On Monday, August 29, riots erupted in several cities on the Caribbean island of Jamaica. Thousands of protesters erected roadblocks and blocked traffic to city centres.
According to the Jamaican newspaper Jamaica Gleaner, the riots began after the island’s national electricity provider announced a rise in electricity tariffs. However, the protests were also directed against decaying public infrastructure such as roads and sewage, low wages, and the increasing violence on the island.
The mayor of the northern city of Falmouth even chose to side with the demonstrators, declaring that, “this should have happened much earlier”.
The protests are in tune with the wave of social unrest in Latin America and the Caribbean. Earlier in August, the population of the oil rich provinces of Ecuador rose up against the government, demanding their share of the oil profits that now flow into the pockets of the big multinationals and a corrupt government, while the people are left behind in poverty and without work. Undoubtedly, the example of the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, which is proving that oil profits can be used to raise living standards, plays a big role in the growing consciousness on the continent.
Jamaica is a potentially rich country. Besides being a popular holiday resort and the cradle of reggae music, the relatively small island is also one of the world’s big producers of bauxite ore, the mineral from which aluminium is produced. For decades this bauxite mining industry has been firmly in the hands of US multinationals. The millions of poor Jamaicans see the profits of this industry disappearing towards the United States and the local ruling elite.
The legacy of Michael Manley
The political history of Jamaica is a clear example of the limitations and even the dangers of social reforms within the capitalist system. From 1972 to 1980 a left-wing president governed Jamaica. Michael Manley (1924-1997) began his political career as a trade union leader of the sugar cane workers. In 1970 he conquered power by a landslide victory at the head of his People’s National Party. Though Manley spent a lot of time explaining that he was not a Marxist, he was confronted from the beginning with the open hostility of the rich elite and Washington. The reason for this was that Manley introduced several progressive laws that improved the situation of the workers, women, and children. His government also created jobs in the public sector and enhanced education, health care, housing and agriculture.
Manley became entirely unacceptable to former US-president Nixon and later Ford after he raised levies on bauxite mining, in order to pay for his social policies. Manley also supported the demand for the independence of Puerto Rico against the United States, helped the African National Congress (ANC) in its struggle against the Apartheid regime in South Africa, and improved Jamaica’s relationship with Cuba. When Fidel Castro visited Jamaica in 1977 he was warmly welcomed by thousands of people. Just like Chavez, Manley openly declared that socialism was a “viable alternative”. However, he left the economy in private hands.
The United States and the Jamaican bourgeoisie reacted to this with economic sabotage, using their control over the levers of economy, and promoting political violence through undercover operations. The most famous victim of this CIA campaign was reggae superstar Bob Marley. Known as a supporter of Manley, he was shot and severely wounded by a right-wing gunman in 1976.
As a result of the economic problems and the atmosphere of violence, Michael Manley lost the elections in 1980 to his right-wing opponent Edward Seaga. Since then the US-sponsored criminal organisations on the island have begun to lead a life of their own. Jamaica has become an international centre of cocaine trade and almost every day the local papers report violent shootouts between gangsters and the police, or amongst rival gangs themselves. Not much is left of the social accomplishments of the seventies. Manley shortly came to power again in 1989 but on a right reformist programme that had no impact on the living conditions of the people. Now the Jamaican workers are awakening again to rediscover their history of class struggle. What is needed most, is an organisation and a leadership that does not repeat the errors made in the past.
Much can be learnt from the history of Jamaica. First of all, it must be recognised that achievements won through class struggle will never be firm as long as capitalism exists. Secondly, that the imperialists will never eschew violence or even alliances with organised crime. Though they glorify it in words, “democracy” is of no importance to them. They only want to preserve their economic privileges. Thirdly, the bourgeoisie uses economic weapons against all governments that try to implement progressive policies. As long as the main levers of the economy are in private hands, the sabotage by rich elites remains possible. Economic stagnation hurts the confidence of the workers, and counterrevolution sets in.
When Chavez recently gave the boot to the US-military, then the US-based “Drug Enforcement Administration”, and now North American evangelical preachers, these were no superfluous measures. It was absolutely necessary in order to protect Venezuela against attempts of destabilisation through the spreading of violence.
However, this will not be enough. An economy in private hands is the Trojan horse of reaction. In the end, the nationalisation of the key sectors of the economy under workers’ control is needed to consolidate and strengthen the gains of the revolution.