Mark Wilson #2

The writer is an international journalist based in Port of Spain

TODAY, it’s at Montego Bay and Ocho Rios on Jamaica’s north coast. A solemn stream of mourners view the flag-draped coffin of former prime minister Edward Seaga. On Wednesday, it was at the headquarters of his Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) in Kingston. On Monday, it’s back to Kingston’s Tivoli Gardens, his political heartland.

“Papa Eddie” Seaga died of cancer on May 28, his 89th birthday. There has been a steady flow of tributes. Almost a month of planned commemoration leads up to his funeral on June 23.

I glimpsed Seaga once or twice at public events, an alert and kindly-looking old man, well-liked and respected all round. But it was not always so. For most of his political career, he was a deeply polarising figure.

And a long career it was. He was appointed in 1959 to the pre-indepen­dence Legislative Council—the forerunner of today’s senate. That’s 60 years ago, long before most Jamaicans were born.

He was a Harvard-educated anthro­pologist and music promoter, still in his 20s. Three years later, just before independence, he was elected member of parliament for Kingston Western, a seat he then held without a break for 43 years.

He was appointed straight to the cabinet as 32-year-old development and welfare minister.

There was plenty development and welfare to see to in Kingston Western. At its heart was the desperately poor squatter settlement of Back-o-Wall, with three public standpipes and two public bathrooms to serve a community of 5,000, right next to Kingston’s garbage dump, abattoir, morgue, cemetery, waterfront and public market.

Seaga was an outsider, from a comfortably prosperous family of Syrian extraction, and born in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. His party traditionally represen­ted rural Jamaica and Kingston’s elite uptown suburbs. But he used his personal and perhaps his social-science skills to transform the community.

Within three years, Back-o-Wall had been torn down and replaced by Tivoli Gardens—a planned lower-income settlement, filled with ultra-loyal JLP supporters, and the foremost of Jamaica’s notorious political “garrisons”.

Seaga’s successor as MP for the Tivoli Gardens district is the community development minister and former mayor of Kingston, Desmond McKenzie. Born in Back-o-Wall, he was 12 in the year Tivoli Gardens was completed.

He spoke of his times with Seaga for a full 68 minutes in Jamaica’s parliament last week. He said: “He was the one that made a lot of us know what hamburgers taste like, my first pair of nice shoes, holiday jobs...ensuring that we have good education.... I see him as a father that many of us never had.”

But Seaga’s 60-year political career was on some measures only a qualified success. He was prime minister for just over eight years. He was opposition leader for 22.

As party leader, he won only one contested election. He lost five.

He came to office in 1980, with the economy in ruins. He had great international goodwill—in 1981, he was the first foreign leader to meet the newly elected US president Ronald Reagan. He promised an economic transformation. Investors were welcomed.

There was no turnaround. Almost 40 years on, the Jamaican economy remains stagnant.

Seaga’s international fame reached its peak in the 1970s when as opposition leader, he confronted Michael Manley’s socialist government, seen in Washington as dangerously close to Fidel Castro’s Cuba and a potential cold-war Soviet ally.

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The fierce political and ideological rivalry between Seaga’s opposition JLP and Manley’s government spilled into a violent and politically linked gang war between rival urban garrisons.

You’ve seen that 1978 Bob Marley photo? The one where Marley did a hand-clasp with Manley and Seaga on-stage at his One Love concert? Neither politician seemed happy, and, indeed, Seaga looked distinctly queasy.

In 1971, there were just 145 mur­ders in Jamaica. In 1980, the year of Seaga’s election victory, there were 899. Seaga had earlier promised “blood for blood and fire for fire”. He was the JLP’s “One Don”.

After 1980, political tensions ebbed slightly. But the gang structures remained in place. Murder rates dipped to the 400s in the 1980s, then climbed steadily again.

In 2009, the body count reached 1,680. The US demanded the extradition of Christopher “Dudus” Coke, the dominant gang leader in Tivoli Gardens. Bruce Golding, Seaga’s successor as prime minister and MP for Kingston Western, had no choice. In May 2010, he sent the police and army into Tivoli, his political base. More than 70 civilians were shot dead.

Trevor Munroe, now a senator and professor, was on the far left of Jamaican politics in the 1970s, and one of Seaga’s committed opponents. Today, he leads the National Integrity Action, a respected anti-corruption pressure group. His tribute to Seaga in the Gleaner is one of the most generous and all-embracing. Jamaica’s mood is for healing, not confrontation.

Seaga stood down as member of parliament and JLP leader in 2005. Since then, his JLP has won two elections—and looks likely to win a third when Andrew Holness reaches the end of the current parliamentary term. Is that because of Seaga’s political legacy, or in spite of it? For this month, at least, Jamaicans have little doubt.