The most desperate people on the Caribbean island of Jamaica grow their hair in fierce, matted locks, smoke marihuana much of the day, and dream of salvation in Africa. They call themselves Rastafarians, Their response to poverty and rejection is a strange one, but it helps the government. For the poor are not clamoring in the streets; they are sedated in the alleyways. This gives Jamaica time.
Prime Minister Michael Manley is trying to use that time to turn Jamaica socialist. Manley’s socialism, however, is rather idiosyncratic. A Marxist would barely recognize it. Manley’s government has defined socialism as “the Christian way of life in action.” A popular singer, Max Romeo, has composed a song that amplifies the definition for Jamaicans:
Socialism is linking hearts and hands.
Would you believe it?
Poverty and hunger is what we’re fighting.
Socialism is sharing with your sister.
Socialism is pulling people together.
Love and togetherness
that’s what it means.
Jamaican socialism is obviously mild stuff. Yet Manley is being attacked bitterly for it. Businessmen are in panic. American diplomats and investors are fretting. One rightist group has condemned Manley’s “recent speeches about socialism being Christianity” as “blasphemous and cheap politics.” The great problem for Manley, however, is that his socialism may be too mild in the long run to relieve Jamaica’s desperation.
Black men, white ways
Half a million Americans visit Jamaica every year but see little of it and learn even less about it. These tourists usually confine themselves to a thin strip of beach on the northern coast, away from the slums of Kingston in the south and from the tangle of wood and mountain in the center that has figured so large in Jamaica’s troubled history. That history has produced a people who are restive yet cautious.
Unlike the islands of the Spanish Caribbean, but like the rest of the British West Indies, Jamaica was not really a colonial settlement. It was more nearly an agricultural factory where a few white planters enriched themselves on sugar plantations worked by slaves from Africa. Jamaica was once worth more to Britain than the American colonies. But this prosperity dwindled away in the nineteenth century, partly because the British abolition of the slave trade in 1808 cut off the supply of cheap labor, partly because the planters wasted the soil, overspeculated, failed to meet the competition from other islands, and lost political influence in London. In 1859, Anthony Trollope, on a visit, wrote. “If we could, we would fain forget Jamaica altogether.”
Many islands of the Caribbean are so flat and tiny that a rebellious slave had no place to hide. But that is not true of Jamaica, the third largest island in the Caribbean. It was always easy on Jamaica to defy authority and take to the hills. The island has a history of continual slave rebellions before emancipation (1834) and black riots after.
Jamaica also has a long history of Christian mission work among the Negroes (as blacks are still called here) and of a steady destruction of African culture. Negro culture on Jamaica is a black adaptation of European ways and values. The Negroes, in fact, are the main carriers of white European culture on the island, and many are deeply Christian and conservative.
Despite tourism and the discovery of enormous bauxite reserves, Jamaica has never regained its prosperity. Kingston, the capital, has some of the worst slums and perhaps the highest crime rate in the English-speaking Caribbean. Unemployment runs at more than 22 percent in the country. In a population of 2 million, over 20,000 leave every year for new homes in the United States, Canada, or Britain. Yet this emigration fails to lower the unemployment rate. It only creates a shortage of skills.
Almost one third of the population depends on the farmlands. Some 180,000 petty landholders live on the island. but they own only two fifths of the arable land, each owning less than 25 acres; 145,000 hold less than five acres. In contrast, 300 landowners have estates of more than 500 acres, mostly in sugar.
Sugar ranks second only to bauxite as an export. But it is a troubled crop. Production has dropped from more than 400,000 tons a year in the 1960s to about 375,000 last year. In 1973, Jamaica produced just enough sugar to satisfy its commitment to the English market, with none left over to sell for the much higher prices of the U.S. and world markets. Specialists blame falling production on the low prices of the 1960s, which drove many small farmers away from sugar, and on the inefficient use of automatic harvesting equipment. The large sugar estates now employ fewer than 50,000 people, the majority of whom are seasonal workers, unemployed most of the year.
Other crops have not taken up the slack. Jamaica is a farming country, but it must import rice, corn, soya, wheat, and meat. It also imports almost everything that is manufactured, from textiles to watches. This has helped drive up the inflation rate, which has climbed more than 30 percent in each of the last two years.
Tourism is a major support of the economy. The government estimates that tourists spent $85 million in Jamaica in 1973. the last year for which statistics are available. That would make tourism second only to bauxite as an earner of foreign exchange. Traditionally, Jamaica has attracted wealthy American tourists to luxurious hotels, like the one at Ocho Rios that served as the setting for the James Bond movie Live and Let Die. But the Jamaican tourist board is now hoping to draw package tours of middle-class Americans to hotels and resort cottages which are under construction at Ocho Rios. Montego Bay, and Negril.
But even tourism has troubles. In February, Minister of Tourism P. J. Patterson announced the dosing of two large hotels, one in Kingston, the other on the northern coast. The government has scaled down its plans for development of a new tourist site at Negril beach on the west coast. In 1973—the last year for which statistics are available-the number of tourists increased, but only by 2.6 percent, far less than the Jamaican government had expected. The obvious problem was inflation and recession in the United States; almost 80 percent of Jamaica’s tourists are Americans. Potential tourists may also have been frightened by the publicity over the Black Power riots of the late 1960s, although these were never as violent on Jamaica as on other islands of the West Indies.
Tourism, in any case, is looked on with ambivalence in Jamaica. The industry is foreign-dominated with evidence of large American. British, and Canadian investment. In a recent survey, the government found that many Jamaicans believe that hotels cater mainly to rich foreigners, and that Jamaicans receive a rather cold welcome. The lavish facilities for tourists contrast dramatically with the obvious poverty of Jamaicans.
Perhaps half a million adults—40 to 50 percent of the population over fifteen are functionally illiterate. The primary schools are overcrowded, and only a few children have a chance to go on to secondary school. One third of the population of Kingston lives in substandard housing, mostly squatters’ shacks. According to a 1967 survey, only 5500 of the 130.000 housing units in Kingston had flush toilets. Sixty percent had no access to piped w’ater or had access only to a distant public standpipe in the streets. The government estimates that 60,000 new families formed in the 1960s, but only 32,000 housing units, whether squatters’ shacks or modern apartments, were built.
These economic and social ills, seen in the light of Jamaica’s history, have fired the movement of the Rastafarians, the strange cultists who worship the late Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia as their god. Although they probably number no more than 50,000 on the island, they have tens of thousands of sympathizers. An outsider cannot understand modern Jamaica without trying to understand the Rastafarians.
When I visited Jamaica, shortly before the former Emperor’s death, the Rastafarians were spending a good deal of time explaining why they were unshaken by the news of their god’s fall from power in Ethiopia, and why the problems of the Emperor were not seen as problems of their own.
Rastafarians sing old American hymns with the Emperor’s name substituted for that of Christ; their woolen hats often sport pompons in the green, yellow, and red of the Ethiopian flag; they speak in biblical cadences of looking forward to their redemption someday in Ethiopia. But it is obvious that the Rastafarian movement represents nothing more than the fantasies of some poor blacks struggling to escape their plight in Jamaica.
The movement stems in some ways from the ideas of Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican who preached a back-toAfrica doctrine in the United States until he was deported in 1927. “Look to Africa,” Garvey once preached, “when a black king shall be crowned, for the day of deliverance is near.” In 1930, Ras (“Prince”) Tafari Makonnen was crowned as Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia, one of the two states then independent in Africa. Several Jamaican preachers began proclaiming that the new Emperor was the living god.
Gradually, the believers took the name of Rastafarians, from Haile Selassie’s old title and first name. They made a strange religious group, for they had no recognized leaders, no houses of worship, no lengthy statements of dogma. Some of them grew their hair in the matted locks that are now known as “dreadlocks.” Some believed that the Bible instructed them to smoke ganja, or marihuana. But two sentiments united all: the belief in the divinity of Haile Selassie and the belief that salvation could come only through repatriation to Africa.
At first, Jamaican society was hostile to these dreadful-looking, ganja-puffing men. But this attitude has changed somewhat. The Rastafarians’ reach toward Africa and their glorification of blackness are currently fashionable, especially among the middle-class young. Politicians have decided to leave them alone. Prime Minister Manley has even adopted one of their slogans as his own. He begins his public meetings now with a Rastafarian greeting: “Brothers and sisters,” he says, “the word is love.”
A large number of the Rastas live in shantytowns in West Kingston. Many are squatters. As they put it, they have built their homes on “captured land.” Most of these homes are made of old boards slapped and nailed together, and old corrugated iron roofs, sometimes held down by rocks. The floors are earth. The streets are mud and rock and crevices strewn with garbage.
The social life of these shantytowns seems to be centered in open-air Rasta “bars.”In these fenced yards, loudspeakers blare Rasta songs about Haile Selassie. Babylon, and redemption, while the proprietors sell beer and ganja. Only men are present, smoking their ganja in long pipes. Leaning against a fence, they puff continually. Their eyes are bloodshot and glazed as they smoke themselves into oblivion. Although a few have knife scars, and most wear the dreadlocks, they seem helpless, ineffectual, and weak, escaping what they call their “sufferation” in a terrible slum.
The Rastafarians are sometimes blamed for much of the crime on the island. Since they live in the most crime-ridden neighborhoods of Kingston, they probably do harbor a number of criminals. There is no doubt that they sell marihuana to others on the island. But serious Rastafarian crime seems to be instigated by outsiders. Fifteen years ago, a few black militants, some but not all of Jamaican descent, came down from New York and tried to take over the movement. Several people died in the violence that followed. More recently, a group of Jamaican Rastafarians living in New York were arrested and charged with murder in another fratricidal war. In Jamaica itself, however, most Rastafarians seem too sedated to commit violence.
With or without the Rastafarians, criminal violence has become a way of life in Kingston. Since Jamaica became independent from Britain in 1962. the murder rate in the Kingston area has increased 450 percent, the robbery rate 400 percent, and the shooting rate 950 percent. The murder rate is now greater than that of New York City.
Last year, in a period of near hysteria after the murder of four prominent businessmen during robbery attempts. Prime Minister Manley’s government tried a dramatic and controversial way of dealing with crime. It created the Gun Court. The Gun Court was meant to frighten criminals out of using their guns. Under a new law. anyone convicted of illegal possession of a gun was given an indefinite sentence at hard labor. The trial itself was held in secret, so that friends, relatives, and the press could not make a hero of the defendant. There was no bail.
To add to the mystery and drama, the court and the detention center were put together on an old army compound in Kingston. The iron fences and barbed wire around the compound and the buildings on it were all painted bright red. Each corner of the compound had an imposing watchtower manned by a police guard with a rifle. “Gun Court” was printed in black letters against a white background on an enormous sign.
The message to the potential criminal was simple: once arrested, he would enter the bright red compound for trial, and. if found guilty, would stay behind the fences until the government decided to release him, whenever that might be. “It was a dread thing,” said Dr. Thomas Surridge, Jamaica’s Commissioner of Corrections. “Once in there, there would be no certainty when and if you would get out.”
But the Gun Court offended prominent Jamaican lawyers schooled in British traditions. They brought suit against its use. In December, 1974, a Jamaican court declared it unconstitutional. Although the Jamaican government is appealing the decision to the British Privy Council in London, which still acts as the last court of appeal for this former British colony, few outsiders expect the government to win. In any case, there is doubt that the Gun Court was doing its job. Although gun murders and shootings dropped in the first three months after the creation of the Gun Court, they soon climbed to their old levels. Criminals on Jamaica are probably too desperate to be deterred by the threat of being jailed for an indefinite period behind a fence, no matter how dread the red paint.
Both the crime and Rastafarianism are obvious signals of hopelessness, and Prime Minister Manley seems to have taken notice. Manley is a tall, athletic, handsome man of fifty with graying curly hair. He is lighter than most Jamaicans, for his mother was English. His father, the late Norman Manley, was a prime minister and one of the politicians who led Jamaica to independence in 1962. The younger Manley became prime minister in 1972, when his People’s National Party turned the Jamaica Labor Party out of office by winning thirty-seven of fifty-three seats in Parliament.
It is hard to dislike Manley: even his opponents like him. The Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa) is resisting the attempt by Manley’s government to buy 51 percent of its operations in Jamaica, but Paul A. Crouch. Alcoa’s managing director in Jamaica, says. “If we were in baseball, we would easily trade a Ford or a Rockefeller for a Michael Manley.”
Manley displays no pomposity. I accompanied him on a recent tour of western Jamaica. He drove his own Land Rover, sometimes reaching speeds of sixty miles an hour on narrow country roads. Dressed in blue canvas shoes, tan jeans, and a sports shirt with a psychedelic pattern of browns, blacks, and yellows, he stopped to deliver little homilies to roadside crowds. “Money is not the only thing in life. Money can’t make your soul rich.” He is much like a missionary or a quiet preacher, sometimes speaking soberly with the faintest touch of a Jamaican drawl, not unlike an Irish lilt. At other times, if his audience seems less schooled, he speaks almost in Jamaican patois, encouraging the crowd to respond to him with cries of “sure, it is,”and “da-so.”
The Jamaicans were attentive and respectful, never frenzied like crowds in Africa or Latin America. The member of Parliament for the area, a bald black man named Jim Thompson, tried to encourage some shouting from time to time. “Three cheers for Brother Mike,” he shouted. “Hip-hip-hooray! Hip-hiphip-hip-hooray! Hip-hip-hip-hip-hiphip-hip-hooray!” The Jamaicans would politely respond with “hooray” at the proper time. But there was none of the blind adulation that is encouraged in other Third World countries.
In one village, Manley promised a crowd that the government would help build a community center if they supplied the labor. Their reaction amused him. “How come.” he asked, “when I say what the government do, everybody say yay; when I say what you got to do. everybody go quiet?” In those words lies the essence of what Manley is attempting to do with his “socialism.”
In trying to explain his socialist philosophy, Manley says that his main task is to break Jamaica away from the American dream that any man can become a millionaire. “The millionaire’s dream.” he says, “is a fantastic thing if you’re America, with all your economic and physical frontiers to conquer . . . In Jamaica, there isn’t the space to make it work through that dream. What that dream does is to create a few millionaires and a hell of a lot of paupers . . .”
Instead, he says, he wants Jamaicans to become self-reliant, cooperative, and egalitarian. To do so, he insists, he needs the vehicle of a world philosophy that has a symbolic meaning for the people. If a leader simply tours the countryside urging youngsters to work hard, cooperate, and give up elitism, “you have a hell of a lough job, you know, if somewhere the youngster doesn’t feel it relates back to a central philosophy.” Manley has chosen socialism as the symbol for Jamaicans to hold on to.
So far, most of Manley’s policies seem to come straight out of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. In the style of the old CCC and WPA. for example, he has set up a Pioneer Corps to hire unemployed youths to build public works. His government has doubled the education budget in two years. Fees have been abolished for public secondary schools, and the number of openings is increasing at the rate of 2000 a year. Manley is trying to mount a largescale literacy program, mostly with volunteer teachers. The government is trying to step up public housing construction, though it failed in 1973 to meet even its inadequate goal of 4100 new houses.
Given the enormity of the island’s problems, much of the attack seems feeble. But that is not owing to any lack of will. Manley appears to be more intent than his predecessors on trying to overcome Jamaica’s awesome social and economic problems. Even so, his government does not have the financial resources to do the job. That is one of the reasons Manley decided to battle the foreign-owned bauxite industry last year.
To an outsider, the most obvious manifestation of Jamaican socialism is the Campaign against the bauxite industry. But, in fact, it is more a manifestation of Third World-ism than of socialism. The developing world no longer accepts foreign control over its vital resources. Jamaica has done no more than the oil producers of the Middle East or the copper countries of Africa.
The mining of bauxite, the ore that eventually becomes aluminum, employs very few Jamaicans. But in 1973, it accounted for 11 percent of Jamaica’s gross domestic product, 40 percent of its foreign exchange earnings, and 65 percent of the value of its exports. Jamaica has 6.5 percent of the world’s reserves, and is the main supplier to the United States. Only Australia produces more. The industry had been completely in the hands of a foreign monopoly composed of six American and Canadian companies: Alcan, Alcoa, Anaconda, Kaiser, Revere, and Reynolds.
In May, 1974. the Jamaican government increased taxes and royalties from $3.10 per ton of bauxite to $12.27. This pushed Jamaica’s annual bauxite revenue from its old level of $25 million to $150 million. The new revenue was equal to about 40 percent of all the government’s revenues from all sources for the 1973-1974 fiscal year. It nearly made up for the foreign exchange Jamaica had lost in paying higher oil prices. The increased taxes and royalties added about 2.5 cents to the cost of a pound of aluminum in the United States.
Manley then opened negotiations with the companies, one by one, to buy 51 percent control and all their land at reasonable cost. The companies disagreed with him more on price and amount of control than on principle. “In a country like this.” says Crouch of Alcoa, “the Jamaican government has to be part of the bauxite industry. The only question is whether, in proving its manhood, it acts with the right amount of prudence and wisdom.” So far, Kaiser, Revere, and Reynolds have reached preliminary agreements to sell 51 percent control to the government at what Manley considers a fair price. The others are sure to follow.
Jamaica has also organized an International Bauxite Association in an attempt to raise the world price. This action, of course, has provoked fear that the industrialized nations will soon have another cartel like OPEC on their hands, an attitude that angers Jamaican officials.
“We are sick and tired.” says Sir Egerton Richardson, who represents the Jamaican government in the negotiations with the bauxite companies, “of the conservative fringe in the United States crying out that we are trying to strangle the great United States. Nobody is in the position of an oil producer. We are not fooling ourselves.” Nevertheless, the price of bauxite has been kept relatively stable only because Jamaica and the other members of the association have failed so far to persuade Australia, the biggest producer, that the price should go up.
The bauxite campaign, while it increases government revenue and satisfies nationalist feelings, does not deal directly with the major economic problems of Jamaica. These problems are complicated by a delicate social issue that Jamaican leaders do not like to talk about—the question of race. But here, too, a basic conservatism gives Manley time.
Claude Robinson, the prime minister’s press secretary, told foreign newsmen recently that “race is irrelevant to Jamaica.” It was an odd statement to make in the face of evidence to the contrary. For Jamaica has 1.5 million blacks, most of whom are at the bottom of the economic scale, and 30,000 Europeans, Chinese, and Lebanese, most of whom are at the top. Moreover, among the blacks there are 50,000 Rastafarians, who reject white Christianity and pine for salvation in black Africa.
But Robinson had simply overstated his case. What he meant was that black Jamaican society had rejected the ideology of Black Power and was willing to give power to those of a different skin color. Manley has more white than black blood. Perhaps more significantly. Edward Seaga, the leader of the Jamaica Labor Party and therefore the leader of the Opposition, is a white man of Lebanese descent elected to Parliament from West Kingston, the toughest, poorest, blackest neighborhood of the city, and one of the spawning grounds of the Rastafarians.
But this does not mean that race is irrelevant. Rex Nettleford of the University of the West Indies, who has analyzed Jamaican black nationalism for years, tried to put the issue in perspective. “There are many people in the society,” he said in a recent interview, “who feel that it is proper for a white or brown to have power. They do not trust a black man. And by white or brown, they do not necessarily mean the color of their skin. We have a saying that someone is a roast breadfruitblack outside but white inside.”in short. Nettleford seemed to be saying, many Jamaican voters prefer white or brown leaders, but would accept a black leader if he had white attitudes and values.
The question for Manley is, How long can this last? It is true that Jamaica sometimes seems like a somnolent, easygoing, conservative land. But it suffers from enormous poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, slums, and crime. How king will the hopeless unemployed meet their desperation by quietly smoking ganja and dreaming of redemption? How long will the black masses continue to reject Black Power and vote for leaders who either are or act like white Europeans? Probably longer than an outsider might expect. Whether it is enough time, however, for Prime Minister Manley to change the attitudes of his people with his mild and unhurried Christian socialism is another matter. But his intelligence, his popularity, and the new wealth he has acquired for his country at least give him a chance.