The quest for leadership in Jamaica

The quest for leadership in Jamaica

Richard Blackford

Saturday, December 19, 2015

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I am firmly of the view that Jamaica’s socio-economic challenges are largely self-made, and that it is our lack of leadership at the political level that provides us with our most significant challenges to date. In this period of political inertia much is made about adverse global economic cycles as the cause of our problems. And, while trade and economic cycles are parts of the shared experiences of every nation on planet Earth, in my opinion, it is more a question of how each nation approaches the implicit challenges that ultimately determines the path of its progress.

In Jamaica, we have the socio-political luxury of a quasi-liberal democracy, albeit with its own flaws, but our people are afforded the right to choose their political representatives, and with that the right to self-expression. For the last 54 years this has been the platform on which our country’s democracy has been built, but the experience that is Jamaica emanated from deeper social experiences that date back to slavery and the immediate pre-Emancipation experiences.

It was during this era that the Jamaica that we have become had been forged, where social leadership informed our struggles and from which the blueprints of pre-independent Jamaica were drawn.

The Norman Manley and Alexander Bustamante experiences transferred that blueprint to the ground and provided the foundations for modern Jamaica, and in the process led us into Independence. Michael Manley and Edward Seaga squandered the early goodwill as they fought ideological battles as they waged their own extension of the Cold War hostilities for most of that decade. In the process, both contributed to littering the Jamaican landscape with the bodies of unsuspecting Jamaicans caught up in an internecine warfare for a choice between political policy options of democratic socialism and the United States of America’s version of capitalism.

The comparison is often made whenever political discourse develops about this period, using Singapore as a reference. Much is made about the experience of Singapore, and more often than not this country is used as a measure of how badly we have managed ourselves. Very little mention is made of the fact that Singapore is a "totalitarian" state masquerading as a democracy where the freedoms that we in Jamaica take for granted are largely disallowed in that country. We fail to appreciate that the kind of totalitarianism that exists in Singapore had facilitated Lee Kuan Yew’s ability to implement the reforms that converted Singapore into the example that it is today.

Those results were facilitated by the suppression of any real political opposition and in the process and the abrogation of the rights and freedoms of Singaporeans in the short and medium term. Would Jamaicans have been prepared to make similar sacrifices in order to reap those benefits? The experiences of Manley’s socialist experiment say we wouldn’t.

Jamaicans need to be reminded that at a time when the world would have been enjoying the best of economic times, the island was reeling under the relentless pressures of an undeclared economic embargo and a similarly undeclared civil war. Both events combined in undermining the confidence of not only the owners of capital and enterprise at home and abroad, but also the average Jamaican unable to either afford or locate basic consumer items in shops or supermarkets as a result of the crippled economy.

Many responded to the political rhetoric and joined the exodus resulting in a mass departure of talent for promised greener pastures. Manley’s social experiment had won the battle for the hearts of the masses, but Seaga’s collusion with these outside forces resulted in a victory for the political reins. In the final analysis, Manley’s egalitarianism experiment was undone by raw capitalism and the promise to the newly enlightened masses that "money would jingle in their pockets". Those are the raw facts of our 1970s political experience.

Almost 10 years later, and with the Gvernment boasting strong economic numbers and the creation of a raft of economic and social institutions, the average man on the street was still not realising the benefits of this ideological exchange. It was another social and economic déjà vu for the average Jamaican. Many had sacrificed heavily with life and limb during the Cold War battles that had played out on the streets of Kingston, ultimately for nothing. In the final analysis, we had succeeded in creating a new group of political oligarchs, hungry for the reins and to rule the trough, yet unperturbed by the swelling numbers of the politically and socially disenchanted.

Many had sought political power not for the benefit of their electors but for themselves and their connected cohorts. The days when statesmanship was at the heart of our politics were over, and with that departure so were the days when political candidates engaged in the process for the masses. Gone too were those who thought of becoming politically engaged because of a belief in the "national good".

A reconstituted Manley would dispatch Seaga towards the close of the 1980s, and after a brief stint the "Fresh Prince" would ascend the throne, occupying the seat of government for more than 16 years. This was, by far, the longest run ever given to any Jamaican political leader and certainly more than enough time to establish a positive legacy while moving the economic needle forward for all Jamaicans. The simplest summation of this period is that there were more misses than there were hits and the most devastating miss of them all was the Finsac debacle, which set back the Jamaican economy for more than 20 years afterwards.

Jamaicans had, during the 1990s, become particularly skilled on building mountains out of paper. And in a newly liberalised and deregulated economic environment that lacked the infrastructural checks and balances, those mountains of paper eventually collapsed in smoke. An inept bureaucracy poured gasoline on the flames which in the process consumed the wealth base of a developing middle class and almost pushed us back into the economic ‘Dark ages’.

After 18 years in the wilderness the Labourites found themselves at the reins of government; a role that they had obviously been unprepared for. No longer fettered by ideologies it would now be a case of put up or shut up. Within four years the JLP had failed miserably, acquiescing to the wishes of the electorate and in the process surrendering their once prized ownership of the argument of managing the economy. The dearth of political leadership that had been stalking our democracy for decades has now made itself present.

Today, our biggest challenge is to restructure our political organisations in such a way that addresses this yawning leadership void. Satisfying this void means providing personnel in who will be vested with the responsibility for engaging and motivating the next generation of Jamaicans.

I am firmly of the view that that it is people, not countries that fail and in this regard I do believe also that despite our checkered experiences, our best days are still ahead of us. What we need to do as Jamaicans is to demand more from those who seek to represent us. It is not sufficient for political organisations to desire political power, they must comprehensively outline what their vision is for the country, and at the same time provide a detailed blueprint on how they will implement that vision. The job of the electorate is to hold them to that blueprint.

Richard Hugh Blackford is a self-taught artist, writer and social commentator. He shares his time between Coral Springs, Florida and Kingston, Jamaica.
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