Jamaica's Manley converts to 'free marketeer'

Issue 

By Jack Heyman

In his three years back at the helm in Jamaica, Prime Minister Michael Manley has become a "born again" free-marketeer.

As Jamaica's leader for most of the 1970s, Manley distinguished himself as a progressive Third World nationalist who took pride in his friendship with Cuban President Fidel Castro.

Now, however, Manley asserts that "imperialism is becoming an irrelevant category". But he acknowledges, too, that his island nation has "no choice" but to dance to the tune of the powerful North.

"Where am I going to get foreign exchange?" , he told the Guardian in a Kingston interview last [northern] autumn. Jamaica, he said, is "strapped up to its eyeballs, totally dependent on an International Monetary Fund that's more powerful than ever before".

Jamaica's foreign debt now stands at $4.5 billion, one of the highest per capita levels — $1800 a head — in the world. Inflation is running at 57%, the worst since independence from Britain in 1962, and the eastern Caribbean nation is facing further devaluation of its currency, sharp price hikes and burgeoning unemployment. Jamaican sugar workers earn $1.50 a day — less than the rate in Haiti.

After receiving US foreign aid second only to Israel and Egypt on a per capita basis during the 1980s — when close Reagan administration ally Edward Seaga was in office — the government finds itself in a trap.

If Manley accepts more loans from the IMF and World Bank to bolster the foundering economy, he will be required to impose further deep cuts in the government's social programs. If he accedes to those conditions, or initiates his own cost-cutting schemes, he risks incurring the wrath of the impoverished masses who returned him to power in 1989 on a program promising relief from the widespread suffering caused by existing IMF austerity measures.

Manley says that his Social Democratic, independence-oriented economic policies of the 1970s "totally failed". He argues that "the only way you can break through this [debt crisis] is by setting in place a market economy that has a powerful set of built-in incentives to produce ... foreign exchange".

In September 1991 Manley launched a bold new economic "liberalisation" program aimed at spurring exports, raising foreign exchange and eliminating black market speculation in the Jamaican dollar.

With the zeal of a new convert, the prime minister observes, "We're just going to go for broke and try to do it". Since he took office, the exchange rate has dropped 300%, causing severe hardship for most Jamaicans.

About-face

During his first years as prime minister, from 1972 to 1980, Manley, as leader of the People's National Party, was a vocal opponent of domination by Washington, which he termed the "colossus of the North". A CIA destabilisation drive against his government fomented political violence and severely disrupted the island's vital tourist industry.

Manley was defeated by Seaga in the 1980 elections, which left 800 people dead. He detailed that experience in the influential book, Jamaica: Struggle in the Periphery. And he began to reassess his years in office.

In 1985, Manley and his PNP shadow ministers trekked to Washington. According to Manley's former finance minister, Seymour Mullings (now minister of agriculture), the delegation let it be known that if re-elected, the PNP would establish a more compliant relationship with the United States.

A populist election campaign against the harsh IMF and World Bank loan conditions helped propel Manley and the PNP back into office with a landslide victory. Since he has been in office, however, he has not attempted to renegotiate those terms.

Last November students shut down the University of the West Indies in a one-day strike to protest a proposed 1000% tuition hike. Health Ministry official R. George Stephenson says the PNP has meanwhile been studying the health care system, in particular its support services, "to determine how they can more efficiently be run. Privatisation", he said, "is an option being examined".

Left demoralised

Jamaica's leftist opposition appears demoralised by the collapse of the eastern bloc and unable to pose an alternative to the PNP strategy. Trevor Munroe, head of the virtually dormant Workers Party of Jamaica, is openly disillusioned with the socialist road and says he sees no leftist solution to the economic crisis. "Before, I thought I had the answer", he says. "Now I can't outline an alternative."

Munroe predicts that his party "will pass away" or perhaps become part of a new non-Marxist party that will stand to the left of the PNP and the Jamaican Labor Party, both of which, he charges, are "corrupt and serve the interests of the rich".

Morris Cargill, who represents the viewpoint of the large plantation owners, is now pleased with Manley. "I have not been known over the years as one who pays compliments to Mr Manley and the PNP", he says. "But ... this government has been the only one to face the huge unpopularity of cutting our living standards down to size. It will probably cost the PNP the next election."

Ironically , Seaga's party is now bemoaning Jamaica's neo-liberal path. "We are not opposed to privatisation", says JLP spokesperson Hector Wynter, "but the speed at which it is being done is causing social consequences".

The JLP's attempt in 1985 to raise gas prices sparked massive discontent is manifested less through strikes (though they do occur) than through a rise in petty crime, drug use and religious obscurantism. Progressive organisers are hampered in their efforts. Reggae poet Mutabaruka, whose satirical song "The People's Court" blasts both Manley and Seaga for "sellin' out black people to the foreigners", has been banned from the airwaves.

A recent poll found that 41% of those queried were disenchanted with both the PNP and the JLP and wanted to see a new party formed. Ken James, an airport worker, expressed that sentiment at a JLP rally in Montego Bay; "Both say, 'The poor are suffering, better must come'. But they are both for the rich man."
[Abridged from the US Guardian.]

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