FOR A small island in the Caribbean with a population of 2.6 million, Jamaica and its people have had a massive cultural impact on the wider world. For 300 years Jamaica was the jewel in the crown of the British colonies in the Caribbean, its riches based on the enslavement of Africans.
The largest of the British islands, it also became the most rebellious. This history of struggle did not end with the emancipation of the slaves. It erupted again in the 1930s after decades of “peace”.
Two things did more than anything to usher in a new upturn in struggle—the black nationalist message of Marcus Garvey and the economic slump of the Great Depression.
The authorities were used to sporadic disturbances by Jamaican workers and peasants, which they routinely crushed with their hated police. So in 1938, when the dockers went on strike in the capital, Kingston, the colonial administration and the local and foreign bosses took the usual hardline.
The island-wide revolt that followed gave birth to mass trade unionism in Jamaica, and to the country’s two main political parties. The revolt showed the power of strikes and eventually led to the introduction of universal suffrage. But it also showed the political weakness of the movement.
The new working class was still a minority, alongside peasants, farmers and the unemployed, and it lacked experience. In the months leading up to the 1938 struggle, a small businessman called Alexander Bustamante had been travelling around the island drumming up support for the workers.
He was arrested and detained at a demonstration in Kingston during the strike wave. Intensifying strikes and riots forced his release after days in jail.
The Bustamante Industrial Trade Union was formed, and thousands flocked to join it. But its leader was a fervent believer in the free market system.
Bustamante set up the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) in opposition to the People’s National Party (PNP), which had been founded shortly after the 1938 labour rebellion by Norman Manley.
The PNP was seen as the more left wing of the two parties, but in practice Norman Manley could be as right wing as Bustamante.
Jamaica became independent from Britain in 1962 and, in the election of that year, the JLP came to power and Bustamante became prime minister.
Between 1962 and 1973 Jamaica had respectable annual growth rates of
5 percent. The new government developed bauxite mining and manufacturing on a large scale.
There was investment in tourism on the north of the island, although Jamaicans were ambivalent towards the industry.
But the legacy of colonial racism lived on. And so did its extreme police violence. The mixed race and white elite, and the minority of wealthy black Jamaicans who had joined them, had no reason to feel threatened.
The rise of Black Power in the US and anti-imperialist struggles around the world during the 1960s found an echo in Jamaica. It was against this background that Rastafarianism spread as a protest by urban youth. The PNP was to become the chief beneficiary of the new mood.
Michael Manley, Norman’s son, took the reigns of the party and set about building a mass “democratic socialist” PNP.
The younger Manley came to national prominence after a strike at the Jamaica Broadcasting Company. The strike lost, but Manley’s defiance was shown when he lay down in front of advancing police vehicles sent to break the strike.
Manley got up from the road and pointed to the radio station, declaring, “These are the walls of Jericho.”
Someone in the crowd reportedly replied, “Tear them down, Joshua!” Or so goes the myth. It marked the beginning of Manley’s near-messianic following.
In 1968 the JLP government mounted a crackdown on radicals, banning Marxist historian Walter Rodney from re-entering the country after the authorities got wind of his activities in the slums.
Students marched in his defence and were attacked by the police. The slums of Kingston erupted in a day of rioting. Manley could see the PNP was in danger of missing an opportunity to relate to, and benefit electorally from, the militancy of the urban youth.
With its slogans of “Power for the people” and “Better must come”, the PNP won the 1972 election. It was a huge mandate for change.
Manley had ridden to victory by identifying with the popular mood—for example, by adopting the Rastafarian “rod of correction” walking stick.
In its early years the Manley government delivered real reforms. It launched a successful literacy campaign, introduced paid maternity leave and built homes for the poor.
But as global recession broke out in 1974 the government began to find its pledges were proving harder to keep than they were to make. The local elite, backed by the US, was starting to get worried. The JLP railed against PNP “communism”.
Manley was a committed supporter of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. He went on a state visit to Cuba, and Cuban leader Fidel Castro returned the compliment. Cuban technicians and doctors arrived in Jamaica.
The CIA, meanwhile, doubled the number of its operatives in the country—the US was never going to allow another island like Cuba which resisted its domination in the Caribbean.
The US made sure that the government’s credit rating was worthless. The trade deficit mushroomed to pay for food imports. The country’s indebtedness rose. Increased economic hardship was starting to threaten the PNP’s base of support.
In the shanty towns and working class districts, neighbourhood organisations had sprung up to defend against police attacks and political violence.
These were now degenerating into a system of “garrisons” and “posses”, with gang leaders, or “dons”, directing the show.
The JLP’s posses were little more than criminal gangs which used violence and intimidation to harvest the vote and attack PNP areas.
In 1976 Manley’s PNP government declared a state of emergency and, in the election, won a second term in office. But the economic crisis did not go away.
Despite Manley’s claims to have wrenched concessions from the IMF, he accepted the neo-liberal medicine that bled the country dry.
The JLP’s promises of “deliverance” found a hearing amid the mounting violence and a campaign of destabilisation by the US, and the PNP lost the 1980 election.
In the Arnett Town and Greenwich Town districts, where the Marxist Workers’ Party of Jamaica was active, armed insurrections began in the immediate aftermath of the election result.
The PNP general secretary declared on the radio that the struggle had entered a new revolutionary phase. The transmission was quickly cut. Calm returned after a few days.
Since the 1970s the lot of ordinary Jamaicans has gone from bad to worse. On the surface Jamaica can boast some good social statistics. Life expectancy is 75 years, and 86 percent of people have access to clean drinking water.
But the figures hide the reality of the majority slipping deeper into poverty while the rich get richer.
The desperation of the poor can be measured in the murder rate—you are 40 times more likely to be murdered in Jamaica than in Britain.
Today Jamaica is again governed by the PNP, headed by the country’s first black prime minister, P J Patterson. All the government offers today are manufacturing “free zones”, where unions are banned and health and safety regulations don’t apply.
Thousands stream into the three zones in Kingston every day. The main employers are US, Taiwanese and South Korean corporations. Recent unrest witnessed employers using scabs from China to undermine action.
The answer to Jamaica’s problems lies in linking up the struggles across the region, something that the colonial administrators were always keen to prevent.
The fightback over the past few years of the working class and poor across South America can give inspiration to Jamaican workers and the left to reaffirm the fight for social justice—a cause the PNP has turned its back on.
Every working class person will feel the pressure
Two inspiring strikes show the way forward