By Sheyla Hirshon

Fidel Castro and Maurice Bishop.  Photo:
Fidel Castro and Maurice Bishop. Photo:

HAVANA TIMES — While there is no specific section on Cuba’s involvement with the Grenada revolution, details of this appear as a recurring theme in the book The Grenada Revolution in the Caribbean Present by Shalini Puri.

Cuba was one of many influences on Maurice Bishop’s formation as a leader and on the New Jewel Movement, as were many other culturally and politically radical groups that abounded in the Caribbean region in the 70s.

As such, the New Jewel Movement was fundamentally a national-democratic, anti-imperialist revolution grounded in the needs of the island. It “departed from the economic formulas of the Soviets and the Cubans” (p 42) to focus on a multiclass alliance and a mixed economy.

From the beginning however, the Cubans were generous in their assistance. “No nation contributed more to the Grenada Revolution than Cuba. Cuba contributed about 500 Cuban airport workers, advisors on every aspect of society, culture and technology: doctors who treated about half of the Grenadian population and trained Grenadians to become doctors, the radio station at Beausejour, [a 50-watt radio station with capacity to cover the Eastern Caribbean] and over 200 scholarships to Grenadians to study in Cuba. The legacies of that relationship endure in the fabric of everyday life even today.” (p.177)

During the revolutionary period the presence of Cubans in the country brought closeness, some marriages and some strains. There were “linguistic and cultural differences, differences in gender norms, jealousies over Grenadian women who were in relationships with Cuban men, differences in work cultures, and [strains due to] the racial attitudes of some Cubans toward Grenadians. “ (p. 179).

Nonetheless, in a poll of Grenadian opinions taken in 1984, following a year of intensive US propaganda, 94 percent of Grenadians readily acknowledged Cuban help to Grenada and 63 percent expressed a favorable attitude towards them. (cited on p. 179)

The role of Cuba in the NJMs turn towards authoritarian Party rule or in the events of Oct. 19 is unclear. Speculation and conflicting evidence abound as to whether Cuba was informed of the split in the People’s Revolutionary Government in October 1983, and whether Maurice Bishop at any point requested direct Cuban military support. It is known that Bishop changed his mind about accepting the Party decision to share leadership following a trip abroad with a stop in Cuba. Another face of this controversy hinges on a telephone call that Bishop is alleged to have made to Cuban ambassador Rizo on Oct. 18 or 19. It is likely that these things will never be known.

Roadside Grafitti in St. George's, Grenada.  Photo: Shalini Puri
Roadside Grafitti in St. George’s, Grenada. Photo: Shalini Puri

What is clear is that Cuba was the red flag that Ronald Reagan raised in his decision to invade. From the beginning, the Right had painted the New Jewel Movement and other movements in the region as dangerous extensions of Cuban and Soviet influence, ignoring altogether their character as autonomous national movements.

The airport, whose construction was one of the principal projects of the Revolution, became one of Reagan’s focal points. The project had actually been planned long before the Revolution as a means to boost tourism and industry and was supported by the World Bank and companies from Florida, Britain and Canada, as well as Cuba.

However, for Reagan and the US government, the planned 10,000 foot runway and the thickness of the tarmac “proved” that it was being constructed as a military airport to refuel Cuban planes, or possibly as a site for Soviet missiles.

The events of Oct. 1983 left Cuba in an untenable position. On the one hand, supporters of Bishop and Grenada’s “Revo”, like most progressive elements in the region, shared an “enduring regional belief in Cuba as a weaver of miracles and a country that sent support to those in need.” (p. 181)

Many of them hoped for direct Cuban military intervention on behalf of Bishop, and even when the first US planes were sighted, some wondered if these might be Cuban or even Soviet to “rescue” them from the Revolutionary Military Council which had taken power. These elements were bitterly disappointed by Cuba’s inaction.

Realistically, however, “Cuba’s intervention could have precipitated a US attack” and “escalated the confrontation to a global scale.”(p.180)

In addition, as Castro himself stated, the Cuban government had been placed in a “morally complex” position. Castro was close to Bishop and unequivocally condemned his murder, holding the RMC and the Grenada 17 responsible. When the invasion came, he could not fight on their side or offer help in combating the US troops.

Plaque acknowledging the Cuban role in the building of the airport at Point Salines.  Photo: Shalini  Puri
Plaque acknowledging the Cuban role in the building of the airport at Point Salines. Photo: Shalini Puri

The 784 Cubans in Grenada at the time paid the price of this “moral complexity”. Direct armed support of the Grenadians was out of the question, the commander of Cuban forces, Colonel Pedro Tortoló, had arrived on the island only the day before the invasion, and the vast majority of Cuban personnel in Grenada were not soldiers.

Still, Cuban honor was at stake, and the danger that a US victory might embolden them to attack Nicaragua. “Castro’s solution was to instruct Cubans not to open fire on the US and not to obstruct US attempts to evacuate their citizens. The Cubans were only to defend their positions at the airport and the Embassy.” (p. 187).

As Puri sees it, “heroic martyrdom was what the Cuban government expected from them.” (p 188) In the end, the best estimate of Cuban dead is 25, mostly airport and embassy workers, with some 59 wounded and 638 captured and later released.

On Nov. 14, 1983, Fidel Castro addressed a million-strong gathering in Havana to honor the Cubans killed during the US invasion, weaving this into a broader perspective of US aggression in the region and forcefully condemned the killings of October 19. There was no mention of the returned survivors.

Instead, for choosing life over martyrdom, Cubans who returned unscathed from Grenada were treated as something of an embarrassment. Tortoló was publicly disciplined for cowardice; the Cuban ambassador to Grenada Julián Torres Rizo was disgraced, and many – like Tortoló – were subsequently asked to serve in Angola.

Maurice Bishop, said to have been like a son to Castro, is still hailed in Cuba. The Grenada-Cuba Friendship Association established in 1974 is still functioning.   In Grenada, a plaque was dedicated in 1998 thanking the Cuban government and the Cuban people for their assistance in building the airport. There are no monuments anywhere honoring the Cubans killed in the invasion.





6 thoughts on “Cuba in the Grenada Revolution

  • Reread my comment. Never wrote that it was “OK”. I do believe that context is necessary to better understand behavior.

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