'It go so...or near go so'

Stories of corruption or near-corruption in Jamaica 1655-2018


Thursday, September 27, 2018

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On Sunday, September 16, 2018 People's National Party president and Opposition Leader Dr Peter Phillips and Jamaica Labour Party leader and Prime Minister Andrew Holness traded insults as to which political party has been more corrupt. It is quite clear that neither party can claim to be squeaky clean.

Indeed, corruption seems an endemic problem in Jamaica going back to 1655. The very act of the English capturing Jamaica from the Spaniards was an act of corruption. But it was piracy that would make the problem endemic.

Bondsmen or prisoners were sent to the Caribbean to do six years of work on the estates. Many of them stayed in Jamaica at the end of their prison terms. Most became pirates on the high seas and made Port Royal, dubbed the richest and the wickedest city on Earth, their headquarters.

Because of the pirates, no trade could take place between the so called West Indies and Europe, so there was the Treaty of Madrid of 1670. According to the terms of the treaty, Spain was to stop its attempts at re-taking Jamaica and England was to stop piracy. The English eventually imprisoned Henry Morgan in the Tower of London.

But the English needed Morgan to control the pirates to keep the treaty to avoid a war with Spain. So the criminal pirate Henry Morgan was appointed governor of Jamaica with the mandate to stop piracy. This was achieved when Morgan, as governor, sold land cheaply to the pirates.

Where is the education to change the corruption mindset that began with piracy?

Ever since the days of the pirates, there have been incidences of corruption such as the stealing of slaves. One such incident resulted in African slaves who were baptised Roman Catholics coming into St Mary and keeping an underground church at a time when the Roman Catholic Church was banned in Jamaica.

Charles Drax, founder of Jamaica College, died in 1721 and left money in his will for a school which did not start until 74 years later in 1795. The money was stolen and used to set up another school.

G M daCosta, a wholesale merchant and philanthropist, was chairman of the Jamaica College board of governors and president of the old boys' association. There is no record at Jamaica College that daCosta ever attended the school, but he wrote 100 years ago in the Jamaica College magazine of 1918 that he changed his initials after graduating from high school. You can believe that if you wish.

Norman Manley wrote that his cousin Alexander Bustamante's life would have been far more interesting had he told the truth. Alexander Clarke concocted a story about being adopted by a Spanish admiral and taken to Spain, hence the name Bustamante. And there is no record that Bustamante was ever baptised in the Roman Catholic Church, but it helped to corroborate the adoption story as Spain is a Roman Catholic country. Initially, calling himself Alejandro Bustamanti, he appeared in new York as a grandee' from Spain, hence the name change.

In the 1940s and 1950s, there were the imprisonments of three Jamaica Labour Party members of the House of Representatives for corruption. Although the late Cleve Lewis was one of the convicted three, it did not stop him from returning to politics and eventually winning a seat again, both in 1962 and in 1967. And, having been elected in 1962, Lewis replaced the late Ken Jones as minister of communications and works. This goes to show that Jamaicans are either very forgiving or do not loathe corruption as we should.

The selling of farm tickets happened again and a minister of government of the 1980s was convicted and imprisoned after the People's National Party returned to power in 1989. J A G Smith was sentenced to five years in prison.

During the People's National Party regime led by Norman Washington Manley (1955-62), there was an incident in which a minister gave a contract to his brother-in-law and he was dismissed from the cabinet by Norman Manley. Today such an incident of nepotism would unfortunately be shrugged off by either major political party and also by much of the electorate.

But in the 1960s there was the Maffessanti issue, which caused an enquiry into how contracts were given out. And as a result of the daCosta Commission many members of the Jamaica Labour Party Government between of 1962-72 were fined for acts of corruption.

It is also true that there was a commission of enquiry into the People's National Party-led Kingston and St Andrew Corporation, leading to the dissolution of the council in 1964. Some of the findings point to a certain amount of corruption by some of the councillors.

After the People's National Party lost the 1980 General Election there were commissions of enquiry, but none of them seemed to implicate anyone. True, there was the state of emergency during that period and there is also much talk by the Jamaica Labour Party that it was called to win the 1976 General Election. I gleaned enough to suggest that neither party was totally innocent in that matter. The commission of enquiry into the state of emergency (1977) revealed that there was a certain amount of corruption in the detention of some of the people. But can anyone rely on the testimonies of the police?

Eleven years previously, in 1966, Edward Seaga was freed of certain charges. The resident magistrate, James Hercules, declared that he found the police witnesses most unreliable. Are we to believe that 11 years later, in 1977, the police had improved on their reliability to the extent of being credible?

Andrew Holness said that the People's National Party was the most corrupt party in the Caribbean. That is somewhat far-fetched, especially with information that comes out of Caribbean territories like Haiti.

At the same time, in trying to be as balanced as possible, I cannot find another period in our political history from 1944 when there have been so many scandals over a two-year time span as in the period 2016 to 2018. I observed that Holness went back 29 years to match what Phillips said about the last two years under his watch. This, to me, is quite significant.

Michael Burke is a research consultant, historian and current affairs analyst. Send comments to the Observer or ekrubm765@yahoo.com.

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