the day after the March 13 take-over, he wanted to stress behavior above anything else. In his lilting, attractive Caribbean accent, Bishop said: “We will be judged by how we treat people. We must be gentle, we must forgive, we must show that we value human rights and freedom above everything else.”

But however gently his New Jewel Movement behaves, the Caribbean may never be quite the same again. Governments in Trinidad, Dominica, Antigua, Barbados and other islands see the events as a direct warning (Maclean's, April 2). Opposition parties— particularly those with left-wing leanings—have suddenly realized that a coup is a possibility, that they needn’t necessarily rely on the ballot box. “I never saw a revolution explode on ground that had not already been mined,” said an adviser to the Barbados government, adding more cautiously: “But we do have a fear that one falling domino could start a chain reaction.” Thus the accession through force of arms of the New Jewel Movement (Jewel is an acronym for Joint Endeavor for Welfare, Education and Liberation) may have far-reaching significance. But at this stage, it is the improbable circumstances rather than

the potential impact that fascinates observers.

The fine, friendly people of Grenada are so “laid-back” that even during the take-over, revolutionaries had to play reggae music on the radio to get them to listen. News, propaganda and curfew orders were squeezed between heavybeat tunes with names like Don't Sell Your Sister. Even then, most people were tuned to Trinidad radio for coverage of a cricket match between Australia and the West Indies. No one even considered playing solemn military airs, Soviet-style, and even if they had it would not have been possible. “We don’t have that kind of record on Grenada,” a member of the new government said. “We like a good beat.”

Nevertheless, acting with stealth and speed when the tyrannical Sir Eric was at the United Nations in New York— where he usually lectures the delegates on the dangers of flying saucers—a small band of his opponents, no more than 50 at first, staged an armed revolt at dawn on March 13. Their weapons, ancient revolvers that look as though they might have been used at the OK Corral, .303s from the last world war and a motley selection of old shotguns, were put to such good effect that Bishop was in control by noon. By then it was clear that popular sentiment was very much with him, and nearly every teenager on the island signed up for the fun.

Many were armed only with sticks or machetes and were not called upon to strike in anger. But eventually most were issued with some rickety fire-arm. They wandered the streets, patrolling

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the beaches, peering through banana trees—keeping guard lest Gairy should stage a comeback with mercenary forces. One boy was guarding a street corner in Grenville—second largest town in Grenada—with a BBgun.

Incredibly, though the rebels firebombed the army barracks and some police units fired barrages before surrender, only three people were killed and about a dozen injured in the entire fracas. About 100 political prisoners were taken, and all appear to have been treated with the utmost consideration. Remarkably, the youths with the guns have stayed for the most part as calm as choirboys.

But if the revolt is Goody Two-Shoes when compared to the likes of Cuba, it was a long time coming and, ’in the opinion of many in the know, completely justified. After waiting 10 days to make sure Bishop could keep control, Canada, Britain and the United States—all powers in the Caribbean— officially accepted the new government

and have noted with pleasure that it intends to hold open elections within six months.

Grenada, the most southerly of the Windward Islands, is about twice the size of Toronto and is located 150 miles southwest of Barbados, 100 miles north of Venezuela. Its centre is a verdant rain forest; the southern coast has white, sandy beaches. Its rich, dark volcanic soil and high rainfall make it perfect for growing bananas and spices. Indeed, Bishop now controls a sizable chunk of the world market in nutmeg and mace. Cacao, cinnamon, ginger and cloves are also grown. Many tourists believe it to be the most beautiful island in the Caribbean and it is particularly popular with Canadians. Despite its potential, however, Grenada has serious economic problems. It’s estimated that 40 per cent of the 105,000 population is unemployed.

Columbus landed at Grenada in 1498 during his third voyage to the New World. It was inhabited then by warlike Indians known as the Caribs. (Referring to their eating habits, other tribes in the area called them “cannibals,” a word that eventually found its way into the English language.) For more than 200 years the British and the French fought over Grenada—the French eventually solved the Carib problem by killing them all—but eventually it fell to the Commonwealth, gaining full independence only five years ago, on Feb. 7,1974.

Gairy, 57, ran the island for 18 years. The descendant of an African slave, he began life as a poor cane cutter but developed a charismatic speaking style and formed a labor and political movement during the early 1950s. As a prime minister he was a good Rosicrucian. He boasted that he had a “telephone line to God” and was guided by visions he received in the night. Sometimes he would

dress in long white flowing robes and his aides would say he was an angel. A commit-

ted UFO buff, he tried to persuade the United Nations to open an international commission on flying saucers.

But if the prime minister was ethereal in policy, he was earthy in practice. Wealthy tourists and visiting journalists would be invited to a night club he owned in the capital, St. George’s. Gairy would serve champagne galore and as his guests left they would be presented with a huge bill. He is also alleged to have had his fingers in the tax revenues and certainly lived—and continues to live in exile in New York— in grand style.

Organized opposition under Bishop, a British-trained lawyer, first began to grow about six years ago. As it developed Gairy formed his Mongoose Gang, named after the fierce little, rat-like creature that is common in Grenada. Gairy handpicked its members out of jail and they became his equivalent of Haiti’s “Ton Ton Macoute.” During one political demonstration the Mongoose Gang shot and killed Bishop’s father. Later its members “arrested” Bishop himself and shaved his head with a piece of broken bottle.

Just before independence, a Britishorganized investigating commission publicly associated Gairy and his gang with these last two crimes. The prime minister went on radio to say: “The opposition has referred to my recruiting criminals in a reserve police force. To this I shall not say ‘yea’ or ‘nay.’ Does it not take steel to cut steel? I have recruited some of the toughest and roughest red-necks.”

On one occasion Simon Daniel, a member of Bishop’s political party, was stopped in the street by the Mongoose Gang. “Take him, dogs,” ordered their leader. Three men known as “Bloody Bar,” “Crow Bag” and “Shine” beat Daniel nearly unconscious with axe handles. Stories of this kind are well documented and common. The British commission made many recommendations, including the disbanding of the Mongoose Gang, but Gairy ignored the findings.

There is a well-told story that two years ago, when the Organization of American States was meeting in Grenada, a man who had been critical of the Gairy regime at a party one night was found floating in a swimming pool the next day. Police said he had been drunk, fell into the pool and drowned. But a journalist who was on the island at the

time said last month that he spoke with a pathologist at the morgue where the dead man’s body was taken. When asked if he had drowned, the doctor replied: “If he did the water must have gotten into his lungs through the bullet holes in his back.”

It is alleged, though impossible to ascertain at this point, that elections were rigged and most of the people simply accepted their lot. This attitude was reflected some days after the coup in a popular column, written in dialect in the local newspaper, The Torchlight: “Well me dear chilleren we hases coop. Better ah tell you how ah did feel wen de radio bust de news. De people who lead de coop is mens and womens who ah eat and drink wid awreddy. Some ah de people who now in custody ah eat and drink wid awreddy. So you see, dis is ah Grenada ting once again. De village cricket match must go on as usual. Forget de past. Live for tomorrow.”

The history of the coup is difficult to piece together, not just because those concerned are still confused but also because they are eager to hide some of the finer points. But from discussions with officials in Washington, Barbados and Grenada, it seems likely that some form of vague planning began late last year. According to U.S. treasury officials who were tapping telephones in a suspected gun-running case, someone from Bishop’s home contacted a group of Grenadians now living in Washington. Soon after that the Grenadians began illegally buying guns from a source near the U.S. capital. They stored them in barrels of car grease and shipped them to other contacts in Grenada.

Three such barrels actually arrived on the island and, as a result, two or three automatic weapons and a number of modern small arms fell into the hands of the New Jewel Movement. A member of the movement has explained they needed the guns not for a coup but as extra protection against the Mongoose Gang, as they were planning a huge drive to encourage youths to register for voting. Not surprisingly, they feared the gang would try to stop them.

On March 1 the U.S. informed Gairy that guns were being illegally run into his island. On March 10, the top leadership of the New Jewel Movement met to organize its drive on voter registration. Later that day a spy, planted inside Gairy’s trusted circle, reported that the prime minister was planning to have them all arrested and murdered by the Mongoose Gang. Gairy was leaving the country for the UN on March 12 and, according to the spy, wanted the massacre to take place while he was out of the country.

Gairy flew from Grenada to Barbados where he met with the American ambassador and two U.S. investigators on their way to look into the gunrunning. He talked with them at the airport and then flew on to New York.

Meanwhile, Bishop and his senior aides, believing they were about to be killed, went into hiding. On the night of March 12 they met in secret and decided their only hope was an immediate coup. Just before dawn on March 13, Bishop and about 50 of his supporters gathered near the True Blue headquarters of Grenada’s defence force. Almost all of the soldiers—it is not clear how many there were—gave up immediately, then helped the leaders of the coup burn down the barracks with fire bombs.

Picking up support every minute as the word spread, the forces moved to the radio station and took that over without much of a struggle. They broadcast that they were in control and urged all police stations to surrender. Again, nearly every station followed orders. A few resisted and shots were fired. Two police officers were killed and one revolutionary, shot by mistake, choked to death while being taken to hospital.

As this was going on the movement, now armed with the defence force weapons, arrested most of Gairy’s cabinet members as they slept. Next on the list was the Mongoose Gang. Most gang members, hearing the radio broadcasts, sped out of St. George’s by car, heading for the north end of the island and yachts in which to escape. An unknown

number and at least one cabinet member did escape, but the gang leaders were arrested at road blocks.

Gairy received the news by telephone at about 7 a.m. on March 13, in his suite at the New York Hilton. Later that day, as he sipped champagne and ate dry toast, he told a reporter: “One would feel that the British who gave us the constitution have an obligation to come in and do something about the coup. And the Americans who lead in the human rights appeal, I don’t think they should sit by and allow this atrocity to go on. And I feel the long relationship that we have had with the Canadian government and people should mean something. They can’t sit down and do nothing.” But no one came to Sir Eric’s aid and a few days later he officially resigned as prime minister.

When revolutionary forces raided Gairy’s home, called “Mount Royal,” they reported finding hundreds of pounds of flour and sugar plus 1,000 pounds of yams. One soldier also told the local newspaper that he stumbled on the room where the mystic Gaiçy received his “visions.” It contained, he said, a human skeleton and two bottles of blood.

One of the most interesting finds reported by the revolutionary army was three boxes of modern rifles, hidden in the basement of the prison and marked “Medical supplies from Chile.” The guns were not immediately put on public display and observers wondered why, if they really existed, the modern arms were not issued to the army. But there may be a good reason for holding them back. The kid-power forces showed admirable restraint as they kept order during the settling-in of the new regime. But even choirboys, once the novelty of a new situation wears off, can turn nasty (as in the Lord of the Flies). And there were some slight indications, even in the early days, that this was beginning to happen.

An American businessman who owns a house on Grenada reported that before he left the island on March 22, a 10year-old boy had twice stopped him in the street and, backed by older lads with a shotgun, insisted on searching him because “you look suspicious.” The businessman also said that groups of armed youths had marched along one beach where some Americans were sunbathing and stolen towels and suntan lotion.

They hurt no one. But that sort of misuse of power could be a warning sign, and Bishop’s major battle may be yet to come. It’s easy to hand out guns to teen-agers; it’s not so easy getting them back.