US sponsored ‘Exercise Tradewinds’ perpetuates cycle of oppression in the Caribbean

By Tamanisha John

Between December 5-7, 2023, in San Antonio, Texas military planners from the United States, Canada, Barbados, and other CARICOM entities met to make plans for Tradewinds ’24. There, it was determined that the 39th iteration of Exercise Tradewinds (EXTW24) would take place, at least in the first phase, in Barbados. Between January 29, 2024, and February 2, 2024 military planners met again, this time in Barbados, to survey the terrain for EXTW24.

Tamanisha J. John

EXTW24 will be co-hosted by Barbados and US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) from May 4, 2024 to May 16, 2024. Thirteen independent countries, 5 territories, the US, UK, France, Canada, and the Netherlands – as well as over 60 different organizations are expected to participate in EXTW24, and, according to the Barbados, EXTW24 will prepare Caribbean regions for the ICC Cricket World Cup 2024. This is in line with the rebranding of these exercises as ‘culturally’ and ‘regionally’ relevant, alongside the normal description of the exercise to aid US security interests and objectives in “its hemisphere.”

Exercise Tradewinds, originating as a “regional” tactic exercise, holds historical significance for its role in countering Caribbean revolutionary fervor and fostering hostility towards Caribbean self-determination. Stemming from a US-led operation in Grenada in 1983, it expanded in 1986-87, involving conservative Caribbean allies. Despite its retroactive association, the period of 1984-87 primarily showcased militaristic displays aimed at undermining leftist governments in the region. This exercise, involving countries like Barbados, Dominica, and later Jamaica, sought to suppress left-leaning movements in the Caribbean and Central America. Understanding its origins and objectives is crucial in comprehending its impact on regional politics and solidarity.

The legacy of Reagan’s invasion of Grenada

Exercise Tradewinds was not officially named until after 1988, a product of the post-Grenada invasion period and the policing foundation that was built in the Caribbean during it. From the invasion of Grenada in 1983, the US and its conservative Caribbean partners collaborated on training police and paramilitary forces in the Caribbean, building police infrastructure in several Caribbean islands for the sole purpose of training in counterinsurgency to keep political governance in the region moderate or conservative and to prevent anti-colonial and anti-imperial movements from gaining traction.

Although the New Jewel Movement (NJM) overthrew the Gairy regime in Grenada in 1979 – the Reagan administration remained more firmly committed to attacking communists, nationalist, and other kinds of anti-capitalist resistance in Central America (Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador). Even so, the US would agree to extend money to Caribbean states for security, it was always on credit or loaned terms.

Following Grenada’s alignment with Marxist-Leninist ideologies and aid from Cuba and the Soviets, US security funding shifted. In 1981, post-Gairy regime overthrow, US Forces-Caribbean initiated paramilitary training for six Caribbean police forces. A year later, ahead of the Grenada invasion, the US military and FBI trained Caribbean police. Supported by US-trained OECS countries (Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Montserrat, St. Lucia, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Vincent and the Grenadines) and CARICOM allies (Barbados, Jamaica), the invasion occurred. Both CARICOM states were led by conservative prime ministers aligned with Reagan: Tom Adams and Edward Seaga in Barbados and Jamaica, respectively.

Although at this time there were laws in the US which barred US assistance for foreign police, an exception was made for the Eastern Caribbean, where each police force – especially for smaller islands like St. Kitts – were made to have Special Service Units (SSU), functionally paramilitary units, whereby they could receive training in bigger states like Barbados. Thus, prior to the invasion of Grenada in1983, the US military and FBI were explicitly training Caribbean police officers in tactics to subvert Black Power Movements in the region identified by the US and conservative Caribbean leaders as terrorists.

Three months after the invasion of Grenada, thus the start of 1984, Barbados prime minister Tom Adams continued to make the case for regional security with the US at the helm. Headlines in January and February of 1984 frequently discussed the Caribbean region as building a “mini-NATO”. That the US would be at the helm of Caribbean security was made clear in 1984, when Commonwealth Secretary-General Sonny Ramphal attempted to get US troops out of Grenada so that the “peacekeeping” forces there were exclusively composed of Caribbean police. However, Ramphal was opposed by these conservative Caribbean governments.

In the post-invasion Caribbean, states opposing intervention found themselves outnumbered by conservative governments favoring increased US militarization for political stability. Despite US aid, economic woes fueled revolutionary sentiment. Jamaica’s Seaga proposed a “Kissinger commission” for aid similar to Central America. However, security aid failed to alleviate economic struggles, benefiting US security agencies and weapon manufacturers instead. This expanded security apparatus, supported by the US, suppressed revolutions but didn’t address the 1980s economic downturn, illustrating its limited efficacy beyond bolstering US security interests and the military-industrial complex.

Amidst the deteriorating Caribbean economies, the US and its conservative Caribbean allies prolonged their occupation of Grenada until 1985. Despite increased security efforts, Grenada’s economy remained stagnant, with unemployment soaring to nearly 50%. Throughout 1986 and 1987, the US and its allies, maintaining power, showcased military strength in the Caribbean. US SOUTHCOM contributed to regional security programs, while Pentagon planners staged elaborate displays, involving up to 30 ships and 30,000 personnel. These demonstrations conveyed a clear message: amidst economic turmoil, alternative solutions, particularly those diverging from US and conservative Caribbean agendas, weren’t viable.

Operation Tradewinds was first mentioned in a 1990 Alabama newspaper, recounting a military wife’s hope for her husband’s return. It reveals US Sergeant Patterson’s participation in the 1987 Operation Tradewinds in Puerto Rico and Operation Just Call in ’89-’90, capturing Noriega. Miami Herald’s 1988 mention details hurricane exercises in Puerto Rico and St. Kitts, similar to Dominica’s ’87 exercises. By ’89, Exercise Tradewinds gained traction, held in Grenada after four years post-occupation. Described as “combined military training involving 10 Caribbean nations, US, and Britain” by Tampa Bay Times, it signaled UK’s late ’80s Caribbean militarization efforts, aiming to support Grenada against Cuba and other Central American threats.

It is these dynamics that Exercise Tradewinds was born out of, and why SOUTHCOM, the US Air Force, the US Army, the US Navy, the US FBI and other US security agencies continue to sponsor the exercise. Operation Tradewinds or Exercise Tradewinds is a successful counter-revolutionary investment in Caribbean security that, heading into the 1990s and today, receives most of its support from the US, UK, France, Canada, and the Netherlands. Initially, in the early 1990s, Exercise Tradewinds was being reported as having begun in 1986 – a year after US and conservative Caribbean forces finally stopped occupying Grenada.

Operation Tradewinds, initiated by conservative leaders Reagan, Charles, Adams, and Seaga, gained Caribbean support by 1992, expanding to involve Trinidad. By 1995, all Anglophone Caribbean nations participated. Participation grew in the 2000s, 2010s, and 2020, with over 21 countries annually involved, including Caribbean, US, Canadian, and European partners, and Central American states like Mexico, which co-hosted EXTW22. Today, Tradewinds focuses on humanitarian and disaster relief training. Caribbean leaders, including some ‘left’ ones, defend it against critiques by highlighting its humanitarian aspects.

Exercise Tradewinds persists with the premise that Caribbean policing should oppose local self-determination. In the 1990s-2000s, it aided US detainment of Haitians, supported Western missionaries in Indigenous areas, and opposed movements aligned with Black power. Rooted in 1984, it emphasizes counterinsurgency, focusing on “riot readiness” and control, despite media framing it around narcotics interdictions at sea.

What I find disgusting are the descriptions of the exercises, or war games, as they regard riot control. Essentially, they train to combat “rioters,” often those resisting imperialism and state forces, thereby perpetuating a cycle of oppression.

Tamanisha J. John is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics at York University.