Washington — In the early hours of Oct. 25, 1983, a band of US paratroopers wearing night vision goggles, flak jackets, and special silenced machine guns descended on a tiny island in the Caribbean. The jump was the start of the largest US military operation since Vietnam: the invasion of Grenada. Two years later, the invasion's effects linger. Grenada is now a functioning democracy; the use of force on its behalf remains popular with the US public.
But the island's economy is still shaky. The invasion may not have entirely redounded to US political advantage in Central America. Critics complain that despite its success, the Grenada military operation displayed glaring deficiencies.
Grenada was essentially a three-day war followed by six weeks of mopping up. At its height, seven battalions of US troops were involved. The last US servicemen left the island last June.
Officially, the invasion was launched to save US medical students on the island, and in response to a request from East Caribbean states which felt Grenada threatened the region's political stability.
The action toppled Grenada's squabbling, leftist New Jewel government. Last December, Grenadians by a large majority elected a coalition headed by Herbert Blaize. As prime minister, the moderate Mr. Blaize presides over a government of uneasy alliances.
Nevertheless, his government ``really is quite stable. It has all the prospect of being a long-term thing,'' says a State Department Caribbean specialist.
The economy is the major potential source of political instability. About 30 percent of Grenada's working-age population is unemployed; recent visitors say dozens of long-locked youths simply hang out on Grenada's streets, with nothing to do. A two-year, $57 million program of US aid expired in September. Aid for this fiscal year will be $10 million to $15 million, according to State Department estimates.
Grenadian officials hope tourism will help pull their people out of poverty. The large Point Salinas airport, begun by Cubans, has been finished by Americans; a new Ramada Renaissance hotel is going up. In the first half of 1985, tourism was up 20 percent over the corresponding period of 1984, says the Grenadian government. Other development focuses on roads, electric generating capacity, and other infrastructure. ``The economy is better. But it's still a problem,'' says a State Department source.
Besides warehouses of small arms, the US captured a rich trove of government documents. The documents, say some scholars, depict a New Jewel government that really was eager to join the the communist bloc. To prove its good intentions, New Jewel leaders intended to try and lure neighboring states, such as Surinam on the northeastern coast of South America, into revolution. Though held at arms-length by the Soviet Union, Grenada was closely tied to Cuba, say these scholars.
``This was not just a fun-loving revolution of Robin Hoods in a sleepy country. It was a serious affair,'' says Dr. Howard Wiarda, a University of Massachusetts political science professor.
Other Central America experts say the documents just prove the Reagan administration guessed right -- and that a military invasion is a drastic measure to take on grounds of suspicion.
In the long run, the political effects of the invasion may be mixed. It may have stiffened the backs of leftist rebels in El Salvador. In Nicaragaua, ``the more they examine the situation, the less frightened they are that the US will invade,'' says Dr. Jiri Valenta, international-affairs scholar at the University of Miami, in Coral Gables, Fla. He says they see that US public opinion doesn't support US military operations in Central America.
The aspect of the Grenada operation that probably now draws the most criticism is the military's performance. Critics say commanders had only a vague idea how many US students were on the island and where they were. And once on the ground, the body of US troops moved ponderously, critics complain.
``It took the 82nd [airborne troops] three days to move a mere four miles against what, by any standard, can only be considered marginal opposition,'' writes Richard Gabriel, a professor of politics at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire. And the invasion was planned so each US service had a piece of the action, he claims, making it less effective than it might otherwise have been.
The Pentagon retorts that such critics expect battles to run smoothly -- and that the success of the Grenada operation is self-evident: US forces rolled over the island with relatively little trouble.