It is little over fifty years since a sustained campaign, led by the then opposition Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) under Alexander Bustamante, resulted in a referendum decision approving the country’s withdrawal from the West Indies Federation, and supporting national independence for Jamaica. The JLP, the party currently in opposition, now appears to have started a campaign for Jamaica’s withdrawal, temporary or permanent is not clear, from Caricom.
Of course the circumstances in today’s Jamaica are different from the period 1958-62. Then, Jamaica was a country full of confidence about its future, the ruling People’s National Party (PNP) government, in office from 1958 under Norman Manley, having introduced a period of sustained economic development in an atmosphere of full confidence about the country’s capacity to make progress, whether in our out of Federation.
And at that time, the PNP’s commitment to sovereignty as part of a Federation was not based on any doubts in Manley’s mind, and that of his colleagues, about Jamaica’s ability to make progress as an individual entity. Rather, they felt a specific commitment to the idea of a collective identity for the people of the West Indies as a whole, historically placed in a situation of immense disadvantage in the West Indian archipelago.
The JLP of the time, led by the venerable Bustamante had, after the general elections of 1955, begun to modernize itself mainly through a young group led by Edward Seaga and Robert Tavares. This group perceived the possibility of a referendum as a tactical manoeuvre against the PNP to attain power, in the context of a population, much like those in the other Caribbean islands, little imbued with any real sense of the people of the West Indies as an historical collectivity.
It now appears that a new group of leaders of the Jamaica Labour Party, recently defeated in the context of a variety of political crises when it was in office, and consequently in need of a political mechanism that can assist revival, perceives another possibility of strengthening its hand at home, through an effort that would result in Jamaica loosening itself from the rest of the anglophone Caribbean, now Caricom.
Jamaica’s circumstances today are, of course, much different from those of the late 1950s into the ’60s. The economic crisis that has gripped the country for now many years, with neither of the two main political parties seeming able to attain an effective reversal of the declining economic trends, has obviously diminished popular optimism about the prospects for upward movement in the near future. And to some, the very meaning of sovereignty has assumed a less optimistic tenor, as the IMF has demonstrated its virtual domination of economic decision-making, with neither political party being able to demonstrate a capability to amend the terms of the present IMF solutions in any positive way.
So it would appear that, as within democratic politics in any of our Caricom countries, but historically in the case in Jamaica, the party now in opposition (at this time the JLP) sees the possibility to excite the voting population out of its sense of despondency about possibilities for recovery, and about the obvious loss of a sense of sovereignty born of the ever-dominating presence of the IMF.
It is true that for some time now, the Jamaican entrepreneurial class, particularly that section of it involved in manufacturing, has been agitated at the sight of Trinidad & Tobago’s increasing ability, in the era of the Single Market and Economy, to attain economic superiority in Caricom through its dominating position in industrial production and exports in the region. In their view, Trinidad’s obvious competitive advantage in energy, has left Jamaica in a position of diminishing capacity to manufacture exports that are competitive in Caricom, and in Trinidad & Tobago in particular.
The Jamaican critics are, of course, well aware, that according to the IMF’s theology, the persistent devaluation of the Jamaican currency for now over thirty years, should have balanced, in some measure, the competitive advantage of Trinidad. Jamaica, under both parties, has continued to support persistent devaluation. Or, put another way, no government has been able to resist either the pressure of the financial markets, or the IMF, ostensibly intended to ensure that the currency declines to what is assumed to be its ‘real’ value, and so attains competitiveness in terms of its cost of production. In that regard, the economic initiatives and policies of the last Golding and Holness JLP governments, truth be told, inherited from the previous PNP government, have been rigorously followed by the current PNP government of Portia Simpson-Miller.
The statements, over the last month, of the current JLP proponents, through Opposition Leader Holness’ words, about being “serious about suspending relations with” Caricom; or that while “we don’t want to appear anti-Caricom… for Jamaica to advance, we have to look elsewhere,” are well reminiscent to those familiar with a previous era. And it no doubt strikes a chord with the Jamaica population when it is pointed out that the value of Trinidad’s exports to Caricom in 2011 was US$2billion, of which Jamaica’s imports from the twin-island republic amounted to US$1 billion.
The obvious implication which the JLP would like Trinidad to draw from all of this is the possible reality of a Jamaican departure, repeating the events that led to the referendum result of 1961.
Jamaican Foreign Minister AJ Nicholson, in the face of this heat, has asserted that the Trinidad government has a stronger sense of the feelings of the disgruntled Jamaicans than his countrymen understand, after consultations with Prime Minster Persad-Bissessar and members of her government during the recent Caricom heads meeting in Trinidad & Tobago. He has insisted that Trinidad is ready to listen and “change course.” But whether this is enough to calm the opposition waters is left to be seen.
In the meantime, in the rest of Caricom, those with long memories listen with concern at what they might consider to be opposition political party gymnastics. But on the other hand, many in the region are also not satisfied that as a collective, Caricom’s structure and policies for inducing an adjustment to the current major changes in international economic relations, brought about by a combination of globalization and trade liberalization, are being sufficiently reorganized to adjust to the character of the Single Market and Economy itself.
The decision of Caricom heads, not too long ago, to “pause” in their consideration of the structure of the CSME and its governance arrangements, will have struck a chord of immobility. And the Jamaican opposition, playing the card that oppositions are prone to use, may well be inclined to conclude from this that Jamaica’s economic illness cannot be helped by the regional system. Whether they will dare to move against the process of Caribbean integration once more, is left to be seen.