“Forward ever, backward never”: the tragedy of the Grenadian Revolution

13 March marked the anniversary of an insurrection by a small party in 1979 – with the popular support of the masses – who ousted a dictator and attempted to throw off the shackles of imperialism. This insurrection was carried out by a party known as the New Jewel Movement (NJM), self-described “Marxist-Leninists”, who set about making a series of positive gains in a country suffering from a legacy of imperialism and slavery. Democratic structures, measures to liberate women, improved healthcare and education earned popular support for the revolutionary party in the early stages of the revolution – an inspiring episode in the history of the Caribbean.

This revolutionary moment ended with a factional struggle in the party and the imposition of a puppet regime by the USA, which set about undoing the gains of the revolution. We should study the Grenadian Revolution, not only to celebrate this struggle against imperialism, but to learn its lessons for the present.

‘Blood from every pore’

Grenada is an island in the south east of the Caribbean Sea. It encompasses a number of smaller outlying islands, the two populated ones being Carriacou and Petite Martinique. The population is relatively small – only around 110,000 – and wasn’t much less during the revolution.

Like most former colonies, the history of Grenada is dominated by genocide, slavery and imperialism. Nevertheless, it also contains great periods of heroic class battles, from the 1800s, when slave revolts attempted to throw off the domination of their imperial oppressors, to the 1900s, when numerous general strikes reached almost insurrectionary levels in order to achieve justice and equality.

Grenada changed hands between the French and the British from its first colonisation in 1654. This colonisation exterminated the ‘unruly’ Amerindians, who had settled the islands before them, and filled it with the elements of French society deemed ‘undesirable’ – criminals, religious heretics, etc. Sugar production came to dominate the island, through the use of slave labour, until the early 1800s when the industry became unprofitable due to the more productive (read: brutal) sugar plantations of Cuba and Brazil. Slavery was abolished in the 1830s due to its unprofitability and, more importantly, the series of mass slave revolts that had shaken the West Indies.

Growing militancy

On the surface, there was a period of relative class peace in Grenada during the early 20th century, compared with the mass general strikes and insurrectionary struggles that had taken place in Caribbean countries, such as Trinidad and Tobago, after the First World War. However, Grenada was not exempt from similar grinding poverty – the 1945 Moyne Commission found that there was rampant malnutrition, poor housing, abysmal healthcare, and a minimum wage which today would equal $4.35 per day!

Beneath the surface bubbled a growing class anger. This burst forth with the first general strike on 19 February 1951. The newly formed Grenada Manual and Mental Workers’ Union (GMMWU), headed by Eric Gairy, called for this general strike. This gave an expression to the growing anger in society and the strike became a full-blown revolt: plantation houses were looted and burnt down; nutmeg and cocoa fields were destroyed; roadblocks were set up across the island. The working class of Grenada had completely paralysed economic life on the island.

Eric Gairy Image fair useEric Gairy led a successful general strike in 1951, and went on to lead the country, but he later succumbed to corruption / Image: fair use

A state of emergency was declared, British navy and police detachments were brought in. Eric Gairy was arrested, yet this proved insufficient to quell the discontent. The ruling class was forced to quickly bring Gairy back, asking him to give a radio address to restore peace. The government conceded to the strike’s demands – universal suffrage and a massive wage increase.

Because of the strike’s success, Gairy became the most popular politician in Grenada. He formed the Grenada United Labour Party (GULP) to contest the 1951 election and won by a landslide, receiving 65 percent of the vote and taking six of the eight legislative council seats (the others were decided by the British government). However, once in power, Gairy allied himself with various bourgeois figures.

Alarmed by the strike, a party emerged based on the petty-bourgeoisie and plantation owners called the Grenada National Party (GNP). The GNP and GULP would alternate in government from 1951-1973. Gairy would line his and his backers’ pockets, be kicked out for corruption, and the GNP would carry out the bidding of the ruling class. The GNP sold the telephone and electricity companies off to private investors, provided subsidies to the plantation owners, and increased their income by 170 percent. During their re-election in 1962, the GNP outlawed strikes in the telephone, electricity and water services as well any industries deemed ‘essential’. The GNP would then become discredited due to these brutal policies, Gairy would cynically use his organisations to win support through strikes and campaigns, and GULP would be re-elected. This was until 1973, when Gairy began to maintain his power through election-rigging and paramilitary groups.

The New Jewel Movement emerges

By the 1970s, public services had deteriorated drastically. The majority of teachers lacked any professional training, up to 80 pupils were packed into a single classroom, and only 15 percent of primary school children went on to secondary school. Hospitals lacked beds, medicines, and other basic medical equipment. The mortality rate was high and most pregnant women had to give birth on concrete floors.

In response to these conditions, 30 nurses from the local hospital in St George’s organised a protest. Gairy responded by transferring them to other parts of the country, which then caused this protest to spread – Gairy’s police met them with tear gas and clubs. 22 of the nurses were arrested and defended in court by Kenrick Radix and Maurice Bishop, two lawyers who had just returned from graduating abroad and threw themselves into the struggle, going on to form the New Jewel Movement (NJM). The young intelligentsia – figures like Bishop, Radix, and Bernard Coard – after studying abroad, influenced by the ideas of various anti-imperialists like Fidel Castro, black nationalists like Malcolm X (himself half-Grenadian), and the black power movement in the US, returned to their homeland to fight for the emancipation of the working masses.

New Jewel Movement Image DahnThe New Jewel Movement (NJM) was a popular front of various anti-Gairy organisations / Image: Dahn

The NJM was founded in 1973 through the merging of a number of smaller organisations: the ‘Movement for Assemblies of the People’ (MAP) and the ‘Joint Endeavour for Welfare, Education, and Liberation (JEWEL)’. Although this party would later call itself “Marxist-Leninist”, organisationally it had a loose structure. The party atmosphere was more like a discussion group and for the majority of its existence there was no central committee. Most party structures were created in the process of struggle rather than in accordance with any plan or theory.

With the adoption of a “Marxist-Leninist” line came all the trappings of Stalinist theory, such as the “two-stage” theory of revolution. The NJM believed it needed the support of all classes in society as it deemed the coming revolution to be a national anti-imperialist struggle. The socialist programme would therefore have to wait. They saw the poverty suffered by the masses, not as the result of a capitalist imperialist dominated economy, but as the creation of a small, exploitative ‘pro-Gairy’ bourgeoisie of merchants and bankers who were dependent upon American and European capital. This flowed from the argument that a national-democratic revolution should be an alliance of all classes, including the ‘patriotic’ bourgeoisie, which would allow the construction of a national economy free from imperialism.

Therefore, the NJM took up the slogan of “national unity” – allying with bourgeois and petty-bourgeois parties (like the GNP) on the condition that they were anti-Gairy. Like in other countries where this popular frontism was tried, the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois parties were numerically weak and were only given strength by the popular NJM, which propped them up. The programme of the NJM was ultimately a reformist one of cheaper housing, preventative healthcare, agricultural reform, and the building of schools. Yet, it inspired the masses, and the NJM could easily have dispensed with these capitalist hangers-on.

Gairy responded to this growing discontent by organising a band of violent criminals known as the Mongoose Gang, who were trained and supplied with weapons by the Chilean dictator, Pinochet, and would be used to smash any dissent.

The independence distraction

In late 1973, Gairy attempted to use the question of independence to cut across this growing dissatisfaction. He argued that independence would open the door to international financial institutions and encourage aid. The British government, now only a second-rate power, was willing to be free of this economic and social burden. The NJM opposed independence on the basis that it would strengthen Gairy’s grip on power. In response to independence, the NJM organised a People’s Congress attended by over 10,000 people – which would be equivalent to 7,000,000 people in the UK out on the streets of London! This mass meeting passed motions accusing Gairy of corruption and murder and called on him to resign within two weeks or face a general strike. He did not take this threat of a general strike lightly and attempted to force the NJM into submission. Gairy’s Mongoose Gang and the police followed six NJM leaders on their way to organise the general strike with a group of businessmen. The six of them were set upon, beaten to within an inch of their lives, and then thrown into the local prison. The police chief ordered their heads to be shaved with broken glass and threatened to force them to eat the resultant mixture of blood and hair.

When word spread of this brutal torture, mass opposition forced Gairy to release the six prisoners. This brutal treatment of the NJM leaders was a serious miscalculation. The whip of reaction spurred on the general strike he had intended to prevent. Dockworkers organised in the Seamen and Waterfront Workers Union (SWWU) came out on strike on 1 January 1974 against Gairy along the waterfront of St. George’s. The strikers gained more and more sympathy and solidarity strikes broke out as it continued. The strikes prevented the importing of food and fuel. Gairy had no money to pay the civil service – nor even the Mongoose Gang! His position grew even more precarious as sections of the civil service and police began to sympathise with the striking workers. Gairy lashed out and set the Mongoose Gang upon strikers and protestors.

Gairy was propped up by British imperialism, who sent him £100,000 to pay off the civil service and sent gunboats to the docks to intimidate the workers. Gairy also had another ally – the cowardice of the Trade Union leaders. $45,000 arrived from Grenadians abroad for the strike fund, which would have allowed the strike to continue its militant action and could have brought down Gairy. The SWWU leaders, supporters of the liberal GNP, were alarmed at the militancy of the strike and worried what would happen if the strike was allowed to continue – they consequently called the strike off. This gave Gairy some breathing space and he compromised with sections of the disaffected bourgeoisie. The Grenadian masses had suffered another defeat.

The ‘Revo’ begins

Bishop East Berlin Image Ulrich HäßlerMaurice Bishop (pictured in East Germany) was an early leader of the NJM and one half of the factional struggle that later tore the revolutionary leadership apart / Image: Ulrich Häßler

Gairy rigged the 1976 election by striking opposition members off the voting register, letting his supporters vote twice, adding the names of deceased people, as well as using the police and army to break up anti-Gairy rallies. The NJM had opportunistically joined forces with the GNP and United People’s Party (a right-split from the GNP) in the ‘People’s Alliance’. However, despite the machinations of Gairy, the People’s Alliance won 48.5 percent of the vote and gained six of the fifteen seats. This ‘People’s Alliance’ quickly broke down the following year as the class differences in the bloc came to the fore, with the bourgeois parties denouncing the “domination” of the NJM.

Support for the NJM was growing across the island. They won workers over to their programme through building up support in existing unions and winning executive positions in them, alongside building new unions. They set up a youth and women’s group alongside the main party. The NJM also infiltrated the army and the police whilst building up its own paramilitary detachment. The infiltration into the state forces would prove useful as it was after a tipoff by a police sympathiser that the NJM learned that Gairy had ordered the liquidation of the NJM leadership while he was away in the US. This intelligence forced the hand of the NJM to start the insurrection to take power.

On the same day Gairy left, the NJM organised the insurrection and set the date for 13 March 1979. The group were to assault Gairy’s men stationed at the barracks in True Blue. The assault required virtually no effort. After seizing the army’s unguarded arsenal and burning the barracks to the ground, they seized the Broadcasting Station and broadcast an address, appealing for support for the revolution. Thousands of Grenadians poured into the streets, arresting the members of the Mongoose Gang, seizing the police stations, and flying the flag of the NJM. By the following day, the entire island was in its hands.

The National-Democratic stage

The rottenness of the regime meant there was little resistance. As Trotsky once said, “A lion you kill with a shot; the flea you squash between the fingernails”. The NJM proclaimed the beginning of the People’s Revolutionary Government (PRG) but didn’t take steps to overthrow capitalism.

Like the Stalinists, they argued that due to the low level of development in Grenada and small size of the working class, Grenada would first have to pass through the “National-Democratic stage”. For the NJM, this consisted of the building of a national economy, run on a mixed economy basis, with the alliance of all anti-Gairy groups including the supposed ‘anti-imperialist’, anti-Gairy bourgeoisie. The state enterprises would supposedly lead the development of the economy but also work alongside and compete with the private sector.

On the revolution, Bishop stated:

“The Grenada Revolution is a national-democratic, anti-imperialist Revolution, involving the alliance of many classes including sections of the small bourgeoisie but under the leadership and with the dominant role being played by the working people and particularly the working class, through their vanguard Party the NJM.” – (Line of March Speech 1982)

As a result, there was to be little nationalisation by the new government. However, the PRG was forced to nationalise certain companies due to economic sabotage and mismanagement by the bourgeoisie. For example, the Electricity Corporation and Telephone Company had to be taken over due to poor management. The Holiday Inn Hotel was taken over after a fire broke out and the owners refused to rebuild. The Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce ceased all economic activity and was consequently nationalised.

The NJM similarly stopped any attempts by the masses to go beyond the boundaries of the capitalist system. The most famous example was the suppression of the People’s Collective Farm on the River Antoine estate. This estate was seized by the workers and they began to run it under democratic workers’ control. The leaders of this initiative denounced the PRG as the “Petty-Bourgeois Reformist Government” and wrote numerous articles attacking it. The PRG attempted to ‘negotiate’ with the workers but claimed that they were going too far and were being counter-revolutionary. After numerous unsuccessful meetings, the leaders of this seizure were thrown in prison and the factory was handed back to its previous owner.

This was seized on by reactionaries, who accused the PRG of being Cuban/Soviet stooges wanting to abolish all human rights. This, in turn, was used by the PRG as supposed evidence that the leaders of the expropriation were in the pocket of reaction. Whether or not this is true is debatable – though it raises the question of why reactionaries would want to challenge bourgeois property rights in the first place. However, what cannot be debated is that the occupation of the factory was a genuine upsurge of the workers against the bosses. No amount of propaganda can force workers to seize control of production.

The sabotage carried out by the capitalist class was a significant factor that ultimately caused the downfall of the PRG, which could have been avoided provided the NJM leadership were prepared to abolish capitalism and expropriate the ruling class, which ultimately retained control of the economy. However, to do that would have required the active participation of the workers and peasants – an action the NJM leadership were not willing to take.

A “respectable” face

The construction of a ‘National-Democratic’ government also served the aim of presenting a ‘respectable’ face to world imperialism. Members of the anti-Gairy bourgeoisie were given positions in the government and only the property of the pro-Gairy bourgeoisie was nationalised. The NJM believed that by eliminating the influence of Gairy’s group, and parachuting bourgeois figures into government positions, they would prevent imperialist aggression.

To quote Bishop:

“This was done deliberately so that imperialism won't get too excited and would say ‘well they have some nice fellas in that thing; everything alright.’ And as a result, wouldn't think about sending in troops.”

Another instance was when the NJM came to power and arrested the Governor-General. They asked him to pledge loyalty to the new government and consequently left his position intact. This led to the bizarre situation where the PRG was a ‘Marxist-Leninist’ government with the British Queen as the proclaimed Head of State! People’s Law No. 3 states:

“The Head of State shall remain Her Majesty The Queen, and her representative in this country shall continue to be the Governor General who shall perform such functions as the People's Revolutionary Government may from time to time advice.”

Heli Grenada US Image TSgt. M. J. CreenDespite courting 'legitimacy' from imperialism, the US invaded Grenada regardless / Image: T. Sgt. M. J. Creen

This was in order to give the PRG a degree of legitimacy in the eyes of imperialism. However, despite the ‘legitimacy’ the NJM leaders believed it gave them, the US proceeded to invade regardless of any degree of legality. Imperialist powers will use any measures to achieve their aims, no matter how legal or illegal they may be. The US was always going to want to invade as the PRG represented a threat to US interests in the Caribbean. Therefore, the PRG should have gone further and expropriated the US capitalists and their lackeys, seized the large estates and implemented workers’ control.

The only true break from imperialism is overthrowing capitalism. No construction of ‘socialism in one country’, the building of a ‘national economy’, or veneer of ‘respectability’ can prevent the destructive waves of imperialism crashing against this wall of isolated self-preservation. The only defence of socialism is international revolution, that is, to turn outwards and appeal to the exploited masses through the Caribbean and Americas, to join in the struggle to overthrow their oppressors, in a socialist federation of the Caribbean, which would inspire further revolutions across the world, further strengthening the international socialist revolution.

The gains of the revolution

Despite the failure of the PRG to seriously challenge the structures of capitalism, the revolution made a series of gains. All the anti-worker trade union laws were repealed by the PRG in 1980. 14 percent of the budget was allocated to health expenditure, making it one of the highest in the Commonwealth Caribbean. The PRG ended the corruption in the health sector and used St. George’s University to train up new doctors and clinical staff for their hospitals. Mobile health teams were also set up for remote areas.

The PRG instituted a number of measures that helped elevate the position of women within society. The burden of childcare was alleviated with the establishment of pre-school and daycare centres. All legal forms of discrimination, like equal pay, were removed immediately, and women were given maternity leave and greater job opportunities. Low-income single mothers were also given subsidies to help with the purchase of school uniforms and other expenses.

Additionally, over 22 percent of the budget was allocated to education, and illiteracy was reduced from 70 percent to less than 3 percent in under 4 years. A programme was also set up to give primary school teachers a formal education. Secondary school was no longer an unattainable privilege, as the rate of students attending secondary school increased from 11 percent to 40 percent. Adult education courses were set up to enrol thousands of Grenadians in Maths, English and the Sciences. Skills training programmes were set up for workers, training workers in the agricultural, fishing, tourism and public service sectors. Alongside that, scholarships for free university education increased from a handful to hundreds.

Once coming to power, the PRG attempted to solve the land question. Before the revolution, the largest estates, accounting for less than 1 percent of the total landholdings, made up 50 percent of cultivable land. By 1979, a third of this cultivable land was abandoned. The NJM distributed hundreds of acres to the peasantry and used the land to reduce unemployment to 10 percent by 1983. However, the PRG only nationalised land that was being unused, meaning most of the land was still in the hands of the large landlords.

Zonal councils or workers’ councils?

Another gain of the revolution was in the area of democracy. The PRG organised what were essentially proto-Soviets called Zonal councils, which represented zones or clusters of villages in a parish. Meetings were organised every month and a member of the NJM politburo had to be present at every council meeting. Many of the programmes of the PRG had their origins in discussions and debates in these council meetings. The PRG used these councils to help draw up a “People’s Budget” by letting the workers and peasants participate in its writing.

However, there were a number of problems with these councils. Their structures were born out of existing NJM structures and consequently had a top-down character. Although a member of the government attended these meetings, there was nothing that mandated them to carry out the people’s demands. There was no immediate right of recall as this member was appointed by the party. That is not to say that the people were ignored, but a basic feature of this system was unaccountable state bureaucrats who only had to “listen” to the masses as opposed to the council officials being appointed by the workers and peasants. As the revolution progressed and the difficulties bore down on the party leadership, by the final year of the revolution, no PRG official had attended a council meeting in over 18 months. This meant that the only avenue through which the workers and peasants had some semblance of democratic control over the revolution was cut off.

The defeat of the revolution

The masses were kept in the dark about debates within the party and the way forward for the revolution until the fateful hour. Within the party, a power struggle erupted between two groups – one headed by Bishop, the other by Coard.

This struggle took place in late 1983 under the threat of imperialist intervention. In March, US warships gathered near to within six miles of the Point Salines airport and the US government claimed that this airport was being used for Soviet and Cuban military purposes. These claims were proven false after the US invasion. The CIA also corrupted and controlled the trade union leadership through the American Institute of Free Labor Development (AIFLD), which was set up by the AFL-CIO. They attempted to destabilise the government through various acts of sabotage, such as attempting to incite workers to go on strike and cut off the power to the whole country.

US Marines with prisoners Grenada 1983 Image Sgt. Christopher GreyThe Grenadian Revolution was crushed between factional struggles and imperialist intervention / Image: Sgt. Christopher Grey

On top of this were the administrative inefficiencies, which bore down on the NJM leadership. The members of the NJM Central Committee (CC), who were all ministers in government, disregarded the masses as they focussed on the running of the state as the economy started to wane. The party base, of only 500 members, was also too small to be able to manage the economy. Overworked and overstretched, many members had to take time off for sickness, only further exacerbating these problems.

Reasons had to be found for these inefficiencies. The root of these problems was first identified as slackness and a lack of discipline on behalf of officials, but eventually developed into criticism directed towards Bishop – accusing him of ‘arrogance’, ‘one man-ism’, and ‘petty-bourgeois deviations’.

To resolve this crisis, the NJM agreed on a joint leadership model for Bishop and Coard in early September 1983. Bishop agreed to the joint leadership suggestion and left for Hungary on a diplomatic mission. Bishop told his security (Cletus St. Paul and Errol George) this was a power struggle and that only one of them would emerge victorious. After Hungary, Bishop went on to Cuba before returning to Grenada on 6 October. St. Paul and George, circulated a rumour back in Grenada that Coard was planning to kill Bishop. Alarmed by this, Coard’s faction ordered Bishop apprehended and placed him under house arrest for counter-revolutionary activities on 13 October.

Members of the Bishop faction alerted people about Bishop’s imprisonment and thousands of people came out onto the streets to demand he be freed. Behind the scenes, Bishop’s faction was negotiating with the Coard faction, hoping to reach some sort of compromise. They actively tried to hold back the masses, using them only as a negotiating tactic against Coard’s faction. However, the masses burst out onto the streets. 15,000 people came out on 19 October and some went to Bishop’s house to free him. From there they then marched with him down to Fort Rupert.

Other members of the Bishop faction began to hand out weapons to the masses to defend Bishop, which led to a standoff between the People’s Revolutionary Army (PRA) and the armed masses, before ending in a violent clash. Seeing the carnage unfold, Bishop protested and handed himself in to stop the violence. Bishop, along with a few others, were rounded up and summarily shot. Hudson Austin, leader of the PRA and part of the Coard faction, took charge and formed the “Revolutionary Military Council” – instituting a 72-hour curfew in which if anyone was to leave their homes then they would be shot. However, hundreds of people still came out onto the streets to protest Bishop’s murder. In less than a week, on 25 October, the USA invaded the island, overwhelmed the PRA’s forces and overthrew Austin’s government. Having swept away the PRG, US imperialism then arranged the election of a puppet regime, which set about undoing all the gains of the revolution.

Lessons for today

This power struggle is generally presented as a battle between two opposing ideologies. Bishop is portrayed as the ‘moderate’ or more like a social democrat, in contrast to Coard who is portrayed as the hardline Marxist who wanted to eradicate capitalism and establish a dictatorship. However, nothing that Coard said indicated a more radical direction – they both agreed on the ‘national-democratic revolution’. Before the revolution, they had worked practically in tandem on all decisions within the NJM. Bishop would often ask people to pass proposals by Coard before agreeing to them and vice versa. But despite this, the power struggle still ended in a bloodbath. This shows that, despite the good intentions of the leadership of the NJM, the workers and peasants had no democratic control over the party, which created a situation where the struggle between two opposing factions could only be resolved through the liquidation of the other.

There are many lessons which can be drawn out from the Grenadian revolution whether that be the organisational problems associated with ruling without the masses, or the tactical questions such as Popular Frontism, but the main lesson of the Grenadian revolution is the failure to not complete the revolution. Instead of attempting to manage a ‘mixed economy’ with an alliance of hostile classes, the NJM should have overthrown capitalism – expropriating the economy and placing it under the democratic control of the workers and peasants.

The NJM leadership showed that, despite their desire to liberate the masses, they were not prepared to go the whole way. Instead, they allowed the majority of the capitalist class to keep their property and to actively sabotage the revolution. When the workers took the initiative to take control over their workplaces, the PRG rounded up the “provocateurs” and threw them in prison, whilst handing the ownership back to the capitalists. The NJM ultimately did not have faith in the masses, instead believing that the construction of socialism could be left to the guiding hand of the party alone. This is shown by the lack of any actual workers’ democracy in Grenada, despite the presence of the Zonal Councils, which were mainly talking shops rather than organs of workers’ power.

It was inevitable that, without the overthrow of capitalism with the active participation of the masses, the revolution would end in defeat. The contradictions in society and influence of petty-bourgeois and bourgeois forces do not weaken when the revolutionary party comes to power, but only become stronger. The difficulties in maintaining this unhappy alliance of classes bore down on the leadership immensely. The pressures of imperialism, active sabotage by the local bourgeoisie, and the growing apathy of the masses, acted as the catalysts for a factional struggle which US imperialism exploited to the full.

Today, the events of 1979 to 1983 provide an inspiring example to the oppressed masses of the world. Despite the limitations of the revolution, the workers of this tiny island, threatened on all sides, stormed heaven. But out of their heroic struggle there is a crucial lesson for our own: you cannot make half a revolution. Only an international struggle to overthrow capitalism worldwide can guarantee the victory of socialism. This is our fight.


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