2000s >> 2001 >> no-1166-september-2001

We have been here before


A look at what lies behind the recent protest and police killings in Jamaica

Jamaica, with a population of just over 2.5 million, has witnessed 550 murders and 75 killings by the police between January and the end of June this year. At least 40 people have died in the last three months.

The recent spate of killings began on Saturday evening, 7 July, after police searched homes for guns in the Tivoli Gardens district of Kingston. The police said that their officers came under attack from snipers and people throwing homemade bombs. Initially, two policemen were said to have been killed. On Monday, the Prime Minister, PJ Patterson, the leader of the People’s National party, announced that he was calling out the whole of the island’s army, adding that he might seek reinforcements from neighbouring countries.

Troops in trucks and armoured cars, backed by helicopter gunships overhead, patrolled the streets of mainly the Tivoli Gardens and Denham Town, impoverished areas of west Kingston, strongholds of the opposition Labour Party, led by Edward Seaga, the local MP for almost 40 years. Within three days at least 20 people had been killed and 30 injured. Protesters blocked the roads with burned-out cars, while gunmen strafed some streets with automatic weapons. The violence, however, also spread to other areas.

Politics of violence
Patterson said that “the government cannot stand by and allow criminal elements to hold the country to ransom”. He denied that the confrontations were politically motivated. But Seaga, the leader of the Labour Party, said that the trouble had been deliberately instigated by Patterson and the People’s National Party in advance of next year’s planned elections. “This is a ploy to turn popular opinion against us,” he said. The Labour Party currently has a large lead in the opinion polls.

The police commissioner, Francis Forbes, denied any political motivation for the raids in west Kingston. And he hinted that the attacks on the police has been centrally organised. “There’s someone there who can turn it off,” he said. That there are criminal gangs, and that drugs are involved, no one denies. But, as Julian Borger observed in the Guardian (11 July), “Jamaica’s political parties have fought a proxy civil war through street gangs” over the past 30 years, adding that “gang violence is epidemic in Kingston, now one of the most violent cities in the world”. The Times (11 July) commented that “Jamaica’s two main political parties are blamed for helping to set up and arm rival gangs 30 years ago in poor neighbourhoods of Kingston”. Indeed, Patterson’s predecessor, Michael Manley, turned the Jamaican political system during the 1980 election into a low-level civil war, in which more than 700 people were killed. But the People’s National Party and the Jamaica Labour Party have not been the only villains of the piece.

American involvement
During the 1972 election campaign the United States ambassador, Vincent de Roulet, warned Manley not to make the US-owned bauxite industry a nationalisation issue, otherwise he would “oblige” the opposition Labour Party to take up the issue. Manley kept quiet. He had, however, upset the American government by supporting the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), which the United States government was attempting to destroy, and had established diplomatic relations with Cuba and the Soviet Union.

In December 1975 US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, arrived in Jamaica to “suggest” that unless Manley change his policies Jamaica’s request for a $100 million trade credit “would be reviewed”. The Jamaican Prime Minister chose not to toe the Kissinger line, and continued to support the Cuban army presence in Angola. The Americans moved into action. By 1976, prior to the election in Jamaica, the CIA station chief in Kingston, Norman Descoteaux, drew up a destabilisation programme. Covert shipments of arms were sent to the Jamaica Labour Party. In one shipment alone, which was aborted by the Manley government, there were 500 submachine guns. Pro-Labour gangs began to use such tactics as arson, bombing and assassinations. And a wave of strikes in the transport, electrical and telephone industries hit the island, provoked largely by the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), the CIA’s principle labour “front” in Latin America and the Caribbean. The AIFLD also provided covert financial support the Labour Party, as well as infiltrating the Jamaican government’s security service.

Propagandists also arrived from the United States, including evangelists and faith healers, preaching against the “evils of communism”. Locally, the Daily Gleaner poured out a stream of anti-Manley propaganda, who, in the October 1980 elections, was defeated mainly due to the continuing deterioration in the standard of living of the workers, but, in no short measure, due to the intervention by the United States.

Problems for the Jamaican working class did not, however, begin in 1980 or 1975. Writing in 1969 (World Socialism 69), George Dolphy, a member of the then Kingston socialist group, stated that while 20,000 kids leave school every year, it was estimated that there were 150,000 unemployed on the island. Factories were closing, and the sugar industry, one of the chief users of labour, was in decline. Moreover, an emerging Black Power movement was preaching violence, particularly against “Chinese and people of a fair complexion”. He concluded: “The situation in undeveloped countries like Jamaica is tense, changing, and difficult to forecast. One thing is certain: their development need not be a transition period as often believed, but can be a permanent state. Looking around, the task that faces a socialist seems overwhelming. With communication so advanced, however, who can tell how people will react to events throughout the developed world? The restriction and waste of capitalism will become obvious to them. Spreading socialist knowledge may not be so difficult after this.”

In Jamaica, as elsewhere? We hope so.

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