The demise of Maurice Bishop
The release of Bernard Coard and his fellow inmates from prison after 26 years behind bars has put on the table once again the question of what happened in October 1983 in Grenada. In a previous column, I examined the role played by Bernard Coard in that extraordinary course of events.
However, that analysis is incomplete if we do not consider the complex dynamics that made it possible for Maurice Bishop, as tragic a hero as any in West Indian history, to end up being the foremost victim of the unravelling of the Grenadian Revolution, an issue I explore in my book, A Revolution Aborted: The Lessons of Grenada, published by Pittsburgh University Press.
Patrick Emmanuel once wrote that "most West Indian political parties have been one-man shows". Yet, as was stated in the minutes of the New Jewel Movement General Membership Meeting, "Maurice Bishop and his contemporaries have distaste for one-man leadership, and he has a strong position on this". The tension between that first hard political reality and Bishop's misguided, if idealistic, notion of how Caribbean politics unfolds lies in many ways at the heart of the reasons for the demise of the People's Revolutionary Government (PRG).
However Pyrrhic and short-lived his victory may have been, how did Bernard Coard manage to unseat Bishop, expel him from the party and the government, and have him put under arrest? Why was Bishop unable to turn back the challenge to his leadership and reassert his own command of the revolutionary process? As Kendrick Radix put it to me, "he did absolutely nothing to reverse the situation". Why?
The first part of the answer to that question can be found in the leadership style developed by Bishop, one that left him particularly vulnerable to the attack he experienced in the fall of 1983. Contrary to the allegations of the "development of a personality cult" that the Coard faction hurled against him, Bishop's approach to political management was based on consensus and accommodation. As Lyden Ramdhanny told me, "if you had one dissenting voice, he would try to obtain a consensus on the situation".
The reasons for this democratic approach to leadership, so different from the West Indian tradition of "doctor politics", were expressed by Bishop himself in a party meeting; "Maybe his conception of leadership is idealistic, because of the historical abuse of power and one-man leadership. He and his contemporaries have a distaste for one-man leadership, and he has a strong position on this".
This approach to leadership by consensus explains Bishop's tolerance for Coard's outrageous actions in his absence (i.e., the closing of the Torchlight newspaper) and his acquiescence to Coard's insistence that Grenada support the Soviet position on Afghanistan in the United Nations, possibly the single most damaging foreign policy step taken by the PRG. It was this approach that opened the door for Coard's challenge, the party's split, and the demise of the revolution.
Bishop's disregard for his own personal resource base is highlighted by the fact that, rather than looking our for "his own men and women", he left the filling of crucial positions, such as his personal assistant, in party hands. During the last year of the revolution, he had to manage without a personal assistant, as repeated calls to the Central Committee and the Politburo to find him one went unheeded.
Yet, the question remains. Why, once it was apparent the Coard faction was out to get him, did Bishop not fight back?
What happened to the determined and wily Maurice Bishop of the anti-Gairy struggle? What happened to the skilled coalition builder of the Popular Alliance days? The puzzle is compounded by the resignation that gripped him once he was put under house arrest. "They had me down as one of the conspirators. They killed my father, and if they kill me it can't be helped," he told his mother in one of her two visits.
And even after the Grenadian people stormed his residence to release and marched with him through St George's to Fort Rupert, Bishop was less a leader determined to save the revolution than a man ready to spell his own obituary. As he put it himself, "My reason for coming here, you know, Radio Free Grenada is off the air, the telephone is also off, and I would like to contact my people of Grenada and the rest of the world. And when I finish speaking to them I can die."
There is some evidence that Maurice Bishop had a fatalist streak in him. When people told him not to smoke so much, he would reply, "That is not what I am going to die from", and he cried upon saying goodbye to his children on their return to Canada in August 1983, perhaps a premonition that he would not see them again.
But the ultimate explanation to his behaviour in the last few weeks of his life lies elsewhere. As his uncle Allan La Grenade put it to me, he was a man "fiercely loyal to his friends and political associates, putting them even above his family". The bonds developed in the nine years of the anti-Gairy struggle between Bishop and his collaborators were deep, as was the loyalty Bishop believed existed between himself and Bernard Coard. In fact, he repeatedly dismissed the warnings by his family about Coard's designs.
When it finally dawned on him what was going on, "When these people turned on him, it destroyed part of his inner self. He was destroyed by the volte face that took place", was how Radix put it to me. His sister, Anne, doubted that he would have been able to go on, had he not been executed, given the psychological wounds he had already suffered.
Jorge Heine holds the Chair in Global Governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs and is a distinguished fellow at The Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) in Waterloo, Ontario.
About the Author
The opinions expressed in this article/comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors and/or International Board of Governors.