the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist
“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx
Sep 8, 2001
During July of this year, reports appeared in the British press about an eruption of violence in Kingston, capital city of Jamaica. It was sparked by a police raid, allegedly to search for weapons held by drug gangs in Tivoli Gardens, which, unlike what its name suggests, is an impoverished ghetto located in west Kingston. In just three days at least 27 people were killed, some of them women and children caught in cross-fire, as well as three policemen, one of whom was shot and then burnt in his car.
Dead bodies were left lying in the streets for days, since anyone trying to retrieve them risked bring shot by the bullets which kept flying both from the shadows of the corrugated iron shanty walls, and from a disused building at one end of Coronation Market occupied by the police.
Even after the army, complete with armored cars and helicopters, was sent in to "restore order" by Prime Minister Percival J. Patterson, armed gangs were still in control of some parts of the city. Multiple roadblocks and the fear of being shot or arrested meant that local people could not go out to buy food, and the Red Cross had to intervene in order to provide emergency rations. To all intents and purposes, this whole area was put under siege.
The official reason for the police-military action was the war on drugs one of the biggest sources of unofficial income and provider of "jobs" in this impoverished city. "The government cannot stand idly by and allow criminal elements to hold this country to ransom," argued Prime Minister Patterson. Of course, the rivalries between different drug "firms," which sporadically leads to inter-gang warfare, does not look too good for tourism the government’s number one priority for generating income today.
But according to the press, most of the people on the streets, had a different understanding of these events. One woman, who had to dive for cover in her kitchen as bullets flew through the walls of her flat, was quoted saying: "It means election, it coming." Another local resident, from the impoverished estate known as "the Bumps," who had been arrested with 200 others and taken to a detention camp where he was beaten with rifle butts told reporters: "I believe this is war against this side, against Tivoli Gardens and Denham Town." As far as he was concerned, this was an attack against the stronghold of "Daddy" Seaga.
Indeed, this part of Kingston happens to be the constituency of Edward Seaga, the leader of the opposition Jamaica Labor Party, and a former prime minister. And it is quite possible that these latest gun battles were in reality a confrontation between "gangland" supporters of the Jamaican Labor Party and the police- enforcers of the ruling People’s National Party.
Gun violence and rioting in Jamaica, especially in Kingston’s ghettoes, is nothing new. It is a by-product of the appalling increase in social degradation due to aggravated poverty. In the past three years alone, the death toll has been around 1,000 per year. But the leading politicians of the two main parties have a long record of using this violence for their own purposes. And if past elections are anything to go by, it means that the main parties are already enlisting gangs in the poor neighborhoods to do their dirty work for them, ahead of a general election due to be called in the coming months.
The political scene in Jamaica has not always been shaped by gunmen and gang leaders inside or outside the official parties. Long before the British handed over power to the predecessors of today’s political leaders, the Jamaican working class had already stood up, in its own name, against the exploiters, both local and colonial.
Trade unions emerged in Jamaica by the end of the 19th century among artisans (cigar makers and print workers), but the tendency before WWI among most workers was to form ad hoc organizations when a fight was needed. Permanent unions required permanent structures which were hard to maintain. But by the 1930s, as a consequence of the hardship caused by the world economic crisis, a wave of strikes and rioting suddenly exploded throughout the Caribbean, beginning in Honduras (now Belize) and reaching Jamaica in 1938. It was out of these huge struggles that permanent union structures eventually emerged, and as it happens, so did the two parties which up until today still dominate Jamaican politics—the People’s National Party (PNP) and the Jamaican Labor Party (JLP).
The private property relations which prevailed in Jamaica were those which came straight out of the colonial period with little change. Most of the land was owned by the old plantocracy and a new one, consisting of a small local bourgeoisie. What little industry existed was similarly controlled by this class. In the 20th century, Jamaicans may no longer have been slaves, but their whole social existence was determined by an island economy which retained both the social prejudices and the economic dominance of the plantation system. Because of the huge additional hardship imposed by the 1930s depression, farmers who were lucky enough to occupy small pieces of land on the fringes of estates refused to pay taxes, demanded that more land be made available and organized themselves into various political groupings, among them the Poor Man’s Improvement Land Settlement and Labor Association which petitioned for a minimum wage law, rent freezes and the right to occupy estate land.
But the first large scale fight began in May 1938 at the Frome sugar estate, recently acquired by the British company, Tate and Lyle. A new refinery was being constructed and workers streamed into Frome looking for jobs. When the construction workers demanded a wage increase to 4 dollars per day and the company refused, they went on strike. They occupied the old refinery building and burned some of the cane fields. When the British armed police were called in, 4 workers were shot dead and 25 injured by gunfire. Kingston workers responded to this news with a large and threatening demonstration and strikes began to develop throughout the main island centers, beginning with waterfront workers, who refused to unload ships, and then spreading even to shop workers and the two Kingston hospitals.
By the end of May, the colonial governor was in a state of panic over what amounted to a general strike spreading all over the island. He enacted Emergency Powers, calling on naval support and marines and soldiers from Bermuda. Eventually the strike wave subsided, but not before most of the workers involved had gained wage raises. What is more, the employers and the colonial establishment felt compelled to revise their traditional hostility to organized labor and to seek collective bargaining with "responsible" trade union leaders, as a "lesser evil" and a protection against any future outbreak of militancy.
As it happened, unfortunately for the Jamaican working class, this policy proved successful. The most prominent trade union leader who emerged out of the strike wave turned out to be an instantly corruptible individual, who had seen his chance to utilize the militancy of the working class to carve himself a career. He was a demagogue, by the name of Alexander Bustamante, a local money lender, who had pushed himself into the leadership of the main union movement, having been initially approached for financial help. He appointed himself chief "negotiator" for the waterfront workers, and along with many of the grassroots strike leaders was jailed by the colonial authorities. The credit he gained from this allowed him, in the aftermath of the strikes, to launch the "Bustamante Industrial Trade Unions," consisting at the time of six union groupings, with himself as president. He took full personal control of the funds and the appointment of all organizers. So right from their formal inception, these trade unions were bureaucratic machineries largely independent from their membership.
It is also in this period that another of the main figureheads in Jamaican politics, Norman Manley, came to the fore. He was an Oxford-educated lawyer (and cousin of Bustamante), who had acted as an alternative mediator between the striking workers and the employers when Bustamante was in jail, before representing him in court. He also chaired the Labor Committee, which first prepared a constitution for the union grouping which Bustamante took over. Manley was to owe his subsequent political career to the popularity he won among the poor during this period.
So both Bustamante and Manley, for different reasons, were able to seize the opportunity of the wave of militancy to present themselves as leaders of the oppressed.
Manley, however, who had spent time with the British Labor Party while in Britain, had political ambitions of his own. Just as Bustamante had turned out to be a "responsible" bargaining partner for the bosses and colonial authorities, Manley’s perspective was suitably respectful of capitalist profits and British institutions. After all, it was not for nothing that he had acted in the past as legal counsel for large companies which exploited Jamaica’s resources and workers, like the United Fruit Company and Tate and Lyle.
In fact, Manley did not even consider that Jamaicans were ready for their own political party, nor that the Jamaican poor, in whose name he claimed to speak, should play any role in politics. Indeed when a Royal Commission of Enquiry into the events of 1938 asked Manley to testify (his questioner was erstwhile British Trades Union Congress leader Walter Citrine!), he came out against the granting of the vote to ordinary Jamaicans without a prior literacy test and against immediate self-government. He had to be prodded into acquiescing to unconditional universal adult franchise by the commission itself!
The Jamaican petty-bourgeoisie, however, were becoming frustrated with their exclusion from top posts within the colonial administration, where positions were awarded on the basis of an unofficial color bar. Increasingly they supported national self-determination. So after the sharp struggles of 1938 had forced the British administration to look for ways to keep the lid on open revolt in their Caribbean colonies, by bringing in political reforms and promising increased political participation, Manley rather reluctantly responded to this. He launched what he envisioned as a replica of the British Labor Party. However the name chosen for this party, the Peoples National Party (PNP) reflected far more accurately the "broad" nature of its scope. It was duly formed in September 1938 and Bustamante himself joined, though he never participated in the leadership.
Although the PNP was certainly not meant to be a "workers’" party, it attracted all Jamaican radicals, including the small communist group which had existed since the early 1920s, and whose members had played a significant role in building the new unions, at least until Bustamante tightened his grip on them. In keeping with Stalin’s policy of alliance with "anti-imperialist" forces in poor countries at the time, the Jamaican communist group declared the PNP an "anti-imperialist" front and enthusiastically joined it as a "Marxist" faction, thereby renouncing the task of building an independent workers’ party.
Of course the PNP was, right from the start, a top-down party of the nationalist petty bourgeoisie, which rapidly attracted into its ranks the most far-sighted elements among the local elite. Its political objectives were clearly defined at its first conference in 1939, which proclaimed: "the party advocates and will work to achieve the claim of this country to a representative form of Government as a Unit of the British Commonwealth of Nations. The system advocated is that of a parliamentary democracy on the lines which obtain in other self- governing units ..." Now, with the PNP and Manley at its helm, the British government knew that they had a trustworthy "statesman" and political machinery to do business with.
A certain professor W. M. Macmillan, whose book "Warning from the West Indies" was first published in Britain in 1938, is often quoted as signaling the end of the era of colonial rule in the Caribbean. This was long before another Macmillan (Harold), the Conservative prime minister of Britain from 1957 to 1963, made his famous "winds of change" speech - which heralded the granting of formal political independence to most of Britain’s colonies in the 1960s, including to Jamaica, which got its formal independence in 1962.
It is worth pointing out that whereas in most of Africa, British colonialism had existed for less than a century, Jamaica had been part of the British Empire for 300 years. In other words, in the Caribbean, a long and deep legacy of colonization existed. And the Caribbean islands were all taken step by step toward self-government and, ultimately, independence from the late 1930s onward, in an elaborate attempt by Britain to ensure a smooth transition.
In 1944, the vote was finally granted to all adult Jamaicans and a general election was called to form a new Legislative Assembly. However Bustamante, who had just been released from wartime internment thanks to Manley’s efforts, was not content with having his ambitions stifled by his backseat role in the PNP. Considering that "his" unions would be an effective vehicle to capture the working class vote, Bustamante suddenly decided to launch the Jamaican Labor Party (JLP) and stand in the general election against Manley’s PNP. In the election, the JLP inflicted a stunning defeat on the PNP, prompting Manley to launch a rival union federation, the Jamaican Trade Union Congress, with the obvious objective of winning back a section of Bustamante’s working class electorate.
To all intents and purposes, the rivalry between the JLP and the PNP merely expressed the rivalry between Bustamante and Manley. It certainly had nothing to do with the interests of the working class as was demonstrated by the way in which both parties were prepared to use the unions as electoral machines, regardless of the divisions this created among workers. In fact, the JLP and PNP were each bidding to become the chosen representative of the Jamaican petty-bourgeoisie, while using the poor population as electoral cannon-fodder.
The 1944 election was the beginning of a long process of constitutional reforms designed to move Jamaica closer and closer to full self-government. Conveniently, a willing cadre from the educated middle class (most of whom had got scholarships from Jamaica College to Oxford, Cambridge and London) was there to provide an elite of politicians, civil servants, judges, army officers, journalists and university teachers. They were perfectly groomed to implement the British model for post-colonial self-rule. And in the end, this would guarantee their places at the top of the existing social tree a tree firmly rooted in the maintenance of the interests of the former colonial power.
However, British imperialism saw future difficulties in maintaining its sphere of influence across a chain of independent islands (Jamaica is 1,000 miles from the eastern Caribbean) and across two mainland territories (Belize in Central America and British Guyana in South America). These difficulties were likely to be compounded by the fact that all these territories were situated in the backyard of the United States, which was already busy pulling Jamaica into its economic sphere through its efforts to exploit the island’s bauxite resources. For this reason, among others, British imperialism attempted to initiate a federation of all its existing colonies in the region which would be ruled by a unitary government.
In 1945 a meeting was held in Montego Bay to discuss the way in which federation could be achieved. It was obvious that a certain minimum of criteria were necessary for self-government to be viable some of the islands were tiny with hardly any resources. The majority of local politicians agreed: the islands, in Norman Manley’s own words, could not "achieve alone the basic services which it is the whole aim of politics to create and make possible for the common man."
However already by 1947 fault-lines began to develop in this proposed unity. Jamaica’s Bustamante, who was part of a minority against federation, pointed out that self-government of the different colonies should not be subordinate to progress toward federation, while arguing that the less developed islands might well have something to gain by economic and political union, but those with more resources would, in his view, simply lose out.
In fact economic differences were growing between the Carribean British colonies. Jamaica’s bauxite production had begun, while Trinidad’s oil industry was developing considerably. These two islands, for what it was worth, were among the fastest growing economies in the decade after 1947.
These circumstances only served to feed the narrow nationalist rivalries between the leading political cliques of the different islands and their concomitant greed. They wanted states of their own, with all the perks, positions and privileges this entailed, regardless of the consequences for the populations. As Manley had himself admitted, each country would not be able to provide "basic services" for the "common man" if it remained isolated, meaning that poverty would remain rife. But this carried little weight against the politicians’ ambitions. So in the end, the projected federation collapsed at its last conference in 1961.
By that time, Britain had already given assurances that Jamaica would be eligible for independence even if the federation project came to nothing. When a referendum on federation was held in September 1961, the vote went against. The following year, the JLP, which had campaigned for a "no" vote, won the first independence election. Hugh Shearer, an ex-trade union leader and one of Bustamante’s cousins, became Jamaica’s first prime minister. Jamaica’s new political framework was suitably modeled on Westminster with a bicameral house an unelected 21-member senate (designated at first by the Governor General) to mimic the British House of Lords, and an elected 60-member Chamber of Deputies for the House of Commons. The British Queen remained head of state (and still remains so to date, although today’s PNP prime minister, Percival Patterson, has promised he will never swear allegiance to the British monarch again). As in Britain, Jamaica’s political institutions were designed to ensure that political life would be restricted to the alternation of two parties in power, both representing the social interests of the Jamaican bourgeoisie.
Of course independence has not meant independence from the yoke of the capitalist world market nor even from British capital. The only visible change was that the latter lost some ground to its American rival. While Jamaica experienced a short-lived boom in exports immediately after the war, every crisis in the world market has been magnified a thousand-fold when it hit its economy, which was neither able to diversify nor actually industrialize to any significant degree. As a result, Jamaica suffered the fate of all poor countries an intolerable level of indebtedness, subjection to the control of Western lenders and the resulting austerity and impoverishment for the population.
The country’s main export before the war was cane sugar. With the development of the (subsidized) European sugar beet industry, it only survived after the war because of the special terms defined first by the 1951 Commonwealth Sugar Act and then its European Community replacement, the Lome Convention’s Sugar Protocol. These established Jamaica and other Caribbean islands as favored trading partners with Britain and the other former colonial powers, allowing sugar quotas and prices to be guaranteed. Today, this means prices paid for sugar at 3-4 times the world market value. Of course, the modern imperialist states did not do this in recognition of a colonial debt. It was to protect their own capitalists who owned sugar interests in the Caribbean, such as Britain’s Tate and Lyle. And in the case of Britain, there was an additional twist, as hardly any sugar processing was allowed in Jamaica, thus primarily benefitting British refineries.
While this may have protected Jamaica’s sugar exports to some extent, it further entrenched the appalling labor intensive conditions which still prevail on the plantations. Productivity was (and is) very low due to a total absence of investment in modern machinery and infrastructure. In fact, while sugar production is still the biggest single employer of labor on the island 36,500 workers directly and 15,000 indirectly it makes up only 13.9% of total agricultural production and only 1% of GDP. And what little revenue it does generate is appropriated by the companies which own and control the industry Tate and Lyle being the main culprit.
Compared to Tate and Lyle’s large profits, the sugar-cane workers’ conditions are appalling. A cane-cutter earns a maximum of £30 per week, or about 45 dollars at today’s exchange rate (bearing in mind that most "supermarket" items are much more expensive than in the U.S.). Of the 460 households in Gaythorne, a village on the Trelawny estate, only 60% have electricity and 40% have a water tap in their yards. "Them work you hard and you have nothing to show for it but tough hands," says a 55-year old woman cane-field worker from Gaythorne interviewed by the author of "King Sugar," a book published by the London-based Latin America Bureau.
However the existence of the plantations and the land ownership rights which go with them, means that a large proportion of the arable land is unavailable for other agricultural production. Thus sugar protectionism is a double- edged sword for the Jamaican economy, tying up the best land and perpetuating endemic poverty on the plantations. Thus Jamaica is left in a state of continuing dependence on its former colonial masters, and on the whims of the likes of Tate and Lyle shareholders.
Jamaica’s bauxite production began half-a-century ago, in the hands of US and Canadian companies. Today two of these companies remain Alcoa and Kaiser, both American while two others have joined the fray the Norwegian Norsk-Hydro and the Swiss Glencore. Although a few local aluminum processing plants were built after independence, the bulk of the mineral is still exported raw. As this industry was always highly mechanized, it has only provided employment for at most 1% of the labor force. Clearly therefore, it has never been of significant benefit to the local economy, even after a tax on mineral extraction was imposed in the 1970s. The fall in aluminum’s world market price over the past few years has meant that this export, which once seemed to herald a prosperous future, has slipped into second place to tourism. And just how can tourism answer the needs of Jamaica’s economy, or any economy for that matter, not least when the hotels and resorts are mostly owned by multinational chains which repatriate their profits?
Of course, like in all Third World countries, successive Jamaican governments have attempted to find a place for their small capitalist class in the world market. They have had plans for industrial development and for diversification. But such plans require capital they never had. So they resorted to wooing foreign investment to obtain the crumbs that it offers to local capitalists, by offering tax concessions and promising to keep wages low. This is, for instance, the case with the garment factories which sprang up in Kingston and elsewhere. But then, the industries which have been set up in this way are geared exclusively to export and of course the (negligibly taxed) profits are exported also.
In addition, there is no choice as to what kind of industry locates on the island, so any hope of useful and beneficial industrial development goes out the window. Along with the retention of the sugar plantations, this has resulted in a reliance on imported food, which has just increased exponentially, leading to a soaring cost of living for a population which remains squeezed off the land.
In other words, despite the nationalism of its leaders and "independence," Jamaica’s economy has developed as an adjunct to the rich countries’ economies: the US, which today takes 99% of clothing exports and 9% of sugar; Canada, which takes 30% of bauxite; and Britain, which still takes 83% of sugar exports. The economy is utterly distorted by these relations, just as dependent as it was before independence and certainly even poorer.
The Jamaican poor have never sat idly by and accepted their exploitation and poverty. Most of the urban population is concentrated in the capital, Kingston (750,000 out of a total population of 2,600,000). And it has a long record of fierce and spontaneous reaction against price rises and repression or whenever it considered that government measures were not protecting it. Unfortunately, time and again it was faced with the choice (as indeed is the working class in Britain and the U.S.) between two parties, whose rhetoric may have been slightly different, but whose policies always amounted to the same thing.
The 1968 "Rodney riots" were the first significant post-independence crisis for the JLP government of the time. These riots took place after Walter Rodney, a 26-year old Guyanese writer who had been lecturing at Kingston’s university, was banned from re-entering the country after attending a writers’ conference abroad. Rodney, had come to advocate revolutionary change, adopting a mix of Marxism and Black Power ideas. His speeches fired the imagination of local students and youth in the ghettoes. At a time when unrest was developing among various sections of the population, Rodney could only appear as a dangerous "agitator" to Shearer’s anti-communist JLP government, which seized the first seemingly safe opportunity to get rid of him.
However, when students organized a protest march in Rodney’s support, this quickly developed into a wave of rioting and looting involving the Kingston working class and unemployed, who used the opportunity to express their discontent against the government resulting in brutal repression by the police and military.
The reaction of the Kingston poor was hardly surprising. While the Jamaican economy had grown by 6% per year from 1960 to 1968, largely thanks to bauxite production, the share of the national income of the poorest 40% of the population actually declined from 7.2% in 1958 to 5.4% in 1968. Unemployment had doubled from 12 to 24%. By contrast, the 21 families who had originally owned substantial land at the time of independence still controlled almost everything, including the new local manufacturing industries.
When the 1972 election campaign came, Michael Manley, who had replaced his father at the head of the PNP, sought to tap the discontent of the poor masses. He projected himself as a populist leader, in touch with the electorate, embracing the culture of Rastafarianism and the protest implied by reggae music. He promised all sorts of things: free secondary education and good housing, job creation schemes and land-lease programs for farmers, and a root and branch reorganization of the economy, aimed at limiting the role of multinationals by resorting to nationalization. As Michael Manley proclaimed at the time: "The wealth of the country must be used for the benefit of all and must be shared equitably." As it turned out, this language struck a chord with the poor electorate and the PNP was swept into power.
Michael Manley was to take this radical rhetoric one step further by adopting a kind of socialist phraseology admittedly a rather strange one, since his message was that socialism was "Christianity in action," or simply "socialism is love"!
However, Manley’s radicalism was carefully calculated and certainly not aimed at rocking the boat, neither with the local bourgeoisie nor with imperialism. In fact, the demand for tougher state intervention in the economy came from the Jamaican bourgeoisie itself, which was aspiring to a larger share of the national cake. And what Manley really had in mind was, to use his own words, a "third path" between Cuba and private enterprise in which, "Once certain priorities have been overtaken in the field of human resources, infrastructure and certain strategic areas of the economy, private enterprise is the method best suited to the production of all the other goods and services" a Blairite for Jamaica in the 1970s!
Manley displayed the same calculated caution when he decided to join the Non-Aligned Movement (an attempt by Third World countries to gain some independence from imperialism by playing on the rivalry between the two Cold War blocks) and to establish a closer relationship with Castro. He made great efforts to demonstrate that he did not intend to renege on Jamaica’s past loyalty to US imperialism. And in fact, as far as Castro was concerned at least, Manley’s policy was not even all that different from his JLP predecessor, who had always retained diplomatic relations with Cuba after all, Cuba was Jamaica’s closest neighbor, only 100 miles off its coast, and many Jamaican workers worked there, including at the US military base of Guantanamo.
That Manley’s rhetoric had the backing of the bourgeoisie is illustrated by the fact that in 1974, the negotiating team which demanded changes from the aluminum multinationals on behalf of the government, was composed of the country’s wealthiest businessmen. Their demands were for an increase of government revenue from bauxite and a 51% share in the companies’ operations. When the companies refused, Manley imposed a 7.5% levy on all bauxite. Later on that year, the companies agreed to sell 51% of their mining assets and land at market value. For them, this was quite a good deal in reality, as a lot of the land they owned (13% of the country’s land) contained no bauxite anyway. As to the levy, they simply passed it on to their customers. Manley allowed them to retain a key role in the new joint companies and the multinationals’ control of final processing and marketing abroad ensured that they lost nothing in the bargain.
These were not quite the extensive nationalizations Manley had promised. However, there were some other nationalizations the foreign-owned electricity, telephone and bus and train companies, whose owners got full compensation. And in these, as well as in the jointly-owned bauxite companies, local businessmen won many comfortable well-paid jobs, particularly those who happened to be PNP supporters.
The case of the sugar industry was somewhat special. Since the early 1970s it had been in crisis despite the price protection system. When Manley "nationalized" three foreign-owned sugar plantations, their owners were probably on their way out anyway because of this crisis. Manley then turned these loss-making plantations over to new farmers’ co-operatives. But with no investment available to improve or diversify production, the co- operatives only held out for six years. Meanwhile sugar exports halved and the industry was left surviving on government subsidy alone. But Manley’s handing over of these plantations to farmers’ co-operatives, although a largely symbolic gesture, probably allowed him to boost his support significantly among the rural poor.
However, Manley’s "socialism" showed a rather different face to the working class. His Labor Relations and Industrial Disputes Act, was almost identical to Prime Minister Heath’s 1971 Industrial Relations Act in Britain that is, a direct attack against the workers’ right to take strike action. The "Gun Court Law," which was passed in 1974 after the shooting of a number of prominent Jamaicans, established a new court, where anyone possessing a firearm was tried within 7 days and if found guilty was sentenced to indefinite detention with no right of appeal. This was mainly a gesture toward upper class Jamaicans who were becoming hysterical about crime against their property and persons. And although allegedly aimed at gangsters, this law was used to justify frequent harassment and repression in the poor ghettoes.
However, Manley managed to win the next election in 1976 even increasing his majority in parliament, thanks to the vote of the working class and unemployed. But this time, he no longer enjoyed the support of local business. Having reaped the fruits of Manley’s economic measures, the Jamaican capitalists were now becoming impatient with his populist gestures toward the poor. As far they were concerned, now was the time to bring to an end the social programs, farmer’s co-operatives, etc., which, in their view, were costing the state money and sending the wrong message to the poor. Besides, the sanctions imposed on Jamaica by imperialism and foreign companies, in retaliation for Manley’s populist policies, were depriving the Jamaican bourgeoisie of substantial income. Indeed, in response to Manley’s imposition of the bauxite levy, the aluminum companies had cut their exports by a third, while U.S. aid had been slashed by 80%, thereby reducing drastically the inflow of foreign currency.
The combination of these sanctions and the general economic crisis which was affecting the world market during the 1970s led to a drastic deterioration of Jamaica’s economy during Manley’s 8 years in office. GDP fell by 16%, unemployment increased to 31% and inflation to 320%. Manley’s social programs in housing, public works, etc., disintegrated for lack of funds.
In 1979 Manley approached the IMF (International Monetary Fund) for loans. However, when confronted with demands that, in return, he should enforce an extremely harsh "structural adjustment" program involving devaluation, a wage freeze, massive redundancies in the civil service and cuts in government subsidies and services, he suspended negotiations with the IMF and called an election in October 1980.
Severe violence accompanied these elections, with large-scale involvement of armed gangs. At least 700 people were killed. This, and the catastrophic situation of the poor masses, determined the election result. The PNP won only 9 of the 60 seats. Edward Seaga, the then JLP leader, became prime minister.
Seaga was known for his anti-communist rhetoric. He began his rule by agreeing to comply with the IMF’s conditions, renegotiating U.S. aid packages, and breaking ties with Cuba. He suggested that Jamaica could be incorporated within the U.S. as an "associate state" with a status similar to Puerto-Rico. In 1983, Seaga was one of the few Caribbean leaders who supported the invasion of Grenada by the U.S., sending a few of his own forces along to help.
Seaga was duly rewarded by Washington. U.S. aid between 1981 and 1984 reached 495 million dollars, or twice the total U.S. aid over the previous 24 years! However, neither this aid nor Seaga’s welcome to foreign investment and lifting of taxes and levies, stopped the economic situation from deteriorating. Bauxite exports continued to decline, unemployment rose, the foreign debt doubled and inflation soared. Seaga decided to call a quick early election knowing that the PNP was not ready to fight one after its collapse three years before. The PNP boycotted this election and Seaga got in for another five years.
With a new rise in the fuel tax in 1985, rioting broke out in the streets of Kingston, blockades and barricades were mounted, and workers staged a week-long general strike. Seaga resorted to brutal repression and at least five people were shot dead.
By 1989, the PNP was re-elected under Manley. But by then Manley had forgotten all about his past radical nationalism. Now his program was to promote free enterprise and foster good relations with the IMF and the U.S. As a result, this time, his re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba did not raise any eyebrows in Washington. And when, in 1992, Percival Patterson replaced Manley as prime minister, 300 state companies and public services were earmarked for privatization.
In 1993, new elections took place, once again against a backdrop of violence and killings. But turnout fell to 58%, reflecting undoubtedly the cynicism of the population whose living standards had deteriorated even further. The PNP won another term and continued its "liberalization" of the economy. Tate and Lyle came back into the sugar industry and Fyffes took over banana plantations. Cable and Wireless took over the state telephone company. But the rail system and electricity company are still waiting for buyers. In other words, privatization has not been a huge success.
The PNP’s dubious electoral success was repeated in 1997, when there were only two deaths during the election campaign. And in the next few months the Jamaican poor should face yet another election which only offers them more of the same.
The PNP is again resorting to appeals to the working class admitting that "market-oriented" policies have gone too far and asserting that there is still room in a modern society for "socialist principles." Whether anyone will take any notice is another question. This July, when Patterson boasted that the economy had actually grown by 1% over the last year (compared to 0.7% the previous year) an opinion poll showed that more than half of the respondents did not believe him. 72% thought that life had either stayed the same or got worse since 1997, citing unemployment as the worst problem facing them.
The enlisting by the JLP and PNP of gangsters in their constituencies at election time, in order to intimidate voters, has become normal practice, as is evidenced by the latest testimonies of ordinary people during the outbreak of shootings this July. Not only have these parties discredited themselves in the eyes of a large section of the electorate (also shown by the abstention rate), but clearly neither of them nor any other visible political force has anything to offer to the Jamaican proletariat as a credible way out of the present combination of dereliction and bloody violence.
Under the banner of their narrow nationalism, the main political forces in Jamaica and, in fact, in the rest of the Caribbean, sank their populations into deep poverty and political gangsterism. Not one of the attempts at creating a "Caribbean community" neither the British-initiated Federation, nor those modeled on the European Union and similar free trade zones (CARIFTA and CARICOM), has succeeded in slowing down the increasing impoverishment of the populations. Nor could they. Not as long as the local elites and their state machineries remained in the driving seat, defending their own parasitic privileges, whether as open servants of imperialism like Seaga’s regime or as populist nationalist demagogues like Michael Manley in the 1970s.
The dramatic irony of this situation is that the nationalist forces which are responsible for this situation in Jamaica, but also in a number of the other Caribbean states, owe their emergence onto the political scene to the militant struggles of the same poor masses, who are now paying for their policies with catastrophic impoverishment. But is it inconceivable to think that a renewal of working class struggles in Jamaica could lead to the emergence of a different type of political current, this time representing the interests of the poor masses rather than those of the local bourgeoisie?
After all, the working class in Jamaica has a long record of resistance. So does the proletariat of the rest of the Caribbean. And it is the only force which has no stake in the present national rivalries which divide the whole region into unviable, artificially isolated countries. It is therefore the only force capable of fighting for a perspective which could begin to address the needs of the populations. This perspective would involve the federation of all the islands and the surrounding region, not under the patronage of imperialism but under the control of the poor masses, and the pooling together of existing resources not to build a fully-fledged and self-contained national industry, which would be impossible even on this scale, but to provide for basic needs, in food, housing, clothing, health, education and recreation of the island populations.
If the Jamaican working class were to choose this path, it would undoubtedly be able to count on the active support of millions of workers from Caribbean expatriates in the immediate region, Europe and the USA, but also from their black brothers among the powerful US working class who would heartily welcome this challenge to their exploiters. And this time the poor masses would be fighting for their interests, as well as those of the whole of mankind, rather than being used as cannon-fodder by nationalist politicians.