Extraordinary life develops out of events 20 years ago

October 25, 2003|By GREGORY KANE

Oct. 25, 1983 - 20 years ago to the day. Can you remember what you were doing?

Randallstown resident Don Rojas can. He was on the run, trying to elude patrols that had been ordered to shoot him on sight. This all-too-real drama took place in the tiny nation of Grenada, which lies near the end of a long chain of eastern Caribbean islands.

Rojas had returned to his native Grenada in 1979 to serve in the government of his schoolmate Prime Minister Maurice Bishop (both had attended Presentation Brothers College, a high school in St. George's, Grenada's capital). Bishop was a member of the Marxist New Jewel Movement that seized power in a coup March 13, 1979. But three years later Bishop was involved in a power struggle with the more hard-line Stalinist Bernard Coard and his supporters.

That struggle ended Oct. 19, 1983, when Bishop and seven of his supporters were lined up against a wall in Fort Rupert - named for Bishop's father, Rupert Bishop, who had been slain nine years earlier by the police of then-Prime Minister Eric Gairy - and machine-gunned to death. Rojas, who was Bishop's press secretary, said Coard then gave the orders to hunt him down.

But it was Coard and his faction - so vile that even Cuban jefe Fidel Castro called them "the Pol Pot gang" - who were hunted down by the American forces that landed on Oct. 25. Baltimoreans should be glad that a man of Rojas's accomplishments survived and chose to live here. His resume - and life story - are extraordinary.

Rojas first arrived in the United States in 1968. During the next 11 years, he attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison, worked about six months as an assistant editor at the Baltimore Afro-American and served as assistant director of communications for the National Urban League in New York for two years before Bishop asked him to return to Grenada and edit the government newspaper.

The American invasion may have saved his life, but it didn't get him back to the United States anytime soon. U.S. forces took him into custody and interrogated him.

"Half of them didn't know where they were," Rojas said of American troops. "The other half didn't know who they were supposed to be fighting."

Hmm. Sounds like they learned geography in Baltimore's public schools.

The Americans flew Rojas, his wife - a Jamaican who was a naturalized American citizen - and children to Barbados, where then-Prime Minister Tom Adams gave him five days to leave the country. From there, Rojas and his family went to Trinidad, where they were given 10 days to leave.

Rojas was in Canada when he received an offer to go on a lecture tour of Europe. He ended up working in Prague, where he stayed until 1986. A socialist, Rojas lived in Cuba from 1986 until 1989. He returned to the United States in 1990.

A stint as executive editor and assistant to the publisher of the New York Amsterdam News came next. Eventually Rojas became the director of communications for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People when Ben Chavis was president of the organization. Rojas discovered that an odd role reversal awaited him. The Coard people had put out the rumor that he was a CIA agent provocateur. The folks on the NAACP board found him so left-wing that Rojas believes he was red-baited out of his job.

"It had to do with a conference that was held in Detroit, Michigan," Rojas said yesterday from the offices of radio station WBAI in New York, where he works as general manager. Chavis had invited a number of black activists to the meeting.

The conference "was interpreted by the national board," Rojas said, "as a secret meeting [with the goal] to infiltrate the board with black activists." Rojas' days in Grenada serving the Marxist New Jewel Movement government were also dredged up. Rojas had gone full circle from being an agent of imperialism to red menace.

"It's absurd," Rojas said of the situation. "It's stupid. There's absolutely no foundation to the Coard charge. I've spoken out against the American invasion and occupation [of Grenada] all over the world."

Besides, folks should consider the source of that "agent provocateur" allegation.

Rojas left the NAACP and didn't miss a beat when it came to finding work.

In 1996 Rojas started Communications for a New Tomorrow LLC. That company led to three Internet news outlets - The Black World Today, The Black World Radio Network and DiversityBroadcast.com - that have won several journalism awards. Today he spends weekdays in New York at his WBAI gig, then returns home to his wife and three children on the weekends.

What would have happened to him if Americans hadn't invaded Grenada 20 years ago today? "It's a hypothetical question," said Rojas, 54.

What isn't hypothetical is that some extraordinary people - Rojas among them - were spared the fate that befell Maurice Bishop.

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