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Manley, Seaga and the Cuba time bomb

Published:Monday | December 22, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Gary Spaulding, Contributor

As one who, from childhood, took on more than passing interest in the absorbing political chess games of the 1970s between arch-rivals Michael Manley and Edward Seaga, it had always seemed to me that Cuban leader Fidel Castro and Cuba were the prize.

And it had always seemed that although checkmate was the objective, a stalemate was more frequently the outcome in those enthralling days of the Cold War era.

As I saw it then, Manley was the consummate socialist; Seaga, the avowed capitalist; and Castro, the unrepentant communist.

The captivating political imagery in the hostile political arena displayed a defiant Manley taunting the mighty United States by befriending Castro, its everlasting nemesis.

We were told, in gripping and colourful detail, about Manley-sanctioned military training camps for Jamaicans that were set up in Cuba. Manley also reportedly nationalised businesses as part of a Cuba-inspired programme.

I recall in those exhilarating days under the Manley-led People's National Party (PNP) when the Cuban ambassador to Jamaica, the late Ulises Estrada, irritated Seaga. At the time, I did not know that Estrada was a Cuban revolutionary who had aided Ernesto 'Che' Guevara's campaigns in Africa during the 1960s.

From where I sat, the colourful diplomat was anything but diplomatic, and great at political histrionics.

The fiercely dramatic decade of the 1970s ushered in the fierce October 1980 general election that heralded Seaga's assumption of power. We knew immediately that Estrada's days in Jamaica were numbered.

In one of his first moves as prime minister in the aftermath of the eventful election, Seaga obliged. He declared the redoubtable communist persona non grata, an ignominious boot from Jamaican shores. After Estrada went home, I can recall hearing news reports about some tractors being sent to Jamaica from Cuba as a peace offering.

For me, Castro was signalling that he would not mind remaining friends with Seaga's Jamaica Labour Party, which had blasted Manley's PNP to smithereens in the polls. Ironically, shortly after the tractors arrived, Seaga cut diplomatic ties with Cuba.

IDEOLOGICAL FOES

But, influenced in large measure by the razor-sharp edges of branded ideology, trust was anathema.

However, rivalries wane as time passes.

Men mellowed, warmth usurped the Cold War, the Berlin Wall collapsed, and communism foundered.

Then 1997 came and Jamaica's larger-than-life public figure, Michael Norman Manley, described then by Carl Wint's Leminotep as 'The Great Conceptualiser', died - and that marked the demise of the bad relations between Seaga and Castro.

It was at the state funeral that I first beheld, in real life, the mysteriously imperious, albeit ageing, figure that was Fidel Castro.

This was the man I had read so much about, who had brought his country, years before, through the Cuban Revolution. He was the man whose mystique had grown with his almost fabled defiance of the mighty United States.

With the hero-like adulation that he received at the Manley's funeral, the PNP Government invited him back to Jamaica in 1998 on a more pleasant trip. On that visit, Castro met Seaga for the very first time. Fascinatingly, there was none of the fanfare and political panache for which both men were known.

Two of the most outspoken foes in the Caribbean simply buried the hatchet. Seaga encapsulated the reconciliatory meeting this way: "Every conflict has a beginning and has an end, and we have come to the end."

Seaga recalled that his meeting with Castro, the first between them, was "very amiable, very frank and vintage Castro, in that we both had an opportunity to talk around the subject."

"The subject,'' Seaga said then, referred to fears from the 1970s that Castro might export his revolution, taking over Jamaica through proxy.

"Thousands upon thousands left the country," Seaga said. "It caused the split of many, many families ... . We were locked in conflict,'' he said.

FUTURE RELATIONS

Seaga said: "We made it quite clear that those days are behind us. We are not dealing with memories. We are dealing with the future."

That future should include a Cuba fully integrated in the region's affairs and free of the US embargo, Seaga said.

"We also do not believe that the embargo has any purpose," he said. "[It] has certainly not demonstrated any usefulness."

So in 1998, the feud that raged in the 1970s between the PNP and the JLP in the names of communism, capitalism and socialism died.

In typical storybook fashion, another chapter in perhaps the most intriguing political drama that many of us will see in our lifetime closed on an emotional note, as the United States seeks to re-establish diplomatic ties - and maybe more - with one of Jamaica's closest neighbours and friends.

Gary Spaulding is a parliamentary and political affairs journalist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and gary.spaulding@gleanerjm.com.