Saturday, October 19, 2013

Remembering the Grenada affair

(It's now 30 years since the end of the Grenada Revolution and the subsequent US invasion. For the 20th anniversary, I wrote the following essay, which appeared as the “backpage editorial” in Folio Weekly, November 25, 2003, p. 79. The magazine has a print run of 46,000 and is read by 143,500 people in Northeast Florida.)


October 26 [2003] marked the twentieth anniversary of the U.S. military invasion of the Caribbean nation of Grenada, a three-island Caribbean nation composed of Grenada, Carriacou, and Petit Martinique. As a witness to that event, I find it instructive — and disturbing — to reflect on this event in light of what is happening in Iraq today.

The principal rationale for the Grenada invasion or intervention (some Grenadians call it the “intervasion”) was the “rescue” of U.S. citizens who were studying medicine at St. Georges University. Then-president Ronald Reagan expressed fear that these students might be taken hostage or otherwise harmed in the wake of an October 19 coup. The coup brought a disturbing end to Grenada’s mildly socialist 1979 Revolution and installed what appeared to be a more severely left-fascist group of leaders. There were other justifications given for the invasion, centering on the idea that Grenada would become a Caribbean military outpost for the Soviet Union and Cuba.

At the time, I was a graduate student doing doctoral research on Carriacou. The Marines reached Carriacou on Nov. 1, after spending a week on the main island of Grenada. When they found out that I was a US citizen, the first question they asked me was about the location of the “battalion of North Korean soldiers.” Now, Carriacou is a twelve-square-mile island inhabited by several thousand people, nearly all of African descent, living in a society where everyone knows everything that’s going on. The idea of a battalion of Koreans hiding there was simply ludicrous. As we see now with Iraq, strange ideas about the “enemy” are nothing new.

And why was Grenada an “enemy”? The inflated threat that Grenada provided in the Cold War environment of Reagan’s presidency included more than these phantom North Korean troops. The Grenada Revolution focused for the most part on social, educational, and health issues, extending for example free education and health care to residents (with help from Cuban doctors). Perhaps these were underlying annoyances for a government that has never been willing to come fully to grips with the health, education, and welfare of its own people, but the Reagan administration found other things to rant about in public. Reagan claimed that a new airport with a runway capable of handling jet planes could only be intended for military use. In fact, Grenadians had been working for a new airport for years, because the old one was dangerously close to the mountains and could handle only smaller prop planes (meaning that Grenadians going abroad or tourists flying into Grenada nearly always had expensive layovers in Barbados or Trinidad). The Reagan administration was also upset by the Cuban presence, even though the Cuban “force” consisted mostly of teachers, doctors, and middle-aged construction workers helping build the new airport (of the 784 Cubans on the island, about 40 were members of the Cuban armed forces).

It was obvious well before the events of late 1983 that the collapse of Grenada’s social experiment was helped along (to put it charitably) by the behavior of the Carter and Reagan administrations. President Carter refused to provide hurricane relief aid to Grenada in August 1980. And in early 1983 Reagan refused to meet with Prime Minister Bishop, who would later be killed in the coup — a move that certainly enhanced the opposition’s ability to portray Bishop as an ineffective leader.

The full extent of U.S. involvement in Grenada will become apparent as documents become available, as they have for US operations in Guatemala, Chile, and other places. As William Blum writes in Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower (Common Courage, 2000): “Reagan administration destabilization tactics against the Bishop government began soon after the [1979] coup, featuring outrageous disinformation and deception.” The similarities to Iraq are hard to ignore. In both Grenada and Iraq, the U.S. has sent its military into a country after an extensive campaign of disinformation and deliberate inflation of the threat they posed. There are parallels in the aftermath as well. For example, just as American soldiers seem to be in more danger after the Bush administration declared the “mission accomplished,” some medical students in Grenada felt more vulnerable after U.S. efforts to “rescue” them than they did before the attack began. Bush II’s premature aircraft carrier celebration of victory echoed Reagan’s public announcement that the medical students had been rescued, although at the time military personnel were still trying to figure out where all the students were.

On November 5, 2003 another parallel between the two campaigns surfaced as the result of an ABC News investigation. In the days between the 1983 Grenada coup and the subsequent invasion, Reagan's State Department rejected attempts by the part of the now-famous medical school to facilitate communication, via their headquarters in New Jersey, between U.S. officials and the leaders of the coup. I believe the State Department's response was, loosely: "Thanks anyway, but we have our own sources of information."

It now appears that the Iraqi leadership was trying to negotiate a deal to avoid war using a Lebanese politician/businessperson as go-between. According to ABC News (November 5, 2003): “A possible negotiated peace deal was laid out in a heavily guarded compound in Baghdad in the days before the war, ABCNEWS has been told, but a top former Pentagon adviser says he was ordered not to pursue the deal.”

The parallels, and the mind-set that produced them, are not coincidence: Some of the same people who guided Reagan/Bush I (Wolfowitz, Perle, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Abrams, etc.) are enjoying a homecoming of sorts as members of the Bush II administration. Although most of them never actually served in combat, they apparently really enjoy sending U.S. citizens into harm's way, even when it could be avoided.

In June 2003, I revisited Carriacou and Grenada to conduct linguistic research. I flew into the new airport, landing on the long runway that Reagan claimed Grenada didn’t need but which the U.S. helped complete after the invasion. Perhaps we did some other things for Grenada. We did not, as far as I know, help replace the Cuban doctors and teachers who had made such a profound impact during the revolution. We did not repair the old mental health hospital, “accidentally” bombed by the U.S. during the invasion; it is still in ruins.

As US citizens, we enjoy unprecedented freedom and liberty, along with unprecedented power. The question is: How will we use it? The neoconservative answer: Dominate the world militarily with “preventive” strikes, not excluding the use of nuclear weapons if necessary, as part of a perpetual war — something neocons consider the natural state of humankind. But is this what we, the people, really want?

The US can offer positive things to the world (the Peace Corps, for example, which first took me to Grenada in 1971). To make the positive dominant, we need to rededicate ourselves to preventive good will, such as helping so-called “third-world” countries like Grenada with schools, hospitals and roads, even when they choose slightly different development paths. Of course, to accomplish this we have to lose the “preventive war” ideology — along with the ideologues that have imposed it on us. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Columbus Day (late, but still relevant)

(Note: The following was written as a letter to the editor to the Florida Times-Union, in response to a Columbus Day editorial which misrepresented the nature of Native American culture and society as well as the nature of the encounter itself. The Times-Union editors exercising their right of freedom of the press- they are, after all, free to publish or not publish whatever they want- did not publish my response.)

In their editorial "Civilization: Day to Remember" (October 11, 2002), the Times-Union editorial writers have provided their readers with an example of precisely why a real university education, as opposed to simple career training, is vital in today's world. The writers display a hair-raising level of ignorance with regard to both the nature of the indigenous American populations at the time of Columbus, and also the nature of the consequences of the Encounter. As if this were not enough, they quote as their authority a "researcher" at the Ayn Rand Institute, a center for the diffusion of ethnocentric polemic hiding under cover of a libertarian "philosophy."

To quote the "researcher": "Prior to 1492, what is now the United States was sparsely inhabited, unused and undeveloped. The inhabitants were primarily hunter-gatherers."  It is true that population density, overall, was lower than in Europe, but in some regions it was certainly as high or higher, where conditions supported dense populations. But that the land was "unused and undeveloped" is Orwellian doublespeak, true only if you define "used" and "developed" by European notions, under which people have to live in one place and practice farming on a bounded plot of land.

Yes, some Native Americans were hunter-gatherers, people who tend to have a very well-elaborated knowledge of their ecosystem and how best to exploit it. And while it is true that such peoples typically lack the ability to store food, and therefore must forage on a daily or near-daily basis, it is not true that their lives are "nasty, brutish, and short" as the "researcher" claims. They generally live very healthy, happy lives, with more leisure time to devote to relaxation, music, storytelling, and sexual trysts than people have in modern industrial societies, unless they’ve been pushed off their productive lands, as is generally the case for today's hunter-gatherers.

Native Americans were not all hunter-gatherers, however. By 1492 they had organized themselves into a diverse array of societal types, including, in several regions, state societies as complex as anything known to the conquering Europeans, complete with social stratification, division of labor, written language, full-time religious specialists, a military, and so on. So, to argue that the Europeans brought "civilization" to the Americas is a blatant lie.

To suggest as the Ayn Rand "researcher" does that there was "little agriculture" in Pre-Columbian America is also a lie. Native American farmers grew an astounding variety of foods. Perhaps their most important contribution to world cuisine was corn, but they also provided potatoes, which became a cheap and easy-to-grow source of food for Europeans. Some other Native American contributions: tomatoes, peanuts, squash and pumpkins, chili peppers, pineapples, various kinds of beans, papaya, guava, avocado, cassava, cocoa (chocolate), and turkeys. Try to imagine Italian cuisine without tomatoes, or the Swiss without chocolate.

What did the Europeans bring to the Americas in exchange for this bounty? They contributed the Eurasian suite of domesticated animals (horses, cattle, pigs, sheep, goats) and grains (wheat, oats, barley, etc.), which were mixed blessings when we take into account the social and ecological disruptions which they caused.  Probably the most important crop contributed by the Europeans was actually one from southeast Asia: sugar cane. But, significantly, this was not a food crop, but rather one which, cultivated and processed into sugar, molasses, and rum by millions of enslaved Africans (industrialized slavery was another European contribution to the New World), provided much of the capital for the industrial revolution and the rise of European world hegemony.

The Europeans also contributed influenza and smallpox, which helped them by killing off huge numbers of Native Americans before they ever even saw a European. They sometimes used smallpox deliberately, in an early form of biological warfare.

My point in writing this is not to put Columbus on trial; after all he's dead, so what would be the point? But, as the historian Howard Zinn says, "to emphasize the heroism of Columbus and his successors as navigators and discoverers, and to de-emphasize their genocide, is not a technical necessity but an ideological choice. It serves- unwittingly- to justify what was done."
It also makes it easier to keep doing it.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Today's linguistic ambiguity lesson

The noun phrase "government shutdown" can be heard every few minutes on tv, radio, etc.  This phrase can be interpreted in two different ways.  The preferred way for Teabaggers and their ilk is "shutdown by the government"; the always-bad government is the agent, the one doing the shutting down.  You get this meaning in complaints such as "the government shut down our national parks and monuments."

The reality, I believe, is that it should be understood as "shutdown of the government," with the agent unspecified.  Of course, we know who the agent is: the relatively small but unduly influential gang of aynrandian wingnuts in Congress, feared out of all proportion to their intellectual or moral worth because they are backed by the enormous wealth of people like the Koch Bros.

So it's really Ted Cruz, Michelle Bachmann, Rand Paul, and their buddiess in Congress that have shout down the government; not the government itself.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Digging deeper and deeper

According to a story in the Huffington Post, these buttons really were spotted at the California GOP Convention "outside of a VIP reception area." According to the person who (allegedly) tweeted the photo, they disappeared soon after.

So, what do we learn from this? (1) Some GOPers are abysmally sexist; and (2) They don't understand either liberalism or communism.

Also, I hope KFC sues them for every cent they've got.

Friday, October 4, 2013


October marks the 30th anniversary of the US intervention/invasion (sometimes called "intervasion") of Grenada.  I am starting to write some about this, but for now, this teaser: