Assassination plots and the birth of political violence in Jamaica

Saturday, February 07, 2015

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If your time ain't come not even a doctor can kill you. — American Proverb

One day, a farmer's horse ran away. His neighbours expressed sympathy, "What terrible luck that you lost your horse." The farmer replied, "Maybe so, maybe not." (Ancient Taoist Proverb)

A few days later, the horse returned, leading several wild horses. The neighbours shouted, "Your horse has returned, and brought more with him. What great fortune!" The farmer replied, "Maybe so, maybe not."

Later that week, the farmer's son was trying to break one of the wild horses and got thrown to the ground, breaking his leg. The villagers cried, "Your son broke his leg, what a calamity!" The farmer replied, "Maybe so, maybe not."

A few weeks later, soldiers from the national army marched through the town, conscripting all the able-bodied young men for the army. They did not take the farmer's son because of his broken leg. Friends shouted, "Your boy is spared, what tremendous luck!" To which the farmer replied, "Maybe so, maybe not".

Moral: Everything is not what it appears to be.

I listened to the reports in the media last week of the alleged threat[s] on the life of Opposition Leader Andrew Holness and Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) General Secretary Horace Chang with great concern. If these reports are true they would signal a possible return to some dark days that many would prefer expunged from the memory of Jamaica's political history. But, alas, our political DNA and evolution are what they are.

I found it very interesting that some media were 'reporting' that security sources were telling them that intelligence suggested a kind of Trojan horse and/or agent provocateur scenario. Now, what interest would security sources have in disseminating such information? And who might benefit from same?

Since the investigations are ongoing, I will say no more at this point, but simply await the proper agents of the State to do their work and present the facts.

When I heard some of the reports of the alleged death threats on Messrs Holness and Chang, my mind journeyed back to a few momentous and moreso regrettable periods [documented in various archives]; when some of our major [and one or two not so major] political figures, some now dead [not because of those attacks], others still hanging on for dear life, literally and otherwise.

For historical importance I randomly selected a few of the most memorable instances. Before that, however, here's a snippet or two on the genesis of political violence in Jamaica.

It started well before the People's National Party (PNP) and the JLP were founded. PNP and JLP political violence, credible scholarship has shown, started in the 1940s. Initially with unfriendly banter, then nasty epithets and vitriol which graduated into stone-throwing and later distribution of assorted weapons, inclusive of Molotov cocktails, also known as a petrol bombs or poor man's grenades, and thereafter, guns. The key player in the infancy of political violence in Jamaican was a clandestine PNP gang called Group 69. It was hatched in Western Kingston. Its major objective was the cleansing of Western Kingston of JLP supporters and, in particular, Alexander Bustamante.

Bustamante was a member of parliament for Western Kingston up to 1949, but had to flee the area because of the level of violence that was unleashed on him and JLP supporters by miscreants, strongmen and criminal members of Group 69 in particular. (Gleaner, September 20, 2011).

Former mayor of Kingston, Ralph Brown, described Group 69 as "defenders of the party" and "companeros of the garrisons".

It is against this background that political violence germinated and graduated. Gunmen, 'ginnigogs,' and quasi guerrilla groupings were schooled in the unleashing of gargantuan force on one another and the wider 'supportership', particularly at election time.

It is a known fact that both political parties had deep-rooted associations with variant dons, notable among them 'Burryboy' [Michael Manley attended his funeral], 'Fedamop', 'Buckie Marshall', and 'Claudius Massop'. PNP and JLP Russian roulette-type rivalry culminated in 1980.

"After nine months of violence [February to October 1980, effectively the longest general election campaign in Jamaica] 844 [police official statistics] Jamaicans were killed on account of politics. Shockingly, almost 35 per cent of those killed were slaughtered in the constituency of West Central St Andrew, which had the JLP's Ferdinand Yap and the PNP's Carl 'Russian' Thompson as candidates." (Jamaica Observer, October 30, 2012).

In 1947, in the run-up to the parochial election in Western Kingston, Hugh Lawson Shearer was attacked by PNP thugs there. His car was burnt. He was beaten and his life threatened. (Gleaner, September 20, 2012).

Shearer was also attacked in the 1980s. His motorcade came under fish gun and 'grung gad' [stones] 'fire' in Falmouth. He wore the scars of that attack for the rest of his life.

Just before Manley announced the election date [1980], pollster and University of the West Indies lecturer Dr Carl Stone predicted in The Gleaner that the JLP would win as many as 40 seats. Going into election day, there were several tragic and eventful incidents. Among them:

Michael Manley's motorcade was fired on in May Pen: Manley was shaken but not stirred and did not suffer any bruises. (Gleaner, August 29, 2006).

"Tough-talking PNP candidate of St Andrew East Rural Roy McGann and his policeman bodyguard, Acting Corporal Errol White, were killed by policemen in Gordon Town Square a day before nominations opened." (Jamaica Observer, October 30, 2012).

When the dust cleared...

The general election, held October 30, 1980, ended in victory for the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), which thumped the People's National Party (PNP) by 51 seats to nine, a record margin of victory by any party up to the time. (Jamaica Observer, October 30, 2012)

"The JLP victory was welcomed islandwide, with many persons participating in day-long celebrations. Many schools and businessplaces remained closed. Manley, who came to power as champion of the poor, was a beaten man. In his concession speech, he said his decision to stand by Cuba and other Third World countries not popular with the United States Government proved his Government's downfall.

"Maybe what I did wrong was to challenge the power of the western economic structure...and for this I will remain unrepentant and unreconstructed," he said.

Two days after the election, Edward Seaga was sworn in as Jamaica's fifth prime minister. Within days, he expelled the Cuban Ambassador to Jamaica Ulises Estrada, severed ties with that country, and attempted to rebuild Jamaica's ties with the US. (Gleaner, August 29, 2006)

Shot by a bullet

Mike Henry, the first Jamaican politician to be shot during a general election campaign, has had several threats against his life over many years. He was attacked on the campaign trail in 1976. Today, 39 years later, he still has several pellets in his body and walks with a limp as a consequence.

"When I was announcing (candidate) Lloyd Mair in Clarendon, I can remember clearly someone being on the phone in Four Paths obviously speaking to someone in York Town. Prior to this, in York Town I had perhaps made a mistake of confronting a PNP motorcade and making it divert. Of course, you shouldn't make those kinds of challenges in those days."

"It got to a point when a stone came over and hit one of the vehicles. Knowing that the leader, Seaga, and others were following, I wanted to make absolutely sure of what the situation was, so I paused and asked the security to make sure that everything was in place.

"I got out of my vehicle and asked where the stone came from, and they pointed toward a house where this gentleman lived. I started to walk there, and to this day, I will never forget.

"I now know that when you hear a shot, you are safe. Once you hear the shot, you are still alive, but by then I had not experienced being shot, so I didn't really know," he said, attempting to make light of the situation.

"I suddenly heard an explosion and felt a sting and saw blood everywhere. The young man beside me, Tidley Watson, whose son, Levaughn, plays football for Jamaica, was my youth leader. His eye was shot. He later went blind in that eye and there is nothing worse than losing your sight." (Jamaica Observer, April 22, 2012)

Wall to Garden

Edward Seaga, the Caribbean's most astute prime minister over the last 50 years, has been threatened on several occasions. Dr Stone, when asked to name those who most influenced Jamaica's development since Independence, said: " I don't think there is any other in the post-war Caribbean who has built and left as monuments for posterity, so many institutions, and so many new beginnings, and so many ideas in the sphere of public management... I have a deep respect for Seaga, unlike most of my colleagues, but he is probably too far ahead of his time. I think he represents the future. I see him as a sort of Caribbean Lee Kwan Yew... I think history will record him as the most significant influence."

Seaga will forever be credited for the establishment of HEART/NTA, the Office of the Contractor General, Jamaica Development Bank, Redevelopment of the Kingston Waterfront, JAMPRO, Digiport, first satellite telecommunications data processing operations, Montego Bay, Jamaica Conference Centre and the headquarters of the International Seabed Authority, along with numerous other institutions that continue to operate and benefit thousands of ordinary Jamaicans.

He was physically attacked more than once. His efforts to transform Back-o-Wall [Tivoli Gardens today] were not welcomed by some. Back-o-Wall was originally a PNP enclave that had some of the nastiest slums in Jamaica.

"Leading up to the 1962 General Election, a man came up behind me and attacked me," Seaga recalled.

"I had been to the stations that served the Back-o-Wall areas and I was walking out in the company of a police inspector when the man came up behind me and punched me on the ear, which cut the ear.

"It wasn't serious in any respect, other than the cut, but it was an indication of what could happen, and I think it was intended to frighten me from being a candidate in 1962," he stated. (Jamaica Observer, July 22, 2012)

Simpson Miller needs to learn from Persad-Bissessar

"I will continue to lead this nation with the same resolve to maintain the inviolable principles of good governance. You can rest assured that I have both the courage and personal fortitude to do what is right whenever it is necessary to so do, regardless of the consequences.

"It is what you expected when you elected me to office and I will never shirk this responsibility to you and the office I am sworn to uphold.

"Gone are the days when a government may feel it does not need to give account for its actions or would undermine public confidence bestowed on their officials. Some would have us return to these old ways, but that will not stand as long as I am your prime minister. The changes being wrought today in ensuring accountability are of greater importance now than ever before.

"The old standards have changed and given way to new demands and expectations.

"The shift in conscience and consciousness is not without its shock waves as the public sees decisions being taken that are unusually bold and strident in upholding the ideals for which they voted so overwhelmingly." -- Kamla Persad-Bissessar (Jamaica Observer, February 2, 2015)

Compare Persad-Bissessar's practical demonstration of statesmanship to Portia Simpson Miller's dinosaur-like defence of Phillip Paulwell, a minister whose only success is failure.

"Let me make it quite clear: I have a minister of energy in place. Unless he does something wrong that would affect and impact the Jamaican people in a serious way and the Government of Jamaica [he will not be fired]," Simpson Miller said, in responding to a question from Opposition Leader Andrew Holness. (Jamaica Observer, June 4, 2014)

A similar defence was applied by Simpson Miller to Dr Fenton Ferguson, Richard Azan, A J Nicholson, and others who have committed varying infractions for which civil society demanded their dismissal.

I have said in this space that in Mrs Persad-Bissessar "we have a leader who is not worried about leaving a legacy of election victories as her major accomplishment, but is much more concerned about the kind of country she will bequeath to her children, grandchildren, and the people of Trinidad and Tobago. Evidently Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar is not dwarfed by realpolitik that is influenced by a process of what I call 'regional political osmosis'." (Jamaica Observer, August 17, 2014)

For those who say that firing 26 members of her government is indication of poor leadership by Persad-Bissessar, I ask them to consider this utterance by world-renowned Jack Welch, former chief executive officer of General Electric, perhaps the most successful manager of one of the largest companies on the globe: "Willingness to change is strength, even if it means plunging part of the company into total confusion for a while."

O friend, never strike sail to a fear! Come into port greatly, or sail with God the seas. -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Garfield Higgins in an educator and journalist. Comments to

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