Bustamante was a pragmatist, not the simpleton he's perceived to be

Sunday, March 09, 2014    

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WE find the discussions about National Hero Sir Alexander Bustamante's role in the early national movement informative and to be encouraged.

Jamaica's public policy rarely benefits from the lessons of history, perhaps because our history of slavery and colonialism is too painful. Too often, what little study of history that is done is biased by

politically motivated commentary masquerading as scholarship. The best example of this travesty is when politicians or academics write history or biographies to give a version of history favourable to their point of view.

One example of this misguided commentary on history is Sir Alexander's now infamous statement: "We are with the West." This is often cited as simplistic sycophancy to the United States because he just did not understand the complexities of international affairs. Far from being incompetent, his strategy was just plain pragmatic opportunism.

To understand the strategy, his statement must be located in the reality of the time it was made. The context was the height of the Cold War when being non-aligned was a dangerous option for a small, extremely vulnerable country whose viability as an independent nation was being questioned by all except the most nationalistic Jamaicans.

There was much hysteria about the spread of the Cuban revolution. Recall that the paranoia of the Cold War was such that the world came close to nuclear war over the Cuban missile crisis. Many in Jamaica feared that Jamaica could not cope without British aid and tutelage. Some "monied" people and wealthy businessmen either migrated or started to move their money out of the country.

Sir Alexander's statement was primarily motivated to reassure those locals in doubt, fearful foreign investors and the United States Government. There were doubts in Washington even after the People's National Party disavowed socialism and expelled the 'Four Hs'.

The bold action of Mr Norman Manley's Government, while Jamaica was still a colony, in being the first country to slap a trade embargo on Apartheid South Africa, was a sign of asserting an independence unwelcomed in Washington and London. Sir Alexander's opportunism was to secure US aid to replace the dwindling economic support from a Britain in a hurry to shed the no longer profitable colonies of the West Indies.

The courting of Washington went so far as to the appointment of a white Jamaican with no diplomatic experience to be Jamaica's first ambassador to the US. Sir Alexander had been informed that the US capital was still a segregated city and a black diplomat would not have as much access. He was consciously pleading for US assistance in the form of economic aid, purchases of bauxite for the strategic stockpile and increased sugar quotas.

This is the core of the agenda when Sir Alexander went to Washington, DC just after Independence. These were the very issues discussed when Mr Manley, a far more strategic thinker, met with President John F Kennedy in the White House before Independence.

Let us make sure that we do not accept simplistic stylised facts as history lest we be doomed to repeat history or to make mistakes which are avoidable.





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