Commentary Jamaica Magazine

Making Change happen in Real Jamaican Style…

Written by Phil Dinham

It’s the eve of parliamentary elections February 8th 1989, just about 8 years since the last major polls in Jamaica, six years after the non-contested 1983 general election. The opposition and People’s National Party leader Michael Manley boycotted those polls in reaction to Prime Minister Edward Seaga’s pre-mature call of elections. Manley and his fellow comrades deemed it a violation of the constitution, bogus and in many ways a threat to the nations democracy.

From all reports the 1980 election campaign marked probably the most difficult and traumatic period in Jamaica’s modern history. It was vigorously fought along tough ideological lines, with a lot of hostility, violence and brutal terrorism. The casualties, 800 Jamaicans dead, scores injured and a mass exodus of thousands of our national citizens to foreign countries.

In light of the past, tensions remained high for the 89’ polls, as Jamaicans were once more getting ready to participate in the democratic process, built around much fear, emotional anguish, paranoia, and desperation. Few outside the activists were zealously optimistic; but you could sense a peculiar terse excitement, as a people whom had seen it all before were yet confident that somehow their destiny was dependent on the outcome of the elections.

For me a babe of the late 1970’s, I knew not much of the preceding 1980 elections more than its cataclysmic ability to have assemble a cohort of international press, including US network media, British radio /television crews and many other media buzz from nations across the globe. They all zoomed in to watch our people exhibit its own unique sense of electoral culture tainted in blood and violence.

Growing up throughout much of the 1980’s, just listening to my elders and senior peers speak of the unfortunate turn of events in the 1980 vote, the conflicting perspectives and the importance each person placed on the election as a defining moment in not only Jamaica’s history but their own personal lives, for better or worse, made me very curious, intrigued, even anxious about the possibilities that the new general election would bring in defining my future as a young Jamaican male.

I was very interested in the dynamics at play and why everyone was so passionate about politics. From my schoolteachers to disc jockey’s, talk-show hosts, labour leaders, taxi-men, grandfathers, grandmothers, the youth out a street, Rasta man, Pastor, amazingly, even students at prep school, and teeny- boppers at home knew bout the divide between Socialist and Labourite. What was it about this democratic system, these conflicting thoughts raging from political institutions and the strangling gridlock these groups held over the hierarchy of leadership across the society? Why did so many people earnestly depend upon this process to know where their futures lie as Jamaicans?

The genesis of these questions, for me, didn’t just start with the fables of the 80 poll, it really goes far back to my childhood because like most families in Jamaica dabbling in chatter about politics and politicians in an opinionated consciousness didn’t escape the daily routine at our home. During my years as a young boy I would quickly observe how easily subjects about public affairs and government responsibility would grip my parents, and many an older folk with interest.

The extra effort with which Dad listened to politically related stories on the Evening newscast or my hearing Dad and Mom reason on and on, week after week voicing issues pertaining to politics, was enough for me to confirm with great confidence that this subject was a talking point of pre-eminent power; and that it had the potential for spontaneous unending social linkages.

It was just so comical at times, watching my Dad, who is for the most part a subdued, gentle and introverted person in unfamiliar public settings, come alive with uncontrollable outbursts of disapproval for public leaders. Sometimes candidly making blunt remarks about their ineptness or firmly showing support or affection for his preferred advocate with emphatic smiles and cheers.

These moments were more common when a seismic political controversy had taken national centre stage, provoking Daddy to debate with his close friends, as they assessed the merits and prod gimmickry waiting judiciously for all sides of the conflict to become public. It was always a fun experience just seeing my Dad gesticulating candidly and belching out raucous laughter while in full flight about parochial politics. It definitely spoke and still speaks to the substance of what he saw as being an important subject for him as an independent Jamaican man.

My Mother who is more extroverted would also discuss politics in details but was less emotional about public issues than Dad. At the same time I think she was more caught up with the personalities and what values they stood for, more than their ravings about the macro economic outlook of government policies.

Interestingly enough it was Mom who gave me my first word of wisdom about politics, counseling me to take great care in how I openly discuss politics in public for fear of me stirring up unwarranted controversy with friends or strangers. A warning I remembered quite well when I saw old friends at school revert to abuse and near tempers, this over which party candidate would win the seat in their constituency. Greater, I can remember when some persons would seek to label strangers Socialist or Labourite based on where they lived, their physical features or if one motored around or utilized the public bus system.

Yeah, but politics I suppose, runs in my family because my Grand Dad, Texas, even to this day has as his pet peeve discussion, nothing but national politics. He always is aware of what is going on, as he earnestly keep up to date listening to all the latest bulletins on Radio from his humble dwelling in the country. He can still use his auditory functions very well even as his eyes fade at 88 years of age but that doesn’t prevent him from lambasting politicians. I am told that he was once a group leader for one of the party’s, but it doesn’t seem as if he bought the die- hard Socialite, die-hard Labourite philosophy, or at least if he did he has some how abdicated them during these, his twilight years. Right now he is most concerned about the future of the young generation and what will happen to his beloved country.

My Grand Dad, Teacher, was also a group leader and an ardent organizer for the political movement in his parish of Hanover. He died two years ago at the age of 90 after being awarded a national honour for his contribution to his community’s development and education. A graduate of Mico Teacher’s College, he would have ended his career with the distinction of being a secondary school principal. Actually he had suffered a stroke before he was forced to retire from the vanguard of community activities. It was my Dad who went to Kings house to collect the award on his behalf, as he was bed ridden when the honour was conferred upon him.

Both grandfathers, for me, have displayed fine qualities as Senior Gentlemen with striking things about them, one being an Academic/ Lay preacher and the other a Semi-skilled labourer/Farmer. However, both men had a keen interest in the prime of their lives, to echo similar intense fervour and will power to participate in the democratic process at the grass roots level. The call to national duty back then must have been very important for them to have jumped pon a bandwagon that was pushing for social and political change in a new Jamaica that had just gained autonomy in governing itself from the colonial oppressors. I can just imagine how politics would have seemed like an exciting proposition for citizens to have not resisted, the idea that all the villages and towns were getting together and discussing matters of National interest must have been a beautiful rallying point.

Leading into the silly season of electoral hustling for the1989 General polls I actually made up my mind in advance that I wanted to attempt journaling this moment in my country’s history. I had vaguely tried journaling the happenings of hurricane Gilbert, but for this event I was more prepared as electric power was available and my Dad had bought me a small but personal tape recorder. This I could now use to record and document my stories as I followed RJR and JBC elections coverage.

This was also a dated event with nomination day and a campaign of diverse views bubbling, making it an extraordinary learning opportunity for me. The challenge was that I would have to make sense of all the babbling, trying to distinguish between circus rhetoric and real poignant intellectual substance. Identifying who was genuinely trustworthy as opposed to which leader was just using overplay on words to “Sam-phi” and “Ginal” the masses.

In the days before the election I remember how folks deliberately wore neutral colours, in particularly white and blue, going to great lengths to prevent any perception of an association with one political party as opposed to another. Hoping to preserve their franchise right through Election Day and beyond. This had more to do with voter intimidation and fear of victimization, depending on which party would form the new government. Many knew that if they were identified as a supporter of the winners in a community where the flood of votes was in favour of the losers, they would be seen as a traitor; that, however, was dependent on whether the tone of the campaign was impassioned in that section of town or not.

I lived in the Angels area known as Walks Road in Spanish Town, which was a part of the constituency of Central St. Catherine, where the then Construction Minister for The JLP government, Minister Bruce Golding was up against Business man Vincent Edwards.

The time preceding the1986 local government polls had actually alerted me about electioneering business in our country, as I could remember the cut and thrust energies that were racing all around Spanish Town during the Gas riots of 1985 as a lot of graffiti in support of the main political party’s were painted and road blocks were mounted all over. On that day school proceedings were halted, so we took to the streets walking all along Brunswick Avenue in and around Spanish Town checking out the flash spots at barricades… me, my Mom and Dad, my sister Tanya and a host of family friends.

On the actual day of election 1986 the drama got closer, a lot closer, as our next door neighbours home was used as a polling division for our community and during the election day formalities men from outside the community who were affiliated with one of either two parties had made their way onto the premises, attempting to steal the ballot boxes. Leaving the women who were polling clerks badly shaken, as police presence was beefed up into the evening.

I knew that if that was just a local election, then election 89 was going to be a crushing showdown that needed to be watched and assessed if for nothing else, to analyze where our character as a people had reached… were our tempers boiling hotter or were we cooling down?

The election came during much uncertainty almost five months following hurricane Gilbert’s fury, as Jamaicans were still licking their wounds. The rebuilding of the foundations and structures of destroyed homes, schools, farms, churches, businesses, utilities, and roads was well under way.

The PNP entered the election with a very forward-looking, very positive looking campaign by Michael Manley who courted Jamaicans along the lines of what needed to be done to rebuild Jamaica.

This from a leader who was humiliated in defeat 8 years earlier after he had caused chronic economic woes for poor people, but was noticeably circumspect in his approach, showing openly that he was coming to grips with matters within and that he was very human. He came down from his messianic high horse to eventually publicly admit failure with regret for some of the decisions he made back when he was last Prime Minister.

He knew however, that he couldn’t erase his past but still felt he had a necessary duty to fulfill, that was he had to responsibly represent the Jamaican community because as a leader, possessing talents and abilities there was work that had to be done in the fields and still he had a burning passion and resolve to accomplish these tasks, or so he proclaimed.

The Honourable Prime Minister Seaga couldn’t have been faulted for running a robust third term campaign, he took his bid very seriously riding and depending on some heavy, admirable, and firm achievements to push him to victory.

We were reminded that it was his administration that started wholesale beautification of parts of the capitol city through the Parks and Market organization, MPM. His government that founded HEART, the national skills training agency, and creatively he got the framework running that would lead to the massive expansion in a purely indigenous tourism product, yielding a solid backbone industry on which to build enviable growth.

The cultural heritage got some nourishing as creative efforts by the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission was fully backed by the culturally conscious leader. We all know that a festival concert in the swinging 80’s was the bomb followed up by the Grand Gala at Independence Park on the nations earthday with culture sessions in Town Squares, Church halls and Dancehalls. Seaga really did know how to put on a show, while keeping our national flame rife; resources were always put aside to commemorate the night the union jack dropped and we arose from oppressive darkness to take our place among powerful nations.

The character deficit issue for Manley was squarely on the front burner throughout the campaign. The watchmen from the media did ask the right questions I thought, whether this leader was legitimate to run our country based on his track record as a person of honour or noble statesman was critical and foremost on everybody’s mind. The Character gap had to be bridged and so the olive branch was presented when Manley sincerely reached out to the people in repentant ways. This brought, I thought, a new level of respect and overwhelming appreciation for his efforts during the campaign.

The JLP campaign the longer it went on didn’t look as smooth as they were trying to make out, Seaga started to use rolling calf scare tactics of an impending Cuban invasion waiting off our shores if Manley was returned. People saw this as the JLP campaign being mischievous and tactically unsound. I honestly after a while thought that nothing the Prime Minister was saying was helping the JLP cause. You could have easily picked up that the disaffection within the society for his bunch was widespread, as most were upset about the linkages of the Government to the “Shower Posse” and “Jim Brown”, as well as Seaga’s seemingly autocratic leadership style which led to the JLP being labeled ‘The One Man Band’ by critics.

There were also mixed feelings about his impressive cutting edge development of the Tivoli Gardens community, most Kingstonian’s approved of his efforts, as to them this was playing a significant role in developing the western part of the city of Kingston, giving birth to a new community spirit for youths of the inner city. Down Town massive did feel a new self-respect, as the youths lifted their heads with an unbelievable self-confidence grateful for the new ambiance and honour that was bestowed upon them as there community took centre stage before the whole Nation. Seaga made Tivoli a place worthy to live; this was the cry from the community members themselves. Proudly, many a man from Tivoli vowed that they would never exchange the new living opportunities Seaga offered in the inner city, for an illusionary lifestyle up-town in the hills.

Although this had become a model community that was marveled at with hopes of emulation by many social scientists and city commissioners of other counties including nations from the first world. Winning national pride of place with this venture was a little more difficult for Seaga.

Jamaicans were not heavily among the converts, they saw the development as a very good urban plan in renewing broken communities of the city, but the idea that there was not more equity in the expenditure of the redevelopment fund across a wider group of peoples in the society left a bitter taste in the mouths of rural residents in particular. For them the massive development of a single community meant the Prime Minister was partisan and determined to build up an enclave for his supporters while leaving everyone else in harms way.

Seaga tried to play off the Tivoli development as one of an advanced networking centre for civil society and a training ground for nurturing artistic skills and talent, the ultimate preparation centre for youths from the inner city for the job market. He obviously couldn’t have been faulted for personally trying to develop a new sense of value for community responsibility and solidarity that some, even today, still think is beyond the third world or minority blacks, but yet the tide was still churning and heaving against him.

In this election you could sense people wanted a change of some sort, but if they had to make that change they were not going to make it blindly. As those supporters who had suffered during the Manley experiment before but who were becoming merciful, sympathetic and compassionate had to collectively wrestle with those who thought Seaga was on a blistering pace to economic prosperity. Among themselves, through dialogue and conscious and rational reasoning, Jamaicans were looking at how their decision would advance us into truth, justice and responsible leadership; we were approaching the election and embracing it as an important cross roads in our history.

The elections occurred after I had already begun playing a leadership role within my small community of about 120 homes, getting involved with organizing sporting games and art related competition among other things. I had an interest in integration, I wanted to see the guys on the other side of the main road who lived in lanes and whom I considered my friends, mix with us in the scheme of the housing complex.

I also had an interest in bringing all those who lived in my community to a ‘coming together’, because all I could hear was, ‘up the top think they are the elites of Beverly Hills’ because the wives were stay at home moms and that those at the bottom were working class hustlers without much pride as working mothers and husbands and single parent mothers were supposedly jostling to survive and thus their families were perceived as a less desirable status or class, opening a unfortunate rift in within the community.

I guess that as the complex festered, resentment of all sorts started to accumulate in the community and so being a kid you heard the medley news relays about those who were watching the Jones’s home improvements, from those who were busy calculating how Mass Roofus purchased his quarter million bus. Those who drove by in their new motorcars windows tightly closed in air conditioned comfort, would feature prominently in the incessant scandals and rumours about how man and woman were sourcing their own wheels.

Yeah a brand new Japanese motorcar was considered luxury back then, as most folks didn’t have their own automobile. The perception was that everything was distributed based on politics and so if you had some wealth rumour mills would say that it must be Manley or Seaga bless you. Especially if you worked for the government, whether as a civil servant, teacher, nurse, police, soldier it nuh matter what sector, many people believed that it was through politics that successful individuals were getting their welfare and not by the sweat of their brow.

Anyhow, back to the elections before I get lost in old community laundry. Seaga took some heat also for resurfacing what we now call the Mandela Highway that links my hometown of Spain and Kingston. Like the leaders that came before him I thought Seaga had played his part but was not without blame, as scandals did rock his government too from the agricultural failures of Spring Plains to the ridiculous Zinc scandal. His task though in this election was to fight right through to the very end, closing a gap that had him trailing in the polls by 13 points heading into the final 48hrs before voting started.

Most average folk, after dealing with the character issues of Manley, started to think about the policy issues, which included a greater need for social and economic responsibility, that Jamaicans knew was being hampered by the tight reigns the IMF had upon us. Manley rallied the masses to a call for the Jamaican people to be put first, and first for us, he explained, should mean the nation having greater control over its destiny as we needed to divorce ourselves from the despotic policies of the IMF. First also meant we needed to put each other first by loving each other more, and not being afraid to forgive.

The mass rallies of the election created a real carnival atmosphere in a country that hadn’t imported the Soca festivities from Trinidad just yet, but Jamaicans knew how to wine, jump and prance to its own musical pulses and colourful symbolic themes of freedom. I enjoyed the art of linguistics and oratory as for me the two main leaders were extremely gifted, as they were able to speak to the minds of the streetwise and the intellectual whit of the sophisticates at the same time.

There were many candid moments for me, as I saw politicians trying to bruck, skank while grooving to the latest jams, indeed this was like comic relief as I was very much entertained by these oldsters making a nuisance of themselves.

The church also got involved along with a National Peace Committee that urged the island through loud appeals to give peace a chance. This sound was very refreshing so much so that the “Give peace a Chance” song by the late Paul Blake and his friends became the powerful Anthem for the election, it motivated many to keep on trying to find a peaceful solution as it bellowed through the many ghetto blasters that were then present on the street corners. The national stations frequently played the song from nomination day right into election morning.

The beauty of the election for me was the way we handled ourselves at least most of us, their were the graphitise, road blocks, and stealing of ballot boxes but Jamaicans were not perturbed by the violence they stood their ground and performed their national duty.

From early before dawn election morning folks were seen lining up to cast their ballot and weren’t afraid of voter intimidation by partisan activist or thugs. Indeed sadly for all of us there were some deaths and injuries but considering our most recent past I felt we had achieved some level of maturity. Work needed to be done, especially at the Electoral Office of Jamaica, which had massive hiccups just before crunch time and Noel Lee, the then Director of elections seemed overwhelmed by dealing with the antiquated tools and malignant tumours that were destroying the system.

Undoubtedly the most defining moment for me on Election Day was the unfortunate manner in which Seaga retreated into the political wilderness, as his seemingly disgraceful conduct was reported globally. As he was accused by CNN, the then rising 24 hour global news network, that he and his henchmen attacked their camera crew in Tivoli Gardens, over videotape footage.

This had followed closely on the heels of BBC’s reporter Martin Bell describing the Jamaican leader as one who was practicing democracy under the gun while claiming that it was his convoys that were shot at. A massive blow to our image as our national statesman created bad press, but as a loving people we did forget and have forgiven him, at least most of us.

Today he is still a popular leader within the Jamaican society, many who disliked him then may have strong reasons that may merit calling him an enemy. Still they love him and respect him for the role he is playing in forging our democracy and still challenge him daily to evolve and grow into a new person. This does happen with time and greater involvement by we, in the wider community, who have a responsibility in holding our brothers and sisters in politics accountable for the things they do because their decisions jeopardize our lives.

My first exposure to a National General Election turned out to be a memorable experience. It was a very crucial general election, allowing me to gauge our level of mutual interdependence and the rate of our maturity as a community based on historical accounts.

History will recall that the People’s National Party election machinery, packaged and presented during their Golden Jubilee of 50 years as a Jamaican National institution, was once more bravely rubber stamped for approval by the Jamaican people.

The new Prime Minister Manley, on return to power, abandoned most of his past policies for fear of becoming obsolete. The victory for this flamboyant leader obviously kindled within him an intense desire to stay relevant and so it wasn’t surprising that he had an almost total political makeover, which he attributed to personal growth and maturity. It absolutely worked well in the campaign and was helping the process of quelling some of the flames of the great ideological divide of the heated 1970’s.

The Jamaican people needed to be applauded because they were really bold and confident as they made change happen without massive gridlocks; and although the popular vote was split 57% to 43 % in favour of the PNP, the people, along with the two major leaders, joined in hand and hearts stressing national unity at an ecumenical service before a very moderate cabinet was chosen and before parliament convened successfully in true Jamaican style.

At this point of our national adventure, just 26 years old as a nation, I thought a giant hurdle had been jumped with overwhelming collective optimism. We soon restored diplomatic relations with friends we hadn’t seen in a while, others were quick to realize that their foreign policy needed to be broad based and that meant they couldn’t leave Jamaica out, as we were crucial towards any global interdependence process that they were trying to architect, and so they, the lofty and mighty, reached out to embrace our new Jamaican leader.

Our friends in CARICOM were happy for us and congratulated us, hoping that we would once more have the energy and passion to help articulate the interests of Caribbean societies and Caribbean peoples who were being subordinated by the interest of powers and institutions that were outside our Caribbean realities.

Internationally many saw Manley defeating Seaga as a defeat of the Ronald Reagan republican economic developmental model, which Washington was attempting to force on the developing world. This model’s implementation was causing severe decay of infrastructure and devastating neglect of the health and educational services that would find small nation states paying astronomically high social cost in the future if we didn’t resist.

Manley, in the after-math of the election, stressed production and education as his top priorities and started to shape a new economic model that would urgently try to curtail the massive run down of our infrastructure which was in dire need of modernization. He articulated that government had to offer the right leadership to help the poor, while reassuring the private sector and global partners that they too had a stake in our country.

This made for greater compromise within the PNP government and some clotting for the open wounds and sores that Jamaicans were brandishing on their shoulders. Manley would soon lead us into liberalization of the Jamaican economy, as a slightly moderate free-market model was unveiled and a brave new step was taken in a brave new world that was on a march of change following right behind us like a butler. The crumbling of communism and release of Nelson Mandela from prison happened right after we had made our switch, those events preceded the end of the Cold war and Apartheid heralding much promise of new exciting times for all of us.

About the author

Phil Dinham