Caribbean politics and the culture of criminality

In May 2010, University of the West Indies Political Science lecturer Tennyson Joseph wrote a brief but insightful article titled, ‘The ‘Dudus’ Coke Affair: Lessons for Eastern Caribbean,’ in which he sought to place the so-called Dudus Coke affair in the wider context of what he sees as the legitimization of the role of crime in contemporary Caribbean political culture.

Tennyson argues that the Dudus Coke affair was not an aberration but a microcosm of “the deep links between the political directorate and the organized criminal elements of Jamaica” that are rooted in the country’s officially sanctioned “garrison” politics in which powerful criminal warlords have carved out separate constituencies. Indeed, as Tennyson sees it, “Golding would not have been Prime Minister of Jamaica today, had Coke not sanctioned his ‘taking over’ of the Garrison constituency of West Kingston, in place of former PM Edward Seaga, following Golding’s re-entry into the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP).” In other words, according to Tennyson, Coke had succeeded in transforming his influence as the ‘Don’ of West Kingston into bankable political currency. The sphere of influence that comprised his crime ‘constituency’ made him a powerful king-maker in Jamaican politics, and the elaborate attempts to block his extradition to the United States were, in effect, a manifestation of the nexus between the political and criminal establishments in Jamaica.

The Coke saga makes a case for “the criminalization of the state” which has been repeated with monotonous regularity elsewhere in the region. Tennyson cites instances of perceived links between politics and criminality in at least four other Caricom territories though his assessment of the phenomenon is limited to the Eastern Caribbean and therefore does not address the rest of the Caribbean where other states are believed to have been compromised by criminal infiltration.

Charges of strong links between powerful criminal elements and politicians and other state officials have been made in most other Caricom territories, perhaps most frequently in Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and the Bahamas. In Suriname, the country’s elected President and one-time military ruler Desi Bouterse has been accused of being involved in drug dealing. The case of the now imprisoned Roger Khan’s alleged close links with the incumbent political administration in Guyana needs no restating here while the recent revelations of links between elements in the Guyana Police Force and other local drug operations mirror claims of similar connections between criminals and law-enforcement officials in other Caricom countries including Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago.

Links between criminal elements and politicians in Caricom territories are believed to be mutually rewarding, with the former benefiting from the privilege of living more-or-less above the law, in exchange in some cases for cutting their political protectors a share of their criminal proceeds. Other types of linkages are also believed to exist. In Guyana and elsewhere in the Caribbean there have been allegations of death squads comprising criminals recruited by governments who have operated as summary executioners.

Tennyson is just one of several academics who, in recent years, have treated the phenomenon of ‘alliances‘ between state officials and criminals as more than an aberration. The criminalization of the state has come to be regarded as a kind of critical junction in Caribbean politics, arrived at, according to Tennyson, somewhere around “the 1970’s to the mid-1980’s.” It is, he says, that point at which “the politics of ideas, freedom, democracy, sovereignty and national self-determination” gave way to “the politics of money” in a changed political culture driven by “a new genre of politician… whose skills set is no different from that of the petty thief and average con man.” We live, according to Tennyson, in an era in which distinguishing between the committed Caribbean politician and the ordinary criminal is not always the easiest of tasks. If his view of Caribbean politicians is more than a trifle harsh, we cannot dismiss it lightly.

But even that is not the most frightening feature of Tennyson’s assessment of the condition of the contemporary Caribbean political culture. He argues that the criminalization of the state appears, in some cases, to have won a generous measure of public approval. In Jamaica, he points out, some of Coke’s West Kingston ‘constituents’ were prepared to fight and die to prevent his extradition. Elsewhere in the region, Tennyson says, voters appear to find the “new genre” of politician “attractive.” Voting “on principle,” he says, has been replaced by “voting for money.”

What the transformation has meant is that our ‘crime bosses’ and ‘drug lords’ have been afforded the social space in which to re-invent themselves. The need no longer exists for them to live in the shadowy world of criminality. These days, they are able to seek legitimization in philanthropic pursuits that target the poor, building threatening power bases in the process. Those pursuits apart, they often busy themselves seeking to transform their criminal gains into make-believe legitimate business enterprises through money-laundering.

What makes criminal infiltration of the supposedly sacrosanct institutions of the state a threat to the very fabric of Caribbean societies is not just the accommodating posture of our politicians, but the fact that sections of the citizenry themselves appear to accept and embrace it as the new way of life.

It is, Tennyson says, a slippery slope. He exhorts the Caribbean to remember that politics is “a one way street” and that to proceed too far in the wrong direction may be to run to risk of not being able to “reverse course.” It is at the Caribbean politician that he points an accusing finger, asserting that we can no longer provide them with the blank cheques which we do at the polls. The way to set our feet on a different path lies in the strengthening of those institutions that serve as the real keepers of higher order, like “a truly independent judiciary, an honest and non-partisan media, a well-educated and fearless intellectual class and a committed and truly patriotic civil society that is not a slave to the political directorate.” And if these are often brought under threat of either corrupting infiltration or else, elimination, we neglect to commit ourselves to their protection at our own peril.

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