Exercise Tradewinds: 40 years of U.S. Counterinsurgency in the Caribbean

By Tamanisha John, Black Agenda Report, Feb. 14, 2024

Exercise Tradewinds has historically been a show of military might and a threat to other nations in the Caribbean and Latin America that the West would exert force if they stray from Washington's dictates. That tradition remains and has also expanded to become a counterrevolutionary apparatus suppressing progressive movements.

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.[1] There, it was determined that the 39th iteration of Exercise Tradewinds (EXTW24) would take place, at least in the first phase, in Barbados. Although Exercise Tradewinds “began” in 1984, EXTW24 will only mark the 39th iteration of these exercises versus the 40th iteration, given that no exercise was held in 2020 given the (ongoing) global COVID-19 pandemic.[2] Between January 29, 2024, and February 2, 2024 military planners met again, this time at the Hilton Resort in Barbados, to survey the terrain for EXTW24. EXTW24 will be co-hosted by Barbados and US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM ) from May 4, 2024 to May 16, 2024. Thirteen (13) 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,[3] and, according to the Barbados       government website, EXTW24 will prepare Caribbean regions for the ICC Cricket World Cup 2024.[4] 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.”

An accurate description of Exercise Tradewinds and its history is important, because not only did it get its start as a “regional” exercise in tactics of subverting regional revolutionary fervor, but also because it trained Caribbean police to be hostile to Caribbean self-determination. Exercise Tradewinds grew out of an operation conducted by the United States Reagan administration and its conservative Caribbean partners – namely Barbados under prime minister Tom Adams and Dominica under prime minister Eugenia Charles – in occupying Grenada after the October invasion of 1983 and remaining in that country until 1985. Then, in 1986 and 1987, the US and its Caribbean partners – which grew to include the majority of the Eastern Caribbean plus Jamaica – began displaying military might in the Caribbean and off the coast of Central America given left governments in places like Cuba and Nicaragua. Essentially, the years 1984 – 1987 are retroactively attributed to Exercise Tradewinds, even as these years were just aggressive displays of regional militarism with the stated aim to subvert the left and solidarity in the Caribbean and Central America.

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 (Dominica, Barbados, Antigua, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent) for the sole purpose of training in/for counterinsurgency to keep political governance in the region moderate or conservative and to prevent anti-colonial and anti-imperial movements from gaining traction.[5] 

Caribbean Regional Security, Counterinsurgency, and the start of Operation Tradewinds

Throughout 1984, the Reagan administration and conservative governments in the Caribbean engaged in conversations on the necessity of a regional security system apparatus – to aid the already created yet small concept of a regional security system (RSS) – to prevent revolution in the broader Caribbean. Previously, any US security funding to states in the Caribbean – even with anti-communist governments – would have been on unfavorable and expensive terms. However in the aftermath of the Grenada invasion, opportunists, like Charles in Dominica and Adams in Barbados, were able to finally receive external security funding on favorable terms that supported their regional security dreams of professionalizing and modernizing regional security. 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). At the same time Britain (initially), after granting independence to Caribbean states, did not want to give money for security commitments. In short, neither the US (under Reagan) or Britain (under Thatcher) wanted to give money to Caribbean security, given fears of creating a dependent security situation in a region where security forces after independence were weak and/or nonexistent in some states; To the extent that the US would agree to extend money to Caribbean states for security, it was always on credit or loaned terms.

It was not until the successful securitization of Grenada as a Marxist-Leninist state receiving help from Cuba and the Soviets that the tune of extending funds from the US security apparatus would change. In 1981, two years after the overthrow of the Gairy regime, US Forces-Caribbean (USFORCARIB) operating out of Key West and Homestead started to direct paramilitary and counterinsurgency tactics training for six Caribbean police forces in Antigua, Barbados, Dominica, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.[6] Then, in 1982, the US would send security aid to Eastern Caribbean states, after having sent $0 of security funding to these states prior to 1982.[7] A year later, in 1983 – and leading up to the invasion of Grenada – the US military and FBI began training police and providing support to Caribbean policing units in the Caribbean. Not surprisingly, the invasion was backed and aided by countries of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) which had received US counterinsurgency and paramilitary training: Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Montserrat, St. Lucia, St. Kitts and Nevis, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. The invasion was also backed by two Caribbean Community (CARICOM) states, Barbados and Jamaica – both of which were ruled by conservative prime ministers allied with Reagan – Tom Adams and Edward Seaga 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.[8] Thus, prior to the invasion of Grenada in1983, the US military and FBI were explicitly training Caribbean police officers in tactics to subvert [1] Black Power Movements in the region identified by the US and conservative Caribbean leaders as terrorism, [2] to stop the shipment of arms into the region which they claimed came from communist Cuba, the Soviet Union (Libya and sometimes a combination of all three), [3] ideologies associated with Marxism, Cuban revolution, or that would require aid from the Soviet Union (and to a lesser extent China), and [4] other transformative rebellions and revolutions upset at the economic situation in Caribbean states.[9]

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. To do this, Adams condemned “leftist mythology [that found] heroes in shining armor who could lift Third World countries to well-being and contentment if only they were not stopped by the United States” (Lewis 1984). Adams also attacked criticisms against himself and his alliance with the Reagan administration in the US that was regarded as an enemy to Black people.[10] Headlines in January and February of 1984 frequently discussed the Caribbean region as building a “mini-NATO” given the alliance between the Reagan administration and conservative prime ministers in the Caribbean region who wanted to “halt left-wing influence” and “prevent any more revolutionary governments like the one which controlled Grenada until the US invasion” (O’Shaughnessy 1984). 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.[11]

As continued throughout the post-invasion Caribbean, states opposed to the intervention – The Bahamas, Belize, Guyana, and Trinidad & Tobago[12] – would find themselves outnumbered by more conservative Caribbean governments in favor of enlarging US militarization in the region to ensure their own political longevity. Ironically, regional fervor tilted towards revolution not only given the post-independence situation but also given the poor economic conditions within states – even as they received all of this security aid from the US. At the time, Jamaica’s Seaga was calling for a “Kissinger commission for the Caribbean” – or a massive infusion of aid similar to what was done in Central America – given that funding towards security initiatives in Jamaica did not improve its economy or decrease its rising unemployment rates.[13] It turns out that the massively expanded security apparatus in the Caribbean receiving support from the US –while staving off revolutions and progressive movements in the region – did nothing to help the depressed economic landscape of the 1980s. It did, however, breathe new life into US security agencies in Florida, as well as US weapons manufacturers, and security state.

The deteriorating economic landscape in the Caribbean would see the US and its conservative Caribbean allies maintain their occupation of Grenada into 1985. Infusion of security resources in Grenada did not improve its economy, and the post-invasion environment saw unemployment reach almost 50%.[14] Without a plan for Caribbean economic development alongside increased militarization with the intent of subverting materially relevant movements for people in the region, the US and its allies –who remained in power – spent 1986 and 1987 putting on displays of military prowess in the Caribbean. By 1986 US SOUTHCOM began contributing to Caribbean regional security assistance programs, and Pentagon planners increased “muscle-flexing” – with displays of up to 30 ships and 30,000 military personnel.[15] Given the damning economic situation in the region, the message in these displays were clear: there is no alternative – or at least not any that would be accepted by the US and conservative Caribbean prime ministers.

Operation Tradewinds is first mentioned in a 1990 Alabama newspaper section by a military wife recounting her husband's military service and wishing that he makes it home. It is in this 1990 newspaper piece where we learn a US sergeant Patterson participated in Operation Tradewinds in 1987 in Puerto Rico. That same sergeant, we learn in the section, also participated in Operation Just Call in the capture of Noriega in Central America Panama in ’89-’90.[16] Then in 1988, the Miami Herald mentions Exercise Tradewinds ’88 detailing hurricane preparation exercises in Puerto Rico and St. Kitts and Nevis, with participation from the RSS and Jamaica – similar to exercises conducted in Dominica a year prior (1987).[17] By 1989, Exercise Tradewinds became more frequently mentioned given that the ’89 exercise was held in Grenada after the occupying forces had left the country for 4 years (and the invasion had happened 6 years prior). In 1989, Exercise Tradewinds was described as “a combined military training operation involving 10 Caribbean countries, the United States and Britain” (Tampa Bay Times 1989), which also signaled Britain’s involvement in Caribbean militarization efforts by the late 1980s.[18] In the British media, Exercise Tradewinds was described as sending a “message to Cuba and other Central American countries that Britain would come to the aid of Grenada and other islands in times of need” (Bryant 1989).

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.[19] 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. I can only surmise that this was because states like France, Canada, and the Netherlands did not want to be associated with the invasion (this distancing was, however, short lived), or that there was no official mention of the exercise or operation as having existed until then in news reporting.

Operation Tradewinds - Exercise Tradewinds

Operation Tradewinds - Exercise Tradewinds was brought to life by the conservative and counterrevolutionary governments of Ronald Reagan (US), Eugenia Charles (Dominica), Tom Adams (Barbados), and Edward Seaga (Jamaica); however, by 1992 Caribbean support for increased Caribbean security collaborations with the US being a dominant player would increase with Trinidad partaking in the 1992 operation. By 1995, all Anglophone Caribbean countries were participating in the exercises.[20] The number of participating countries continued to increase in the 2000s, 2010s, and 2020 – with now over 21 nations annually participating in the operations and exercises including not just Caribbean states, the US, Canada, and partners in Europe (France, Britain, Netherlands) – but also Central American states (including Mexico who co-hosted EXTW22 with Belize, Nicaragua, Honduras, Panama, and El Salvador). Today Operation Tradewinds (or Exercise Tradewinds as it is officially called) is now often associated with providing humanitarian and/or disaster relief training and equipment. This latter point is important, given that critiques of Operation Tradewinds today are often defended against by Caribbean leaders (even those nominally ‘left’) emphasizing this latter half.

Today, Exercise Tradewinds continues to operate on the assumption that policing apparatuses in the Caribbean should be hostile towards Caribbean peoples asking for more self-determination. In the 1990s and 2000s, police trained in these maneuvers supported US detainment of Haitians – either to send them back to Haiti before they reached US shores or to Guantanamo Bay, they supported Western missionaries in the region – especially in states with Indigenous populations, and they acted as a stalwart against religious (and other) movements that identified with Black power. Unchanged from its retroactive roots in 1984 is the exercise/operation continued focus on counterinsurgency via a sustained focus on “riot readiness” and “riot control” – even as headlines typically discuss training that involves narcotics and other arms interdictions at sea. What I find disgusting are the descriptions of the exercises, or war games, as they regard riot control. An astute reader can gain a lot from these “riot” descriptions, especially how these soldiers are training to “defend” themselves against “rioters,” “rioters” fighting against imperialism and state forces:

2011 riot exercise description: Chanting ‘Pigs go home!”, stomping and clapping in unison and throwing packages of Meals, Ready-to-Eat at the defenders, the rioters were prepared to go all out as the training began to wind down.[21]

2015 riot description: Barbed wire, rebar, metal doors and some unlucky guards keep the prisoners contained in the “Yard.” They are demanding food and throwing things at the guards who are armed only with batons. The guards stay at a distance because they are outnumbered. Suddenly a line of security personnel wearing bright, baby blue armbands that read “RSS” trot into the yard holding riot shields and forming a line against the rioters. A second row of security personnel forms behind the first. They are armed. The standoff begins.[22]


[1] Army South Hosts TRADEWINDS 2024 Scenario Development Conference

[2] Multinational Exercise Tradewinds 2023 begins in Guyana

[3] Barbados To Co-Host Exercise Tradewinds 2024

[4] Ibid.

[5] Don Bohning. “U.S. trains security forces on five islands.” The Miami Herald (28 Jan 1984)

[6] Ellen Hampton. “Readiness is the key word at Homestead and Key West.” The Miami News (8 Nov 1984)

[7] Cayman Islands a Spy Guide Volume 1 Strategic Information and Developments   (p.74-75)

[8] Georgie Ann Geyer. “Democracy’s back in the Caribbean.” The Olympian (18 Aug 1984)

[9] Cayman Islands a Spy Guide Volume 1 Strategic Information and Developments   (p.72)

[10] Flora Lewis. “Tiny Caribbean Nations Feel Vulnerable.” New York Times (27 Jan 1984)

[11] O’Shaughnessy. “A Mini-NATO for Caribbean.” The Observer (5 Feb 1984)

[12] Dana Priest. “East Caribbean states divided over security.” The Washington Post (31 July 1984)

[13] Doyle McManus. “Reagan Sees Nicaraguan Vote as ‘Soviet-Style Sham,’ Urges Regional Leaders to Cooperate.” The Los Angeles Times (20 July 1984); Charles J. Hanley. “Pentagon shapes up Caribbean nations.” St. Lucie News Tribune (5 July 1984)

[14] Richard Blackett. “Grenada: A year later.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (25 Oct 1984)

[15] Hampton. “Readiness is the key word at Homestead and Key West.” The Miami News (8 Nov 1984)

[16] Union Springs Herald (3 Oct 1990) – written by Patterson’s wife.

[17] The Miami Herald (17 May 1988)

[18] Bob Bryant. “Message is loud and clear.” Grimsby Evening Telegraph (17 June 1989)

[19] Cayman Islands a Spy Guide Volume 1 Strategic Information and Developments   (p.75-8)

[20] Griffith, Ivelaw L. 1996. Caribbean Security on the Eve of the 21st Century.” (p.65)

[21] Riot Games: Richcreek vs. Sylvain

[22] Caribbean partner nations collaborate during security drill


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


Posted March 1, 2024