Jamaica: old ghosts haunt modern times

Richard Seymour

Jamaican politics is dominated by the Jamaica Labour Party and Portia Simpson-Miller’s People’s National Party. The current government is more interested in trying to foster closer ties with China than maintaining old colonial ties with Britain 

Today, the beautifully lush Caribbean island nation of Jamaica is renowned throughout the world for its astonishing capacity to produce what seems like an assembly line of some of the fastest humans in the world. Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake and Veronica Campbell-Brown are the latest in a long line of brilliant sporting figures. But perhaps an even larger number of outstanding athletes with Jamaican roots wear the national vests of a dozen or more countries to which they, or their parents, emigrated. 

“But a Jamaican is always a Jamaican, no matter how many generations ago his people leave the place,” says Justin Walker, a second-generation Jamaican plying his trade as a musician in London. “We love the place, but lack of opportunity forces most to leave,” he explains. 

Chronic underemployment, drug-related crime and a widening income gap are the major political challenges that face the government led by Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller. Virtually the same problems faced her predecessors in office going all the way back to independence in 1962. The roots of Jamaica’s political legacy can be traced back five centuries to first the Spanish and later the British colonial eras. Thanks to sugar produced through large-scale slave labour, Jamaica had become the most valuable colonial possession in the world during the 18th century but the system had also set, seemingly in stone, sharply etched social and economic classes. 

The modern shape of Jamaican politics began to show during the late 1930s with the emergence of two leaders whose influence on the future direction of Jamaica cannot be overstated. Cousins Norman Manley – who founded the People’s National Party (PNP) in 1938 – and Sir Alexander Bustamante, who formed the rival Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) in 1943, both fought for and achieved universal suffrage, but their movements were to take vastly different courses over the years. Both these parties continue to dominate the island’s political landscape. 

Although Norman Manley’s PNP, which negotiated independence from the British, was in power until shortly before independence was gained in 1962 – and instituted a number of social reforms during this period – the honour of becoming Jamaica’s first post-independence prime minister fell to Bustamante. Since then, control of the government has switched between the two parties and, although several other parties have emerged over the years, none have so far been able to mount anything like a successful challenge to the dominance of the PNP and JLP. 

While the two parties began their lives as ideologically similar, they grew apart as the 1970s went on, with the JLP aligning itself with business interests both at home and abroad, and the PNP going back to its socialist roots under the premiership of Michael Manley, son of Norman. Manley was openly hostile to the capitalist system, blaming it for the poverty of the majority on the island and other ills. He initiated a raft of reforms, much loved by poorer Jamaicans, but quite alarming to the middle classes and, in particular, the US president at the time, Gerald Ford. With the USA’s anticommunism hysteria rising to a fever pitch, Manley’s increasingly close relationship with Fidel Castro sent alarm bells ringing. Manley further agitated the wealthy when he brought in a minimum wage structure, opened education up to everyone and set about improving health care. 

The reforms failed or, depending on whom you believe, were sabotaged. Inflation soared, there were food shortages, and a terrifying level of violence led to a state of emergency, prompting high levels of unemployment and, in the end, a change of government. However, there is still a good deal of nostalgia for the Manley government, whom some Jamaicans consider the best Prime Minister they had, lamenting that “his enemies, at home and abroad, were too powerful”. 

Manley was succeeded by the JLP’s Edward Seaga, who could not have contrasted more dramatically with his predecessor. He embraced capitalism and put in the foundations for the modern financial system the country has now. Despite being one of the architects of modern Jamaica, having been active before and after independence, he is still dogged by the suspicion he was the puppet of the USA and its anti-communist, pro-capitalist agenda. 

The challenges for the current PNP government, led by Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller, and opposition parties are as great as any faced since independence. The island was badly affected by the banking collapse of 2008. Bailouts by the government to prop up failing sectors of the economy have left a crippling debt burden, which is rendering it difficult to deal with the most pressing issues of the day. 

Simpson-Miller is the second prime minister in Jamaica to serve two non-consecutive terms after a brief time in the top office. She was the first female to attain the office when she replaced P. J. Patterson in 2006, only to lose the general election the following year. Simpson-Miller is a republican, she is also a supporter of gay and lesbian rights in a country where this is an especially controversial topic. Perhaps more significantly, Simpson-Miller has been courting closer financial and political ties with China, which she hopes will lead to much needed infrastructure improvements. 

A recent agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for financial assistance should, on the face of it, ease the stress on Jamaica’s economy. However, the money comes with several caveats, which require the government to bring in a slew of reforms to cut the deficit still further and to balance the budget within a strict timeframe. These imposed austerity measures will do little to address the growing menace of unemployment, violent crime and drugs which the government cannot ignore, but, at the same time, is struggling to deal with. 

This deal undoes much of the work credited to P. J. Patterson, who served three consecutive terms until 2002. It was he who established a rare degree of economic independence for the island by ending its ties with the IMF. Likewise, his sweeping improvement of Jamaica’s infrastructure and system of welfare faces ruin in the current economic climate, which put an end to the period of economic growth that began under his premiership. 

Since independence, Jamaican politics has been shaped by towering personalities and charismatic leaders whose visions for the country caused it to lurch from left to right and undergo dramatic periods of change. Experiments with socialism were followed by unabashed capitalism. Today’s Jamaica is facing problems that, perhaps, transcend old political lines. But the legacy of its past leaders continues to be felt.

About the author:

Richard Seymour is a UK-based  freelance journalist specialising in the Middle East and Africa


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