The assassination of Maurice Bishop, excerpt 2 of 4

The assassination of Maurice Bishop, excerpt 2 of 4

Sunday, September 27, 2020

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Lt Colonel Liam “Owusu” James glanced at the agenda, then looking straight at the prime minister, bluntly stated, Comrade Bishop, this agenda is lacking in focus. James was the chief of intelligence and counter-intelligence at the Ministry of the Interior. Before Maurice Bishop could react to the audacious and peremptory rejection of his agenda, John “Chalkie” Ventour quickly counter-proposed a three-point agenda:

(1) analysis of the state of the party and the revolution;

(2) analysis of the CC's main problems; and

(3) the way forward.

Ventour held the important position of general secretary of the Trade Union Council, the umbrella body of the country's working-class movement.

Colonel Layne immediately seconded Ventour's proposed agenda. Layne was the second-in-command of the army but had de facto control since General Austin, the commander, was also minister of construction and publicutilities and was fully engaged on the revolution's showpiece project, the soon-to-be-completed new international airport at Point Salines. With rapid, staccato interventions, James, Ventour and Layne had deftly hijacked the agenda.

Such a defiant act against socialist leaders like Deng Xiaoping, Kim Il-Sung, Fidel Castro or Leonid Brezhnev would have been unthinkable. But the leader of the world's only English-speaking revolutionary state was different. His comrades knew that he was easygoing and avoided confrontation. His preference was to build consensus and seek accommodation rather than impose his will. He tried to avoid the conceit of personal pre-eminence and infallibility that afflicted so many other leaders.

If there was a single dissenting voice, he would try to persuade the dissenter. Deputy Minister of Finance and Tourism Lyden Ramdhanny saw this as a shortcoming. He said Bishop was over-accommodating as a leader; he did not wish to offend people and therefore his own beliefs and positions were often compromised. Lyden was an affluent businessman and the president of the Grenada Chamber of Commerce when he first met Maurice who had called on him at the chamber's office on Melville Street to present the New Jewel Movement's (NJM) arguments against Grenada proceeding to independence under Premier Eric Gairy. Lyden had been impressed by his eloquence and vision for Grenada and quietly started financing the NJM.

Not everyone held this view of the prime minister. Some who worked very closely with him believed that, along the way, he had become increasingly autocratic, like a Latin American caudillo, which conflicted with the principle of democratic centralism that governed the party's decision-making.

I have no problem changing the agenda, Bishop responded obligingly, I'm just concerned about the time limit of the analysis.

The CC should take all the time necessary to do the analysis, Layne curtly responded, when that is exhausted we can move on.

At 25 years old, tall and imposing, Layne was extremely young to be a colonel and the operational head of the army. But it was a young party. Half the members of the committee were still in their callow twenties. Bishop himself was only 39. Layne had been among the revolutionaries leading the pre-dawn attack on the True Blue army barracks on March 13, 1979, ending Gairy's rule. He had since distinguished himself by his intelligence, discipline and commitment and was greatly respected and liked by the soldiers who looked to him for leadership. Maurice was the commander-in-chief but it was Layne who wielded the most influence inside the army.

The prime minister had never been so openly and aggressively challenged. Comrades 15 years his junior were handling him like a schoolboy. Caught off-guard, he said nothing as the committee proceeded to adopt Ventour's agenda without amendment.

Layne led off on item one, painting a very dread picture. For a man who had been ensconced in a military academy in Russia thousands of miles away for the past three months, he had certainly kept abreast of happenings in Grenada. Either that or someone had prepared him upon his return a few days earlier. Whatever the case, he spoke with the gravitas that befitted his military rank. The revolution faces its greatest threat, he began. The people are dispirited and dissatisfied. The party is crumbling; mass organisations are collapsing; the style of leadership is by directives; people are saying democracy is dead in the party and decisions are too spontaneous. He expounded at great length without interruption, setting the tone by painting a picture of a revolution verging on collapse and a committee on a path of 'right opportunism'.

Right opportunism; those words, in a revolutionary state, had unmistakable implications which could not be missed. To be branded a right opportunist was almost as bad as being called a traitor. Right opportunists put individualism over the interest of the collective and pursued selfish, bourgeois values. This was antithetical to the revolution. If the Central Committee – the supreme organ of an aspiring Marxist-Leninist party like the New Jewel Movement – was on a path of right opportunism, it was indeed an alarming revelation.

Bishop listened, taking long drags of his '555' cigarettes. There was no trace of his irrepressible joviality. He knew that unrelenting pressure from the US, stepped-up military manoeuvers and their own internal pressure to accomplish more had exacted a heavy toll, resulting in burn-out at all levels. Many party members had fallen ill with high blood pressure, migraines, frequent colds, asthma and sinus problems. The party's response to this was 'more study', 'greater discipline' and 'better organisation'. At the same time, nothing had been done to expand the membership base to share the workload. Maintaining a very small party, yet expecting the membership to somehow cope with the exponential growth in tasks, had been a mistake. But no one person could be held responsible for this.

One by one, comrades echoed Layne's apocalyptic vision of the imminent demise of the party. Complaints came hurtling down like a muddy landslide after days of torrential rain. Key supporters were said to be drifting away; the masses had gone backward ideologically; the militia was non-existent; comrades were overworked and falling ill; morale in the army was low; members were too timid in criticising the higher organs of the party; there was a tendency to push things down comrades' throats; the revolution had lost its ability to 'manners' counter-revolutionaries and could be reversed in as early as a year. On and on and on it went. Only Unison Whiteman and George Louison did not join in the resounding doomsday chorus. Barely 32, Louison was a trained teacher and avid farmer, respected for his ability to mobilise people. He accused his comrades of creating panic due to the way they were bringing across their points. Whiteman was the foreign minister and, at 42, was the oldest person in the room. He was a quiet, gentle and retiring man. While not disputing the truth of the complaints, he cautioned, in his usual soft-spoken way, that some of the failures were due to overwork and the setting of unrealistic targets. They all knew this to be true.

Copyright 2020 Godfrey Smith. All Rights Reserved. The Assassination of Maurice Bishop is published by Ian Randle Publishers. It is available online at; and in retail stores islandwide.

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