Sir Paul’s version

Jeremy Taylor on Survival for Service, by Paul Scoon, originally published in the Caribbean Review of Books

  • Sir Paul Scoon
Governor-General Sir Paul Scoon speaks to memb...

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Survival for Service: My Experiences as Governor General of Grenada by Paul Scoon (Macmillan Caribbean, ISBN 0-333-97064-0, 358 pp)


By the late 1970s, the reign of Sir Eric Gairy in Grenada had become a grave embarrassment, not only to Grenadians but to the Caribbean. It had degenerated into surrealism and farce, punctuated by thuggishness. Gairy fantasised about his own quasi-divine status and the significance of unidentified flying objects, while the father of the leader of the opposition was gunned down by police.

When Gairy was overthrown by the elected opposition leader Maurice Bishop and his New Jewel Movement (NJM) in March 1979, there was profound relief in Grenada and beyond. Reservations about Bishop’s method were put aside, at least for the time being. The NJM, largely through the charismatic personality of Bishop, was able to spark a sense of idealism in many Grenadians at that time: a sense that, without the dead weight of traditional Caribbean bureaucracy, rapid, radical change was possible, and that Grenada would prove this to the world.

I must confess a personal interest. I reported the NJM takeover for the BBC, and followed the progress of the “revolution” down to its death-throes in October 1983 and the US-Caribbean military intervention. I too felt that sense of idealism, and was reluctant to let go of it. I liked Bishop personally, and judged him to be intelligent and sincere. I expected him and his deputy, the (then) jovial Bernard Coard, to legitimise the People’s Revolutionary Government (PRG) through elections, as they promised to do. I visited Grenada several times during the PRG period, and saw some of their programmes in action, such as the adult literacy project. I felt angry with those who were hostile to the whole enterprise from the start; I feared that using the big stick rather than the carrot would back the PRG into a defensive corner, rather as had happened in Cuba in the early 1960s, before Castro’s “communism” took definitive hold.

But as early promises began to be broken and repressive measures were introduced, a dilemma evolved. Was this the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy by the PRG’s critics? Or had we been taken in? Were these genuine and necessary protective measures? Or was a previously hidden agenda now emerging into the open? The background made these questions hard to answer: US pressure on Nicaragua, the Iran-Contra affair, alarm about Cold War machinations by both sides in the Caribbean; as early as 1980 a bomb had narrowly failed to kill the PRG leadership and the Cuban ambassador. It was clear that several major players were now involved in Grenada’s revolutionary project — Washington, Moscow, Havana. What was less clear, except to ideologues on either side, was the real agenda in St George’s.

Two alternative myths developed to explain what was going on. According to one, Bishop and the NJM had wheeled a Trojan Horse into a peaceful Caribbean island, using wholesome cries of liberation and the stupidity of Eric Gairy as a cover. Once parked in St George’s, the Horse had disgorged a well-prepared Marxist-Leninist vanguard, with the aim of encircling the Caribbean in a communist net, aided by Nicaragua and Cuba. The charismatic Bishop was a mere figurehead for the shadowy apparatchiks hidden, Moscow-style, within the party.
According to the other myth, Maurice Bishop was an honest and sincere man, a respecter of people, who genuinely believed that extreme measures were justified to remove Gairy from power and to protect and maintain a programme of popular reform. But pressure and dirty tricks within and without forced the PRG onto the defensive, and, worse, onto dependence on Havana and Moscow. As Bishop was increasingly discredited, less intelligent and less scrupulous party officials saw an opportunity to seize power for themselves, and in so doing destroyed everything and left the door wide open for the arrival of the Terminator.

Twenty years later, it is still not clear which of these myths is closer to the truth. Bishop died under a hail of revolutionary bullets in the fort he had renamed after his murdered father; what happened to his body is still a mystery. Coard is locked up for the duration in the old colonial prison on Richmond Hill, his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment. The whole affair still lacks closure.

Sir Paul Scoon was Grenada’s governor general throughout the revolution. He had been appointed by Gairy only six months earlier — he is critical of Gairy in this book, but he had no trouble accepting the appointment, and pays no attention to events like the murder of Bishop’s father. He held office until 1992, and played a major role in picking up the pieces and getting Grenada back into working order after the disasters of 1983.

Scoon was deputy director of the Commonwealth Foundation in London when he was recruited by Gairy to occupy the governor general’s house in St George’s. He had been a teacher (among his students were future revolutionaries like Bernard Coard and Selwyn Strachan); eventually he rose to become Grenada’s chief education officer and cabinet secretary. Along the way, he developed a powerful instinct for propriety, discretion, and protocol, which translated easily into a fierce attachment to the letter of the national constitution, and an equally fierce hostility to anyone seeking to subvert the established order — or, indeed, trying to tell the governor general what to do. He became, in short, a model colonial public servant, loyal, discreet, diplomatic, conservative.

The PRG left the governor general in place throughout the revolutionary period, understanding his value as a symbol of stability and continuity, and treated him with due respect (though his requests for maintenance funding were politely refused, and Scoon was particularly peeved at the demolition of the governor general’s “bathhouse” on Grand Anse Beach). His discretion stood him in good stead. He played tennis with Bishop under the nervous guns of four bodyguards. When marauding pigs and goats invaded the governor general’s lawns, the prime minister obligingly had them chased away. Scoon invited Bishop to lunch and pondered the sight of the worried prime minister trying to puzzle out what his comrades might be up to behind his back.

There is a first-hand account here of how Scoon, with little more than a wink and a nod, “requested” military intervention via a British diplomat shortly before it began; and of the 26 hours he spent under fire in his residence after the intervention started, taking refuge beneath a settee. He also gives a brisk account of how he assumed executive authority in the aftermath of the intervention, when Grenada found itself with no leader, no government, no parliament, and no systems. But otherwise, once he had figured out how a governor general could legitimately operate in the middle of a revolution, Scoon seems to have kept his head down during the revolutionary years, maintaining his compromised dignity and hoping not to offend anyone.

Apart from these first-person episodes, however, Scoon disappears behind long narrative accounts of what the revolution did or did not do (and later, of the governments that came and went). Some of this material is based on what Scoon personally saw and heard, and must be given weight. Some is based on what he was told, and some on what he surmised; and here there are problems.

For example, Scoon states categorically that Maurice Bishop had been preparing to oust the “democratically elected Eric Gairy” since his student days in London, and to impose a “Marxist/Leninist regime on the unsuspecting Grenadian people”. He was committed to a “communist” path by the time he took over, and thereafter “ruled by the gun”; he was just as guilty of the detentions (and tortures, according to Scoon), the militarisation, the suppression of free expression, and the cancellation of elections, as Coard was.

Coard himself, according to Scoon, deliberately engineered the 1983 crisis within the party which destroyed the revolution. As finance minister, Coard had bungled management of the economy, pretty much bankrupted the island, was under pressure to “run something” (as they say) to the army, and saw that he could blame Bishop for the mess and thus make himself joint leader.

For all I know, all this may be true; I was not there. But I wonder how Scoon knows with such certainty. He was not privy to the machinations of the Central Committee, or the late-night arguments of the embryo New Jewel members either. He is right to be incensed at the use of detention and the harassment of “counter-revolutionaries”, the fear of speaking out, and the draconian treatment of the media. That the PRG leadership made appalling blunders, nobody disputes.

But even here, Scoon might have noted the PRG’s acute fear of invasion, especially after three people had been killed in the 1980 Queen’s Park bombing. There were threatening US and NATO naval exercises in the Caribbean in 1981 and 1982, and the CIA had developed a covert operations plan for Grenada which the US Senate Intelligence Committee refused to sanction in 1981. Early in 1983, President Ronald Reagan called Grenada a threat to US security, and its new airport a Soviet military base; rumours were spread of a secret Soviet submarine base on the south coast (as elusive, it seems, as Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction”). There was reason for the PRG to be jittery; and reason to distinguish scrupulously between fact and opinion.

Then there are the things that Scoon doesn’t mention at all. Free health care and education might have deserved a mention; or the fact that only Cuba and Guyana responded to the initial PRG appeal for aid (Britain actually cut its assistance): the fatal missed opportunity. Or the IMF’s congratulations to Grenada in 1982 on its economic performance (did Coard fool the Fund too?). Scoon does not explain why the deal offered by “General” Hudson Austin (a civilian prime minister, relaxation of the curfew, a commission of enquiry, the safety of American medical school students — one of the reasons given by Washington for the intervention) was not relayed to those preparing a military response. He merely implies that Austin (“weary and confused”) seemed to have misled him over the fate of Bishop’s remains, and thus could not be relied on. Scoon’s chronology of the period from October 19 to 25, 1983, and his record of who he spoke to, conflicts with previously published accounts, but he makes no attempt to note or explain the discrepancies.

Scoon deals very briefly with his visit to the aircraft carrier USS Guam. He makes this sound like a brief stopover for a shower and change, and to get a bite to eat. But it has been widely reported that he was actually there for two days, after which a backdated note emerged in which the governor general requested military intervention in writing. This is an important point, since the existence of a prior invitation from the governor general was one of the three prime reasons advanced to justify the intervention (the others being the invitation of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States and American concern over the safety of US nationals); some legal opinion doubts whether he was constitutionally empowered to issue it at all.

According to this book, Scoon’s prior invitation had been a verbal authorisation, given to British diplomat David Montgomery on October 23, to speak to the Barbadian prime minister Tom Adams “along the lines we had discussed”; that is, that Sir Paul would welcome a military intervention, but it was too dangerous to put this in writing.

Later, after choosing the distinguished Grenadian Alister McIntyre to head the Interim Advisory Council that would govern Grenada until new elections were called, Scoon mysteriously changes his mind, citing only McIntyre’s ill health; yet earlier accounts state that McIntyre had insisted on full executive power independent of US control, and was thus sidelined by Scoon in favour of Nicholas Brathwaite.

Again, Scoon deals harshly with the British legal advisor Anthony Rushford, whom he had previously liked and respected, and appointed as attorney general; yet suddenly Rushford is guilty of “self-aggrandisement”, indiscretions, patronising Grenada, trying to dictate policy — what happened? We are not told. Again, earlier published accounts claim that Rushford was unable to get Scoon to disclose any details of his request for US assistance, and gave up in despair.

Scoon has nothing to say in this book about the extent to which the US was running Grenada in the weeks after the intervention, the preparations it had made previously, its failure to turn Grenada into the promised investment paradise, or even the famous Psychological Operations personnel it left behind when combat troops were withdrawn.

Scoon may be wholly correct on all these points, and previous accounts mistaken. But there are enough important discrepancies between this version of events and previously published versions to keep a reader wondering, and doubting whether the whole story has been told here. This doubt is fuelled by Scoon’s relentless hostility to everything to do with the revolution, including anyone remotely sympathetic to it — the workers who came from other countries to help, and any journalist who dared to poke his nose into what was going on.

He is surely right to point to the farcical nature of some of the revolutionary visions — the idea of establishing an urban proletarian vanguard in a rural agricultural society, the idea that a deeply religious population could easily be weaned away from its faith, the absurdity of haranguing Grenadians about “the people”, as if they themselves were something else. Scoon marshals all the dismal evidence about the revolution’s blunders, failings, and fantasies. But at the end of the book, I didn’t feel able to trust this account; it seemed partisan and primarily self-serving. That is not to doubt its sincerity; but simply to say there is not enough evidence presented here — as distinct from hearsay and surmise — to accept the Trojan Horse myth intact. “It was the power of prayer that prevailed” seems an inadequate explanation for political events. The jury is still out.

Survival for Service suffers from editing and proofing weaknesses. There are occasional garbled sentences and wrongly spelled names (an entire chapter on Prime Minister Herbert Blaize is headed “The Blaze Administration”); “bourgeoisie” is consistently used as an adjective; punctuation frequently wanders away from its text. And a snappier title, without overtones of self-congratulation, would surely have helped Sir Paul’s cause.


Reproduced with permission from the pilot issue of the Caribbean Review of Books (CRB), May 2004. Copyright Media & Editorial Projects Ltd (MEP) and the CRB.