Holness's politics of distraction revives the 1972-1980 struggles under Manley

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Holness's politics of distraction revives the 1972-1980 struggles under Manley

Christopher Burns

Sunday, August 09, 2020

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Prime Minister Andrew Holness knows the inevitable consequences that come with the politics of distraction. He also knows it can ricochet in ways unimaginable. For, as my friend, Lady C, said, “…Holness stopped at the wrong grave…”

If nothing else, Holness's comments about “[Michael] Manley's misadventures…selling false hope…and flirting with foreign ideologies…” should remind him that, “Nuh matta how cockroach drunk, 'im nah walk pass fowl yaad.”Put another way, self-preservation mandates that “no matter how drunk the cockroach becomes, he never makes the mistake of walking past a fowl's yard”, and for obvious reasons.

In his attempt to mitigate the negative, unintended consequences his unreasonable remarks about the former prime minister and People's National Party (PNP) president caused, the rueful Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) leader squealed, “I still believe in his [Manley's] mission to shake off the colonial mindset.” He either did not know, or completely forgot, that Manley also proposed constitutional changes that would sever the last formal ties with Great Britain. Those constitutional changes would have ended the monarchical State, replaced the ceremonial governor general with a president, and thereafter make Jamaica a republic.

Still dissatisfied with his declaration, Holness not only fervently recited from one of Manley's many speeches, he unabashedly threw unequivocal support behind the late prime minister's defiant stance on Jamaica attaining economic independence: “...Michael Manley said, 'We will walk on our two feet and not on our knees…' I, Andrew Michael Holness, firmly believes in that…” To that kind of an endorsement of PNP doctrine, my late father would have compulsively, and repeatedly, hummed the catchy chorus “…it is the hands of Michael writing on the wall…” from his repertoire of political hymns and sankeys.

In a classic case of being hoisted by his own petard, and in his subsequent efforts to repair the ensuing rapture, Holness went further and professed his love and respect for the late Michael Manley as his “godfather”, but, left to the mythical Big Boy, he would gleefully point, then remind the prime minister that “a tick is under the horse's conclusion”.

The prime minister's belated endorsement of Manley's anti-neocolonial policies of the 1970s is instructive in many ways. First, just picture a Jamaica today in which the first issue of an unmarried couple is regarded as illegitimate and inferior in law to the other children of that same couple, because the first child was born out of wedlock. Never mind the fact that the children are from the same father's sperm, the same mother's womb, and receive nutrients from the same mother's breast milk. Yet, with a single stroke of the pen, the Status of Children Act came into force in 1976. With that 1976 Act, and subsequent amendments in 1993 and 2005, all children born in Jamaica, whether in or out of wedlock, now enjoy the same fundamental rights and status, and are equal in law and in the “sight of God, man, woman, and posterity…”

There is no need for anyone to deify Michael Manley. Undoubtedly, he would have rejected any such attempts. However, any leader who willingly accepts his errors, apologises, reforms his thinking, and forgives his foes, is a leader worthy of emulation. In fact, upon his return to power in 1989, it was a very contrite Michael Manley, who, when asked about some of the failures of the 1970s, said: “[T]he truth is that we tried to do too much. We were young, we were inexperienced, we were idealistic…” Manley also accepted responsibility for allowing the country to “slide into” a state of tension with Jamaica's private sector.

Upon reflection, and grasping the potential after-effects, were he to betray the trust of the Jamaican people, having just won the 1989 elections, Manley reassured the country thus, “…I can assure you, the mistakes of the 1970s will never happen again…I won't make those.” It mattered little to Michael that not all the failures of the 1970s were directly linked to his management of the political economy. He simply atoned for the transgressions and moved on.

Manley meant well, and he accomplished a lot for and on behalf of the Jamaican people. Nevertheless, not all of his policies redounded to benefit the Jamaican people, however well-intentioned. And some of his utterances, such as his intemperate “five flights a day to Miami” screed, were superfluous and irresponsible. By way of strict context — not slick justification — that outrageous 1975 “five flights a day” decree was made in defence of a policy shift by the Government to recalibrate the property tax assessment which, hitherto, levied a “flat tax” on all landholders, without regards to economic status, property value, or financial wherewithal. The new tax regime was intended to offset costs for well-needed community development and was predicated on a form of “means-tested” assessment (I deduce) under which the affluent were required to pay more than the poor.

Unsurprisingly, many Jamaican plutocrats and oligarchs fiercely opposed the scheme. It was their collective resistance, vociferous criticism, and condemnation that precipitated Manley's intemperate verbal reaction. Upper-class “literalists” took his remarks to heart. They left in droves, and with them scarce financial resources as well as valuable human capital. Between 1971 and 1980, 276,200 Jamaicans left the island; the country lost as much as 40 per cent of its upper-middle class. By way of contrast, between 1960 and 1970, 265,000 poorer-class Jamaicans emigrated.

History keeps recording. Yet, history is also for arguing based on interpretation of facts, and for that reason, context becomes an absolute prerequisite. If one, imaginatively, paints a black cat yellow, it does not change the fact that the cat remains black. Believing it is yellow only satisfies the creative mind, not the reality.

Manley was a democratic Fabian socialist. Years after vilifying Manley and the PNP, Edward Seaga, himself, acknowledged post-facto that Manley did not “have the discipline to be [a] communist”. Michael was never communist, neither was Norman W Manley. Jamaica was never going to become a communist State. And, whilst the PNP might have tilted left of centre, it was never communist.

Those of us too steep in contemporary political sound bites do not know enough, and may have little desire to expand the circumference of the kingdom of the mind; while others remain incurious about knowing how happenings in the international economy, alongside complicated geopolitical upheavals impacted Jamaica's economic performance during the 1970s. Sadly, without proper context, many of them may gullibly accept the incomplete storyline from Holness about Michael Manley's flirtation with “foreign ideologies” as a credible representation of our political history and experiences.

The truth is there were no plans to make Jamaica a communist State. Yet, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) — under the guise of the Cold War, bolstered by America's fierce opposition to Jamaica's principled support of Cuba's involvement in the Angola war, aided and abetted by some wealthy Jamaicans, with formidable support from the Seaga-led JLP — propagated that false narrative about communism, even as the reckless actions and rhetoric pushed the country into a vortex of political violence, economic destabilisation, social devastation, and widespread hardship. It was the wickedest form, and period, of socio-economic and political sabotage ever perpetrated in modern-day Jamaica. For in-depth reading and confirmation of the CIA's covert actions and role in destabilising Jamaica during the 1970, visit the CIA's website: https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/document/cia-rdp90-00845r000100190003-4

What was Manley's crime? It was Jamaica's stance on Angola, as part of our long-standing commitment to the anti-apartheid struggles in South Africa. It was not in support of communism. It was purely in support of dismantling the iniquitous apartheid regime and preventing further capture of lands that would have pushed South Africa's strategic border some 1,000 miles north. For, although Manley sent Dudley Thompson to Africa to assess support for Cuba's involvement, and Thompson confirmed that most African countries were aligned with Jamaica's position, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and his counterparts in Washington remained unsatisfied — because of their existing “beef” with the Soviet Union and Cuba over the missile crisis.

The Americans cared not a rat's behind about anti-apartheid struggles in South Africa. The US, through the CIA, successfully enlisted the support of the Seaga-led JLP and used them as lubricated conduits through which to punish Cuba, unfortunately at the expense and destabilisation of Jamaica. In the aftermath of Jamaica's decision to support Cuba's role in Angola to help defeat the racist-invading South African troops, the US unceremoniously withdrew a previously committed US$100 million in line of credit support for Jamaica. The withdrawal coincided with massive fires, violence, and chaos in Kingston — none of which was coincidental, but rather well orchestrated and executed by mercenaries, foreign and domestic.

Hence, for the so-called Manley years, let us start with the picture of 1972 Jamaica then segue to 1980. It is a representation that would reveal an infant mortality rate of 41 per 1,000; an external debt of about 57 per cent of gross national income (GNI), as it was measured then; and gross domestic product (GDP) growth of a stunning 18 per cent, according to the World Bank. Interestingly, though, the Jamaican economy declined by 10 per cent from 12 to 2.5 per cent between 1970 and 1971.

But back to the picture of 1972 Jamaica: It is a picture where roughly 350,000 small farmers were condemned to rock-stone, hillside lands. A Jamaica with a 45 per cent to 55 per cent illiteracy. It is a picture of Jamaica in which unemployment had already grown from about 16 per cent in 1962 to 24 per cent in 1972. It is a portrayal of Jamaica in which, despite the existence of a slew of worker rights Bills dating back to 1938, not one piece of labour legislation was passed until in the mid-1970s. For, although political apathy has overtaken many of us, it was in the 1970s that the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 years. Picture a Jamaica without the National Youth Service and the Family Court. Picture a Jamaica today without the compulsory recognition of trade unions and without the National Minimum Wage. Picture a Jamaica today without equal pay for women despite them doing the same job as men. Picture a Jamaica without Edna Manley College, community colleges, and the National Housing Trust. Picture a Jamaica without the copyright law, without maternity leave with pay, the Jamaican Foundation for Lifelong Learning (JFLL) formerly the Jamaican Movement for the Advancement of Literacy (JAMAL); a Jamaica without the Portmore and G C Foster College of Physical Education and Sport, and so on.

Leaders cannot lead based on the hand they dream of; they must lead on the basis of the hand they are dealt. They must adapt quickly to the zeitgeist of the moment, and must walk and chew gum at the same time. Jamaica entered 1972 as an dependent nation with a burgeoning tourist product, as well as the leading bauxite- and alumina-exporting country. There were remarkable economic tailwinds with which to fly the PNP's “Better must come” development model. However, with the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, Arab members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) imposed an embargo against the US in retaliation for its decision to resupply the Israeli military during the Yom Kippur War.

According to the US Energy Information Administration, oil prices moved from an average of US$4.08 per barrel in 1973 to a high of US$35.63 by 1980, or a whopping US$31.55 or a 773 per cent increase per barrel. Jamaican bauxite and alumina production and exports faced a triple whammy — competition from Australia and Guinea, decrease in world demand, and a fall-off in price. Those things, in addition to socio-political tension, lack of balance of payments support, low productivity rate due to unspeakable violence, foreign interference, unbankable policy response, and social investments, resulted in a 24 per cent decline in the GDP growth between 1973 and 1980. In the end, the PNP was voted out of office.

I was young then, but not too young to forget some of what transpired in the aftermath of the 1980 election. I still see the tears and hear the wails of pregnant women, hungry and desolate children, and deprived older folks as they painfully watched truckloads of vermin-infested food go up in flames — foodstuff that had been absent from store shelves and hidden from consumers for months and days before the 1980 election. Yet, the day after the Seaga-led JLP won the 1980 election, everything that was scarce and “married” days before the election, suddenly became abundantly available — sufficient for merchants to set truckloads of baby formula ablaze because they were well past their expiration dates.

I will discuss the 1980–1989 period under Seaga in the next instalment.

Christopher Burns is chief finance officer and vice-president of finance for a multinational. Send your comments to the Jamaica Observer or burnscg@aol.com


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