An exclusive interview with Bernard Coard
Bernard Coard was 'in a meeting', I was informed, when I phoned him in Grenada early Tuesday evening. I was asked to call him back in about an hour. And when I did, I was given another phone number to reach him. It occurred to me that only a few days after being released from serving 26 years in jail for the murder of Maurice Bishop and other members of the leadership of the New Jewel Movement (NJM) in October 1983, here was Coard taking up where he left off. I could just picture him huddled with his old political cronies. But he quickly disabused me of that notion when finally I got on to him late that night. Swearing that he will never get involved in politics again, Coard said he was meeting with someone 'who helped to save my life.'
Q: Tell me, Mr Coard...
A: Hey, Raoul! What is this 'Mister Coard' business? We go back too far for that. The only 'Mister Coard' I know is my father and he died a long time ago...
Okay, Bernard. How does it feel to be a free man?
I'm elated. Just elated. That's the bottom line.
And what was life like in prison for all those years?
The first eight years were really brutal. The man in charge of the prison at that time was from Barbados and he was really mentally ill. You didn't need a psychiatrist to tell you that. He could easily have run one of those concentration camps during World War Two. And the whole trial was a sham. Initially we refused to cooperate because there were all sorts of wrong things going on. We were tortured...
What kind of torture..?
We were sporadically beaten to force us to sign certain statements. Sometimes they would wrap a pipe in a wet towel and beat some of the guys on the stomach. I was not one of them. But medical reports produced in court testified to this kind of treatment. Apart from that, in the middle of the trial, there were all kinds of irregularities. It was well choreographed. At one point, the judge decided that a new panel of jurors should be picked. There were certain rules to be followed in that selection. And we subsequently discovered that at least 11 members of the new panel could not possibly have been on the jury. This was just one of some 200 irregularities that took place. We refused to co-operate. We chanted them down....Then when (Trinidad lawyer) Karl Hudson-Phillips took over the prosecution he suggested a different approach to get us to co-operate. But the torture continued. I was beaten about my head, my neck, I was bleeding from my ears. My injuries were superficial. But a medical report on my condition was three pages long. And in the cells, there were 100 Watt bulbs being used on a 24/7 basis. All the other cells had 60 Watt bulbs. There was no sheet for the bed or blankets, there were no toothbrushes, the cells were full of cockroaches. We had no clothes, except the short pants and shirts we were wearing. This went on for eight years. Eventually the man from Barbados in charge of the prison had a stroke and he returned to Barbados and subsequently died. Then a Grenadian took over running the prison and he was the best person. He made it one of the best-run prisons in Grenada, encouraging education and so on.
Did you also face hostility from other prisoners, who were sympathetic to Maurice Bishop?
Initially. But this changed very quickly. Callistus Bernard (a former member of the NJM who was also imprisoned) has written a book on his experience, titled They Can Only Kill Me Once. It's been published in the United Kingdom but isn't yet released in the Caribbean.
So what are your immediate plans for the future?
I plan to write my memoirs...
Tell me, do you feel any remorse over the killing of Maurice Bishop and other members of the NJM?
Oh Lord, yes! I've written a paper on this, titled 'Reflections And Apologies'. It was issued on February 8, 1997. In it, we apologised unreservedly to the Grenadian people. A lot of good things happened in the Grenada revolution, the new international airport, people were being better educated. And so on. But we took moral and political responsibility for what happened. We did so many things that were wrong. And we've apologised. We don't apportion blame. We take collective responsibility for everything that went wrong. We accept full moral and political responsibility for all of it. And I am still traumatised by it. It's not just a question of remorse. I've written 70 pages on this issue. Ask John 'Chalkie' Ventour to e-mail it to you...
What, really, did lead to the split between you and Maurice Bishop? I believe you were deputy Prime Minister at that time...?
The seeds for what happened on October 19, 1983 (the day Bishop, among others, was killed) were sown by some of the things we did when we took power. People look on it as a 'split' but there were many, many dimensions involved. Any such catastrophe must have more than one cause. A lot of media people in the Caribbean have consistently got it all wrong. And let me say this: you can take this as an exclusive interview because I have the highest respect for you. You are a distinguished journalist of the highest standing and the only reason I am doing this interview is because I have always respected you. You are the only Caribbean journalist I'm prepared to talk to...
Well, I appreciate that but back to the question of the 'split', if that is what it was, that led to the breakup between yourself and Maurice Bishop...
We had taken a decision that there should be joint leadership of the New Jewel Movement (NJM). This was discussed at a Congress of the party and it was agreed that there should be joint leadership. But then there was the Cuban influence in which they insisted, based on their own political experience, that there should be a maximum leader. They sought to introduce that model in the NJM. Bishop, who had contested the idea of joint leadership, said he wanted to give the whole thing some more thought. And despite the fact that it had been agreed on by a Congress of the party, we decided to invite the entire membership of the party to discuss it. So a general membership meeting was convened. And Bishop was told 'we love you. We can't do without you.' But we also pointed out his weaknesses. We all felt that joint leadership was the way to go. It was a mistake. Because life is also about human emotions and feelings. And we failed to take that into account. Bishop initially agreed to the idea of joint leadership. But he went on a short trip abroad and after passing through Cuba on his way home, when he got back he said he had changed his mind. And there were rumours circulating that we wanted to kill Maurice Bishop. And like the fools we were, we put him under house arrest. And the whole thing got out of hand...
Well, that is putting it mildly. What subsequently happened amounted to a virtual civil war with murderous consequences...
Not initially. Bishop supporters demonstrated in the streets on October 12 right through to October 19 (1983). Apart from a couple traffic policemen, there were no policemen or soldiers on the streets during those demonstrations. And anybody who was there will tell you that there was no lawlessness, no destruction of property. The demonstrations were highly vocal but they were disciplined. And the high command decided not to intervene because we felt that would only make things worse...The first half of the demonstration for Bishop on October 19 was in the same vein: very vocal but very disciplined. In the second half, people found out where Bishop was being detained and they stormed the place and took him away. We thought, well now they'll call a general strike and heighten the protest. Instead, they headed for the army headquarters, seized the building and began to arm themselves and distribute arms. Even at that stage, we were hoping things would calm down and we wouldn't have to intervene.
But you did intervene!
When we realised that weapons were being distributed, we sent three armoured cars to recapture the fort. The armoured cars were meant as a show of force. There was no intention to use force. One eye-witness said when he saw the armoured cars heading for the fort, there were soldiers sitting on top of the vehicles. That would not have been the case if their intent was to engage the demonstrators with arms. The prosecution at our trial said the intent was to massacre the people. But that was never the intent. It was some of the demonstrators who opened fire on the armoured cars. The first people to die in that fateful day of October 19 were four soldiers.
Were there any witnesses to this?
(The late Grenadian journalist) Allister Hughes was at the fort on October 19 and he sat in court during our trial and never said a word. But in his last days, he called in a few close friends, like Leslie Pierre, who swore to this in an affidavit that was presented to the Privy Council. Hughes told Pierre that the crowd was the first to open fire. And after that happened all hell broke loose.
But what about the execution of Maurice Bishop and Unison Whiteman, among others? Wasn't that a direct order?
No, no. American soldiers, with hundreds of years of military experience, have run amok in some countries. The British army, with a thousand years of military experience, has done the same thing. We had four and a half years of military experience in Grenada. What happened was vengeance. It was nothing we ordered. And it can never be justified. It was a moment or revenge. Pure and simple. But everyone of us in the leadership take moral and political responsibility for what happened. If we hadn't committed so many errors...we were amateurs, we were arrogant and intolerant and all our mistakes came home to roost....
I've seen it reported that you intend to give up politics. Is that true? Or are you going to get back in poilitics?
Are you crazy? Absolutely not.
So what does the future hold in store for you?
I'm not sure yet. I'm going to spend some time catching up on my writing, working on my memoirs.
I understand you plan to move to Jamaica?
Well, I am a Grenadian citizen. But my wife is a Jamaican and she is in very poor health. My son is also up there. My main duty and responsibility now is to her. (He explains that his wife got colon cancer while she was in prison, had been released because of this and had been receiving chemotherapy treatment which has affected her liver.) It very successfully destroyed part of her liver for which she has to be taking a lot of medicine. She is also a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder. Tell me, is Ken Gordon still in charge at the Express?
No, he's moved on, retired. The new CEO is Terrence Farrell.
Maybe I could become a correspondent for the Express.
A political correspondent?
No, no. no. Perhaps an economics correspondent. I never want to have anything to do with politics for the rest of my life.