Editorial | Seaga a complex man who achieved greatness
Whether by contrivance or coincidence, it made sense that Edward Seaga’s death yesterday was on his birthday – his 89th. It was in keeping with Mr Seaga’s sense of drama. It will take deep analysis, legions of words, and a much longer arc of time to unravel and clearly define Edward Seaga’s relevance to Jamaica and his true place in the island’s history. For he was a complex character who elicited strong emotions – loved and despised in almost equal measure. What no one could ever claim, not even his most fervent detractors, is that he didn’t make major contribution to Jamaica’s development, including being the formative hand behind many of its institutions. Indeed, his interests were catholic.
In many respects, Mr Seaga was a paradox of Jamaican politics. He was of Lebanese extract and, in the context of Jamaica, a white man of relative privilege who engaged himself in and deeply understood the sociocultural history and environment of Jamaica’s black, urban poor, whose cause he championed, yet who, in the vortex of Jamaica’s Cold War politics of the 1970s and 1980s, he helped to polarise.
Indeed, that connection with, and embrace of, Jamaica’s black masses was an important stepping stone to Mr Seaga’s rise in politics and, ultimately, his longevity therein – up to long after he had lost his electoral viability. As a young Harvard graduate who had done sociological research in the slums of west Kingston, he came to the attention of the Jamaica Labour Party’s (JLP) leader, Alexander Bustamante, who appointed him to the island’s Legislative Council, the precursor to the Senate, in 1959.
‘HAVES AND HAVE-NOTS’
Perhaps his great leap to national prominence that marked him as a future leader was his 1961 ‘haves and have-nots’ speech, which highlighted the economic divide between Jamaicans and the dangers it portended, which, ironically, was delivered from within his membership of a party that was the more conservative of the two. The People’s National Party (PNP) had, from inception, called itself socialist.
When the JLP reclaimed the Government at Independence in 1962, the energetic Mr Seaga was appointed the minister for development and welfare. A major outcome was his development, out of the slums of Back O’Wall, of the community Tivoli Gardens, which was to become known as Jamaica’s foremost political garrison, the JLP’s redoubt, and Mr Seaga’s personal fiefdom. His deep and genuine affection for the community, and wider constituency, which he represented in Parliament for 40 years, was reflected in 2001 when he wept publicly as he spoke about reported atrocities by the security forces during an operation in the area in which more than two dozen persons were killed. It was happening to family.
In this early period, too, Mr Seaga played a major role in promoting Jamaica’s popular music, as well as other areas of art and culture. In 1967, Mr Seaga was named finance minister and is credited, in that portfolio, with building out Jamaica’s financial architecture. Institutions such as the Jamaica Stock Exchange and the Jamaica Unit Trust were launched, and the ‘Jamaicanisation’ of financial services institutions, including insurance companies, either started or accelerated.
The 1970s was a period of intense political rivalry in Jamaica. It pitted Mr Seaga against his major adversary, Michael Manley, and a resurgent PNP that had won the 1972 election. Mr Manley had rekindled the PNP’s socialist roots and gave Jamaica a major voice on the international stage, calling for a fairer world order and making common cause with the Non-Aligned Movement. Mr Manley’s activities, not least his relationship with Cuba’s Fidel Castro, spooked the West, especially Jamaica’s northern neighbour, the United States (US).
As the relationship between Kingston and Washington soured, Mr Seaga, who, in 1974, had pried Hugh Shearer from the leadership of the JLP, was characterised, depending on the perspective from which he was viewed, as a bulwark against a lurch to communism or an asset of reaction. In the face of this east-west proxy fight, Jamaica came close to all-out civil war, until the JLP swept to victory in the general election of October 1980.
PROFOUND VALUE TO JAMAICA
Mr Seaga rebuilt bridges with the West and, with the help of the US, stabilised an economy that was in shambles. He, however, never enjoyed completely smooth relationships with institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and foreign private-sector leaders, who often found his style of economic management too interventionist.
Mr Seaga served eight years as prime minister, including five after an uncontested election with no formal opposition. It is to his credit that he did nothing to undermine the island’s democratic institutions. Rather, he did things to ensure that constitutional processes worked.
Out of office, he, for a while, retained a firm grip on his party, but the electorate, it appeared, was no longer in awe of his declared economic and political wizardry. He was to remain in Opposition until he was forced out of the leadership of the JLP in 2006 by a group of Young Turks, who, unlike earlier party adversaries, couldn’t be undone with his wicked one-liners and put-downs.
While we await the fuller assessment of history, this newspaper has no doubt that demerits notwithstanding, Mr Seaga was, as politician, prime minister and human being, of profound value to Jamaica.