Grenada – Island in conflict or in labour

Thirty years after the March 13th 1979 revolution and Grenadians are still passionately divided over what are the real values – positive or negative of the 1979 to 1983 period.

Maurice Bishop

Maurice Bishop, Grenada's Revolutionary leader 1979 - 1983

The revolution, which was led by a young lawyer, Maurice Bishop and his colleagues in the New Jewel Movement political party (NJM), most people agree, was as a result of oppression and victimization by the then Prime Minister Sir Eric Matthew Gairy of the Grenada United Labour Party (GULP) and some of his supporters.

Sir Eric, though credited for his role in obtaining adult franchise for the poor and working class; independence from Britain for Grenada; and through his labour union, securing improved working conditions and wages for estate workers, his good works were marred by what some described as exploitation of the poor especially women. He had a group of loyal supporters in the security forces called the ‘mongoose gang’ who went about terrorizing individuals and their families known and sometimes suspected of being in opposition to him. He was also accused of rigging elections to secure another term in office. So the revolution was born out of the desire for change but without the ballot boxes which some other political parties at the time did not trust.

During it’s short life, the revolution and its agents, the People’s Revolutionary Government (PRG) and the People’s Revolutionary Army (PRA) faced opposition from without (internationally) and from within (internally). Like the government before, it had its good and its evil and this is where the opinions of most persons differ, even today. Some choose only to see its good, others only its evil.

This array of opinions were brought to the fore on Thursday 12th March, 2009, the eve of the commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the revolution, at the start of a lecture series organised by the Institute for People’s Enlightenment and the University of the West Indies Open Campus – Grenada. Emotions came alive on Thursday, when after a stirring presentation by local Historian Dr. Nicole Phillip on the topic “Women in the Grenada Revolution” the floor was open for public participation. Dr. Phillip’s presentation sought to answer the question whether or not the period of the revolution improved the status quo of women and provided more opportunities for them to serve in public office.

According to Dr. Phillip, during the period of the revolution,Grenada was on par with Barbados in the number of women holding positions of power, being top in the region for the number of women as Permanent Secretaries in the various Ministries.

However her research has shown that thought there was an increase in the number of women holding high offices, what they headed were considered ‘kitchen cabinet’ Ministries.

“In the number of Permanent Secretaries in Government Ministries, Grenada ranked among the best in the region. Yet it can be argued that in spite of it’s socialist revolution, the positions of power held by women were of the kitchen cabinet type.”

“Grenadian women were placed at the head of Ministries like Education, and Women’s Affairs. Thus while the revolution may have made a numerical increase in the number of women in positions of power, it did not revolutionize the type of positions that they held.”

There were no arguments as to the findings of Dr. Phillip’s research as it relates to the increase in the number of women holding positions of power. What came out in the discussions that followed her presentation was whether or not the revolution did any thing good for women and Grenadians in general.

Sylvia Belmar, a private entrepreneur said she was an ardent supporter of the revolution because her family was one that was victimized during the Gairy regime. Belmar who lost her school-aged daughter on Fort George, then called Fort Rupert, in the October 19th massacre when the revolution imploded, admitted to being the head of the National Women’s Organization (NOW) of Birch Grove, St. Andrew,  during the revolution.

“I was here to fight in the revolution, to support it because I was victimized by the previous government and I saw the need for a change.”

“Unfortunately it did not come democratically but it had to happen because of the threats that were used against Maurice Bishop and the Opposition. They had to be liquidated by the night of the 12th of March, 1979 and had to be hiding in shacks and places people wouldn’t believe where they were; which resulted in a revolution.”

Roman Catholic Priest Father Peter Clarke said that he is concerned that what obtained during the period of the revolution, have contributed significantly to the erosion of family structures and values. He said based on his observation as a priest, he noticed that it had become “harder for parents to bring up their children because of the revolution”.

“The revolution assumed the ultimate authority in the land. Children belonged to the Pioneers. Children had to go out on ‘fatigues’. Parents were disturbed about this and children would say ‘if you don’t let me go I would tell Maurice’.”

A former Director of the Grenada Board of Tourism, Jude Bernard agreed with the Catholic Priest. Bernard said his experience of the revolution showed that it did more harm than good to the Nation’s women.

“I think it did more to undermine our women and our girls than it did to help them. The rebellious behaviour that we see today, began in the militia…it did nothing to uplift our women. It gave them license to do those things that normally they would not have done.”

But two women in the audience were in total disagreement. Vyra Mc Queen a former teacher during the period of the revolution said she disagrees with the positions put forward that the revolution did more harm than good. Mc Queen, adorned in a t-shirt –commonly worn during the revolution – with the words “Forward Ever” inscribed on it and a picture of two hands clutched over the map of Grenada, said she credits her budgeting and financial skills to what she learned during the revolution.

“I always boast that some of the qualities that I possess especially in the areas of budgeting and time management, I learn that under the revolution and I have no regrets.”

One of the youngest persons to speak was Daisy Hazzard. Describing herself as a ‘child of the revolution’ she said she was a Pioneer and that it was through Pioneering she learned personal skills and self-worth.

“Off course you go to Pioneer meeting and there was all this talk of counter-revolutionary and all that but that didn’t matter. What really mattered was having a sense of purpose – coming from school and going somewhere where you learn to sing and to write poetry and to dance.”

Over the years, as people talk and material is researched and documented, more and more information has been coming out as to the different faces of the revolution.  For some, this short period in Grenada’s history is still a mystery. For others it is a joyful memory and for yet another a group it is a period filled with pain and anguish.

Grenadians may never be united on what really is the truth of the revolutionary period; but one thing is for certain, when all the stories are put together in a collage, it paints a picture of an island, not necessarily in conflict but in labour pains, giving birth to a new ideological era.©

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