The World

Foul wind for Jamaica

Kevin Doyle December 13 1976
The World

Foul wind for Jamaica

Kevin Doyle December 13 1976

Foul wind for Jamaica

The World

Kevin Doyle

Cracker’s got a problem, a heavy one for him. The late-aftenoon heat is becoming intolerable and for two days his CB200 motorcycle, Cracker’s only escape from the fetid slums of West Kingston’s Trench Town up into the cool Jamaican hills, has been broken. That, and the turnip-sized Wisdom Weed he’s been drawing on and the bottles of Red Stripe beer he’s demolished and the stench and the dirt and the pressure that everyone knows about are all pushing down hard now. And this crazy, spiffed-up bike won’t start. But somehow, Cracker’s frenzied, smoke-clouded head just won’t let him believe that anything’s wrong with the starter. “It dem gears,” he says for maybe the fiftieth time and smashes an empty Red Stripe into a rusty oil drum. Still, he’s going to do a number for the only white face around: a little softshoe, a pose like a Victorian sea captain scanning the horizon and a harmless sweep of his 30-inch Sheffield steel machete.

The mood cracks like a lightning flash. Here in this squalid, barren, 12-foot-by-12foot Trench Town yard, one of the loitering brethren decides to break the rules. He gets insulting, personally insulting, and in Trench Town nothing is deadlier. “Why him [Cracker] act so looney?” he snarls. “Him’s loonier and loonier.” Cracker’s machete flashes again and this time he means it. But somebody called Ajax, a really jived-up Rude Boy with locks that must weigh 10 pounds, is faster. His head is still together and his short knife slashes down Cracker’s left arm,carving a neat white line that slowly gushes a bloody red. Luckily, in Cracker’s delirium the sight of his own blood rivets his attention long enough for an old man from the next yard to cool things down, pass around some more ganja—possibly the finest marijuana grown anywhere in the world—and bring the brothers back to harmony. But the time for a white face to disappear has definitely arrived.

A broken bike, a little action with the blades, hatred, futility, sudden anger, idleness and bitterness are neither new nor unusual in Jamaica. But they come as swift, startling and constant reminders that the little island is starting a race, as members of Jamaica’s Rastafarian religious sect like to put it, along a t’in, t’in wire that stretches uncertainly somewhere between Babylon and Zion. The clinical, clipped phrases of the politicians and bureaucrats make it sound simple, deceptively simple. The race,they say, is really an all-out campaign to reequip a nation left bankrupt by its British colonial masters. In the process,

they proclaim, they will conquer, by the creation of jobs and wealth, the endemic poverty and violence in the parts of paradise never seen by the tourists—the ones who used to flock in from Quebec City and Toronto and New York but now cancel out by the thousands at news of a single murder.

Says Wilfred (Bill) Hooper, Canada’s personable High Commissioner in Kingston: “With respect to tourism, Jamaica’s biggest problem is the foreign press. About that there can be no doubt whatever.” Hooper, who commands enormous respect among the top-level civil servants in Kingston, is not criticizing the foreign press. Says a spokesman for the Canadian

Department of External Affairs: “As long as you take normal precautions, Jamaica is at least as safe for a tourist as any other Caribbean island.” It’s just that every time some slum Bad Boy goes frantic from the white rum or Red Stripe and ganja and gets so wired up he murders everyone in the next yard or does something unmentionable to his children, it goes out on the Associated Press or Reuter news wires and ends up the next day in The Montreal Star or The Globe and Mail. Then the tourists flood their cancellations into the crippled luxury hotels already operating at only 30% capacity. Reggae rock hero Lord Laro has even written a song about it:

You know our music is among de best,/But there’s nothin’ ’bout dat in de foreign press./But if a man steal a mango,/ Or breeze blow up a woman’s dress,* / Bet you life we make him headline in de foreign press.

The song is only partly right. It’s true that the beauty of Jamaica, the gentleness of many of its poor blacks, its brown middle classes, its Lebanese and Chinese merchants and its remaining whites, often are overlooked in international reporting; so are its idyllic, safe and inexpensive tourist attractions. But there’s another side to

* Meaning, presumably, a mildly pinched bottom.

Jamaica, one that doesn’t touch the tourist: a black, poor, violent, raw, surging mass that’s at least as tough in its makeup as the thugs who spread horror through Belfast and Beirut. The difference is that the hatred coursing through the slums of Kingston and the country shantytowns is still without a real focus, without charismatic leaders and without a single, agreed target to attack and rip apart.

There is no civil war in Jamaica. Not yet. But the basic ingredients are there: an increasingly fierce political polarization with virtually everyone, from the dwellers in hilltop mansions to the denizens of the dirtiest shantytown yard, lining up with either Prime Minister Michael Manley’s governing People’s National Party or Edward Seaga’s Jamaica Labor Party. Coupled with that are the swarms of idle thugs with nothing better to do than kill each other or someone higher up the social scale for a few dollars from a politician with a grudge. The polarization is almost complete. Says a middle-class shopowner: “I rarely go out to parties anymore. If I go to a PNP house for a drink, it means I’m going to lose JLP customers.” Then, only half mockingly: “I’m not really political myself, but if I had a daughter I won'dn’t want her to marry a JLP man.”

The murder .s steady. For now. But many insiders diet political tensions could someda; ;h a point at which gunmen will be ted and turned loose to create such b ; that an outright coup

could be jus 1. Events following the

December If tion may provide a clear signal of wh; s ahead.

The nethe rid of Jamaica is peopled mostly by er y kids who have run away from the lit 'oor five-acre farms and

cane fields the government is trying to keep them on. They’re not sure what they want or where they’re going, certain only that they can sing better reggae than Bob Marley or Jimmy Cliff if they can just jive their way into a deal with some recording studio. But what they find, when they stumble into the industrial vapors of Kingston, is the absolute squalor of absolute poverty: dirt-poor scavengers in tar-paper shacks and aluminum-sided yards, washed up and rotting. There isn’t any work (official figures say the unemployment rate is about 24%. Privately, government officials tell you it’s closer to 50%) unless you want to dig ditches or collect garbage. “Nooooo, mon,” says Cracker’s friend Samuel. “What you do, mon? You write? Okay, I

and I [Rastafarian patois for you and I], we get together and write, write dem good songs and dem good stories.” So they can’t get jobs but maybe they can find some sexstruck tourist and leave her breathless or make a little money at the racetrack and use it to buy a knife or, if the win is big enough, a gun. There are guns everywhere in the Jamaica slums and the legend (it’s not an island noted for facts) is that North American ganja buyers, who once tried to pay in counterfeit dollars, now have been forced by the local suppliers to put up guns instead. There have also been reports of Jamaicans in Canada smuggling guns into the island.

A lot of the time Jamaica’s slum dwellers just fondle the guns and keep them hidden, practise with the knives and keep on smoking. But sometimes the “pressure”—that indefinable something that everyone in the shantytowns talks about—gets too great and a half-mad sportboy slips into another shack or another yard in the dead of night and starts cutting up the first young lady or gentleman he bumps into. One report has it that a rum-soaked zoo attendant actually got himself so freaked-out under the pressure that he jumped into the lion’s pit. He was pulled out with only cuts and bruises, but next day he was right back in there and this time the lions were more efficient. For the younger ones, escape often takes the form of climbing on top of a fast-moving train and waiting with a few of the brothers for it to approach a railway tunnel. The last one to duck is either stone dead or hero for a day. But they understand these things down in Trench Town and Tivoli Gardens and Jones Town, even sympathize. Yeeees, mon, dey know about de pressure.

The toughs with the guns are the Too Bad Boys, the Dreadmen, the ones whose very mention chills the soul and who cut each other down with sickening regularity. And it’s an open secret in Jamaica that since independence in 1962, the low-life members of the two major political parties have taken to supplying the Too Bad Boys with even more guns as an effective and easily available way of getting rid of wearisome rivals. But most of the time, the party gangs have little to do but cruise the slum streets. When they collide, as they do constantly, the outcome can be hideous. One hot night last May, a gang of baddies decided to avenge the stabbing of one of its members. They simply put a match to a rundown tenement and blasted away with shotguns aí any fireman who felt he should do his duty. All that was left were the blackened corpses of eight children and three adults.

The word is out in West Kingston that Skully was the gang leader on that particular night. He’s noncommittal about it, super cool. “D’ese de last days, mon,” he says, his eyes flashing a slowly rising menace. “De rivers of Babylon, dey ‘bout to overflow anyway, so why you want start asking’ all dem t’ings?” A sudden heavy rain pounds into the dust of his yard, the

ganja smoke thickens, an aging goat starts nibbling at the corner of a makeshift bed and Skully delivers his final thought before drooping into sullen silence. “Sometimes me t’ink d’at Michael . . . d’at maybe Michael . . . d’at even before Babylon come down, him be finished.”

Prime Minister Michael Norman Manley is 52 years old, a wartime veteran of the Royal Canadian Air Force and a graduate of the London School of Economics at a time when the renowned democratic-socialist Harold Laski held sway there. He is also a highly acclaimed Third World and Commonwealth leader and among the most eloquent socialist advocates of a new world economic order. Standing before a joint Senate-Commons committee in Ottawa this fall, during a formal visit, Manley declared: “In the last four years [since he was elected] we have made, in all modesty, herculean efforts to improve the world economic order. But it is like going from the basement only to the ground floor by the down escalator.”

A slim, handsome man with silvering hair who is given to wearing the kareba, a Caribbean-style leisure suit, with a paisley cravat, Manley has more reason than most to worry about the world economic order. By any standard, his own country’s social and economic problems are staggering. Inflation, at mid-year, was running close to 30% (officials claim it has since been reduced to about 12%), unemployment was climbing steadily and the bottom had dropped out of the markets for those exports on which Jamaica depends for its foreign earnings. The world demand for sugar plummeted, while the price of energy im-

ports soared. Canadian and U.S. firms that mine Jamaican bauxite for refining into aluminum have cut back sharply in their operations, which account for more than 80% of the country’s export earnings, because of slumping demand and the tripling of royalties by Manley’s government. Bad publicity abroad and a general turndown in international travel have also dealt a shattering blow to the tourist industry. Reliable figures are almost impossible to come by, but so serious has the situation become that the government was forced to take an interest in roughly 40% of the island’s 12,000 hotel rooms just to keep the major hotels from going under. At least

$200 million has been smuggled out of the country illegally this year and the affluent upper classes have been emigrating by the thousands

In a moderately successful attempt to control the worst of the violence, if nothing else, Manley invoked draconian emergency legislation earlier this year, which, among other things, enables closed courts to hand out life sentences to anyone found carrying a gun or ammunition. It also provides prison sentences for anyone who publicly says anything that the government and the courts consider threatening to the security of the state. Manley told the island’s two million people: “We have

witnessed a type and scale of violence unique in our history, terrorist activities previously unknown to us, which have caused fear and concern to every decent Jamaican citizen.” For all of its clear infringement of civil rights, the new legislation has nevertheless brought a measure of calm. Not all Jamaicans seem reassured. Cars in downtown Kingston still sport bright bumper stickers bearing the message: WOULD THE LAST PERSON TO LEAVE THE ISLAND PLEASE TURN OFF THE LIGHTS. And confidential security documents show that nearly 300 people have been killed in incidents of political violence so far this year.

Manley himself seems convinced that if he can keep the JLP and Seaga ( known to Manley supporters as ciAga) at bay he can create a genuine socialist economy by buying up idle land and breaking up huge old estates, turning them into worker cooperatives and producing a wide range of agricultural goods, with accompanying processing facilities, for export. Whether this can be done democratically is the question now dominating conversations at fashionable Kingston cocktail parties and north coast resort conventions.

Says Manley: “I am to my backbone a democrat.” But Seaga persistently charges that Manley is rapidly becoming a tool of Fidel Castro’s Cuba and is being led inexorably into the formation of a one-party Communist state. U.S. diplomats, too, have expressed alarm that Cuban aid officials have been invited into the country to build a school and a factory. And, after circumventing the official Agency for Public Information and talking privately to dozens of senior civil servants during a period of nearly two weeks, it became clear that Cubans in small numbers are indeed being used in an advisory capacity at senior government levels. The advice being given by the Cubans deals mainly with the technical means of improving such things as agricultural output and ways of financing the extension of woefully inadequate educational and health facilities. There was little or no indication that political ideology has any significant role.

Documenting Manley’s insinuations that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency is active in stirring up political unrest in order to unseat him proved far more difficult. What emerged was that the CIA does maintain a station chief and two subordinates in what is known as an “acknowledged presence” in Jamaica. It was also clear that at least two of the agents on more than one occasion approached foreign businessmen and a journalist for background information on Cuban construction workers in Jamaica and for details of the radio operations and inside layouts of some Communist embassies and consulates in Kingston. In cases where those approached cooperated, there was no evidence that the information provided was anything that could not have been gleaned from official handbooks or from simply

telephoning the people involved. For some reason, Manley has recently shown a tendency to tone down his anti-CIA comments, reflecting, perhaps, a greater confidence that Jamaica’s problems just might be eased by Jamaicans themselves without the traditional tactic of using an outside scapegoat—if only the Rastafari would disappear in a whiff of their own smoke.

“All the days of the vow of his separation there shall be no razor come upon his head. Until the days be fulfilled in which he separateth himself unto the Lord, he shall be holy and shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow” (Numbers 6:5). The Rastafarian philosophy-religion, with its sanctification of sex, relaxation, the herb (variously known as the wisdom weed, the herb and marijuana but never as a drug) and reggae music is sweeping through young Jamaica like a hurricane. It is strongest among the poor blacks, but its attraction, not to mention the singular appeal of the weed, is catching on fast with the youth of other colors and castes as well.

It all began in the 1930s after a persistent black Jamaican named Marcus Garvey had been storming around Harlem and south Chicago during the Twenties predicting that a black king would be crowned in Africa and that he would redeem the lost tribes of Judah and bring them home. That was extremely unwise at the time, threatening as it did to raise the consciousness of the ghettos in America, and in 1927 U.S. authorities sent him packing back to Jamaica. His following on the island was not large, particularly since his message of thrift and hard work had little appeal to the bone lazy. He was imprisoned by nervous white authorities and finally went to England where he died in 1940. But when Ras Tafari was crowned Emperor Haile Selassie in Ethiopia in 1930, and Garvey’s followers in Jamaica saw his picture all over the newspapers, they went to their Bibles and they found quotations to convince them that this was the real thing. Selassie himself never claimed outright that he was divine, but with the old tyrant perched up there on his throne in Addis Ababa, the movement in Jamaica knew this was no manifestation of a God but real old Jah himself, the living Lion of Judah. The wizened little gnome even flew to Kingston in 1966 to see his flock. But when the plane landed and he saw all those thousands of weirdo, half-naked, half-stoned Rastas waiting to greet him, Selassie was terrified. It took an hour for the authorities to convince him to come out. Now that Selassie is dead, the Rastas have a bit of a dilemma. Some refuse to believe it and others say he will return, he’s just gone for a rest.

What the Rastas really believe down there in the black ghettos is a little hard to grasp, partly because it takes days just to understand the patois and mainly because they spend most of their waking time on the verge of vanishing into delicious,

weed-induced delirium. They say a hefty headful of ganja is the key to learning. “What Rasta want, mon,” says Michael, a musician, “is for him to go home, home to Africa, to Ethiopia. Rasta-man, him want go back to Zion, where him come from, before Babylon, de Godless Babylon, it go down, down, down, mon.” In fact a handful of the brethren did make their way a few years ago to Ethiopia and a patch of land Selassie said he would give them. But (and it’s a very sensitive subject inTrench Town) they haven’t been heard from since. They may just be resting with Jah.

Flipper is pounding his staff in the dirt, furious at a naïve white’s failure to grasp

his simple message. “Yes mon, Rasta, him de true Jew of de prophecy. But de white mon, de Babylon out d’ere, him try to destroy Rasta. De white man, him t’ink him de true Jew. Rasta-man, him want him herb for free. But de beeg man, him say no. Okay if de beeg man, him have him herb but not de little man. D’em bloodclot [a Rasta obscenity related to menstruation] big man, d’em sit around out d’ere and d’em laugh and d’em say we make a law and we get at de little man. Happen all de time, mon, all de time.” Half an hour later, a maniacal police squad bursts into Flipper’s yard, seizes the herb, beats one of the brothers senseless, then gives back the ille-

gal ganja and leaves without saying a word.

The police and the security forces are suspicious of the Rastas, with their beards and their uncut hair styled in wild stuck -out plaits called dreadlocks. Officially, the police say they have nothing against the movement, but privately they tell you that there are a lot of “plastic Rastas,” guys who gussy up to look like the real thing, talk Iand-I-and-I, peace and love, but are really often hired killers using a handy disguise. Among a lot of the more affluent Jamaicans there’s the same kind of suspicion and they all want to explain about 1963. At that time the Rastas, fired by the civil rights movement in the United States, had be-

come vociferous and more and more restless. A few radical blacks from the United States had penetrated the brethren and were urging them to act, strike out, do something. But it wasn’t in their nature.

And up in those luxurious mansions above Kingston, there were rumors at the time that the Rastas down in shantytown had started sacrificing naked babies. Nobody from the mansions had ever been in shantytown, of course, but they believed the rumors and passed them on in gruesome, erroneous detail. And then, God knows what got into them, but a bunch of Rastas rode up to Coral Gardens on the north shore, about 10 miles from Montego Bay, and they went berserk. They attacked a gas station, burned it down and butch-

ered the owner. After that, some kind of spaced-out delirium took over and they went crazy, tearing through the countryside with their machetes, bursting into a local motel, murdering one of the occupants and racing to attack an overseer’s house. When the police cornered them, they fought back. The local landowners fell over each other in the rush to join the fracas. This was it. This confirmed the fear they’d had all along: those dirty, idle blacks were rising up. It was real, honestto-god revolution but it was completely out of character. When it was all over, there were three dead Rastas and two dead policemen. “So you see,” said a jaunty

young cop with a swagger stick, “a beating now and then just helps keep them in line.” The middle classes are still scared of the Rastas but now they have other reasons, apart from their wrongheaded concern about violence. The Rasta philosophy is taking hold among a lot of the children of the middle classes. And central to the movement is a profound distaste for prolonged hard work of any kind, especially work on the land, with its lingering connotations of slavery and white bosses. And why should any Rasta-man do anything to help a society that thinks he’s just some kind of filthy dope fiend with a fried-spinach brain? For the affluent, far too many

people for comfort are starting to think they’re right.

In his spartan office high above Kingston Harbor, Arthur Brown, governor of the Bank of Jamaica, is discussing the dismal subject of his country’s current economic stagnation.

“We have to find some way of motivating our people so that they want to work and so that the vast majority want to go back and work on the land. That is the only way we can build a viable economy and strengthen our exports. But even that isn’t a complete answer. We have some of the richest land in the world but still we import nearly all our food. Our eating habits were

formed by the British [Jamaica was a British colony for 300 years before independence] and as a result we use hugeamounts of flour, rice, corn and salted fish, none of which are produced here.”

Brown says state-owned farms are not the answer. They were tried, but the workers had little interest and the few who did usually found that when their crops were ripe a few Bad Boys would drift up from Kingston and steal them. The latest effort is to set up cooperative farms with five-acre lots being leased to the farmers who, in turn, can keep whatever profit they make. The plan is having some success. Brown says, but it’s not very efficient. “In a developing country (agriculture) is the most difficult area to improve. It’s so personal. Y ou can’t supervise a small farmer to death.” Brown has to cut the interview short. He has a meeting in a few minutes with some Canadian government officials who want to know how he’s planning to spend $100 million in loans and aid Ottawa has promised to deliver.

Back down in Trench Town, Samuel is at his mind-twisting best. “I tell you, mon, I

not going be a farmer. I-and-I, we write. Him [the government] not want bloodclot land himself so why him say I should go. Nooooo, mon. Him be dead man if him try make me do d’at. D’ere be war if him try.”

“Maybe,” says a young British housewife stretched naked beside her hilltop pool, “maybe there’s some way between violence and dictatorship, between agriculture and industrialization, between Babylon and Zion, as they’re always saying to do all the things the politicians say we need. Some way to have people working and everything, but with lots of time to relax, enjoy a smoke and listen to the music. Somebody once said the music is like the island: the melody of Europe played to the rhythms of Africa.”

It won’t take a miracle to win the race between Babylon and Zion, to find a “Jamaican way,” but it will take time. And nobody knows how much time is left.