Gleaner column, September 20, 2017. Photos above from Social and Economic Studies, Vol. 62: 3&4, September 2013, Special issue on Grenada
On Friday, September 15, an emotion-wrought, politically fraught event took place at the University of the West Indies. The occasion was the launch of a book by Bernard Coard, former Deputy Prime Minister of Grenada, called The Grenada Revolution: What Really Happened. Coard, along with 17 others spent 26 years in prison for the assassination of Prime Minister Maurice Bishop and others in 1983. It was the most sensational, traumatic political event of the Anglophone Caribbean and as the evening wore on, it became clear that the gaping wound is far from healed, although 34 years have now passed between then and now.
Put on by the Department of Government, the launch featured speakers Heather Ricketts, Head of the Department of Sociology, Social Work and Psychology, herself a Grenadian, Professor Rupert Lewis, Clinton Hutton and Bernard Coard himself.
Ricketts opened by describing the book. “In the 340 plus pages divided into 3 parts, Bernard recounts the highs and the lows of the revolution. The book is captivating, detailed, filled with intrigue, providing graphic and factual recollections in a methodical manner, typical Bernard.”
“In spite of how one may feel about his account,” Ricketts continued, “Bernard must be commended for his bravery in putting his credibility on the line. He lays bare his soul, and his conscience, acknowledging his shortcomings, even short-sightedness. For me there is a lot of new information which may be due to a PTSD affliction which I confess rendered many of us unable to read anything written about the revolution. The book is invaluable for providing answers to questions Grenadians and others have long wanted closure on but knowing Grenada it might be a case of reopening old wounds and the start of new rumours. I hope not.”
The unraveling of the Grenada Revolution and the PRG, the People’s Revolutionary Government, had much to do with the unraveling of a friendship cemented in childhood between Maurice Bishop and Bernard Coard. Much was made of Coard’s efficiency as a manager and administrator. According to Ricketts a participant in a 2013 focus group she conducted described his experience of working under Coard in glowing terms:
“I was the accounting officer in the Ministry of Works; our budgetary control was so effective and efficient that we knew at each point in time how much money we had to spend and what we were spending it for, there was tight control in the whole process. I recall us having meetings upon meetings to discuss the works of the government and ministries and we had to make sure we kept within our budgetary allocations. And if at all we had to go outside of it we had to give a reasonable explanation as to why we had to do it. It was a period that taught us, me in particular, how to manage finances extremely well. Coard was meticulous.”
But the very qualities that made him an effective administrator worked against him too. As Ricketts noted: “Bernard has a sharp mind and a photographic memory and he isn’t given to diplomacy. He ruffled some and he made some enemies within the party. His strong chairmanship of the organizing committee of the party along with his tight fiscal management incurred the ire of some.”
“It is a sad tale of confidence and friendship betrayed,” said Ricketts. “To give some insight into how caustic the split had become another participant in the focus group discussion in 2013 said that she heard that in Gouave at the time “If you only say ‘co-‘ make sure it’s ‘coco’ you saying and not Coard.”
Rupert Lewis summarized the personality differences between the two: “Bishop was the political leader with strong ties to the Grenadian people, Coard was the economist, Minister of Finance, he was administratively innovative, and had gained the reputation of running the economy well. But he was also a very effective organizer and behind the scenes person, very disciplined and hard on others who did not live up to their responsibilities. Bishop was loved and Coard respected.”
The childhood friendship had blossomed, Rupert Lewis said, with the synergies between Bishop and Coard that had developed during the the anti-Gairy years of bloody struggle in the 1970s and continued during the revolution. “The relationship between these two boyhood friends was crucial.”
However in 1983 the New Jewel Movement, the party both men belonged to proposed joint leadership of the Party in a bid to move away from the Westminster model of government. This move Lewis thinks contained the seeds of the disintegration that would follow, setting off a series of misunderstandings, misconceptions and mistakes that would lead the revolution to implode.
“The party membership accepted joint leadership at the level of the party, not of the government, and this worked to an extent but the trust between Bishop and Coard was hanging on a thread,” said Lewis. The security apparatuses around both men and the intelligence apparatuses of the main international players in Grenada were also spinning rumors that developed into deadly threats and escalated into violence. The stakes were high around the leadership issue so the joint leadership proposal was read as an attempt to remove Bishop and install Coard. There was no doubt that Bishop was the people’s leader not Coard.”
Lurking in the wings was the Cold War, with the United States and Reagan on one side and the Soviet Union and Cuba on the other. The Cubans were very invested in Grenada and Castro opposed the joint leadership proposal instead pushing for Bishop to remain maximum leader but this generated paranoia in the New Jewel Movement. The paranoia wasn’t helped by Castro’s obvious affection for Bishop and dislike of Coard. Coard resented Cuban involvement in the political life of the revolution.
“In my view,” said Lewis, “on two counts joint leadership was not workable from the standpoint of the traditions of West Indian politics. First in the Westminster system, the power of the Prime Minister is based on his being elected to parliament and being leader of the party. Secondly the political nature of the Grenadian population, so well described in Archie Singham’s classic study, The Hero and the Crowd, was definitely in favor of one leader at a time, not joint leadership.”
“This memoir must have been an arduous journey of reconstruction, painful reliving and reflection,” continued Lewis. “The book ends with extraordinarily sharp self-criticism by the author. He takes full responsibility for the events of October 8, 1983. My regret however, is that Maurice Bishop is not alive to tell his story. This is Bernard’s story. Maurice’s story has to be told.”
The full story of the book launch will require a Part 2 which I hope to provide next week.