New: Hidden History—1983: Before the Invasion
A Reporter Visits Grenada and Disproves Ronald Reagan's Rabid Rhetoric
Thirty years ago, the US launched a vicious military attack on the small Caribbean island nation of Grenada. President Ronald Reagan claimed a new airport under construction was intended to provide Russian aircraft with a strategic base in the Americas. Reagan claimed a "submarine pen" was under construction. In March 1983, a reporter from Berkeley visited the site to investigate and uncovered evidence that exposed the Pentagon's claims as a fabrication -- a pretext for war. The assault on Grenada was to be the first of a long string of foreign invasions based on a foundation of official lies.
POINT SALINAS, Grenada (March 30, 1983) — "I very much approve of the way your President Reagan is handling these troublemakers," the Caribbean businessman had said during a ride south from Trinidad's capitol, Port-of-Spain, "We thought your President Carter was too soft."
He was speaking of leftist agitation in the region. A widely traveled executive, he had just returned to Trinidad after several years working in the airport industry in Barbados. One would expect him to share President Reagan’s concern over the new airport under construction on the island of Grenada. He didn't.
"Genada is no danger," he laughs, "Let them be. If the US is worried about such things why doesn't it worry about Barbados? When I was there, I would see Cuban and Russian planes coming and going all the time. This is no secret here."
Still, the President and Pentagon officials continue to warn that Grenada's new international airport is being built to accommodate Soviet and Cuban military moves in the Caribbean. Is the airport really a threat to regional stability? Or is it, as the People's Revolutionary Government (PRG) of Grenada adamantly insists, simply intended to gain vital access to the lucrative tourist trade?
I hopped a flight from Trinidad to the People’s Revolutionary Government to assess the supposed threat first-hand. The Grenada government had recently organized press tours to the airport construction site on the southwest tip of the island. I decided to go without an invitation.
A Surprise Inspection
It is a four-mile walk under a blazing Caribbean sun from the sugar mill in the hills above the sparkling Grand Anse Beach to the wave-wreathed promontory of Point Salines. And, while President Reagan has pictured Grenada as being caught in "the tightening grip of the totalitarian left," a visitor soon finds there is almost unlimited access to anyone to move across this island.
On the crumbling asphalt road that threads through a desolate landscape of brush and cactus, one encounters nothing more intimidating than cattle dozing on the rutted pavement and goats munching moistly on patches of thistle.
Suddenly, a siren wails and a violent explosion nearly knocks me off my feet. No, I’m not under attack. I soon realize the explosion is the result of airport construction workers dynamiting a mountainside. Over the top of the next rise the airport comes into view.
It is a panorama of bustling activity. Dozens of plunging trucks raise pale banners of orange dust as they barrel past the blue waters of Black Bay. Dump trucks carrying tons of crushed rock careen down wide dirt roads. A dredge kicks up a tide of brown silt in the clear turquoise sea as it sucks up part of the four million cubic tons of sand, which will eventually fill in a stretch of water the size of four football fields.
The construction site is completely open. No gates, no guards.
I walk in from open country with a camera over my shoulder and pass among the crowd of Grenadian and Cuban workers with no more concern than if I were strolling down a street in the capitol of St. Georges.
Stopping a passing Cuban, I joke in halting Spanish that I am "one North American who is not afraid of this airport." He laughs, clasps my shoulder and grins, "Venceremos!" Then he directs me toward the office of the Airport Site Manager.
Meeting the Man behind the Airport Plan
Ron Smith, the Grenada-born project manager is a large, genial man. Physically, he resembles filmmaker Frederico Fellini, but he speaks with the gentle brouge of the islands. Trained in Canada as a civil engineer, the silver-haired Smith is also the designer of the airport at St. Lucia. He scoffs at the US hysteria over his project.
"This airport is the smallest size permitted under the rules of the International Civil Air Authority for tourism in a developing country," Smith objects. "The maximum length allowed is 3,000 meters. We are actually a bit shorter than the permissible maximum." In fact, the $71 million airfield is to extend only 2,740 meters (9,000 feet), which is about the same length as the airstrips on St. Lucia and Antigua.
When asked about possible military use of this site, Smith waves his large hands across the view from his hilltop office.
"Look around! There's no space for anything but a landing strip," he protests. A military base requires storage and hanger space, he says, but this runway is shoehorned into a narrow boot of land set gingerly between "a bloody hill and the water."
Grenada's Airfield Poses No 'Strategic Military Threat'
The setting is picturesque. From the perspective of an engineer, however, it is arduous. At one end of the proposed airfield, a handsome old stone lighthouse had to be razed. At the other end, a mountain is being blasted out of the way. In between, a salt pond and a huge bay must be replaced with landfill. (It has turned out that rubble from the dynamited hillsides is too porous to serve as fill so the lagoons are being filled with incompressible ocean sand drawn laboriously from around the island's cape.)
When the airport is completed in early 1984, it will be one of the smallest in the Caribbean. "It will be capable of handling, at any one time, one 747, one 727 and five 20-seaters," Smith says.
A fierce winds rattles the windows of his hilltop office as Smith pulls a reference book from his files and points to a list which shows that Trinidad, Antigua, St. Lucia, Curacao, Guadalupe, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic all have airports larger than the one being built in Grenada. Only the airports on Jamaica and Haiti are smaller.
When completed, the new international airport will barely accommodate a 727 or a 747-100B commercial jetliner. It is doubtful that the runway could handle even a Cubana Airways Illyshin jet or a Tupolec TU-144 (Russia's version of the Concorde). On the other hand, it is possible for Soviet AN-22 "Cub" long-range heavy transports or MIG jet fighters to take off and land on such a modest runway. There is, however, no earthly reason why a Cub — with a range of 3,500 miles — would ever need such a stopover. MIG "Floggers" and "Foxbats" — whose range is limited to between 200-800 miles — would be even more isolated if placed in Grenada.
In any event, all of these Soviet aircraft are perfectly capable of taking-off and landing from the existing 1,600-meter Pearls Airport on Grenada's eastern coast.
The Airport's Purpose: Tourism, Not Terrorism
Pentagon officials claim the international airport is not required by Grenada's "small tourist plant." Grenada's Minister of Tourism, Selwyn Strachan, disputes this.
"For many years, the people here have wanted an airport," Strachan explained during a brief visit to the site. "The new airport will offer considerable convenience for visitors, traveling public and relations returning for family emergencies."
Strachan cited a study commissioned by the Hotel Association that revealed that 90 out of every 100 potential visitors to Grenada tended to cancel out in Barbados due to the inconvenience of "substantially more expensive" necessity of making a further connecting flight into the old Pearls Airport.
It is surprising to learn that Grenada's many handsome hotels have historically operated at only 30 percent capacity. This was true even during the regime of former Prime Minister Sir Eric Gairy. There is a vast, unrealized potential in Grenada's "tourist plant."
At a recent press conference, PRG Prime Minister Maurice Bishop spoke bitterly about the propaganda campaign that has damaged Grenada's tourist industry. "There have been stories in the press about military airports, submarine pens and harbors being built," he said. "One West German paper reported that we have cleared a forest for missiles aimed at neighboring islands! Another claimed Grenada had been hollowed out to make room for a hidden underground submarine base! Quite frankly," Bishop replies, "Grenada is so small that there's really no way of hiding such things."
In a reference to American US spy photos purporting to show new Army buildings in Nicaragua, Bishop jokes, "You don't need photos from a million-dollar satellite from hundreds of miles up in space. A simple glance from any LIAT flight shows these stories are untrue.
"Our best answer to this propaganda," Bishop adds, "is to ask people to come here, visit and see that Grenada is the most democratic, most stable country in the English -speaking Caribbean and also has the lowest rate of crime."
Why Does Washington Fear 'Cuban Aid'?
Bishop responded to another charge from Washington: the matter of Cuban aid in the building of the airstrip. "There have been no requests whatever to reciprocate, no demands made on foreign or domestic policy," he declared. In contrast, he noted, "It has been the United States that has been giving NO aid, that has been making ALL the requests and demands!"
Some 250 Cuban workers — women and men‚ are housed in wooden barracks on the hillside. Another 360 Grenadians are also working on the airport and — surprisingly — nearly a dozen Americans employed by a Florida firm are pitching in by helping dredge Hardy Bay.
Cuban music pulses from somewhere inside the dozen yellow barracks buildings while, on the road below, a series of billboards carries the message — "Gloria Eterna por los Martyrs de la Revolucion." The signs serve as a reminder of the recent death of a young Cuban worker, Roman Quintara, who was killed in the nearby quarry when his Komatsu tractor overturned, crushing him.
This death touched many Grenadians deeply. A popular calypso was composed in Quintara's honor. At a party at the Prime Minister's house on the anniversary of the March 13 revolution, a young cooperative farmworker named Patrick, when challenged about the Cuban involvement, immediately speaks of Quintara.
"The death of Ramon pains me deeply," he says, clutching at his shirt, his face twisted in anguish. "Please understand!" Patrick continues, “He didn't have to be out there. It was a Sunday but he had volunteered to work extra hours because he believed in the importance of his work for us."
A visiting Black American from New York expresses surprise. "That would never happen in America," he jokes. "We'd insist on time-and-a half."
"They are not working for money," Patrick replies impatiently. "They are working as our friends."
The 25-year-old Blueprints that Exposed Reagan's Lie
The dozen or so Americans working on the dredging rigs at Hardy Bay are loath to identify themselves. Not because they share Washington's presumed opinion that their work borders on treason — they can see first-hand the limitations of the Grenada airstrip — but because, as one airport official explained, "They are afraid of the anti-Castro terrorists who might try to sabotage their equipment. And they are worried about their families back in the States. Many of these men come from the Miami area."
Returning to his office, Ron Smith offers a final repost to Washington's hysterical reaction to the Grenada airport. The plan is nothing new, Smith points out. "It has been under discussion for the last 25 years. There have been six different studies." Smith should know. He has worked on most of them.
He pulls a grey binder down from a shelf and spreads it out on his desk. Inside is a map of Point Salines and, drawn over it, the plan of an airstrip nearly identical to the one now under construction. Smith stabs his finger at date on the document — February 1966.
"It was so frustrating all those years, doing this work and seeing nothing done," Smith recalls. He confesses there is a special pleasure for him as a Grenadian, to return to this native country and oversee the development of this particular airport. After years of inaction under the Gairy government, he notes with a broad smile, the airport is finally being built.
It is hoped that the first 5,000 feet of the new airport will be open by Spring of 1983. Until that day, Grenada will remain the only Caribbean nation without an international airport or night landing capability. This last factor has caused Grenada many cancellations and lost revenue. The importance of night-landing opportunities is not lost on Ron Smith.
"When St. Lucia's airport added night lighting, the passenger load doubled," Smith says. While in St. Vincent, the addition of night lighting doubled passenger traffic in only two years. "There were only 19,000 tourists in 1977 but, by 1980, there were 44,000. That's very spectacular growth," he grins.
As the Reagan Administration embarks on plans to spend $21 million to lease military airfields in Colombia and Honduras, it is instructive to recall that the largest military base in the Caribbean is located on the island of Cuba — and it is operated by the United States. Guantanamo Bay, "the Pearl Harbor of the Atlantic," sprawls over 28,000 acres. This single US base comprises a chunk of land that is nearly a third the size of the entire nation of Grenada.
"Investment is the basis of development for our country," Grenada's Finance Minister Bernard Coard recently declared. Because of that, Coard noted, "that shining runway leads straight into real change and prosperity for all of us here." Equally important, Coard observed, is the fact that the airport is "a symbol of how much we can move and change."
"Look how imperialism tried to take our airport from us; how they tried to sabotage its construction," Coard complained. America, he said, "spends all its money on more and more weapons of savagery and destruction — on neutron bombs and missiles. We do the opposite: We build, we construct. We are the makers of the future."
Gar Smith, an award-winning Berkeley-based journalist, visited and reported from Grenada 30 years ago, both following the New Jewel Movement revolution and after the US invasion. Smith is co-founder of Environmentalists Against War.