Sunday, 10 February 2008

One Love or Roots of violence in Jamaica

Post-election violence continues in Kenya
while fear of further violence mars the run up to Pakistan’s postponed elections. I’ve just returned from six weeks in Jamaica - another former British colony - so here’s a Jamaican perspective on Kenya and other events.

At the beginning of January 2008, countries in the north were taken aback at what was for them the unexpected eruption of tribal violence among the youth of Nairobi’s slums during the abusive election process in Kenya. No surprise to participants at the World Social Forum in Nairobi this time last year, when the
People’s Parliament took over the daily press conference to declaim the corporatisation of Kenya and the WSF event itself.

In the Sunday Gleaner, 6th January 2008, Jamaican commentator Don Robotham highlights the fact that the 1960s Mau Mau rebellion led by Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya was a “major source of inspiration for our own anti-colonial struggles.”

Today there are other connections: “Like Jamaica, Kenya is a land of great and growing inequality, which is particularly hard on its large and semi-educated youth population.” Despite the difference in size, Robotham argues that “the two countries face similar problems… grappling with the pressures posed by globalisation on underdeveloped economies.”

Jamaica Observer

In the Sunday Gleaner, 16 December, just arrived in Jamaica, I’m able to read the latest crime figures: 1500 people murdered in 2007, an average of 41 per week. Recently appointed police commissioner, ex Scotland Yard Rear Admiral Hardley Lewin, characterises crime here as a national crisis linked to poverty. In other words, “depressed communities are factories that produce criminals.”

Despite these statistics I never feel afraid in Jamaica and colleagues here tend to agree that the violence is very much localised in particular communities. St Mary parish, where we’re staying, is recognised by the island’s police force to be the safest. If you’re taking a country walk, for example, you’ll be greeted with ‘peace’ ‘love’ or ‘respect’ and villagers will check that you know where you’re going and are ‘on the right track’.

A month later, on 14th January 2008, the front page of the Jamaica Observer carries the headline “Deadly raid on Tivoli”. Five men were shot dead in a joint police/military action against this so-called “garrison community” in west Kingston. 27th January, Kevin O’Brien Chang (Sunday Gleaner) estimates that the homicide rate in garrison communities (1,200 deaths per 500,000 population) is a level seen only in war zones.

The Cuban connection

At the museum at 56 Hope Road in uptown Kingston, we are reminded that reggae, like Fidel Castro, has long been big in Africa. In 1980 Robert Nesta Marley O.D. was invited by newly elected Robert Mugabe to play at an official ceremony in Harare, the newly named capital, to celebrate Zimbabwe’s independence. Unfortunately the ordinary citizens, excited and angry at being excluded from seeing these inspirational musician perform, rioted outside the fence.
And the irony doesn’t stop there, given Zimbabwe’s great hopes for the future then and the situation there now.

Two years before Harare (1978) Marley played the One Love concert in Kingston with the aim of promoting social harmony on the island of Jamaica, physically uniting the two political leaders on stage. He was later to be the target of an assassination attempt.

Jamaica’s then Prime Minister, Michael Manley, after six years in office, had developed close links with Cuba and wanted to adopt the Cuban model of socialism as a means of addressing Jamaica’s failing economy and related problems.

On election, Manley had signalled his intention to pursue a 'third path' of 'non-aligned' states, which could steer between the Russian and US superpowers. He hoped that Jamaica could promote some kind of minor trading block, entice foreign investment and grant improvements to the working class through levies on industry. For a couple of years this strategy seemed successful with Manley able to grant the working class rising living standards. But US capitalism proved to have the whip hand. When Manley supported Cuba's involvement in the Angolan civil war the US administration withdrew economic aid and funded a destabilisation campaign.

Manley called for elections in the fall of 1980. The opposition won a landslide victory, and Edward Seaga became prime minister and minister of finance. He announced a conservative economic program that brought an immediate harvest of aid from the United States and the IMF. In October 1981, Jamaica broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba, and two years later it participated in the US-led invasion of Grenada.

Neighbourly connections

Price hikes - especially for fuel and basic foods - over the last few months under Golding’s new government, have hit Jamaica hard. Survival problems have been exacerbated by the fact that harvests were destroyed by unseasonal hurricanes in November / December. A lot of new construction for the tourist industry can be seen but this kind of development investment rarely benefits local people in need.

A Caribbean colleague is one of the lucky ones. He has a pretty little villa with a tiny private beach on the north coast, not far from where Noel Coward and Ian Fleming built their winter hideaways. This is somewhat ironically down to Manley’s rejected vision. Carlos recalls that “thirty years ago, the middle classes were leaving Jamaica in droves, crying ‘communism is coming’. They were literally selling off their houses for a song at the airport.”

Now he looks around and asks me: “If you moved here, how would you cope with the politics?”

In a neighbourly offer, Venezuela’s president Chavez has opened up the idea of bartering cheaper oil for a share of Jamaica’s bananas and sugar cane - an idea of great interest to the Jamaican Agricultural Society who would like to include the famous Blue Mountain coffee in the deal.

In addition to this offer to help on the economic front, other support is at hand: Cuba wants to increase their scholarship quota to Jamaicans, according to Ambassador Gisela Garcia Rivera at the Cuban Embassy in Kingston. Currently more than 400 young Jamaicans are studying in Cuba and she hopes to increase the number of places for others, especially those interested in medicine.

Inversely, Cuban teachers and doctors are keen to work in Jamaica and a number are already here in the northern parishes. Matthias Brown, member of the Westmoreland Cuba Friendship Association is enthusiastic about the connection and (a little disingenuously) explains that “over the past three years we have been celebrating the Bay of Pigs (when Cuba successfully repelled US invasion) in Westmoreland.”

The Wales connection

In contrast, earlier this year, Milton Brown, mayor of Clarendon, called on Wales to compensate his country for the legacy of poverty he says has been left here (reported in the Bangor Chronicle). Clarendon is the parish where, at the height of the sugar trade, the Pennant family owned 8,365 acres and 594 slaves totalling £40,667 in 1736. According to Welsh historian Jean Lindsay, “men and women were valued at prices ranging from £10 to £45 with ‘children priced at £5… Mules were priced at £20 each.” The family also had property in Spanish Town, where at that time the wealthy plantation owners had their town houses and which is now one of the deepest pockets of violence in Jamaica.

The huge fortune amassed from their plantations (where the agent wrote ‘nothing can be done without negroes’) enabled the Pennants to establish the world-famous Penrhyn quarry, the largest exporter of slate and still in operation - when I’m at home I can see it from my kitchen window in Bethesda. (And although this is argued to have ‘provided a major stimulus to economic and commercial development locally’, wages and conditions for workers amounted to local slave labour and resulted in the longest running strike in the area at the turn of the 20th century).

The lovely plantation home where we are staying in St Mary parish still serves as a reminder of 18th century injustices. I pick up a racy novel on slavery based in St Kitt’s by novelist Unity Hall (which could in fact be the name of a local community). This helps to emphasise the practice of social separation – of man from woman, parent from child - that was employed by slaveholders to keep black people in their place.

This practice seems to endure, as Chang argues:

“The nine predetermined garrisons still warp our politics. This nightmare scenario of a Jamaican government not freely and fairly elected should horrify anyone who values democracy.

“For despite their evil reputations as dens of iniquity and criminal havens, it’s not clear that the majority of Jamaicans want garrisons abolished… Are garrisons a form of social control? Are dons the bakra massas of our time, keeping the ghetto dwellers / field slaves under control so the rest of society / plantation great house can go on with business as normal?”

In comparison with the downward spiral of development and democracy in Jamaica, our ex-patriot British hosts were impressed with the industry and creativity they observed during a recent vacation in Cuba. While Cuban national elections are conducted peaceably on 20th January, with over 8 million voters at the polls and over 40% female representatives elected, Richard Crawford, UWI lecturer eloquently bemoans the situation in Jamaica:

“We need to clean up the police force, the political parties and those private interests who operate outside of the law, running drugs, laundering money, hiring hit-men, smuggling people or goods and not paying any taxes.”

Divide and rule

But why should we aspire to social harmony when we’re lucky enough to live in a liberal capitalist democracy?

As we check into the Terra Nova hotel on 28th December I’m shocked to read the newspaper headline that Benazir Bhutto has come to a violent end in Rawalpindi. That’s going to further destabilise the country, I can’t help but feel intentionally, in what R. Iriyan Ilango of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative in New Delhi describes as the “bitter and abusive election process” up to January 8th 2008. And Wasim Akram, former cricket captain, fears the incident may affect the planned Australian tour to Pakistan.

After we drop my daughter off at Norman Manley airport, Ludlow the taxi driver tells me that Cuba has been excluded from Stanford 20/20
the new Caribbean cricket initiative. This is sponsored by US billionaire entrepreneur Sir Allen Stanford but unfortunately is subject to political pressure from his own capital. Due to the United States embargo against Cuba, organisations and citizens have to make application to, and receive special permission from the US Government to conduct any type of activity with Cuba. Stanford's application was denied.

The news comes as a huge disappointment not only to the Cuba team which has been training intensely for what was to be their first official tournament outside Cuba but also to the legends, cricket fans and Sir Allen who were looking forward to seeing what the heavily baseball-influenced nation could do with a cricket bat. The sport has taken of in recent years thanks to the Commission of Rescue and Development of Cricket in Cuba which has attracted some support from the UK government.

Jamaica, Kenya, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, the partition of the Indian sub-continent… the preferred game has always been to divide and rule. The strategy still prevails as far as US foreign policy is concerned, in respect to now independent states with natural geographical, ethnic and economic links in Latin America and the Caribbean.

It’s a pity: the sound of leather on willow has surely been one of the few relatively benign legacies of British colonial history. Unfortunately even this can be used as a divider. In other words (at the risk of repeating myself ) whatever the future holds, we can be sure it’s not cricket.

Alternative ending: From the sugar trade to Ceylon tea plantations: someone else is reaping what we have sown.

NB. The Jamaican motto is “out of many one people”

Read more

The Jamaica Observer

The Gleaner

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