Seaga gives long view of Jamaica's woes
Mel Cooke, Gleaner Writer
Former Prime Minister Edward Seaga anchored his Wednesday afternoon discussion of My Life and Leadership Volume II: Hard Road to Travel, 1980-2008, with a long-term view of Jamaica's steady downward spiral into economic, education and crime doldrums.
The small audience at Bookland, New Kingston, paid rapt attention to the deliberately paced monologue, Seaga closing with a chronology of Jamaica's progress - or, mostly, lack thereof - in key areas from Independence to present. The high points - the immediate post-Independence period and the late 1980s - coincided neatly with Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) stints in government.
After the prosperity of the 1960s, Seaga said, the Michael Manley-led government decided to take Jamaica in a different direction.
"It sounded innocuous in the beginning, but that was not the way it ended," Seaga said, adding that what started out as democratic socialism evolved into a more radical position and practice.
"If there is no wealth you cannot help the poor," Seaga stated simply.
He spoke to the foreign-exchange drain of the decade, as well as the closure of small businesses. "Fourteen thousand small shops closed around the country, or had one window open," Seaga said. He said many of the shops which remained open, stocked three items primarily - Foska Oats, aerated water and toilet paper, all of which were made in Jamaica.
"Everyone was told to stop eating cornflakes and find something Jamaican," Seaga remarked.
Then came the 1980 election. The JLP was back in power by a landslide victory and funds from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) allowed access to funds "that brought the country out of the state of collapse it was in". Seaga said in the first two years "things turned right around from the 1970s. It was the exact reverse".
Then, in the third year, there was a global recession ("The worst in 50 years. It was not a little recession. It was a huge one."), cutting bauxite and alumina exports in half. Still, from 1986, Seaga said, "we enjoyed the type of growth we had in the 1960s". There was also Hurricane Gilbert to contend with in 1988, Seaga saying "in three months we had the country back".
Again, the government changed, Seaga saying this time around the opposing party had "the same policies as us". However, he said, within a year of the PNP government "the country started to feel the sting. They (the PNP) did not understand how to run a system that makes a market economy".
Seaga spoke at length about the policy decisions around the exchange rate, which led to a decline from J$5.50 to US$1 to J$20 to US$1 in two years. "It has kept going ever since," Seaga said. He spoke to the wipeout of Jamaican financial institutions in the mid-1990s and opined "it was all a result of that fatal mistake of relaxing the financial controls."
Crime came up on the discussion radar, Seaga opining "people believe that the State of Emergency can reduce crime, reduce murder. It did when it was called in 1976, but only for a few months."
So, Seaga said, Jamaica is no better off than it was in the 1960s. The criminal justice system has got far worse, the education system is not much better and the economy is in the doldrums.
"We have had lost decades. Three lost decades have left us at the bottom of the ladder. We are now in partnership with Haiti, Guyana and Suriname, countries that are not doing as well as their neighbours. We must change that," Seaga said.
And he tied that change back to a stable exchange rate, saying "every country that does not have a pegged exchange rate in the Caribbean is struggling".