An Overview of U.S. Policy Toward the Caribbean in the 1970s
by Dr. Kwame Nantambu
November 20, 2005
As is evident from deceased Prime Minister Bishop's previously quoted statement, his government always opposed United States hegemonic policy toward the Caribbean and interference in Grenada's internal affairs. However, Grenada always sought "normal and friendly relations" with the United States but at the same time it insisted that "countries must have the right to pursue their own process." The government of Grenada also viewed the decision of President Carter to increase United States military presence in the Caribbean as "unjustified" and a "very serious threat" that was not only designed to contribute to tension in the region but also to serve as a counter-productive force against "progressive change" in the region. One retaliatory measure the Grenadian government took was to organize a "popular army and a people's militia" to defend its sovereignty.
In addition, in May 1979 the government of Grenada accused the CIA of having drawn up a pyramid-shaped plan to destabilize Grenada. The plan called for, inter alia, instigating and organizing strikes throughout the island, planting false reports about Grenada in newspapers and on radio stations, and encouraging prominent persons, organizations, and governments in the region to attack the Grenadian revolution. The government also accused the United States of complicity in the June 19, 1980 bomb explosion directly under the platform from which the Prime Minister was addressing a mass rally. The Prime Minister was not hurt but two persons were killed and several others were severely wounded. And in November 1980 the security forces defused an attempt to overthrow the People's Revolutionary Government of Grenada (PRG). Again direct United States involvement was evidenced by the seizure of documents which proved that three American ships from Miami were to arrive at three strategic coastal locations in Grenada, viz, Gouyave, Grenville and Westerhall to deliver arms and about 100 mercenaries.
The reasons why the United States attempted to destabilize the government of Grenada have already been outlined. What needs to be emphasized here is that the United States government did not care much about what the Grenadian revolution was doing for the masses of Grenadian people. What was important was the security interests of the United States. The United States was well aware that the poverty-stricken Caribbean region was in ferment. It also saw a revolution in Grenada coming on top of the earlier Cuban revolution. It was therefore worried about a revolutionary virus spreading throughout the region. Even though Grenada is a small country, any revolution there was significant to the United States due to the fact that it can serve as a paradigm to other Caribbean islands that are experiencing similar conditions.
And finally, ever since President Forbes L. Burnham came into power in Guyana in 1964 with the help of the CIA "who feared the allegedly radical policies of Marxist Cheddi Jagan," the public pronouncements of the Guyanese government have given the impression that the government does not support all aspects of United States policy in the region. However, we must not be side-tracked by President Burnham's previously quoted strong anti-imperialist statement since the majority of the Guyanese people have come to realize that "despite all the socialist rhetoric and maneuverings with progressive Third World countries," the Burnham regime "continues to enjoy the full support of the U.S.A."
Differences between Guyana and the United States are not to be taken seriously. They are all part of a neo-colonialist imperialist game plan. "The important thing is the existence of a bond of friendship and mutual respect on both sides which can prevent such differences from becoming acrimonious and harmful." This bond of friendship warrants further analysis. In the first place, we had envoy Philip Habib's failure to report on the serious and overt human rights violations in Guyana during his Caribbean trip. Such violations were evidenced in the 1980 Country Reports of Human Rights and Practices issued by the State Department which documented a general deterioration in the human rights environment in Guyana and "repressive" tactics by the government against any opposition which "increasingly despairs of even taking power legally." In addition, the United States government took no action on the report by the Guyana Human Rights Association on the death of 19 persons in 1980 at the hands of Burnham's security forces. There was no threat of destabilization or covert action by the CIA against this "historical al1y of the United States of America that officially prefers to be seen non-aligned and socialist." There was no economic pressure applied to Guyana. In fact, the Guyanese government received over $30 million of United States "development assistance" in addition to an IMF loan of $100M and $192M in credits and technical assistance from the Inter-American Development Bank.
Secondly, in the general election that was held on December 15, 1980, an impartial international observer team headed by Lord Avebury of England issued "a comprehensive and scathing report on the whole electoral process in Guyana that brings into serious question about the very legality of the (Burnham) government." Lord Avebury and the British Parliamentary Human Rights Group reported on the "politics of fraud" during the elections that:
...We have massive evidence that large numbers of eligible voters were denied their right to vote. The following examples: deletion of names from the electoral list; abuse of proxy voting; abuse of postal voting; fraudulent votes had already been cast in the voters' name; evidence was supplied to us of double registration; these abuses were primarily directed against supporters of the opposition parties; ballot boxes arrived late at many stations. In some areas, the hours of polling were arbitrarily extended; processing of votes were deliberately stalled; incapacitated voters were not always helped and were sometimes instructed to vote for the PNC; the military presence in some areas was intimidating...
The Group therefore concluded quite unequivocally that
...The forcible expulsion of the opposition's agents from all the places where ballot boxes were held and the delay of at least fifteen hours in the announcing of first returns of the count undermine(d) the credibility of this (electoral) process (and that) the events we witnessed confirm all the fears of Guyanese and foreign observers about the state of democracy in Guyana...
The State Department not only concurred with these findings but also conceded that:
...evidence collected by the Lord Avebury team and other outside observers, leads to the conclusion that there were numerous irregularities in the conduct of the elections and that little faith can be placed in the results which were announced...
There was no official U.S. demand for the holding of new elections. In reality then, the U.S. reaction just tantamounted to a gentle slap on the wrist for Burnham. Again there was a situation where President Burnham's opponents, members of the diplomatic community and citizens of Guyana, and the world community are convinced that Burnham's reign in Guyana is sustained by rigged elections, political repression and assassination of political opponents yet his regime continued to receive economic, military and political support from the United States. The scenario here is that as long as Executive President Burnham can stymie the perceived threat of Cheddi Jagan's Marxism/Communism from Guyana, then his rule, the nature, tactics and policies to maintain and consolidate that rule and the plight of the Guyanese people became irrelevant and/or immaterial.
Thirdly, there is the issue of freedom of the press. The State Department
Human Rights and Practices report did not castigate the Burnham regime for
(i) totally controlling the press, (ii) preventing paid political announcements from the opposition or any direct criticism of either the President or the PNC, and (iii) refusing the opposition any access to newsprint or to the nationalized printing presses. However, when the Bishop government in Grenada attempted to tailor the 'Torchlight' newspaper to reflect the spirit of the revolution, suddenly there was the double-standard public outcry and concern from the State Department about the lack of freedom of the press in Grenada. Again there was the usual gentle slap on the wrist to the extent that the State Department did not pressure the Burnham government to remedy and rectify violations of freedom of the press, in spite of the Department's findings that a harassment in the form of libel suits, airport searches of journalists, personal attacks in the government controlled press, and newsprint restrictions have all contributed to the circumscription of press freedom in Guyana."
One should hasten to point out that with regard to libel suits, the Guyana government filed a series of libel suits against opposition and critical publications including the Catholic Standard, Dayclean (organ of the Working People's Alliance, (WPA) and Open Word a weekly stenciled political newssheet edited by activist Brian Rodway). There were five libel suits filed against the Catholic Standard - four by Vice-President Desmand Hoyte and one by President Forbes L. Burnham. Vice-President Hoyte sued the Standard because of published articles "alleging official pressures on insurance companies to repatriate funds invested abroad and to make the proceeds available to the government as foreign exchange." The Standard articles also alleged that "the UNDP had made a 'political contribution' to the PNC by funding projects run by its wowen's arm, the Women Revolution Social Movement (WRSM)." For his part, President Burnham sued the Standard because of the paper's suggestion that the President's decision to re-open the Venezuelan boarder dispute was either "a blunder or treason". It is important to elucidate here that the libel suits against the Standard must be seen against the background of "a completely cowed and controlled media" and in the midst of a serious economic crisis in Guyana. In fact, Vice-President Hoyte once dubbed the Standard's editor, Father Andrew Morrison "a cassocked obscenity" because of the paper's article which exposed the bankruptcy of the Guyanese economy. The article exposed the fact that government officials:
...after commissioning a thorough 'diagnosis' of the economic crisis facing the country by a team of Yugoslav experts, failed to provide them with the minimum material requirements for the job, refused to make available economic data relevant for the study and rejected the findings of the team...
The government, of course, maintained that the Standard was "inaccurate and cast the government in a poor light" but as the Caribbean Contact observed:
...The (Guyanese) government has grown confident of its capacity to ensure that the official version of events is the only version the public receives; there are no 'sides' to an issue. The doctrine used to give this form of censorship some pseudo-respectability is called Development-Support Communications, which broadly meant that the media must support the government...
The Guyanese government's immutable determination to "stamp out press freedom and hence freedom of expression is clear. For not only has the Caribbean Publishing and Broadcasting Association (CPBA) called on President Burnham "to halt the harassment of the press in his country" but one also finds that although United States accusations about lack/denial of freedom of the press was only leveled against Grenada, yet an investigative report on political, social and economic conditions in Grenada noted that the, "...main constraint to freedom of the press in Grenada (was) the low level of professional training and outdated equipment in use in the mass media...."
The investigating team from the Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ) was invited to Grenada by the People's Revolutionary Government (PRG) and the Media Worker's Association of Free Grenada (MWAFG) to do the report. The team concluded that contrary to reports which were being disseminated within the Caribbean region,
...the people of Grenada as individuals and through their various organizations enjoy a greater level of freedom of expression, and in particular, freedom of the press than ever before enjoyed in Grenada's history...
Finally, there is question of the brutal assassination of Walter Rodney by Burnham's security forces. Initially, President Burnham categorically denied his government's complicity in the affair. But as the 1981 U.S. State Department Report concluded quite convincingly, available information indicates that the government was implicated in the
June 13 (1980) death of (Working People's Alliance) WPA activist Walter
Rodney and in the subsequent removal of key witnesses from the country.
Again, no attempts were made to extract some degree of accountability from, the Burnham government. Nevertheless, in this brief analysis of U.S. - Guyana/U.S.-Grenada relations it has been ascertained that the United States government took no forceful, destabilizing actions or measures in retaliation against blatant and documented human rights violations, electoral fraud, lack of freedom of the press and expression and political assassinations in Guyana. One should point out that although investigative reports revealed that none of these violations occurred in Grenada, yet the United States continuously accused the Grenadian government of committing such violations. One should also hasten to add that the reaction by the United States to the policies of the Burnham government is a far cry from its reaction to the policies of the Manley government in Jamaica. As Neville C. Duncan correctly surmises:
...the degeneration of Guyana into a caudillistic-type rule by Forbes Burnham, systematically rigging elections, repressing opposition, and instituting party paramountcy in the name of co-operative socialism was simply given the blind-eye treatment (by the United States)...
In terms of economic assistance to the Caribbean, United States policy has been more forthcoming. For example, between 1975-77, U.S. Export-Import Bank authorizations to Barbados was $41.33 million, $76.96 million for Guyana, $347.52 million went to Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago received $245 million. Total AID development assistance and PL 480 food aid to the region increased from $70 million in 1976 to over $130 million in 1979. On the whole, for the entire post-war period (up to 1979), loans and economic assistance (excluding Export Import Bank authorizations) to Guyana totaled $116.8 million, $159.5 million to Jamaica, $19.2 million to Barbados and $40.5 million to Trinidad and Tobago. The Carter administration also provided $10-$20 million for military training and foreign military sales credit to the region.
This overview of United States policy toward the Caribbean in the 1970s has shown that from Nixon to Carter, the United States has continued to view the Caribbean through Cold War, "zone of influence" lenses and this has fashioned its policy toward the region - a policy that ranged from "benign neglect" and the selective application of detente to covert intervention, military invasion, destabilization, and coup attempts in Guyana, Dominican Republic, and Grenada respectively and increased United States military presence in the region. Yet, despite all these activities and the support United States policy received from moderate, rightwing Caribbean governments, the United States has not been able to impose its will on the modus operandi of the Caribbean states. The fact of the matter is that the old order is changing" and that Caribbean nations are in revolt against the past and to some extent, against the present. This, it seems, has been the main limiting factor in the United States hegemonic drive in the Caribbean. Caribbean nations have refused "to consider themselves extensions of the United States" and in countries like Jamaica, Grenada, Guyana, St. Lucia and Dominica, there were political parties and national movements that were fiercely against United States hegemonism. These include the Working People's Alliance in Guyana, the New Jewel Movement in Grenada, and the Workers Party in Jamaica.
Indeed the loudest message coming out of the Caribbean in the 1970s is that despite vast U.S. economic assistance to the region, the new revolutionary mood that has been sweeping the region in the last quarter of this century dictates that the United States should stop seeing the region as belonging to its sphere of influence and as an American backyard, by fiat. The United States should cease to conceptualize the region within that hegemonistic framework in order to avoid policy that would be counter-productive in the long run. The United States should see the Caribbean as a region consisting of sovereign nation states and not a region of Western-dominated satellites. It is only with the adoption of the former policy can the United States and Caribbean nations live in peaceful co-existence.
Dr. Kwame Nantambu is apart-time lecturer at Cipriani Labour College and University of the West Indies.
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