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Stabroek News

Revolutionaries ­ Busta, Michael and Portia
published: Sunday | March 5, 2006

What would you say

To the coming of a brand new day

When the shadows are falling away

Even from the eyes of yore.

Express it if you might

As the passing of the night

And the coming of a light

Through a brand new door.

You'll say 'Hail the man'

That's your brother on the street

You'll say 'Hail the man'

Every time we meet

Hail your brother, equal man

Hail your sister, shake her hand

It's a brand new day

And you can say it anyway

But what I really want to say is love.

­ Ernie Smith, Hail the Man, 1972

ON MAY 23, 1938, Alexander Bustamante proclaimed to a rally of striking workers that "This is not a military revolution ­ it is merely a mental revolution". The next day soldiers threatened to open fire on the crowd he was leading. Bustamante famously bared his chest and declared "Shoot me if you will, but leave my people alone". He was jailed. But, demonstrations over the next few days shut down Kingston and forced the authorities to free him for fear of a general uprising.

On the night of May 28 a 15,000-strong crowd marched from the waterfront behind their self-chosen leader singing "We will follow Bustamante till we die". It was the beginning of the end of colonial rule in Jamaica. Busta had indeed proven he was more powerful than the Governor, and the people had imposed their will on the authorities. There could be no turning back.

Judged by its fruits the 1938 'mental' revolution was a wonderful success. It initiated a largely violence-free process that culminated in Jamaican independence on August 6, 1962. Few countries have achieved democratic maturity so swiftly and so peacefully. Yet, this outcome was hardly inevitable, and Jamaica's remarkably uneventful transition owed much to Busta himself.

For after his 1944 election victory he wielded more power than any local leader before or since, and likely could have taken the country in any direction he wanted. As Morris Cargill put it:


"He might have been a communist agitator, concerned not with Jamaica, but with Russian imperialism. He might have been a Marxist bent upon the destruction of the only economic system which, at this point in history at least, is appropriate to our continued development. He might have been a Latin American type of Fascist, bent upon setting up a personally profitable dictatorship. That he was none of these, and that he brought, or helped to bring, self-government and a new life to this country without at the same time disturbing unduly our historical or economic continuity is something that should stand to the lasting credit of Sir Alexander and to the good sense of our people."

Jamaica did not see 1938's spontaneous mass enthusiasm for change until Michael Manley's February 1972 election victory. The song 'Hail the man' captured the nation's mood perfectly. The word everywhere really was love.

Though but a youth, I distinctly remember customers in my father's shop loudly declaring "Black man time now!" Only in Jamaica could the defeat of the black Hugh Shearer by the three-quarter white Michael Manley be seen as a victory for the black masses. Gleaner owner Oliver Clarke once remarked to me that race in this country is a function not only of skin colour but of your perceived commitment to the betterment of the Jamaican people. It's a reality our minority elites and merchant middleman should never forget.

Joshua's regime had a beautiful beginning. Not since 1962 had the country been so united, and measures like a gun amnesty and adult literary classes were massively popular. But somewhere along the line things went wrong. And when Manley demitted office in 1980 after an election campaign which was a near civil war, Jamaica's murder rate had increased over 500 per cent compared to 1972, and per capita GDP had fallen by over 30 per cent.

There are many theories as to why Manley's 'socialist' revolution turned to dust. His government was destabilised by the American CIA. He was ahead of his time. He was betrayed by colleagues. He was too idealistic.


But, whatever the material causes, the root of his failure lay in intellectual arrogance. Manley ought to have known that a country with limited resources could never afford so many social programmes at one time; and that nothing good could come from the leader of a poor and tiny island of 2.5 million verbally abusing the most powerful country on earth; and that brilliant plans mean nothing without proper implementation and monitoring; and that people are basically selfish and usually work hard only if they have some direct self-interest at stake. By rejecting all that had gone before, Manley was in essence saying "Our previous leaders were idiots and I know better than everybody."

But, nobody is smarter than the world. The truly wise learn from the past, work within the realistic constraints of their situation, and take advice from those more technically informed. Bustamante knew this. Which is why, though he made mistakes as everyone does, his legacy of undisturbed democracy still shines so brightly.

Yet, for all his regime's bottom line failures, Michael Manley is our most fondly remembered Prime Minister. Many still recall the early 1970s euphoria, or have been told of it by older relatives. It's like the memory of a first love really. Handsome Prince Charming may have turned into a fat, boozing, womanising gambler. But that wonderful, initial feeling of ecstasy has never been forgotten and is still tenderly treasured.


No leader since then has so captured the public's affection as the 1972 Joshua. Until perhaps Portia Simpson Miller was chosen Prime Minister-elect last Saturday. Her victory has inspired astonishing mass enthusiasm. The image of the National Stadium exploding when she arrived at the Gibson Relays captured the general mood. In one beaming lady's words "I haven't felt so happy since 1972."

It must be a good thing for democracy when the people's choice prevails. And while doubts remain, I think she was the right choice. While Dr. Phillips' campaign was aggressive, divisive and condescending, Ms. Simpson Miller consistently took the high ground and stayed resolutely on her 'love and unity' message. In the end she came across as the safer alternative.

Portia Simpson Miller's brilliant ads neutralised much of the talk about her 'capacity'. Mrs. Simpson Miller's response to those who publicly denigrated her was sheer political genius. "My mother always told me that the only time you should look down on someone is when you are reaching down to help pick them up," was as effective a come back as I've ever seen or heard. Team Portia clearly outperformed their opponents in every aspect. And logic suggests that the candidate who runs the better campaign will also run the better government.

Next Week: Simpson Miller ­ the third revolutionary.

Email your comments to Kevin O'Brien Chang at

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