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20 Years Later, Grenada Opinion Still Divided Over U.S. Military Invasion

Times Staff Writer

Armed revolution never goes over well with hedonistic sun-seekers or the rum-punch crowd, and it wasn’t long after the 1979 Marxist coup here that visitors began taking their sandals, cocktail shakers and sailboats elsewhere.

“They would harass everybody,” American Peggy Lambert, then a medical student, recalls of the gun-toting killjoys who had taken to boarding yachts putting into Grenada’s scenic harbors to search for pornography or other evidence of social exploitation.

“After four years of this government, the boats had left. Tourists weren’t coming because they’d brought this grim face to the island,” Lambert said of the Marxists.

On Oct. 25, 1983, their dour grip on this country was broken by a U.S. military invasion.

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Leaders of the repressive regime -- who had just viciously ousted their more moderate colleagues -- were swiftly captured, tried and convicted. People cheered their U.S. liberators, then set to work rebuilding their country into a monument to the potential of private enterprise and free people.

As U.S. troops wrestle with an intervention in Iraq, the success of the Grenada invasion 20 years ago might be seen as inspiring evidence of long-term payoffs for determined campaigns to put a troubled world in order.

But even here, where military action was a comparative cakewalk once troops got past 800 Cuban construction workers, deep divisions persist over the value of that Cold War-era intervention.

Lambert, now an administrator at St. George’s University, where she and several hundred other Americans were studying medicine at the time of the invasion, believes that it was best for the country. “They were gotten rid of forever. There were no more guys around with AK-47s,” she says of the Grenada she returned to after the short-lived U.S. occupation, which she opposed at the time. “When you look at it in the cold light of history, it was a good thing.”

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Although most Grenadians agree they are better off as a result of the American action, they tend to see the storming of their tropical shores not as a rescue mission to evacuate students from the U.S. medical school, as the Pentagon claimed, but as an aggressive strike to thwart the spread of communism in the Caribbean.

“The students got onto the planes carrying their tennis rackets over their shoulders. They were looking very relaxed,” recalls Kecia Lowe, a Grenadian physician who was in high school when U.S. planes and warships arrived to evacuate the 600 Americans, then went on to topple the fractious communist leaders.

Like many Grenadians, Lowe argues that the mysteries still shrouding the events of that long-ago October nurture a rift between those who thought the invasion was necessary and those, like her, who believe their country was used as a Cold War battlefield.

Grenadians know that hard-line Marxist rivals within the New Jewel Movement of Prime Minister Maurice Bishop deposed him and that he and his allies were killed six days later. But grave doubts remain about who ordered and conducted the executions. The bodies disappeared in the melee and have never been recovered.

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“Somebody knows where they are,” insists Foreign Minister Elvin Nimrod, who fears there will never be national closure on the confrontation until the remains are found and properly buried. “Some say the U.S. soldiers took the bodies away.”

U.S. officials have long denied any knowledge of the whereabouts of the slain leader’s remains and point to his political foes as a better source for explanation. Chief among the knowledgeable suspects is Bernard Coard, the strident Marxist who proclaimed himself prime minister after the party leadership ousted Bishop. Accused of ordering his charismatic rival’s execution, Coard was convicted with 16 other coup plotters in 1986 and sentenced to death -- a term commuted to life five years later.

From the Richmond Hill Prison overlooking the scene of his crimes, Coard denies any knowledge of the victims’ whereabouts and describes as “total foolishness” the version of events presented at his trial on charges of treason and murder. As fellow inmates herded goats and beheaded chickens on the farm surrounding his cellblock, Coard intimated that the executions were the work of two Grenadian quislings of the CIA.

“We were all clear on one thing: There was no way the revolution could survive without Maurice as leader,” insists Coard, a youthful 59 and unbowed by two decades of incarceration. “With Maurice’s death, the revolution died.”

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The U.S. forces were widely welcomed when they arrived to evacuate the students and halt the deadly political infighting. But many express disappointment with the level of U.S. aid and investment that followed.

Grenadians had expected easier access to the U.S. after their nation became the site of the proxy superpower confrontation, says Paul Scoon, who as governor-general represented the queen of England here for 14 years, spanning British colonial rule, 1974 independence, Bishop’s coup five years later and the 1983 invasion. On the other hand, he argues, leaving Grenada to stand on its own feet was in the nation’s best interest, spurring private enterprise instead of fostering dependence.

“Since the intervention, the country has developed tremendously. More Grenadians are coming back here from abroad to retire,” he says of a diaspora thought to exceed this nation’s 100,000 population. “I don’t think the people of Grenada were ever really yearning for socialism.”

For Grenadians too young to know the Cold War implications at the time, the U.S. invasion was more frolicking than frightful.

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“Oh, it was fun! Especially for kids in the village where nothing ever happened. There were planes flying overhead and ships on the horizon, and we didn’t have to go to school for days,” Prudence Greenidge, now in public relations, reminisces gleefully about the drama she experienced at age 7.

Taxi driver Mitch Charles likewise remembers the invasion as great excitement for a 14-year-old, and cause for spurning parental admonishments to stay far from the fracas. Like most Grenadians who came of age after Bishop’s revolution was scuttled, he subscribes to the official view that the invasion was justified to rid Grenada of a leadership likely to push living standards down to the level of communist Cuba.

Grenada’s U.S. occupiers gave Cuban collaborators the bum’s rush after the invasion and severed the island’s diplomatic ties with the entire Soviet bloc to shield the tiny country from further communist recruitment.

But in a development those now in power acknowledge was ironic, Cuba and Grenada reestablished diplomatic relations in 1992, and current Prime Minister Keith Mitchell and Cuban President Fidel Castro have developed a warm friendship.

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Cuba’s leading role in the construction of Point Salinas Airport was viewed 20 years ago as a military buildup to funnel weapons to communist revolutionaries in Central America. The 800-strong building force, many of its members armed and flanked by Coard’s soldiers, put up fierce enough resistance to cost the lives of 19 Americans and 59 Cubans. Forty-five Grenadians died in the October violence.

No such fears of ideological contagion linger over more recent collaborations, such as the Cuban-built hospital and the dozens of Cuban doctors engaged in public medicine throughout the country. Sixteen university professors are also teaching Spanish, engineering and irrigation skills to help Grenada.

Twenty years on, some here note that there was almost as much naysaying and second-guessing over Grenada’s invasion at the time as there is about the U.S. effort in Iraq today.

For a presentation being prepared for 20th anniversary observances of the invasion, Calum Macpherson, the university’s director of research, has gathered newsmagazine covers that posed the same questions editors are asking about Iraq. “America at War” and “Counting the Costs,” blared two Newsweek issues after the Grenada invasion. Time magazine demanded then, as many media do now, to know if intervention was “Worth the Price?”

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C.V. Rao, a university professor 20 years ago and now dean of students, says his experience of the Grenada conflict provides him with a yardstick to measure the value and legitimacy of other U.S. military incursions.

“The key to post-invasion economic development here was the gratitude of the Grenadian people,” he said. “I hope we will see that happen in Iraq, but that is so much bigger and more difficult.”


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