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Caribbean Islands

Regional Security Threats, 1970-81

The relative stability characterizing the Westminster-style democracies of the Commonwealth Caribbean began to crumble in the late 1960s and early 1970s when Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago were shaken by political violence. Until they began achieving independence, the Commonwealth Caribbean islands had been relatively immune from subversion because of the efficient protection provided by British security and defense guarantees. The Black Power movement (see Glossary) was behind much of the social disorder, although criminal violence also rose to unprecedented levels. Black Power activists almost succeeded in overthrowing Prime Minister Williams in Trinidad and Tobago in 1970, but government troops finally suppressed the revolt with the assistance of a planeload of arms and ammunition purchased from the United States and Venezuela (see Political Dynamics, ch. 3). Another small Marxist group continued to carry out terrorist attacks on the island for a few years.

The leaders of most of the Marxist-Leninist-oriented opposition groups in the region were known to have had close contact with Cuba. Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago were particularly concerned about Cuban involvement in the indigenous Black Power movement. Virtually all of the Commonwealth Caribbean islands had at least one small extremist group that was an occasional security threat.

Eastern Caribbean security concerns were heightened in the 1976-78 period as a result of a major terrorist attack and two abortive mercenary actions in Barbados. A Cubana Airlines DC-8 airplane exploded shortly after it took off from Grantley Adams International Airport in Barbados on October 6, 1976; all seventy- three passengers and five crew members were killed in the incident, a bombing attributed to Caracas-based anti-Cuban terrorists. Only 5 days earlier, then-Prime Minister Tom Adams had announced that 2 United States citizens had plotted to overthrow his government with the assistance of a 260-member mercenary force. In December 1978, Barbados thwarted a coup plot by an expatriate arms dealer and a mercenary force.

Revolutionary activities in Grenada in early 1979 stunned Commonwealth Caribbean capitals, as well as London and Washington. For the first time in the history of the Commonwealth Caribbean, an elected government was overthrown in an armed coup. Grenada had been ruled for most of the decade by an autocratic-leaning prime minister, Eric Matthew Gairy, whose increasingly unpopular Grenada United Labour Party government was widely regarded as corrupt, incompetent, and an embarrassment to the region. On March 13, 1979, a group of supporters of Grenada's main parliamentary opposition party, Maurice Bishop's NJM, overthrew the Gairy regime in an armed coup while the prime minister was in the United States. Meeting in Barbados on March 14 and 15, 1979, the concerned leaders of six Eastern Caribbean countries discussed security implications of the coup. At a meeting held in Antigua and Barbuda five days later, leaders of Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines decided to examine the feasibility of establishing a regional defense force empowered to intervene in future rebellions "by armed and trained revolutionaries" against any of the governments concerned. Despite the initial alarm, the region established diplomatic relations with the de facto People's Revolutionary Government (PRG) because Gairy was widely disliked and ridiculed while Bishop was known regionally and liked and because of "a West Indian regional identity and sense of solidarity." Regional leaders also took note of Bishop's assurances that free and fair elections would be held.

The new Bishop government soon gave the region cause for concern. Within two weeks of opening diplomatic relations with Cuba on March 16, 1979, Cuban arms shipments and advisers began arriving on the island. The PRG regime replaced the entire professional police force and army with the political People's Revolutionary Army (PRA), arrested many political opponents, and suspended the Grenadian Constitution. By mid-April 1979, the PRA, with Cuban weapons and training assistance, had grown to a 2,000-member force, including the People's Revolutionary Militia (PRM), outstripping the combined forces of Grenada's OECS neighbors. (The PRA and PRM later became part of the People's Revolutionary Armed Forces-- PRAF.)

On April 30, 1979, Barbadian prime minister Adams met with Trinidad and Tobago's prime minister Williams and issued a memorandum of understanding that noted the "growing complexity of the security problems of the Caribbean region," which they identified as "terrorism, piracy, the use of mercenaries, and the introduction into the region of techniques of subversion." Only a week later, on May 5, the government of Antigua and Barbuda claimed that it had foiled a Cuban-backed coup plot organized by the ACLM in collaboration with Kendrick Radix, then-attorney general of the new PRG government in Grenada. The Bishop regime's reneging on its promise to hold free and fair elections and its increasingly close ties to the Soviet Union and Cuba added to the growing regional anxiety.

The Carter administration responded to the Caribbean developments in 1979 by sending a special envoy on an emergency tour of the English-speaking islands. That October, the envoy held the third in a series of meetings in London to plan joint United States-British responses to Caribbean economic and security problems, including a proposed multinational seaborne patrol force in the Eastern Caribbean. The susceptibility of the Commonwealth Caribbean islands to a seaborne attack had been demonstrated by various incidents in which mercenaries were involved. Britain, already sensitive to charges that it had abandoned its former colonies, sent a naval team to the region to make recommendations for a joint coast guard facility in Barbados, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and St. Lucia. In early 1979, Britain agreed to provide coast guard training and support for Barbados and St. Vincent and the Grenadines to "knit together" the smaller island forces.

The United States began a small International Military Education and Training program, primarily coast guard training, in Barbados in 1979. The United States also began providing coast guard vessels and some coast guard assistance to the region after the governments of Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, St. Kitts and Nevis, and St. Lucia agreed to engage in joint coast guard patrols. This informal security arrangement helped to establish the basis for a future regional security system.

A precedent for regional security cooperation was set in early September 1979, after militant Rastafarians (see Glossary) led by Lennox Charles seized Union Island in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. R. Milton Cato of the center-right St. Vincent Labour Party, who had taken office as prime minister two days earlier, requested military assistance from neighboring Barbados. The Barbados Labour Party (BLP) government of Prime Minister Adams responded by sending detachments of the Barbados Defence Force (BDF) to St. Vincent on December 16. While the BDF troops guarded Kingstown, Vincentian security forces were able to capture the insurgents (see St. Vincent and the Grenadines, National Security, ch. 4).

Cuban activities in the Commonwealth Caribbean region in 1979- 80 also were a source of increased regional security concerns. One incident that made Cuba look belligerent to its northern Commonwealth Caribbean neighbor, the Bahamas, and may have served as an act of regional intimidation took place on May 10, 1980. On that date, the Royal Bahamas Defence Force patrol boat Flamingo took two Cuban fishing boats in tow on charges of poaching in Bahamian territorial waters south of Ragged Island. Before the clearly marked Bahamian patrol boat could return to home port, Cuban MiGs strafed and sank it, killing four crewmen and wounding three others. The next day Cuban MiGs engaged in prolonged buzzing of Ragged Island in the Bahamas. Moreover, Cuban troops were transported by helicopter to the same island in pursuit of the surviving crew members of the sunken patrol vessel. In a statement issued on May 12, Cuba claimed that the MiGs were responding to a reported act of piracy. Bahamian prime minister Lynden O. Pindling, calling the attack "an atrocious act of aggression," said his government was "particularly appalled by the inhumane act of firing on defenseless men struggling in the water" and claimed that the MiGs also had made "simulated rocket runs" over Bahamian territory at treetop level. The Bahamian government threatened to take Cuba before the UN Security Council for aggression, but Cuba apologized formally on May 29 and agreed to pay compensation (see The Bahamas, Foreign Relations, ch. 6).

Cuban military and political relations with Grenada and Cuba's growing subversive activities in Jamaica also contributed to a marked deterioration in Cuba's relations with the Commonwealth Caribbean islands. Cuba suffered serious political setbacks in the region in 1980 as a result of the dramatic shift in the regional climate caused by the electoral victories of Ronald Reagan in the United States and Edward Seaga in Jamaica, the latter representing the conservative Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). Leftist pro-Cuban candidates lost elections in Antigua and Barbuda, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Dominica, and St. Kitts and Nevis. On taking office as prime minister in 1981, Seaga expelled Cuban ambassador Armando Ulises Estrada, a known Cuban intelligence agent, because of his role in coordinating the smuggling of arms and ammunition into Jamaica through a Cuban front corporation. By early 1981, Cuba was without any allies in the Caribbean other than Grenada. Cuban activities in the Commonwealth Caribbean suffered an additional setback when the Seaga government broke relations with Cuba on October 29, 1981, after the Castro regime ignored Jamaican warnings to withdraw all of its intelligence operatives from Jamaica.

The continued vulnerability of the democratic governments in the Eastern Caribbean was demonstrated again in March 1981, when an armed mercenary group of North American white supremacists and neo- Nazis attempted a coup in Dominica. The mercenaries wanted to replace Mary Eugenia Charles's Dominican Freedom Party government with the pro-South African administration of former Prime Minister Patrick John (see Dominica, Government and Politics; Dominica, National Security, ch. 4). The island government was able to thwart the plot, however, without calling for assistance from the BDF. The Charles government subsequently adopted stringent security laws: the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the State Security Act.

Data as of November 1987

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