Saturday, January 11, 2014

Grenada & The Art Of Being A Comrade

Jeff Mackler authors a heartfelt and informative article in last month's Socialist Action. October 25th marked the 30th anniversary of the US invasion of Grenada, and also the 30th anniversary of Mr. Mackler's resignation from the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). The two events are loosely connected.

Grenada, a small Caribbean island with a population of about 100,000, became an independent country in 1974. The first prime minister was Eric Mathew Gairy, whom I suppose one could describe as a psychopathic lunatic. At his disposal there served a murderous gang of thugs known as the Mongoose Gang. According to Mackler, Mr. Gairy was passionately interested in the occult--ESP, mind reading, flying saucers, etc. The prime minister's "demons extended to literally banning the construction of left turn lanes on the few roads that surrounded this volcanic mountain nation."

Indeed, he chose a superstitious date, March 13, 1979, to leave the island for New York to attend a conference on the occult. He left instructions for the Mongoose Gang to murder the rabble-rouser, Maurice Bishop. Bishop got word of the plot in advance, and staged a preemptive, nearly bloodless coup overthrowing Gairy. Good riddance.

The problem was that Mr. Bishop fancied his coup to be a socialist revolution, and allied himself with Cuba. He gussied up the rhetoric using words like liberation, Black Power, and participatory democracy. Much of this was a fraud, as Mr. Mackler's article demonstrates in his discussion of participatory democracy.

But Mr. Mackler buys Bishop's revolutionary gobbledygook hook, line and sinker. 
Bishop’s followers, perhaps 200 activists at most, but accompanied by massive community support across the island, successfully seized control of all local police stations. ... 
Bishop’s statement made clear the revolution’s objectives: “People of Grenada, this revolution is for work, for food, for decent housing and health services, and for a bright future for our children and great grand-children. The benefits of the revolution will be given to everyone regardless of political opinion or which political party they support.
Then follows a litany of how Bishop's New Jewel Movement improved the living standard of average Grenadians, most of which were funded by Cuba. New fishing boats were purchased, refrigeration facilities were added, the Cubans sent their legendary medical teams to serve the poor, and new roads were built (presumably with left-turn lanes). Indeed, "[i]n four short years, unemployment was reduced from 49 percent to 14.2 percent."

A socialist paradise was aborning, and my Trotskyist friends' hearts all warmed to the challenge. The SWP published a book entitled Maurice Bishop Speaks. No doubt Mr. Bishop was a charismatic guy. It may even be that he was as well-intentioned as Mr. Mackler claims. Mr. Mackler, after all, met the man, and describes how Bishop had more than a passing acquaintance with the SWP.

But even Mr. Mackler admits that all was not well in socialist La-La land. It's one thing to import Cuban charity, but another to build a sustainable economy.
All of these critical gains notwithstanding, almost everyone understood that Grenada, essentially a huge mountain with poor soil conditions and surrounded by a single road, was currently incapable of putting into effect more dramatic and long lasting improvements. The PRG [Provisional Revolutionary Government] leadership moved to resolve this dilemma by embarking on the construction of a major international airport, able to provide access to the world’s modern airplanes. With significant loans from Canada and the allocation of vast human resources, again from revolutionary Cuba, Grenadian and Cuban workers began construction on this project aimed at promoting tourism as the major source of income in the years to come. Grenada’s antiquated Pearl Airport was capable of landing only small turboprop planes with a capacity of some 30-50 people.
Mr. Mackler's larger point is correct--tourism had to be the leading source of foreign exchange (even though Grenada is among the world's leading nutmeg producers). It's ironic, then, that Mr. Mackler reports that the PRG significantly raised taxes on the big hotels--certainly counterproductive. That alone would have led to its downfall had not other events intervened.

The airport became the bone of contention. The Reagan administration argued it was for military use, built at the behest of the Cubans and their Soviet masters. The Grenadians said it was to bring in tourists more efficiently. Of course both were true--the Grenadians were undoubtedly sincere in their desire for an improved airport. Even today it is named the Maurice Bishop International Airport--probably the single, lasting legacy of the so-called revolution.

Socialists can't do tourism very well. Tourism is (usually) a luxury good, i.e., the tourists have more money and leisure than local residents. Thus it depends on inequality. In the 1990s the Cubans tried to isolate tourism into enclaves so that the locals wouldn't have to interact with them, but that rather destroys the experience. The charm of tourism is local food, shopping, entertainment, and (in the case of Cuba) access to sex. Even now, Cuba does a poor job for tourists, ranking behind the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. In 2011 the island hosted 2.7 million visitors. By comparison, in the same year New York City (worse weather; far more expensive) had 10.6 million international arrivals.

So of course it was all going to fall apart. A tourism-dependent, socialist island, putting itself outside the world economy had no place to go except poverty. Mr. Gairy may have been bad, but Mr. Bishop, for all his good intentions and fine rhetoric, was surely a whole lot worse. The end came in two steps. First, there was the falling out amongst thieves--Bernard Coard, another member of the Central Committee, launched his own coup and assassinated Mr. Bishop. And shortly thereafter, on October 25th, 1983, nominally in response to the airport, the US invaded Grenada and put paid to the whole experiment.

Mr. Mackler describes it this way.
The Grenadian Revolution ended that day [of Coard's coup]. The U.S. invasion that followed a few days later was met with virtually no resistance except for the several hundred Cuban airport workers. Breaking a formal agreement that had been hurriedly negotiated between the Cuban government and the Reagan administration, affirming that the Cubans would not resist the invasion and would act only in self defense, the Rangers nevertheless opened fire on the Cubans, who alone courageously resisted as well as they could the massive power of the imperialist forces. ... 
...The island was “conquered” by the invaders in a matter of hours as Grenada’s humiliated and demoralized masses were rendered helpless and disarmed.
Just as Mr. Mackler assumed that Grenadians originally supported the "revolution," he now assumes they assented to its demise only because of "demoralization." Both of these are inferences unjustified by facts. Almost certainly, Grenadians wanted to lead normal lives as part of the global economy. The Gairy regime was awful, the Bishop government was worse, and the Coard coup was intolerable. So no wonder they watched/welcomed the Americans.

And it looks like their good judgement has paid off. I am not an expert on Grenadian politics, but from the Wikipedia page it seems they've had a succession of prime ministers, all the result of peaceful elections. People are voted in, and then the bums are voted out. That's the way it should be. Further, Grenada is economically fairly well off. By most measures it's doing better than Cuba. For a tiny country at the mercy of the global economy, this is not a bad result.

Mr. Mackler's personal story of leaving the SWP is also interesting, but I'm out of space. So read the whole thing. It's worth your time.

Further Reading:

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