Even though we hardly discuss it in the public sphere here it cannot have escaped our attention that another Caribbean island, Puerto Rico, has been in crisis for some time. Last week that crisis escalated when thousands (as much as half a million say some) took to the streets to protest against Governor Ricardo Roselló embroiled in a scandal called #Rickyleaks. A few days ago I received this note from a young friend in Puerto Rico:
Dear friends, comrades, sisters, and brothers from/in the Greater Caribbean,
Warm greetings from Puerto Rico. I write with a great sense of urgency and within a vast wave of political and affective intensity. What I share with you below does not claim, or attempt, to be an academic analysis, nor a piece of investigative journalism, but rather a haphazard chronicle and commentary on what is happening in Puerto Rico at the moment, written, inevitably, from my perspective as a scholar, writer, and person –among a few other subjective identifications– deeply committed to the Caribbean. I include at the bottom a few links –in English– where you can find solid journalistic coverage and informed academic writing on recent events in Puerto Rico that have led to today, as well as on what is happening right now. My modest objective is that these rushed words generate more connections between our Caribbean archipelagos in this shattering hour for Puerto Rico. If you have any way of divulging these notes wherever you might be in the Greater Caribbean and its diasporas, and/or of translating them into any of our Creoles, into French or Dutch (I will be circulating soon this text’s Spanish version), I will be forever thankful. Please let me know if/when you are able to help, so that I can share the versions in other languages as widely as possible! And please provide the appropriate credits when sharing this piece.
One love, with deep gratitude,
Beatriz Llenín Figueroa, PhD, Adjunct professor (Humanities Department, UPR-Mayagüez Campus, Independent writer, editor, and translator, Associate Editor at Editora Educación Emergente (EEE)
Whatever happens, whatever happened / Oh hey / We are deathless / We are deathless.(Ibeyi, “We Are Deathless”)
#MeCagoEnLaIsla is an often-used hashtag by the “communications expert” Rafael Cerame D’Acosta in the Telegram chat involving Puerto Rico’s governor Ricardo (Ricky) Roselló and his closest “brothers.” As El Nuevo Día reports, Cerame D’Acosta is president of RCD International Advisory, a company that has reaped $783,400 in 21 contracts with Rosselló’s government, of which $315,000 have been directly the result of contracts granted by the Governor’s Office. But these, however appalling, are merely breadcrumbs. The massive scandal known as #RickyLeaks and #TelegramGate currently besieging Roselló and his closest friends and collaborators has been recently revealed to involve, for instance, at least 50 million dollars for one of the chat’s members, as reported by the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo on July 17, 2019. The majority of these men do not even hold positions in any public office, but are rather lobbyists or “influencers” that have taken to the most extreme the neoliberal phenomenon of privatization and corporatization of supposedly “democratic” governments.
Literally meaning “I take a shit on the island,” “me cago en la isla” idiomatically denotes, rather, something more akin to “fuck the island.” It is used whenever the boys’ club of, primarily, entitled, moneyed, white men in the chat find an act, a behavior, an expression or a person beneath their standards. Perhaps understandably, #MeCagoEnLaIsla, however, has not received the degree of attention that the rest of the chat’s vicious, misogynistic, homophobic, racist, ableist attacks has garnered. Nor has it been linked to the chat’s most unspeakable moral crime: the jokes about our thousands of dead bodies as a result of the local and federal governments’ utter negligence and abandonment during and after hurricane María. Yet, I believe that, in a deeper sense, the hashtag is intimately connected to the aforementioned forms of hatred, insofar as it reenacts a longstanding ideology of loathing toward our insular geography. Originally deployed by the very empires that, ironically, were built on the blood and resources of the Caribbean archipelagos they revile, the insularist ideology has been consistently reproduced by the local elites of complicit, neocolonial criminals.
What initially appears as a class-, race-, gender-, sexual orientation-, ableism-based only hatred, is in fact much deeper, reaching the most elemental level: the geology of our corner in the planet. Whatever disgrace, injustice, oppression, lack or crime happening on the islands of Puerto Rico –including its “99%” peoples– is somehow always interpreted as an inescapable result of geology’s accidents. I have devoted over ten years of research and writing to discrediting this notion, and I am currently engaged in a research project to demonstrate the ways in which it undercuts Puerto Rico’s political imagination and will, as well as, to my mind, our urgent, vital, inescapable relations with the greater Caribbean region in the process of overcoming the current crisis.
On March 2019, I visited Aruba to attend the Island States/Island Territories Conference, where the organizers asked me to offer a brief report on Puerto Rico post-hurricane season 2017. On that occasion, trembling with sorrow, I contested another presenter’s emphasis on the need to market the Caribbean islands as “open for business” saying that Puerto Rico was, instead, “open for justice.” Being “open for business,” at the cost of a colossal lie of “development” and “progress” throughout the 20thcentury, has led us head-on to the present humanitarian and fiscal crisis. I proceeded to read the following, necessarily brief, report:
Like many countries in the Global South, Puerto Rico is shouldering the burden of the undemocratic policies of neoliberal capitalism. As an ideology of privatization, government deregulation, and endlessly increasing debt for “development,” neoliberalism is, at once, the motor and proposed savior of the current humanitarian and fiscal crisis in Puerto Rico. By implementing so-called austerity measures, neoliberalism claims to save us from fiscal collapse, while, in fact, deepening the ecological tragedy and broadening the abyss between the minority who control most of the global wealth, and an increasingly precarious majority, whose bodies are ever more indebted, insecure, and denied access to basic resources.
Puerto Rico’s status as a colony (“territory”) of the United States since 1898, moreover, has enabled an unprecedented acceleration of this regressive dynamic. The crassest expression of Puerto Rico’s colonial subjugation in the present moment is undoubtedly the PROMESA law, with its Fiscal Oversight and Management Board (FOMB) becoming the de factogovernment of the country and determining the paths to “recovery” from the crisis, while in effect intensifying it. This contradiction is amply demonstrated by the decisions taken and measures imposed by the FOMB since it was constituted in 2016 by then-President of the United States, Barack Obama. For instance, the FOMB has: (1) spearheaded an assault on the University of Puerto Rico, which is experiencing a reduction of half of its operating budget, while students confront disproportionate tuition hikes; (2) taken measures to protect and expand tax exemptions for private corporations; (3) encouraged, with the collaboration of the local government, a so-called labor reform that brings the country back to labor conditions akin to those in the nineteenth century; (4) taken decisions to undermine local credit unions in favor of commercial banks; (5) supported the overhaul of the public education system by means of privatization, especially with the charter school system; (6) stimulated the “flexibilization” of environmental laws; and (7) supported efforts to privatize public corporations such as the public energy corporation.
Since Hurricanes Irma and, especially, María wrought ineffable devastation throughout the archipelago in 2017, neither the FOMB nor the local government have deviated from this organized neoliberal plan for the remaking of Puerto Rico’s economy to suit the interests of private and foreign entities. Rather, they have cynically capitalized on the dramatic suffering and trauma of everyday Puerto Ricans —many of whom have been forced to flee the country as unrecognized climate refugees, or are still living under blue tarps with only intermittent access to electricity—in order to push their plan through. If anything, the intensification of the crisis through these policies has become all the more evident in recent months.
In the midst of this dire situation, Puerto Ricans “on the ground” and in the commons are illuminating the way toward another, and better, country. In fact, as it has been amply documented, most of the impoverished people’s needs were covered, in the immediate aftermath of Irma and María, and until today, through communitarian autogestión (autonomous self-organization). Autogestión, which is amplified through affective and material solidarity networks, are organized and deployed at the margins of both the local and federal government apparatuses, as well as independently from the multinational corporations that, through massive tax exemptions and precarious labor laws, have come to control Puerto Rico’s dependent economy.
Moreover, recent phenomena confirm the creation of new public spaces and democratic imaginaries for thinking anew the question of decolonization in Puerto Rico. Among these initiatives are: (1) the numerous ecological struggles that have contested corporate-led contamination and irresponsible development in communities such as Tallaboa, Peñuelas and Playuela, Aguadilla, alongside a significant rise in agro-ecological projects; (2) the increasing support for clean, solar energy and its independence from private, or privatized, corporations, especially around the work of Casa Pueblo in Adjuntas and IDEBAJOin the southeastern coast; (3) the significant opposition to the FOMB from multiple social justice organizations, such as JunteGente, ¡Dignidad!, and Se acabaron las promesas; (4) the mounting support for a citizen-led, transparent debt audit that would also bring the guilty parties to justice, exemplified by the Frente Ciudadano por la Auditoría de la Deuda (Citizen Front for the Debt Audit); (5) the continual struggle in defense of public and accessible education, both at the school and university levels; and (6) the vibrant resurgence of street and independent art, theater, and performance, with such collectives as Papel Machete, Agua, sol y sereno, Vueltabajo Colectivoand Bemba PR. Characterized also by autogestión, these movements of the commons have been shaping profound and diverse sovereignties that, I believe, constitute routes toward decolonization outside of the established institutional frameworks, which have in many ways led to the crisis and repeatedly betrayed Puerto Rican communities.
Today, on July 17, 2019 (17J), only four months later, reports in El Nuevo Día indicate that close to 500,000 people of all stripes of life took the streets of the capital city of San Juan as rightfully theirs, while an unsung amount of people did the same in multiple towns and cities all over the Puerto Rican archipelago (including Vieques), its diasporas, and multiple U.S. and other international cities. Their main demand on which everyone agrees? The resignation of Puerto Rico’s pro-annexation governor, Ricardo Roselló, who is the son, by the way, of Pedro Roselló, the country’s governor from 1993 thru 2001 and one of the main artifices of the neoliberal “turn.”
Simultaneously, different sectors of the multitude demand much more (and there are significant disagreements here):
that all those involved in corruption schemes –including “Americans” such as Julia Keleher, and “American” interests and corporations– are brought to justice and the stolen money and resources are returned to the people of Puerto Rico;
that Puerto Rico’s odious debt is cancelled, or, at the very least, thoroughly audited in a transparent, citizen-led process (some, me included, are also calling for reparatory justice from the US empire);
the removal of the FOMB and the immediate halt to all austerity measures being enforced;
that gender-based violence is confronted head-on as a national crisis (a demand that has been on the public arena for over a year now);
that new elections are held and/orthat a nation-wide Constituent Assembly is organized to collectively build upon the multifarious efforts of participatory democracy being advanced by various sectors in the country, as well as upon Puerto Rico’s long history of popular struggle –particularly embodied in anticolonial, feminist, student, anti-racist, queer, and environmental movements–, in order to produce a transformative, new horizon for Puerto Rico.
In light of these recent developments in the country, and now trembling with expectation, I can confirm that there is an even more intense, and equally longstanding, love for the island, as opposed to its loathing. This love has nothing to do with “light nationalism” or touristy campaigns, which are, as a matter of fact, inherent to Puerto Rico’s crisis. Many in Puerto Rico have recently commented that hurricane María and, especially, our face-to-face encounter with bare life and the total abandonment of the state, changed us. I believe this to be true, but I also believe there is much more historical, affective, and political density to this transformation that has resulted in 17J, the most colossal demonstration of public power in Puerto Rican history. This density must be understood not only in terms of historical time, but in terms of a time much more protracted, akin to the time of geology.
I believe 17J and, as I write this, the ongoing calls for continued public protest to force the governor’s resignation or, were he to continue his refusal, to achieve his impeachment, as well as for the organization of participatory, democratic forms of archipelago-building, are the result of a Caribbean-wide history of maroonage, resistance, and endurance that travels and unites us, as Brathwaite famously declared, submarinely. We honor the submarine corals made from the bodies of our enslaved, our migrants, our poor, our women, our queers, our dispossessed, our freedom-seekers. In and through them, we, Antilleans, islanders, Caribbean peoples, stand united. The maroons are deathless. We are deathless.
Postscript: The poet Collins Klobah gives more info on plans for continuing/escalating this protest:
Loretta Collins Klobah We are on day 10 of massive protests that have taken the form of street marches in the hundreds of thousands, motorcycle convoys, horseback brigades, jet ski riders, embroidery marathons, pots and pans bangers, bomba dancers, musical performers, and people removing the governor’s guarded portrait from the walls of governmental offices. Governor Rosselló is in near-hiding and has refused to resign, but he must. The island will make sure of it. Protests are taking place during the weekend, and a national strike and massive march are planned for Monday. Puerto Rico has gone through so much historically, but especially since Hurricane Maria and the imposition of the U.S. fiscal control board. The governor’s crass chat transcript was just “una gota más”, a drop that over-filled the sea. Puerto Ricans are beautiful and brave.
General Material on Puerto Rico’s Crisis (in English):
*This is not an exhaustive list. Please suggest more!
Edward George Philip Seaga was born in the United States but became Prime Minister of Jamaica in 1980 after the bloodiest election in Jamaica to date. A controversial figure he was beloved by his followers and practitioners of Jamaican folk worship forms such as Revival and Kumina, demonized practices that he validated and brought into the public sphere. While Mr. Seaga’s state funeral will be on June 23, 2019 on the 19th a Revival Table and Kumina were held for him at the Tivoli Community Centre with one of the longest tables ever seen. According to artist Bernard Hoyes who grew up in a revival yard in St. Thomas and part of whose art practice is the recreation of Revival Tables.: “Big Man, needs a long runway to The Pantheon to be received by the Ancestral Spirits.This one is an Ascension Table. 30 feet or more. “
As mentioned in the preface to Part 1 of this interview the occasion was the publication by Macmillan of Mr. Seaga’s two volume autobiography in 2010, a mere 5 months before the now infamous state incursion into his former constituency, Tivoli Gardens. In Part 2 I asked Seaga about casino gambling, the environment, the Spanish hotels and tourism, the IMF and the debt, Walter Rodney, Marcus Garvey, Dudus, garrisons, the Caribbean Court of Justice, female leadership, Ganja and reparations.
Interview with Mr. Seaga Part 2, January 11, 2010
AP: Mr. Seaga, I’ve been enjoying reading your book, you actually write very well. Did you ever want to be a writer? Or did this talent sort of appear when you were writing your autobiography?
ES: Well, I wrote a lot while I was in office. I wrote my speeches and I wrote articles and I suppose that gave me a certain amount of practice but I never took any courses…
AP: So you didn’t use a speech writer. You never used a speech writer?
ES: No, no.
AP: You always wrote your own speeches?
ES: Oh, absolutely.
AP: That’s interesting.
ES: Well, if I had a speech writer I would end up pulling up the whole thing and trying to put it back together and as Norman Manley said to me one day– the easiest time God had was when he built the world in 6 days – if you have to put things back together after taking it apart it takes a lot more time.
AP: One of the things I didn’t realize is that a place like Dunn’s River Falls, for instance–well I’ve heard that you were instrumental in preserving Devon House and making it what it is today—but I didn’t know that that’s also true of a facility like Dunn’s River Falls and even the Ocho Rios Bay but particularly Dunn’s River Falls–that account of how you acquired the lands from the Reynolds Bauxite Company is quite interesting.
ES: Yes, that is important in understanding Dunn’s River Falls and understanding Ocho Rios’s development. I have a picture of it in colour … [shows me a copy of a photograph of the bay].
AP: Oh, I see.
ES: Nothing, you have to understand, nothingwas here, there was a little rim this wide [indicating with finger] along the back end along the beach – the road used to run right there ..
AP: That’s Turtle Towers.
ES: That’s right. Well I’m really talking about here, see where these little buildings are ..
AP: Yes, yes.
ES: See where the trees are, that’s where the beach stopped. But it wasn’t white sand beach, it was a brownish sand, fishermen used to use it to pull up their canoes and I dredged and reclaimed 80 acres, this is all 80 acres of white sand.
AP: I see. Now when you say reclaimed, was the white sand brought from somewhere else?
ES: Over the reef.
AP: Oh, from out here.
ES: Outside the reef which is not far away.
AP: Those are the kinds of things I really enjoyed reading in your book. For instance, your description of how pristinely beautiful Negril was and how you discovered the beach there was also very interesting. And that made me wonder whether you’d seen this documentary called ‘Jamaica for sale’.
ES: No, I haven’t seen it. By whom?
AP: You’ve never seen it? Esther Figueroa and Diana McCauley. It’s sort of from the point of view of environmentalists.
ES: I see. Well, I know Diana and I can more or less imagine what her line would be. Mine would not be the same, mine would be development, but development conscious of environmental needs and environmental imperatives and Ocho Rios has gone that way, Negril has gone that way. I did Montego Bay too, those beaches you see – the one they call ‘Dump up’ beach and so on, I did all of that but in the end we couldn’t fit it into the tourism picture so we said ok let the people use ‘Dump up’ beach for their own purposes and the other one up by the hospital, if it is still there.
AP: So this film was made about two years ago and I think the film-makers were particularly concerned about the recent sorts of structures that are going up all along the coast and on the North coast.
ES: So am I, so am I. I never would have agreed to this Spanish invasion the way it has been done. We don’t need 1000 room hotels going way up in the sky, we would have to have it spread out and mind you, that means a lot of movement around but in that case build a 500 here and a 500 there. But Montego Bay, that’s what they called the elegant corridor – it’s no longer elegant any more – it’s just overpowered with the skyscraper type buildings.
AP: This is the hip strip?
ES: No, no, not the hip strip, after you leave the airport where the Spanish hotels are going out of Montego Bay.
AP: Oh, you mean on the way to Falmouth where the Ritz Carlton, the Half Moon and so on are.
ES: That’s right.
AP: And what is your view of the huge cruise ship terminal development that Falmouth is facing?
ES: I haven’t been there since it has started. Falmouth has potential for development but along lines that have been mapped out by the Georgian Society. The restoration of buildings–it’s a town that still has a fair amount of buildings there that can be restored and the square and so on and I thought that’s what they would be doing with it. Now, what is being done at the cruise ship end to bring in the visitors, I don’t know how obtrusive that is.
AP: It sounds to me like it’s going to be quite obtrusive because Falmouth is such a sleepy little place.
ES: Yes, but I gather that they’ve reclaimed a certain amount of land to extend out into the water because the cruise ship couldn’t come alongside so it would have to have some depth to do so. If it is done with taste, it could make a big difference.
AP: You still think tourism is a viable industry for the country?
ES: It’s not only viable, it’s the one that gives us the best returns, not better than remittances but tourism, the returns that we get is about, I think now it’s about 40% of the dollar stays back in Jamaica but it is spread out throughout the rural areas and there’s nothing else that goes out in the rural areas. Bauxite is in little pockets and manufacturing doesn’t go there at all so this provides employment for the rural areas and it provides employment for women which is very important because we have no other source that’s providing employment for women and I am talking about persons who are not necessarily skilled but have received the training that goes with it.
AP: You mean the people who work as waiters or cleaners and domestic workers?
ES: Well, in the old days they were just persons who were picked up anywhere with no background at all, nowadays they come out of the HEART school, and the hotels themselves do have training programmes and this plays a valuable role in terms of the employment that they provide so the tourism dollar goes much deeper, it also penetrates the agricultural areas. While I do think that there’s room for still more penetration there into different agricultural products, nonetheless the tourism dollar goes through into south St. Elizabeth and upper St. Ann and Clarendon – the bread basket areas, so to that extent this is also good.
AP: I just wonder sometimes because if one were to do a cost benefit analysis – what the costs are to the country environmentally and otherwise, even socially because very often there is prostitution involved and other things so …
ES: Certainly not in the mainstream hotels. You’re more likely to find that in the urban hotels where people can just walk in and no one takes notice of you but that’s not an organized thing, it’s women that have some entrepreneurial talent.
AP: What about casino gambling, would you be in favour of it?
ES: Yes but only on certain grounds. It has to be organized on a basis that will ensure that it is not going to be for individual gain but that the benefit of it is going to go to some social need and education is the one that I have always championed for that. I think the present government is thinking a little broader than that to include health as well but I am thinking principally of the basic school system to be the beneficiaries.
AP: Yes, that’s true. We do need heavy investment in education and the funds have to come from somewhere.
AP: Ok. Now what do you think of this move by the government to borrow from the IMF? Have you heard the Lovindeer song about it?
ES: Yes, I’ve heard of it.
AP: It’s to the tune of ‘I am blessed ..’ etc. but it goes ‘IMF, IMF…..’
ES: Yes, I don’t know what tune it was but the person who did it with him told me about it. I haven’t got a copy though. There’s no question about the fact that the IMF is a necessity. We have – the principal problem of the country are the two deficits- – the fiscal deficit which is the domestic budget and the external deficit which is the foreign exchange budget and at the extent to which those have grown exponentially as a result of the virtual collapse of the bauxite industry made it absolutely necessary that we have to find ways of putting those funds back in the system and even before then, before the crisis came there were gaps to be filled there because the fiscal deficit was always above like 6-7% and it ought to have been somewhere in the 0-2% level and in order to fill the gaps what we’ve been doing is borrowing and now in borrowing we’re now borrowing to pay the bills that are due each year so it has reached the stage where the borrowing is not serving any developmental purposes, it’s just paying off last year’s debt service payments so it is absolutely necessary to get out of that trap.
AP: It’s interesting because in your book you described the situation in mid-January 1977 when Manley would have gone to the IMF because the country was facing a 40% devaluation and it seems we’re almost in the same position today, no?
ES: No, we’re in exactly the same position we were in the early 1980s, remember we had a tremendous recession at that time which was said to be the worst recession in 50 years that goes back to the Great Depression at the end of the 1920s and the bauxite industry went out too and I had that as the problem, I had to struggle with because it nose-dived down to 1985 and then it started to climb back again but it never got back to where it was in 1980. So we had a tremendous gap that occurred in our foreign exchange and in our revenues and that was the parallel. Manley’s situation was entirely different, the country had no foreign exchange at all, it was in a negative position and that was largely because of his inappropriate policies because the policies that he was pursuing in a radical type socialism, nothwithstanding him calling it democratic socialism was such that it scared away capital, local investment and it scared away the bilateral agencies that used to assist. The IMF itself took the position that unless you can be more compatible to these sources of funding we’re not going to make it easy for you because we’re not going to be the only source of funds.
AP: So you approve of today’s negotiations with the IMF?
ES: Well I haven’t seen the IMF Agreement yet and I don’t know if it is as rough as it was in my case but I decided that rough or not I’m going through with it.
AP: But it must be rough because don’t you think that all the new taxes that were announced would have been prompted by this impending agreement with the IMF?
ES: Well here I would have to be a fly on the wall to hear the discussion. The fact of the matter is that the IMF doesn’t say to you, you have to levy taxes and what taxes, the IMF tells you this is the deficit and this is where we want the deficit to be. They have pegged it at something about – they started at $65b and then it went up to $78b because a number of divestments were included which the IMF said take them out because we don’t know if they are going to happen – like sugar and Air Jamaica and so on. So it went up to $78b but now it’s reputed to be something like $110b and I made this prediction from the very beginning, that it’s going to reach $120b which is 10% of GDP so instead of being the 6% it’s going to go up to 10%. Now, what the IMF will say to you is that you have to close the gap so the government has to then say well, we can use taxes and these are the taxes we are going to use and so on. They had the Matalon Report on hand–which was a businessman’s report, it was a businessman’s reform – tax everybody by imposing consumer taxes and reduce income tax and company profit tax and that certainly would never ever have worked because there seems to be a large body of misunderstanding as to the level of poverty that exists in the country and to have added on a tax to basic food items and other basic items would have been not only cruel and inhuman but it would have been impossible for people to conform to that. So the IMF would not have been guilty of saying we want this particular package but it says you find the package and if you say this is a tax package, then we’ll look at it and just see how it works but the proposal that I had put forward apparently didn’t strike the IMF either, it hasn’t come up so far in any discussions that we’ve heard of and that would have done it without any taxes at all.
AP: But how could the government be so ignorant about the level of poverty, how is that possible? And how could they misread the public, it seems so obvious…
ES: It’s not a matter of ignorance because politicians do move around and they do see it, it’s a matter of which is worse. Is it worse to have some problems, increasing problems for people who are really poor or is it worse to have an economy that can’t pay its way and therefore finds that its sources of funding are being shut down so you have to give up and it comes to the point where you have to give up even those things that you think are most sacrosanct. Well, what my proposal indicated is that we would not have had to go that far but that’s the route they went, fortunately, they withdrew that proposal.
AP: I don’t know, I feel we’re in for a rough ride and some people think that maybe it’s because Jamaica has been living beyond its means all these years and now is being cut down to size.
ES: Of course, absolutely. For years, well the heavy borrowing started in the 1970s where US$2b were added to the debt and then in my time in the 1980s an additional US$2b were added but the $2b added in the 1970s produced the worst period of negative growth the country has ever had. It was a loss in GDP that averaged out at nearly 20%.
AP: What was it spent on? Was it spent on the free education and …
ES: That’s the problem. A lot of social programmes that added nothing to the production of the country and whatever else ….
AP: Couldn’t they be seen as long term investments, for instance.
ES: Not those social programmes. The ones that were there were purely to put people to work can be seen as a means of finding some way of putting some money in the pockets of the very poor but you can’t do that unless the country can afford to do it. So it’s not the project that is wrong it’s the fact that you don’t have the funds to do so. For instance Manley re-negotiated the Bauxite contract – the Bauxite agreement, at the same time that the price of oil went up and having done so, the entire increase in the bauxite levy and more was spent one year later on what he called free education, against the Ministry of Finance’s advice and against the Ministry of Education’s advice. So he splurged the whole thing so whereas that money could have in appropriate amounts helped to carry some of these social programmes, he didn’t have that opportunity at all. That money was used in one big splurge and of course it’s a continuing thing, educational cost is not something that is a onetime expenditure so he was deprived of the bauxite levy benefits and still had to face up to the dramatic increase in the price of oil so he acted very unwisely in what he did and very impetuously. I had presented a presentation at budget time which was his first budget and, I guess it might have been my first budget as Leader of the Opposition and it was a devastating one. The story goes that he moved from Gordon House right up to Jamaica House and summoned everybody and told them that we had to go the route of free education and David Coore who was Minister of Finance and Eli Matalon who was Minister of Education tried to persuade him but he wouldn’t listen. So he went there and got a lot of plaudits because the poor people didn’t know what was going to be the outcome. So he really bankrupted the country – that’s what he did. There was no money left in the treasury. In foreign exchange we had $10b that came in the day before from Iraq.
AP: From Iraq?
AP: What was that for?
ES: Socialist. Socialist International. The Baath Party and the deficit went all the way up to 20%, as high as 20%. Now that would be the highest in the world. That’s a measure of how deep the hole was when we took over.
AP: Ok. Another thing that I found interesting in your book are the occasions when you talk about the race factor. For instance you believe that there was and perhaps still is, great racial inequality in Jamaica…and you’re accredited with having brought back Garvey, his remains, in 1964? This of course speaks to your deep commitment to and awareness of race consciousness in general. But I am wondering why you didn’t follow this up when you were in power with the introduction of Garvey’s teaching in the school curriculum.
ES: You know, it was always spoken of and we never had the kind of approach where we would have sat down and said look these are the publications, this is what we know, let’s reduce it to a curriculum subject. It never was done and even now it hasn’t been done. There’s more consciousness of Garvey today and some of what he said and did. I use the opportunity in my book to sort of take the positives out and indicate what Garvey really did, not in a specific manner but in an overall basic changes and fundamental changes that occurred in the society. Did you see the chapter that I did in which Garvey – I used my presentation when we made Garvey a National Hero – I used the presentation that I made ……
AP: I don’t think I read that part.
ES: Subsequent to that, I was asked to speak on the occasion of the anniversary of the Rodney episode in ‘69 – that’s 40 years.
AP: 2009, yes, there was a conference here.
ES: Yes, Carolyn Cooper organized it and she was quite upset with me because she said that I wasn’t sticking to the intention of the conference. I said well if I was to write about Rodney and put Rodney in perspective, I don’t think I could give you more than a 5-minute presentation because what he stood for was one thing but how he went about it and the ideas he left behind with others who he taught and others who he met and the movement were so unworthy and so lacking in profundity.
AP: You thought they were unworthy?
ES: Yes, yes, not the ideas but how he went around trying to get his ideas across.
AP: Which is what? My understanding is that he would go to communities and give talks and lectures.
ES: And gave talks that stirred up violence. He preached violence against people of a different race and complexion and in doing so you’re employing a destructive means of pulling down rather than pulling up. Now, in my presentation (and I can give you a copy of that)- in my presentation I outlined the two streams of black nationalism, the one that started with Howell and the Rastas – which at least was on a theocratic basis that black supremacy was because of a theocratic framework . Then you went to Claudius Henry and his campaign was very definitely treasonous because he was inviting Castro by letters to come here and take over the country but quite apart from the international aspect of that, his entire doctrine was again, the question of pulling down the racial system. Michael Manley unfortunately, took that line because what Michael Manley did was he equated race with wealth and he said, you are not wealthy and these are the people that are holding you down. And that is how he made that equation to reach into the recesses of the minds of the people whereas people like Garvey and Martin Luther King adopted a different approach. They adopted an approach of upliftment rather than pulling down and the upliftment of the black man by virtue of his own abilities and achievements and building esteem of the individual etc. etc.
AP: Yes, I was going to ask you why it was that Garvey was acceptable while a Rodney isn’t but you’ve already answered that and in that context I also wondered what you thought of leaders like Malcolm X.
AP: Malcolm X
ES: Well Malcolm X is more of a dual type personality. He had fundamental principles that were no different from other persons pursuing a black nationalist course and he was also a militaristic type of person so that he would also fall into that group of the black nationalists who thought that if you destroyed what was destroying you that you would build yourself rather than that you would end up with nothing; but he wasn’t to my mind, so outrageous as Rodney.
ES: Rodney was on a different platform altogether because Rodney was a much more insignificant character. When you preach that type of black nationalism in a country like the United States the capacity exists within that society to absorb it, to take what you want from it, to benefit to the extent that you are able to by virtue of the beliefs that you have or the beliefs that you come to have from hearing Malcolm X and the society itself will see some change as indeed change has come about. But the change that would come about is a violent change because the society can absorb it and deal with it through the judicial system and through the social consciousness of the other classes. When you do that in Jamaica, especially in a country which has a great dependence upon tourism and you realize that all you have to do is to kill half a dozen tourists, and the industry becomes blackballed.
AP: So, is that what Rodney was preaching?
ES: Well, not that specifically but it was tantamount to that, that’s what Special Branch, the Intelligence Agency of the Police Force told us–he was preaching hatred, not so much just a matter of intolerance or anything like that. So Malcolm X could be absorbed in his society, if he was here and saying the same things it would cause a different problem.
AP: Well, the other difference also is that the US is a predominantly white society whereas Jamaica is a predominantly afro-origin society so that perhaps one of the worries was that Rodney’s incendiary sort of message might really upset the whole applecart, no?
ES: Not necessarily so because colour is a question of the skin but people who are black in Jamaica are not subscribers to militaristic type of nationalism, they’re just not and that is why all parties that try to get off the ground on a racial basis – the Rasta party of Sam Brown who ran against me in my early election and the other one, whatever his name was, (I’m trying to remember his name) got no seats and lost his deposit and so on.
AP: Astor Black, Ras Astor Black, was that his name?
ES: No, no. He’s a comedian. This was around Independence time. They’ve never been successful because Jamaicans don’t believe that you can solve the problem that way. They’re more oriented to looking at economic gain, economic benefit as the means to improving social conditions and that is the big difference. So it’s not that because they’re black they have the attitude of black people in other countries where there is a conflict in place in which there is a need for militarism to try to resolve it as in Africa and when you think of the US south you almost want to say like the southern United States too but the conflict with the Klu Klux Klan and so on and we never had that.
AP: I agree with you, I think there is a lot of what I think of as racial denial and a refusal to acknowledge the fact that this is a predominantly black country.
ES: We mustn’t look at the problem and consider that it is a problem simply because it has not been solved fully. We must look at the problem and look at the timeline. Now I am a good person to do that because I have a long time line and because I come out of a mixed ethnic stream and to that extent I see what is taking place, the mixed marriages that are taking place today, I can tell you, never existed in the past, never. There are Jamaican Chinese weddings that are taking place and other societies that are beginning to merge into the system so that the change is taking place but it’s going to be a long process but you can see a very definite change.
AP: So in that context you think that the National Motto ‘Out of Many One People’ is …
ES: It’s an objective. It’s a noble objective. It didn’t exist at the time it was framed, it still doesn’t exist now but it is more meaningful now than it was originally at Independence.
AP: One of my beliefs about why Jamaica has not lived up to the promise that it held at the time of Independence and so on is that I feel that the business class here has been very risk-averse, unpatriotic and they haven’t really played their role and I mean I’m contrasting them with Indian elites, Indian business elites who worked with the government and built up, the Tatas and the Birlas….
ES: In India?
AP: Yes, In India.
ES: Indian business people who live in Jamaica are certainly not of that group.
AP: No, no, but in India the government, after independence, worked with the major business families, they worked together for the betterment of the country and I don’t see that kind of thing here.
ES: It’s not quite so. After Independence and before Independence the development strategy that obtained at that time was one of investment by invitation, one of foreign capital creating jobs but you’ll learn from the quotations that I have included in my book from Paul Chen Young’s work that it was in fact a failure. The number of jobs created over a period of time was very small and that was costing us by way of the taxes that we had to forego and it just didn’t work. I came to that conclusion myself somewhere in the late 60s but at that time the thrust that was taking place in the business class was in that direction and they were very much involved in establishing factories and getting involved in manufacturing etc. Because this was giving them the right to produce goods which were protected against imports and therefore protected against competition and you’re quite correct in saying that it was virtually risk-free and in a risk-free environment the production would have a strong market. But then came the time when especially in fashion goods, ladies would go to Miami to buy what they wanted and the local manufacturers here would complain that their business was being reduced and wanted protection, import quotas and so on, which they got from time to time from both of the governments pre- and post-independence until it was determined that even with that the goods still kept coming in. The whole system was not one that could be successful. That was why in the 1980s I moved away from protectionism because it had nowhere going, it never created a number of jobs because the expansion was to a market that was very small and was shrinking because you can’t make the variety of styles that are needed to satisfy consumer taste and you can’t make the variety of sizes that are needed within that. That’s a huge establishment and in countries abroad where that is done, you have different companies that produce a particular type of garment, particular fashion, particular size etc., you have hundreds of companies doing that, here you have two or three doing it so it wouldn’t work.
AP: So economies of scale would have been a problem.
ES: That’s right.
AP: But I’m also wondering why there still is no impulse on the part of business elites to invest in something, for instance, like the music industry which has proved itself to be very successful. You, for instance, were one of the early pioneers but how come one can only think of a Blackwell, you know as a business person who went into it in a big way and was so successful. Why didn’t that become a model for other business people to follow?
ES: Well, firstly they didn’t understand the music. They can’t deal in a product they don’t understand. That music comes from the folk society of the country which is a different Jamaica from the Jamaica from which the business interests originate and on that basis they will not be investing in something that they just didn’t understand.
AP: But they didn’t take the trouble to understand.
ES: It’s not something you can understand, you would have to do what I did, you have to live it, it’s not something you can be taught.
AP: To me it’s a sign of the big schism between the two Jamaicas that you have talked about.
ES: Yes, that’s exactly what I am saying. That’s the type of industry they couldn’t get involved in but where they could get involved, they really put a great effort in it.
AP: Tourism mainly, right?
ES: Tourism and manufacturing. They put a great effort in it and it has paid off in so far as some of the manufacturers are concerned. Some of the big distribution businesses like Grace Kennedy and so on, and it has paid off handsomely in tourism, so they’re not really risk averse just that they want to cherry pick, they want to pick the ones they understand and the ones they can operate. And then of course you have to take into consideration that small persons who have entrepreneurial intentions and ability are not going to use that as their thrust for the development of their own wealth because they can buy government paper at 20% – 30% and 40 – 50 – 60.
AP: Well, that is one of the things I’m thinking of.
ES: So that was what really spoiled the entire – it created a different environment from that of an entrepreneur and that came about as a result of what took place in the 1970s and it spread right throughout.
AP: Now, another thing I found really interesting in your autobiography is where you talk about how you were offered the Presidency of the Caribbean Development Bank after Sir Arthur Lewis moved on.
ES: Well before, he was about to.
AP: He was about to. Did you know him personally?
ES: Up to that time, yes. Let me see, yes ….
AP: What was your relationship with him?
ES: Because I was Minister in the 60s
AP: And he would have been the Vice Chancellor.
ES: And I was a minister responsible for the plan that was developed then and we once asked him – he was Vice Chancellor and we asked him to come and talk with us about the plan and he came and gave us a fair amount of advice but his advice was exactly what wasn’t working although at the time it was vaunted because it was the Puerto Rican model and that was theadvice the World Bank was handing out.
AP: The Industrialism by invitation model, something like that.
AP: Industrialization by Invitation.
AP: So you just had, you didn’t have more of a relationship with him.
ES: No, no further contact at that time.
AP: You were quite close to Lloyd Best though?
AP: Right, Lloyd Best, because I remember him talking about that.
ES: Yes. To the extent of course that I was close to anybody up here because again it’s like two different worlds taking place in one country but I found Lloyd’s more open mind to be attractive and strangely enough M.G. Smith, those were the two people I was very close to, yes.
AP: Well, ok now. Recently there was an article in the Observer, this may have been sometime in early December, I think, it was mainly quoting Tom Tavares Finson you know about the whole Dudus affair and he was saying that Dudus is just an ordinary Jamaican, he was saying …
ES: Who was ordinary?
ES: Oh yes.
AP: He was saying that Dudus is just an ordinary Jamaican, he’s like any other citizen because he has no record of crime or, you know wrongdoing. But to me that doesn’t gel with the fact that in ‘94 you had him at the top of a list of wanted criminals. You remember? That you gave the Police Commissioner at the time–so he doesn’t have an unblemished record, does he?
ES: No. As far as I know, he doesn’t. I believe he has some jail time. I don’t quite remember the occasion but I believe he does have some jail time but in my case, my personality would not allow me to see injustice taking place regardless of who is involved without doing something about it. And while there was a certain amount of co-existence between myself and the fellows who were part of his system in the sense that my role is to develop the area, they used it more as a harbor, they used it as an area that they could take refuge in and I had an arm’s length relationship with them. If you go to the point where you’re slaughtering people that I am elected to be responsible for their safety and their future, then I’m going to have to attack you.
AP: And this was happening in the early 90s?
ES: Yes, yes. There were some feuds between themselves and some people in the larger community and they were just shooting them and I had to take that stand.
AP: There seems to be a widespread belief that if and when Dudus is extradited that just pure lawlessness is going to break out downtown, security will become a problem etc. etc.
ES: I can’t comment on anything to do with this problem because I haven’t been there in 5 years, I don’t know what has been developing since then…
AP: You haven’t been there in 5 years?
ES: No. I left active politics since then.
AP: No, I know that but I thought you would still have a relationship …
ES: No, no, I deal with the sports programme and the culture programme and when I was leaving I told Bruce I wanted to continue those and I don’t think it bothered him that I should because he really doesn’t have that background and it operates right on the rim of the community.
AP: I’ve seen it.
ES: Yes, so I don’t really go into the community for reasons of meeting with people who I’ve known for 40 years and so on, on a friendly basis, because it can be seen as if I am trying to continue to maintain the fraternal links that I have had and the political connections and I don’t want anybody to think that I am putting myself in a position to undermine them so ….
AP: Do you miss that though? You had such close ties.
ES: You know when you were involved with people for such a long time, it’s almost like family and they treat me like family and I treat them like family. People call – we can’t sever the link totally. There’re always people coming to me and I’m seeing them one way or the other.
AP: Now, Dudus’ father Jim Brown died in his cell in a fire. What did your intelligence sources at the time tell you happened?
ES: That’s the greatest mystery to me and as far as I know to anybody who tried to make some sense of it. Nobody seems to know of any, or I haven’t seen any publication or heard from anyone as to what chemical could have caused that and how that chemical would have gotten there and how a fire can take place in a concrete chamber which is what a cell is, in which he doesn’t have the ability to conflagrate it with wood or anything to make it into a big fire and was sufficient to kill someone. I don’t understand it, it’s a tremendous mystery. I myself, more believe that he didn’t want to face an extradition and he most likely… remember this was on the day that his son was buried, the mood that he would have been in, I think probably he took his own life.
AP: That’s an interesting point, I haven’t heard that before.
ES: Well I don’t have any record or any basis for saying this, but I just can’t find another alternative.
AP: There’s a lot of talk nowadays about how we have to de-garrisonize, have to take them apart or destroy garrisons and so on, now, do you have the recipe for that? How can that be done?
ES: That’s middle class talk. They don’t know the areas they talking about. Now, garrisons exist above Cross Roads, Cherry Gardens is a garrison, Norbrook is a garrison, these are areas where people live a certain lifestyle and they vote largely to a certain extent in one way. In years gone by the areas that constitute northern St. Andrew from the hills of east St. Andrew right down to Ferry used to vote 90% PNP and we had candidates there that would have gotten less votes than a corresponding situation downtown when you had that sort of grouping. It’s a natural thing around social groups that they want to live together, they don’t want the intrusion of different social values lest it affect their children and have their children deviate from the lifestyle that they want to raise them in. And that is exactly what goes on above Cross Roads. In the area below Cross Roads, it’s the same feeling where the demarcation is done on the basis of a political difference because that demarcation is what separates you from having an adherence to a political party from which you can benefit, who will continue to protect you, who will make sure that you are not harmed and who will make provisions for your life to be one that is a reasonable one etc. So there is a benefit factor in what the garrison is supposed to be but more than that there’s no way that you could ever say to 30% of the people in one community you leave here and switch with 30% of the people in another community with a different political base and let them come into this community – so that there’s a mixed position in both – it doesn’t work. Nobody wants to live where they have to look over their shoulders, they want to be able to live where they can walk their streets freely. Now internal gang rivalries in the communities are a different thing, they create dangerous situations but not all the communities have that condition and when they do it lasts for a time and it disappears. Now what I have found and others along with me, is how to break down that political separation. When Dr. Omar Davies had completed the construction of a new football stadium in his constituency which is in
in Arnett Gardens, he wanted to have a match in which Tivoli would play against Arnett. Now that was something that was unheard of because up until that time they were playing at Camp because the spectators wouldn’t mix and teams wanted to be somewhere where you didn’t have hostile spectators and then Camp said look, we not going to entertain this anymore so we were at a loss for a while as to how we going to handle it. Well about that time the invitation was extended. I myself had not been into the Arnett Gardens area, not that it existed then, but the area on which it is now, since 1972 and the people who were going there, many of them youngsters who were born after 1972, had never been there. They didn’t know what it looked like and vice versa so when we went there, it was a little bit of trepidation; at the same time it turned out to be just another football match and from that spectators started to visit, in the other locations from which they lived in which there used to be hostility and bit by bit the hostility has now entirely disappeared.
AP: Isn’t that great?
ES: Entirely, and not only entirely disappeared, but I have players on the Tivoli Gardens team who came out of the Arnett Gardens football team. Not out of the community, out of the team and they have at least one player who have come out of the Tivoli team playing up there so people want to know how you de-garrisonize, you do that by bringing people together in occasions where they can mix. And culture is the answer to that, sports and music in particular – these same people who won’t mix in ordinary circumstances will go to concerts and they are all there together. So it’s a lot of nonsense that I am very impatient with when I hear these solutions that are being offered that are worse than the problem and I know that the people don’t want to have that type of life. They want to be able to leave it behind them but they’re not going to ‘chance’ their own future by doing anything drastic and radical to just make a quick change, it has to be something that occurs over time.
AP: Gradual. Cultural change is gradual, right?
ES: Exactly, that’s right. And I’m proud to have been a part of that.
I consider it one of the things that I have contributed most to the inner city communities, when I went there it wasn’t there but because I was there it was introduced, because they thought this is the way they could get me out of the place.
AP: And by ‘it’ you mean what?
ES: No, no, the hostility. The hostility among the people was there because you had a tremendous nest in Back-o’-Wall that was hostile to the rest of the community and this was the den of all criminals in the country.
ES: Yes, yes and when I went there, they unleashed Back-o’-Wall on me because they figured if they did that they could get me out of there. They have always coveted west Kingston because it’s like a chess game, I guess you have one play to make to have control of the entire area going all the way from Seaview Gardens coming right across the whole waterfront of Kingston would have been PNP. In that case only one party could rule the country. West Kingston was the problem that they had and the one that they could not solve and that was what kept hopes alive that we could have different political views within the city.
AP: Was that why then Back-o’-Wall was razed?
ES: You need to read a little descriptive passage which I have in my book about a visit that Norman Manley made there, it was written by Hartley Neita on the foul nature of the place. There was nothing solid, bits and pieces of cardboard, zinc ….It was a wonderful description of exactly what was there in terms of a structure, in terms of the environment but the people in fact were worse and that’s why they tolerated it.
AP: There’s also quite amazing descriptions of it in ‘Children of Sisyphus’ by Orlando Patterson. Have you ever read that novel?
AP: It was set there and it’s quite horrific the conditions in which people lived as described in that novel.
ES: Well I think he would have had the social setting more than the physical and environmental setting because you don’t go into Back-o’-Wall and do that, I can tell you that. So what I did in building Tivoli Gardens, we overbuilt so that we would be able to accommodate people from the outside in the Denham Town area and other areas in the west Kingston community andto allow for those in Back-o’-Wall who would want to come back in to live …
AP: Oh, so they were given that option.
ES: Oh yes.
AP: They weren’t just removed.
ES: No, no, there was a section of Back-o’-Wall which was known as Ackee Walk which was JLP but it was just a handful of people but the person who lived down there had some influence in the area and we spoke with her about getting people to come back in to live but for the same reason people don’t want to live where they don’t feel safe and they felt that if they came back in they would not be in the majority anymore and they would be unsafe.
AP: Now one of the reasons for the existence of these so-called garrison communities is, we spoke about this in our previous interview, the failure of the justice system, right? When did that happen and how did that happen? When did it become so dysfunctional?
ES: It wasn’t so in the 60s. It came about in the 70s when there was a great politicization of the state agencies – justice, crime in particular – but also the civil service especially those areas of the civil service that had anything to do with the hand out of social benefits, in land and in houses and in providing work opportunities and things like that. There was a total politicization of that and to that extent, people realized that there was not going to be any justice that would give them any opportunity to have benefits that they would need for living. That was one of the motivations, the deep motivations that caused the extreme conflicts that took place in the 1970s. One of the motivations was the ideological basis that a lot of people, usually young men liked because it was militaristic, that was the preaching of socialism that was on the road and the formation of the Home Guards and things like that. The other one was that it made available a wider number of opportunities for work and for having social benefits than normally would have been the case and the people who were getting real benefits would defend that, the ones who were not getting it would not defend it and then there was the conflict. Now previously, that was always the case but in a much smaller amount that it really didn’t affect such a wide range of political partisans on each side but once it extended to almost a total exclusion of one party then it obviously would have caused tremendous conflict.
AP: You’re not in favour of the Caribbean Court of Justice?
ES: I’m not in favour of it unless I see it work for some time and prove that it is able to take the kind of decisions that I would expect of a court operating at arm’s length from the community, arm’s length from the environment. And the kind of Court which is going to say, well, I can’t uphold this claim because it would cost the Government too much money, I can’t be in favour of that and I’ve seen that happen right here now.
ES: Yes, I’ve seen the situation with Ezroy Millwood, head of the National Transport Co-operative Society (NTCS). That went to the Privy Council but the amount of money that was said to be involved when it went before the court here would never get past the Court of Appeal here. I think that Justice has to stand on its own, if justice is at fault or its standing on social principles that you don’t like then you must change the law or you must change the social situation or the social conditions but don’t expect justice to act as if it is part legislature. The American Supreme Court does that, the Privy Council doesn’t and the model of the Privy Council is the model that I favour and I do not know which way the Caribbean Court would turn. Now that is why the selection of the judges was so important that it had to be convincing that it would be a credible selection and we’re still not sure that it will be but the only way to determine that is to allow 10 years to go by and see the kind of judgements that come out it, so far it hasn’t violated any of the principles that I would think are important but one doesn’t know what will happen. As it turns out, because the Privy Council is in effect now saying that they can’t handle the case loads that come from Jamaica and other Caribbean countries, we may have to find an alternative. It may be that we will have to go to the Caribbean Court of Justice but in such an event it would have to be established on the same basis that the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court in Jamaica have been established, that is by decision of two-thirds majority in each house of Parliament among other things. This one wasn’t although this would be the highest court, it was established by the majority of a single vote and in the same way that you can establish it with a one vote majority, you can remove it with a one vote majority and therefore the judiciary wouldn’t have any feeling of permanence or tenure in such a situation and they would always feel beholden to the people who put them there so we would never accept them and that was what the Privy Council ruling was about, that was what the Privy Council said. It must be established on the same basis as the other courts.
AP: So you wouldn’t agree with Stephen Vasciannie’s view that the Jamaican public’s seeming antipathy to the Caribbean Court of Justice could be attributed, he says, to our lack of self-confidence as a people?
ES: Well, you have to expect that there is some self confidence creeping in there too because we’ve never seen our own court acting in the way we would like to see a court act and the only court we’ve seen that will give real justice is the Privy Council. That doesn’t mean the Jamaican courts don’t give justice but there’s enough of the unjust decisions that makes you wonder if in a final court of appeal you’re going to come across that too.
AP: And speaking of self confidence, one of the things I wanted to ask you about is this extraordinary self confidence that Jamaicans exude; I find it remarkable. It’s not a new thing because I was told by somebody that he was impressed by this when he encountered Jamaicans in England in the 50s, the ones who went there from here. He was marveling at what a sense of themselves they had and how comfortable they were in their own skin. That self confidence–where does it come from?
ES: Well first of all, what the migration did was to give opportunities to people who had that self confidence here and then went away so it wasn’t something they developed there and there’s always been reports of Jamaicans who leave Jamaica and go away whether on schemes like the farm worker scheme or to work in factories or otherwise and who settle in the United States how wonderfully they give an account of themselves and the self confidence they display. If you take a city like Hartford, Connecticut and the Jamaicans who are there, they’re a part of the political system, merged into and incorporated into part of the whole society. That is something I can ascribe to creaming off the best of the country’s people who are capable of operating under extreme weather conditions and the other things that they would be facing in racial discrimination and so on and still putting up with it and being successful.
AP: But there must be something more to it because the other countries like Guyana and Trinidad, they would also be exporting the cream of their population but it was a Guyanese man who said this, you know, so what is it about Jamaica and Jamaican culture that produces that kind of personality type? Have you ever wondered about that?
ES: Yes, not in that context but Jamaicans who migrated to Miami over the years, before the 70s Miami was a distant American city, you always went to New York, that’s what you knew, or Boston. Miami, though so near was always so very far. Very little connection, very few Jamaicans were there and those who went to Miami in the 70s were persons who moved into neighbourhoods where they wanted to live irrespective of whatever it may be considered to be in terms of any racial segregation. There was no outward segregation in Miami but what black people used to say to our people is, they admire how they just came in and just moved into areas that they wouldn’t dare or want to move and live and the result of that sort of brashness was part of the self confidence that Jamaicans had from their education, and from their style of life here where they don’t know what it is not to live in a certain area as long as you can afford it. There was a study done some years ago about the various ethnic groups that are in the Miami area and Jamaicans came out on top as being the most educated, having the highest average income and all the other factors that you would rate a society by and that was of course the best of our middle class that went there. Others went elsewhere but the best of the middle class went there. Now, you can’t cut the cake and say well the middle class have that self confidence but the working class doesn’t because the working class has demonstrated that they have it too.
AP: That’s just it because the Guyanese artist who I mentioned earlier was talking about working class Jamaicans who went to England on the ‘Windrush’.
ES: So there is a continuum on which that characteristic is displayed.
AP: Again this may seem like I’m jumping around but it’s to do with the legal aspect of things – what are your views on ganja – should it not be legalized? I found it very interesting that for some reason I had been given the impression that you were anti-Rastafarian but actually that’s far from the truth, from what I read in both Bryan’s book and in yours.
ES: The only reason I didn’t include the Rastas in my study was that it was just too much to do and they’re not really a cohesive group, you have little groups here and there and they don’t all have a common belief except in Selassie so I didn’t bother to do that but I knew a number of them – Count Ossie was a good friend and I knew Alvaranga and so on.
AP: You were very vocal about the police – the way in which the ganja laws could be abused by the police and were being abused.
ES: That’s right.
AP: And that’s still a problem because it’s still on the books.
ES: Well it’s on the books but it used to be a popular way of incriminating someone, to say they found a ‘spliff’ on a man but nowadays the courts don’t really pay too much attention to that, you have to find something really significant. The fact is I have never really seen the medical authority that tells me how bad ganja is – does it really have the impact on the brain that it is said in popular lore to have? Or is it just another form of high like alcohol? So is it socially acceptable in limited quantities and is the real danger of it those who don’t really participate on the basis of using it in limited quantities but use it excessively and therefore become over aggressive and so on. There are many questions to be answered about it and the study has not been done and I like to think of problems whether there are solutions or not by looking at what studies have been done, I don’t like to make up my own decisions on it. I would think that in the scheme of things because we have no studies, you’re better off not allowing it to be legal than allowing it to be legal as a safety factor until you do studies that will prove otherwise and that it need not be made illegal or need not continue to be illegal because the study shows that the harm that it does is really not that significant. One of the problems that is always put forward is that it is a stepping stone…
AP: A gateway drug.
ES: That’s right, in other words you learn to smoke ganja and then from there you go on to something else.
AP: If that were true Mr. Seaga then 90% of Jamaica would be on coke because I believe that 90% of Jamaicans use it. A friend of mine jokes that it’s the national medication – Ganja.
ES: Well, and you keep reading of things that Ganja does.
AP: And it’s a culture, it’s part of the culture here as well.
ES: That’s right. Just like in India and the Middle east, you have the ‘hashish’ and the ‘opium’ and people sit in bars and smoke ….
AP: In Holland you can do that.
ES: Soit’s a grey area and it’s something that should be cleared up by medical, not just medical alone, but by a proper, thorough study and that has not been done.
AP: It’s probably no more harmful than alcohol and alcohol is legal.
ES: Well, I don’t know, I can’t say it is or it isn’t but there’s an excessive point – a point of excess in alcohol which is dangerous. The social drink is one thing, I suppose the social smoking….
AP: And we legalise alcohol.
ES: Well I wouldn’t want my children to be smoking it either socially or otherwise but at the same time if that is how it is used by some who accept it and it’s not doing them any harm, then it’s a different matter.
AP: One of the things you mentioned, don’t know if it was volume 1 or 2 but you talked about how your government tried to introduce family planning and the cultural resistance to family planning. One of the things you mentioned was slavery and the practice of men being used as studs and so on so do you think that the traumas of slavery still haunt contemporary Jamaicans?
ES: I look at slavery as the end of a period from which a lot of the conditions that existed at that time have continued as hangovers. The one condition that changed dramatically was the fact that in slavery there was always a job, there was nobody who was unemployed. The day after emancipation everybody was unemployed and the country has never recovered from that because we’ve never been able to find enough jobs to be able to take care of the over 300,000 that became unemployed at one time. But the social conditions of slavery were demeaning, they were brutal and these brutalities have left a scar on the psyche of Jamaicans, even more so men than women and slavery has passed on a residual feeling of the superiority of the persons who were your bosses and others that looked like them and others that come from that background who continue to be viewed as bosses even though they’re not bosses any more. So there’s that feeling of inferiority that continues and these are the background factors that do hold you back in life until you can overcome them and this is one of the messages that Garvey preached.
AP: But then, therefore, would you recommend or do you believe in the demand for reparation?
ES: I don’t know how practical that is and if you even got reparation what would you do with it? How you going to distribute that? Certainly won’t be anything to hand to every single family.
AP: No, there isn’t but there are other options for example, investing it in education, not handing it out individually.
ES: That is the only way that you could really deal with it. The thing is that the decision on reparation which the British people were able to get was based upon actual data of hours worked in factories under forced labour and that data, to be uncovered, you would have to go through plantation records to see how many people and for how long etc. because that was forced labour. The parallel is there for us to extract the data and to make the same sort of case. It will not be as tight because so many centuries have passed but nonetheless it would be within the scope of understanding of any judicial system in that what you’re doing is providing some evidence for which there was no evidence before and frankly there is a team at work here which is doing some good work towards that but it hasn’t really moved along with the urgency that is necessary if you’re going to really treat it seriously.
AP: So you think that it would involve collecting all that data and presenting it in order to make your case.
ES: That’s the only way, you can’t go before a court without that. And the fact that principally it was one type of occupation which was agricultural, even if you forget the house slaves and other types of smaller involvements, would make it a lot easier because records do exist of plantations in the old days and how many slaves they had, we have records here too, Professor Verene Shepherd has been collecting a lot of that.
AP: Now, going back to politics for a moment, if you were in power today, what would you do differently from the Golding administration, is there any… is it possible to encapsulate that?
ES: Do you mind if I pass on that question?
AP: No, I don’t mind, it’s ok.
ES: I don’t want to put myself in a position where I’m making statements as if I’m denouncing what is happening. I do enough of it in a tender way in my articles and so on by pointing out what should be done.
AP: You had a recent one stressing the continued importance of agriculture and saying that you think the way out is to take agriculture more seriously.
ES: There’s no other resource base but agriculture and human resources. Tourism has used up just about all the beach land that there is, there are specific areas for specific types of tourism that have not yet been fully exploited, manufacturing is a no-go, it’s a non-starter now, the cost of electricity and the cost of security and all the other factors that make manufactured goods uncompetitive makes it impossible to compete with Trinidad.
AP: It’s the same economies of scale argument.
ES: We have become a supermarket for the CARICOM area, Trinidad’s become the manufacturer.
AP: Would you, if you were in power, have Gays in your cabinet?
ES: Have what?
AP: Gays, Homosexuals. You know the famous question Bruce Golding was asked on BBC’s Hard Talk.
ES: Yes, I know. Quite frankly, I judge people as people, and if people are outrageous in any area then I prefer not to have to sit with them around the same table. If they have a different feeling about the way of life that they lead but we all find enough common ground that we can meet and enjoy our social friendship and at the same time make a contribution to whatever it is that we’re discussing and so on, then one should not differentiate them because they are gay.
AP: That’s exactly how a lot of people think. Now I want to move to visual art, these are my last few questions. The Bob Marley statue, was there anything more to it, was it possibly the family that objected to Christopher Gonzales’s statue in addition to the public? Did Rita Marley object?
ES: I gave Gonzales the commission on recommendation from the art people that he would be a good one to do the statue – every statue can’t be done by Kay… what’s her name
AP: Kay Sullivan.
ES: Yes and the other major …
AP: Edna Manley
ES: Yes. I never saw a preview of it. I saw a preview of Bogle because I visited Edna Manley when she was doing that statue at her home. I saw a preview of the other Marley statue that replaced that one and so on but Gonzales should have had enough sense and should have had enough sensitivity to know that you can’t bring something that is so totally different that you are going to put before people as a replica of what the original was, that is the original person, and expect them to accept that. That is something that over years and years may happen but that’s not what the people are expecting. The people from the background that Bob Marley came from are people who look at art in a realistic manner. They are also the source from which we get indigenous art and indigenous art is not necessarily realistic but it is realistic in an abstract sense, in other words, while the house doesn’t look like a house, you know it is a house and his African roots allow for that. Now this statue by Gonzales – I drove to the location where we were going to have the function and there was a crowd of people there and before I actually reached it I could see that there was some uproar going on. When I got there, they were all gathered around a car and shaking the car vigorously and I pushed my way through and in the car was Gonzales sitting down in total fear so my first job was to get him out of there which I did, then after that I could talk with the people and the people expressed themselves. “It no look like Bob”; “what the man a do– mash up Bob?”
AP: No, because one of the things that is often said about that refusal of that first Bob statue and I disagree with that interpretation, it has been said by some of the art authorities that it showed self-hatred, the people didn’t accept a black version or a black version of Bob, that they rejected the statue because it was too black. Well, I don’t believe that, I think it’s because it didn’t look like him.
ES: No, you must take that very seriously because middle class people from whom you would get that view, love to impose their own feelings and they themselves are the ones who feel he’s too black, it’s not the little man.
AP: I agree with you.
ES: It’s the same thing that happened with Bogle, you know? Edna Maney did Bogle as a replica of ‘the worker’, you know, the sort of worker that you have as a symbolic socialist – a tough looking person – that’s not the Bogle…
AP: With very African features whereas he was more a brown man, right, the one image that’s available…
ES: I don’t know about the colour but he had a long angular neck, thin features and he didn’t look anything like that Bogle at all but she did it in her image. Now people for the most part didn’t see a picture of Bogle and therefore didn’t know any difference but the people who did know remarked.
AP: The other interesting thing was, in the book you talk about Kapo and how he was harassed by the police which I had heard before, but I didn’t know that he had this alabaster statue that he wanted to give as a gift to the Queen. Do you own a lot of works by Kapo?
ES: You know until recently I never owned anything apart from the piece he gave me as a gift. I’m not the kind of collector who really follows the field.
AP: Are you an art collector?
ES: Well I collect art because so many people give me different works of art and the ones that are good I display. I should have owned a good size collection of Kapo but unfortunately I missed the boat on that.
AP: Do you have photographs of Kapo from those days?
ES: There is one in his wrap, the long pointed wrappings but that was from the ‘80s I think and if not it would be the ‘60s, but going right back to that time. It’s another lapse in my studies, I never took pictures when I was in Buxton Town and I never took photos, well I did take photos of the Revival, therefore I must have had Kapo but I lost that entire collection because I had a wonderful collection of photos …
AP: You lost them?
ES: Yes, all the Revival and the functions as they were going on because the leaders at that time became accustomed to the fact that I was taking photos and the whole thing became misplaced.
AP: In relation to Pukkumina and Revival and so on, you write about an incident– I’m not sure whether it was when you took office in the ‘80s or before when you were a minister–that you organized a Revival ceremony at Jamaica house.
ES: No, that was in the ‘80s
AP: In the ‘80s. There was a lot of resistance to it.
ES: Well, that was an attempt to give people uptown a chance to see it. It’s not a good setting, Revival should take place in a rather tight situation because it’s the whole collective response that drives you emotionally. When you’re in a big open field you’re not getting that response but I brought them there just to give people a glimpse of what it was all like because this is a part of Jamaica’s folk culture but the middle class of course don’t really have any respect for folk culture and they were critical, very critical of it.
AP: Is it also because it involves so-called spirit possession which could be seen as being antithetical towards Christianity?
ES: No, you have certain churches that have spirit possession as part of their rituals. These are called Spiritual churches. There are lots of Church of God groups, you have Pentecostal groups and they are recognized spiritual churches. The reason why the Revival group is not as recognized is because they don’t operate in any substantial way that you can call a church. They operate in open yards, if they have any little churches they are shanty-type structures or something that is not very substantial and it’s just degraded because it is a poor man’s belief system. Just in the same way the music was degraded when it was first publicized and it wasn’t until it was accepted in London before we got it accepted above Cross Roads so if everybody above Cross Roads started to say Revival is wonderful, University now is recognizing it and so on, then it will get more recognition.
AP: Mr. Seaga, how would you like to be remembered?
ES: It’s something that occurs to me from time to time. I’m not a person that you can define on a linear basis, that I was good at this particular line of involvement, and someone that has such a broad background, a broad spectrum of interests and involvement.
AP: What you would like to be remembered for?
ES: Yes, I actually conceived a few lines the other day and I’ve forgotten them … but there’s no questioning the fact that I’ve been known as a social engineer.
AP: A social engineer?
ES: yes, but with a deep cultural consciousness. A social engineer but with a consciousness that recognizes that you have to have an economic base to be able to deal with both spheres or to deal with the whole socio-cultural environment, but my areas of interest have spread over all these areas.
AP: You know one of the areas of interest you mentioned which I found very endearing was gardening … that’s not something one would normally associate with you.
ES: I love flowers, I love nature, I love the hills, I love streams, not necessarily the overpowering rivers but little streams. I love flowers, the colourful ones and those that are not colourful but the colourful ones more so. I love creatures, animals; maybe I’ve gone as far as to the extreme where my wife wonders if I’m still in possession of my senses.
AP: Why, what do you mean?
ES: Well, I won’t allow her to take a book and kill a fly. I’ll say don’t do that – I’ll catch it in the cup of my hand and take it to the door and let it go. I tell her, I say, if you take your computer and you drop it, as valuable as it is, you can buy it back, it’s on a shelf, but when you destroy the life of that little fly there, it’s not something you can ever put back.
AP: That’s true. You also said at the beginning that you wanted to talk about the things you would have liked to do but never got a chance to?
ES: Well, there are some projects really. I still hold a deep commitment in my heart to the Port Royal project because I worked on it so long, decades, and the concept that I came up with which should have linked Port Royal across the Harbour mouth into the rest of the Jamaican mainland at Fort Augusta by reclaiming the Fort Augusta peninsula and the development of Port Royal would then be accessible from Fort Augusta instead of going all the way around and would become a tremendous development in offering opportunities both on the Fort Augustus side and Port Royal side and at the same time develop our heritage. This is a booklet here which is a little different from the other one that I’d done as a pictorial presentation, and that’s the Freeport, terrible picture of it, and that’s another one that’s even worse. Well, that’s Port Royal, that’s the Freeport, this is Fort Augusta, I was going to extend this, sort of in this direction and it would become a 250 acre area and this is the mouth, Port Royal – if you develop Port Royal, this would have a tourism component for shopping and the boats could dock here and go over by ferry to Port Royal rather than going like that. And that is something that still has my ability but it is not being pursued by the present government. I had other plans for it, plans for making it a Freeport of the order of Panama Canal, the Dominica Republic, La Roumana assembly of products and the Freeport at the Bahamas which is a tourism shopping complex with a fee and it just hasn’t been done.
There is the reservoir outside of Spanish Town which would capture all of the overflow from the Rio Cobre that is not being used for domestic supplies and that is more than half of the volume and by storing it, it would be able to irrigate 12,000 acres of land in the St. Catherine plains and then I would turn that into a massive agricultural development which would provide another type of employment but also for thousands. All of these were very employment-oriented but also utilizing the resources, the wasted resources that we have.
AP: Well, I think that concludes the questions I had prepared for you.
ES: I appreciate your interview because it touches on a number of areas I hadn’t covered in the book.
AP: Actually, do you realize that last time I was here which was on a Friday and we had that talk about that incident where you said ‘blood for blood and fire for fire’ and that Sunday, John Maxwell’s article touched on that, it was such a coincidence …
ES: He was there; they came there deliberately to provoke me. But you know, there are some things that I really don’t take notice of and John Maxwell is one, because – he writes very well and I enjoy reading his works on the environment and some of his political stuff but he has a fixation about me – other people with whom I’ve disagreed in life and I’ve come to terms with enjoying each other’s company and exchanging thoughts – Trevor Munroe for instance. But this man just has a total fixation on me. He keeps putting out these tales of things that he says happened which have no bearing on truth at all.
AP: No, I was just struck by the coincidence because we’d just talked about it and then two days later in his column he mentioned the same incident.
ES: Well, that’s the kind of thing they hold to be so fantastic a black mark on you that it negates everything else that you are or you have done and that’s a political way of looking at things and I just can’t subscribe to that anymore because if that’s the case I don’t know who I’d really like in the political world because at some point in time you’ve crossed swords with everyone and if you keep bearing animosity in terms of just those particular items then you’re never going to have any peace within yourself or any further relationships. You must at some time put them away and don’t use your imagination to keep them in the forefront of your mind.
#MeToo has finally reached Jamaica’s shores with a number of female students at Edna Manley College of Visual Art accusing a male lecturer of sexual harassment. According to some reports these complaints span a decade, yet the lecturer, Winston Campbell, has continued teaching there, suggesting that the college, for reasons best known to itself, did not take the allegations seriously.
A Gleaner article quoted a student who said:
“A lot of people have come forward with written and verbal statements in the past, but they have not gone anywhere,” a student who was allegedly sexually harassed by the same lecturer told The Sunday Gleaner.
“This has been going on now for years, and other students and teachers have brought it to the attention of the dean and the principal, and it has all gone unnoticed … swept under the rug and they kind of just – well, they haven’t done anything; he is still here. They are aware of what he has been doing and they haven’t done anything about it.”
According to my sources at the college, this situation would have continued indefinitely had it not been for an American lecturer, Professor Maluwa Meshane Williams-Myers, who–shocked by the number of students who complained to her about their sexual exploitation, and more conscientious it appears than her local colleagues–decided to blow the whistle. As she told a Gleaner reporter:
“I have known about four or five of the cases involving students. Some of them have had their hair grabbed. Some have been asked questions or told, ‘I can’t wait until you are old enough to have sex with.’ Others, basically, if you don’t do this for me, you are not going to have a good grade … a passing grade,” she told The Sunday Gleaner in graphic detail.
These are serious allegations yet Campbell was sent on leave only in late May this year after the Gleaner reported on the students’ plight, and the Board of the College was informed for the first time of the dire situation female students there faced. One is almost sure that if genders had been reversed and it was an older female lecturer preying on young male students, or a male lecturer preying on male students, action would have been taken long ago.
This case raises serious questions about the predicament of women in Jamaican society. Does the laxness with which the complaints of female students was treated suggest an entrenched belief that women’s bodies should be available for the sexual satisfaction of men? Does the scrupulousness with which the alleged perpetrator of these misdemeanours has been shielded in media reports—he remains unnamed–suggest a disturbing capitulation to the power and privilege of men in this society?
In the absence of the naming of the person against whom all these allegations have been lodged public fury has been directed at the female principal of the college and two other female administrators. But even here questions remain. Shouldn’t a statement be demanded from the current Academic Director of the School of Visual Arts, Miriam Hinds Smith? And if allegations that this state of affairs has been going on for a decade are true, also from the one before her? Shouldn’t both be held accountable just as much as the Principal? They were surely aware of these complaints. Could they both kindly let the public know why they decided not to do anything about these complaints? And why they remain silent in the face of evidence of longstanding violation of the rights of female students? Are they afraid to speak?
Not only have the institution and those who run it failed their female students, Jamaican media have as well. For by refusing to name the person who is alleged to have violated so many of them, they are sending the message that the rights of women to grant or not grant access to their bodies is not as important as the right of an alleged predator to protect himself against their accusations. If only Jamaican society believed in the right of women to remain inviolate as fervently as it believes in the seemingly supreme right of parties accused of sexual misconduct to an unblemished reputation!
Incidentally, I was informed by a lawyer that there is nothing at all in Jamaica’s Sexual Offenses Act that limits naming an alleged perpetrator of sexual violence while there is a raft of proscriptions against naming or identifying the victims or complainants in such cases. Both national newspapers therefore need to explain the excessive delicacy with which they have treated the accused.
Most dismaying has been the reaction of many who work at Edna Manley College whose first instinct was to insist on the integrity of the institution, all evidence to the contrary, rather than empathize with the victims of the harassment. It was reassuring therefore to read the following plea made by Lecturer in the School of Arts Management & Humanities, Owen ‘Blakka’ Ellis, M.E.S.
…why are we not loudly asserting a commitment to trust complainants in any case of alleged sexual misconduct and articulate our assurance that such complainants will be cared for and supported while we seek to follow due process and investigate the validity of their reports?
Let us speak louder in empathy.We owe it to all women. We owe it to the great woman in whose honour the college is named. We owe it the women of Sistren – a renowned group of activist women whose genesis began at this college. We owe it to our sisters and daughters and granddaughters.
This interview with Mr. Edward Seaga was commissioned by Macmillan to accompany the release of his two-volume biography in early 2010. An edited version of it was published at the time but here is the original version. Mr. Seaga was famously, President Reagan’s poster boy, he was in anything an anti-hero, rarely smiling, devoid of the populist charm other politicians, notably Michael Manley, wielded. It was a rare privilege to be able to interview him. As you will see the interview ranges over a wide swathe of subjects from West Kingston, to Dudus, to homophobia, to Portia.
Interview with Mr. Edward Seaga by Annie Paul, December 11, 2009
AP: The first question I wanted to ask you relates to the founding of the JLP. In the book you say, rather memorably, that the JLP was not against wealth, it was against poverty. I thought that was a very intriguing statement because one of the other questions that I’ve always wanted to ask you is, and i ask this because many of the things that you are interested in and that you stand for, have convergences with socialism–so I’ve always wondered what’s the difference between you and a socialist?
ES: No, the confusion comes about in the fact that the party was born out of a decision of the people to revolt against the social and economic conditions that they were experiencing. Remember this was at the tail end of the great depression and exports of bananas and sugar were reduced considerably and so they were really going through an even harder time than they were before; for that at least they were able to migrate. They migrated to Cuba for the sugar –-to cut sugarcane during the war and after the war they stayed on until it became a problem to the Cubans to find work for them too and so many came back at the turn of the 20’s and they came back to meet very harsh conditions here. So in that protest the leader of the movement obviously had to take into account what the protest was about and that was the protest for better pay and for better social conditions.
AP: And the leader would have been Alexander Bustamante.
ES: That’s right. And there were many of them but he was the one that stood out. In being the person who was at the front he realized that you can’t [just] talk all the time, you have to provide, and so when the time came to create a government it was a government that was set up for meeting the needs of the people, not State decisions and that sort of thing. So it was a populist government which of course has its overlap with some aspects of socialism but ideologically, it’s totally different – it’s a populism in action–so that populism was grafted onto a more capitalist type of approach because Busta always said, the poor cannot do anything for themselves, they depend upon their employers and so he was pro capitalist development for the sake of that, not for his own sake but for the sake of being able to help the poor. Frankly that puts him virtually in the middle and that’s where a lot of parties who’ve gotten frustrated with the Washington consensus and those who left socialism behind have headed, probably they’ve gone a bit more to the left like South America but a lot of others have headed in that direction particularly in the Eastern European area.
AP: But your own leanings were they always so pro-capitalist because I remember hearing that you were in the PNP first, right?
ES: In what?
AP: Weren’t you first a member of the PNP?
ES: Absolutely not.
AP: OK, this is something I’ve often heard people say.
ES: It was spread by the PNP because I paid a visit to Drumblair once in the company of Mike Smith, MG Smith …
AP: whom you were close to.
ES: Mike Smith was going there, I was with him and he said come with me so I went there. It was in the afternoon, end of working hours, and Mike was talking with Edna, and Norman Manley came in. I had never spoken to Norman Manley in my life and he called me into his sitting room and he was interested in the work I was doing which was by then indigenous art.
ES: He wanted to talk about Ralph Campbell and John Dunkley so …
AP: You were involved with Dunkley and Campbell?
ES: Not as a person, but as the forerunners of Kapo.
AP: I see.
ES: And that’s what we really talked about. These people had no training in African-style art yet they were producing art that could have been produced somewhere in Africa – we were talking about that — and I came away with a positive feeling for him as someone who had a good intellectual grasp and obviously he was a delightful person to sit and talk with but I had, prior to that, never accepted the ideology of socialism because it is a philosophy and an ideology that has within its own ranks its own self-destruction — seeds of its own destruction — and that is because of the two principles on which it stands –- egalitarianism which is impractical and on the business of the takeover of the means of production. When Michael Manley got to power and he introduced those two features of what was the whole democratic socialist base of his father, that was when he ran into trouble because what he did was he equated wealth with race and with the problems of race and he pinpointed the people of wealth as people who were holding down the masses.
AP: So at no point were you actually a member of the PNP. People always say that as if it is true.
ES: People always want to draft me in spirit because they couldn’t get me otherwise. My basic philosophy is exactly as Bustamante put it, that was my own way of thinking, which is, you need to be right of centre to produce a viable economy; but you’re right of centre to produce a viable economy for the purpose of being left of centre and providing the social programmes for the poor and vulnerable. And that has always been my position, I’ve never changed it and the party has never changed. Nowadays I am not happy with what I see the–programmes that are there are still catering to the poor yes, but the outlook that I see among some of the younger members are all for themselves. This has nothing to do with people.
AP: OK, that’s interesting. Have you read Obika Gray’s book “Demeaned but Empowered”?
ES: Well, you know, I get a bit tired of reading this type of rubbish that all of them write. I had a problem in Court with Laurie Gunst – I sued her and I got a judgement against her in New York and I just got a settlement from Tony Abrahams and Hot 102 last week after many years.
AP: Oh you did? Now what was that for … that he was responsible for airing the programme that Laurie Gunst appeared on, is that it?
AP: And what was it exactly…?
ES: The way in which he led her in the questions asked.
AP: OK. Well, I don’t remember the details, can you detail it for me.
ES: Well, they tied me in with the Shower Posse and all that the Shower Posse did and of course I had no such connection. My work in West Kingston was broad and general yes, and you do run into people who are not part of your central core but it had nothing to do with …
AP: You mean, like Jim Brown, for instance, because he would have been associated with the Shower Posse?
ES: Well, one of them, it was two of them that I settled with, Jeff Stein, who wrote an article in Gentleman’s Quarterly in which he said that I was tied -– I was joined at the hip — to Jim Brown. Those are highly libelous statements. But I got a settlement so I didn’t bother to have to go to Court.
AP: But Obika doesn’t … does he also do that?
ES: More balanced ..
AP: Yea, I thought so ….
ES: More balanced, but some of the nauseous conclusions these writers come to as to the role of the Labour Party and my role and so on … one writes something and the next one follows that and copies it and the third one copies what the second one writes and so on.
AP: Now, moving right along, another thing that I’ve always been led to believe about you and the Labour Party, is that there was no soft spot in your heart for the University of the West Indies and of course here you are today, and I was wondering, first if that’s true and second if you’ve changed your opinion having experienced it in the way that you have now.
ES: Well I started my career, so to speak, here at the University but at the level of doing research work on an informal basis. I wasn’t asked by the University to do it, I just simply said this is what I am doing ….
AP: And as you tell in your autobiography they weren’t interested at the time?
ES: No, Professor Huggins told me we can’t as a young University, be involved in studying things like Pukkumina and while I was in the field a foreign scholar Professor … I forget his name ……
ES: Simpson. He came and did the same study under the auspices of the Institute of Social and Economic Research.
AP: That’s so ironic, you know that kind of thing probably still happens today.
ES: So I did my own thing but I always had the intention of getting an advanced degree and this [UWI] is where it turned out I would have to get it because I became so involved, I couldn’t break away to go to any University. I went to London University and I spent about three months there.
AP: You didn’t find the course very challenging after what you did at Harvard?
ES: Well, after I had done two complete studies I couldn’t go there now to learn the basics and fundamentals of the material that I had already done two studies in.
AP: Right, right.
ES: So I would have gone along with them on some course work and I wanted to present my thesis but I realized I wasn’t going to be able to do that. So I came back and there was no graduate programme here, so I said later on I’ll do it and of course politics takes charge of you and you can’t … [go back to academic work.
AP: Was this then after the three years you spent in West Kingston that you went to London.
ES: Yes ’56 .. .‘55
AP: Now, is it true that you were not very enthused by the University of the West Indies because you viewed it as a hot bed of left wing academics?
ES: Yes. I had that impression very definitely and I don’t think the University can defend itself on that. I believe that in the 1970s they behaved atrociously. I believe that they struck out on one course, one path and gave all their energies to that –- there was nobody thinking in any other direction and I blame them for not having the mind to be able to think -– they were all slaves to an ideology. People who are slavish, slavish followers of an ideology I don’t rate them because they are not using their minds. That’s why I don’t put myself in the position of any ideological position; I thought that they were just slavishly following the Soviet model and they ceased from seeing how they could outdo it . They produced nothing, nothing they produced, except Beckford’s plan on agriculture which I thought was something that would have a time and place but certainly not in that system at that time and place but I always believed agriculture is the one resource area that we have not yet developed and that’s the one that has to be developed.
AP: So you did find some merit in George Beckford’s arguments?
ES: Just in that area, not in the rest of it.
AP: That was primarily what he wrote about.
ES: Well, I haven’t read all of it, so I was very disappointed. I’m coming from Harvard where all views prevailed.
AP: But you didn’t find that to be the case here?
ES: Definitely not.
AP: But has it changed now?
ES: It has changed because…. people like Munroe have changed. And a lot of them who were hard-line Socialists have changed. People like Canute James who is now over at CARIMAC and so on. And outside of the area a lot of them have changed and you have to give a man room to change.
AP: What do you think produced that change?
ES: Well, there’s no question at all that Socialism, as I said, has within it the seeds of its own destruction and if you pull down wealth–the way I described it is that Manley thought of society as an onion with various layers. You peel off one and then peel off the next one — when it was no such thing — they were interdigitated, these layers — you pull down a layer and what it is attached to is production and if you pull out production you have nothing to provide for the poor and so you are destroying the very people you are trying to help. Socialism destroyed itself when people like Reagan and Thatcher came on the scene at the end of the ‘70s. They proceeded to offer an alternative and that alternative started to look better than a no alternative position and then my victory happened which heralded a lot of other victories –- I was awarded the Man of the Year by Fortune Magazine.
AP: Is that right? I wasn’t aware of that.
ES: I was awarded Man of the year by Fortune Magazine for my role in what they called the death of socialism. Not me alone but my picture was on the front page with Thatcher and Jayawardene …
AP: From Sri Lanka…
ES: Yes, and Reagan. So people realized that Socialism wasn’t it, there was no where it was going – everywhere it was collapsing, election after election and so they started to turn themselves in the wrong direction.
AP: So now I want to go back to a pivotal period of your life which was the three years that you lived in West Kingston ..…
ES: No, not West Kingston
AP: In Tivoli? In what is now Tivoli.
ES: No, there was no Tivoli then. I lived in a rural community called Buxton Town.
AP: Right, I remember that.
ES: And then in West Kingston.
AP: Right, I’m talking about the West Kingston part of it.
ES: The period in which I lived among the poor in both rural and urban Jamaica.
AP: The thing about West Kingston that I found intriguing was that you mentioned that even in those days it was stigmatized because it was known, or it was seen to be a centre of Obeah, and other underground religious movements — it had so many Pukkumina bands for instance.
ES: Well, I don’t think that that stigmatized it because people in those days were not really concerned about that. Obeah and Pukkumina had always held a sort of negative reflection for the people. But it wasn’t a stigma that was condemning the people, it was just a condition that they didn’t accept and they didn’t believe in. It was in conflict with the traditional religions but it was more representative of religion in the country than the religions that the uptown people practice because it was linked to hundreds of small churches all throughout the country who were what we call spiritual churches. They believed in possession of the person by a spirit and they’re called spiritual whereas the others are not given that name.
AP: But why would there have been a concentration of Pukkumina bands in that area? Do you know the reason for that?
ES: West Kingston is where all the voyages terminated into Kingston.
AP: Voyages –- from the other parts of the country?
ES: Yes, that’s right. Coming into Kingston, the market system there is where you come to sell your goods and many come to buy to go out to sell somewhere else because it was the cheapest area …
AP: So even in those days Coronation Market was the centre of market activity…
ES: Yes. Because it was a concentration of people who were of a low income background whose choice of produce was the kind of things that people wanted both to sell and to buy and there was no such other concentration outside of Kingston. The other towns as we know them today were very small villages so that was the only area that one would call a township where the concentration was so focused that you would find whatever you want.
AP: So it wasn’t a transient sort of settlement?
ES: The West Kingston population grew because of people coming there to settle and that’s why it remained an area of slum type conditions.
AP: Now, I’m also getting a sense from dipping into Volume 1, I get the sense that West Kingston had a strong identity of its own and that the people who lived there had a very developed political sense — for instance you mention the fact that if they didn’t like their political representative or if that person fell out of favour they had no hesitation in booting him out.
ES: They did that. Every year or every term.
AP: During what period would that kind of strong identity have developed?
ES: ‘40s. It would have had this identity from still further back, as long as people were moving up and down and there was migration going on from in the World War period – I’m talking about World War 1 — that identity would have been moulded –
AP: You mean migration from where to where?
ES: People were migrating in and out of the country and people were migrating in and out of West Kingston. Those were the two focal points but West Kingston has always had a strong cultural identity – that is where you find, instead of having to go all over the country to find spots in which you have cultural manifestations from afro-centric type of culture you find it all in West Kingston.
AP: Was that one of the reasons you decided to go and study that area?
ES: To a certain extent yes because it was so rich in the culture and fabric. One makes a decision that you go downtown and when you go downtown, I talked with a few people I was told to talk to and they all pinpointed West Kingston as the best area.
AP: I see. And it would have been one of the earliest instances of urbanization, no?
ES: Yes, Kingston was, of course.
AP: Kingston, yes.
ES: But Kingston had already divided itself into areas, socio-economic areas. You had the uptown area, you had east Kingston which was still very residential and you had West Kingston which was working class.
AP: In those days uptown would have been what area?
ES: Anything from Kingston Gardens going up to Half Way Tree and Constant Spring. Barbican where I lived was all bush.
ES: Bush. I remember when it was bush. In the ‘40s somebody decided to start some development there.
AP: I see.
ES: The property was owned by one of my ancestors and he gave it to his daughter when she got married.
AP: This is on Paddington Terrace by Barbican?
ES: No not the Terrace, the whole property including Vale Royal and so on. The whole of that area.
AP: Oh, that’s pretty large.
ES: Well, that’s how properties were defined at that ……..
AP: Still, I’m quite intrigued by Western Kingston as an entity almost unto itself because I had the opportunity in 2004 of speaking to the Matthews Lane don …
AP: Zekes… in his bar and pinned up on the wall of his bar was a photograph of yourself.
AP: Yes. It was quite a large photo and then a smaller photo of Michael Manley next to it. At one point he turned to me and said – he pointed at your photo and said “Do you know who this is?” and I said “Yes, it’s Mr. Seaga” and he said, “Well, I’m very glad you said Mr. Seaga” because that is a man that I respect above everyone and I said “well, how come, because I thought you were a PNP don”? He said, “This is Western Kingston and in Western Kingston Mr. Seaga is the leader”. And it seemed to me like he was making a distinction between Western Kingston and the rest of the country. And Western Kingston wasn’t just Tivoli you know, he was including …..
ES: Yes, I know that. But there was no Tivoli in those days, Tivoli came at the end of the ‘60s but West Kingston has been the birthplace of every political movement. The Labour Party was born out of the labour strikes that came from the waterfront of West Kingston. The PNP had many of its leaders and community workers coming out of West Kingston. Garvey, while not having an origin there had focal groups there and other movements from the Rastafarians and so on all started in West Kingston. But the people there either love you or don’t like you–hate you–and that’s the way it has been. They don’t like to be disappointed, they don’t like to be told you’re going to do something and you don’t do it; it forces you to perform. Well, all previous MPs that were there just never measured up and so at the end of one term they booted them out. Bustamante left before they got that chance.
AP: So the race aspect – you are considered a White Jamaican — that never presented a problem?
ES: I have never had an instance – well, when I went into West Kingston there was one man who was describing me in terms of, not so much race but in terms of colour, saying they don’t want no White man in there, just one of the multitude and he was quickly isolated by the people. Other than that, what people speak among themselves and in private, I don’t know, I wouldn’t know, but I’ve never had any confrontation.
AP: I find that Jamaicans are very sophisticated about race actually.
ES: What they want is performance.
ES: If you – as they say – can ‘ grounds’ with them and that means their culture and I was in the perfect setting for that because that was what I was doing and if they find that you are one of them, and can perform for them, that’s it, you’re covered.
AP: Is it true that there is a mural somewhere in Tivoli portraying you, with a slogan saying “The blackest man in Jamaica”?
ES: No, that’s not true. Where do people get that sort of foolishness?
AP: Well that’s something I also heard or was told.
ES: No — when they draw pictures of their local heroes and so on, they don’t put me in it, the Jim Browns and Marcus Garvey and all that – they don’t put me in it.
ES: I’m considered somebody quite separate and distinct.
AP: Now going back to one of the excerpts, well, let’s just finish with West Kingston before we move on. West Kingston, one of the things that I remember very clearly in July 2001 was the day about 29 people were killed in a police raid.
ES: The 4th to the 7th of July. 27 people.
AP: 27 people were killed and you were very distressed by that.
AP: You’ve written about this in you book so I’m not going to go over the details here but, yes, so police brutality and police targeting of Tivoli and Western Kingston has been a problem?
ES: It’s not police targeting, it’s the political targeting.
AP: Political targeting?
ES: You see West Kingston occupies a very strategic location.
AP: You mean because of the harbour?
ES: No, it is surrounded, this is the entire downtown area, this is West Kingston [showing demarcated areas with his hands], but it is not a tiny part of it in terms of influence – it has the markets, it has the ports, it has the highway of Spanish Town Road coming through it and all of these other constituencies in central Kingston, south-West St. Andrew, etc. etc. These are geographically neighbours but these are the constituencies that were given the responsibility by the PNP to bring down West Kingston, because if they control the West they control all of Kingston. You wouldn’t be able to hold any demonstrations, any marches, you would bring to bear from the influence of West Kingston people a massive influence throughout the whole downtown. And if you controlled all of downtown, any government that was in power that didn’t have a base there that people could say, well if I demonstrate you’re going to respond with a demonstration, they would just have to sit back and take it and that would bring down any government.
AP: And so it’s a major political prize, Tivoli, Tivoli Gardens?
ES: No, it’s not Tivoli, West Kingston.
AP: West Kingston, ok.
ES: So, because of that, they have always targeted West Kingston but they target it moreso because when I became Prime Minister, if I was brought down in West Kingston then the party would fail. So it was an extra level of targeting and that is why in July 2001 and before that, in May 1997 and the same sort of thing applied, handpicked, select policemen were given the responsibility of starting something within the communities and getting a response from others or creating a situation in which the authorities had to respond. In the case of May 1997, what the people called a ‘tanker’, which is an armoured vehicle, rolled into Tivoli Gardens right in front of the High School, and this is on record from teachers there, school was out and it just went in there and started to fire shots into the buildings and then it went back out.
And this gave the police the opportunity to send in another set of teams and these were policemen on foot who would go into the community and fire shots into the air and then report on their radio that they were under fire.
Now when they do that, all of the police in the whole city and elsewhere hear that, so the ones that are mobile come rushing in and before you know it there is a whole lot of police but they are not responding to anything, they’re creating a situation in there and on that basis they were able to freely move around and shoot and the people that they shot, I’ve described it in what I wrote – a woman coming back from making a purchase of salt that she wanted for breakfast, walking alone, a woman in her ‘60’s and being a hundred yards away from the school, and the snipers over there, military not police now, just cut her down and when her son who was nearby ran to try and help her, they fired after him so he had to move off.
AP: Right, right.
ES: And that was just symptomatic of all the others.
AP: Right, now, I was looking at an article that was published in 2005 in the Observer, I think it was by Mark Wignall where he said that you yourself had conceded in an interview a few years before that that Tivoli has had its dark days, that’s a quote, “Tivoli has had its dark days”. Do you remember ………..
ES: Well, what is the context? What is ‘dark days’? Tivoli has had its dark days.
ES: Dark days are when you carry out those sorts of attacks on the community so that’s what I call a dark day.
AP: OK, so you weren’t referring to … I thought maybe you were referring to …. I mean, Tivoli must have its own problems also apart from these that are inflicted on them.
ES: In 1994 within the community there were men who were attacking within West Kingston and other communities and killing people and in the adjoining community of Rema which was adjoining constituency they were also sending young boys with guns in there to target individuals and shoot and kill them dead right there and I said this has to stop. And I called them and I told them , I said if you continue then I will have no recourse but to go to the police.
AP: That was when you gave that long list of people to the police?
ES: That’s right, that’s right.
AP: To Trevor MacMillan.
ES: I have the clipping of it. And they told me that I can’t dictate to them because I didn’t give them guns and I don’t buy them bullets so I gave the list to the police.
Yes, and I, in addition, I offered a reward for Dudus – they couldn’t find him, he had gone out of the community to hide and I offered a reward for his arrest. That was in 1994 so since then we have not had any internal problems whatsoever. It’s the safest place to be in Jamaica, I tell you.
AP: No, I know. I’ve heard that and I’ve actually been there – I’ve been in the community once. I want to just follow up since we are on the subject and the name Dudus came up. So he was a problem then, in 1994, and clearly continues to be. Well now, we are in a situation where the US is asking for his extradition to stand trial in that country for crimes committed there and the government is delaying acceding to that request. Do you think that one of the reasons that the government is sort of pussy-footing around this is precisely because they might lose control of Tivoli if they hand him over?
AP: No, that’s not it? Because that is a popular belief.
ES: The fact is that there is a genuine concern for a country saying to you there are persons who have given us evidence about another person in your country who is trading in arms and in narcotics and when you say who are these people, we’re entitled to know, they say we can’t tell you. I say, well if you can’t tell us, we can’t work with you. They say that’s our law that we’re not to tell you, to protect the witnesses. Well, that’s all very well but we have a constitutional obligation, it’s not due process to send a man abroad to be tried under those conditions.
AP: But would you say it’s true that Dudus is credited with maintaining the peace and so on in that community and with running it very well?
ES: Well, he doesn’t run the community.
ES: What he does provide is a sort of local court for people who have been aggrieved and if he sends for somebody who has been the person who has aggrieved someone else and they come, he will remonstrate with them or sometimes they do apply physical force to them and people partly fear him and partly regard him as somebody who plays a useful role in the community.
AP: And that – you have to link that kind of thing to the failure of the justice system.
ES: Failure of the criminal justice system because the people won’t go to the police and report anything because they know the police won’t do anything and even within the station there are policemen who will give them the names of people who report.
AP: Right, right. One of the things I found interesting in reading the book, I think this must be in volume 1, you detail a number of police killings towards the end
ES: The Amnesty part?
AP: Yes. I think when you were talking about Amnesty International.
ES: I could not do any better, I know of all of those killings ……..
AP: And complaints about Reneto Adams and company – you say that they used firearms as the first resort and also used excessive lethal force.
AP: But were the police differently organized when you were Prime Minister?
AP: So they’re a law unto themselves, are they?
ES: No. They were tools of the PNP when they wanted to carry out these kinds of actions of State terror, politically-based State terror, the police was used but not the police force, groups like the Adams’ group, the Adams’ team, see they will form a team around Adams on the basis that Adams is doing a good job because he’s killing criminals and so on but Adams also was used with that same hand-picked team to eradicate people who were of the opposite political persuasion, right, and who they wanted to get rid of. That was what Adams was used for.
AP: And there is no corresponding use of the police by the JLP? When the JLP was in power?
ES: For the simple reason that this is a socio-political thing. The country is stratified, particularly Kingston, so the lowest income people is where you find JLP support. Once you get into the level of the postman and the teacher, the police and the nurse and so on – almost totally PNP. Now it has not been as complete a picture like that in the recent past, people are now, from those areas, now giving support to the JLP too but basically the majority still is PNP, so you can look at a map and see where people live in certain types of houses you know that you’re middle income, that’s PNP.
ES: So you wouldn’t get people in there doing any favours for the JLP.
AP: Well now, Western Kingston was also a kind of bastion of Rastafari, wasn’t it?
ES: Yes, within the downtown area. One of them was a contestant against me in the first election, Sam Brown, got a hundred votes I think.
AP: oh, he just got a hundred?
ES: Yes, somewhere around that.
AP: And he was a Rasta?
ES: He was the lead person in the rasta movement.
AP: How do you explain that? I mean, you would have thought that all these Rastas would have …
ES: That’s explainable, and that is why colour doesn’t count because the Rastaman is not seen as somebody who can help me, I’m a poor man and he can’t help me. Add to that they’re eccentric, people don’t believe in following eccentric people so this is somebody who by his work, by his devotion to the poor and so on, can help, and therefore that’s who I’m going to work with.
AP: Yes, which shows a certain sophistication as political citizens.
AP: Ok, let’s see, now one of the things you talked about in the excerpts was that when you were a child you had a problem with lack of temper control. Today it’s called anger management.
ES: I wouldn’t say when I was a child, no, definitely not, more like after I entered politics.
ES: It was always triggered by injustice and it didn’t manifest itself until I entered politics. The same people, the same incidents, anything in which the State uses its authority against the people used to anger me.
AP: Are there any memorable incidents that you can remember where you lost it? Were there any instances of that during the ‘80s when you were in power?
ES: ‘80s? No. I wouldn’t have found myself in any situation like that. Well, there was the celebrated instance at Heroes Park where we were unveiling the statue of Bogle and ….
AP: This is the one by Edna Manley?
ES: Yes, no, not that statue, that statue was done at Morant Bay. We didn’t use statues for Bogle and Gordon, because we’d done a statue at Morant Bay, we were unveiling the shrine …
AP: Oh, at Heroes Park?
ES: Yes and I didn’t know that Norman Manley had been offended that he had not been asked to speak. He was leader of the Opposition and the protocol doesn’t provide for leaders of the Opposition being asked to speak in those days, today you can do that but in those days it was a very strict British system of protocol. I didn’t invite him although I had no grievance about using the Manleys–I had personally asked his wife to do the Bogle statue for instance– but they went down to Ward Theatre and held a meeting and gathered a lot of people and marched up to the scene and everything went fine until I came to speak and when I started to speak they started to make a tremendous noise, shouting and singing the red flag and things like that so as to drown me out and I completed my speech without any incident but the anger was boiling up in me and at the end of the speech I shouted at them a threat of blood for blood and fire for fire, thunder for thunder. Now that’s a Rasta saying, it wasn’t something that you must take literally – a Rasta will always tell you blood for blood – that sort of thing, it’s a threat. And I used that, I regretted it afterwards but it was in the heat of anger but it was built up to be something that was literal which of course was never the case.
AP: Now, another thing I found interesting about your autobiography, is that you actually talk about the treatment of gay people in Jamaica. There’s a whole section where you discussed that. You say, and this is a quote “Gay people in Jamaica or those suspected of being gay are routinely victims of ill treatment and harassment by the police and occasionally of torture”. I think it’s in the section where you talk about the police killings and Amnesty International …
ES: Oh, that’s Amnesty, that’s not me.
AP: Is that a quote from Amnesty?
ES: A very long quote of many, many pages, I just used the Amnesty report – I couldn’t have produced anything more authentic or better illustrated.
AP: Right. But talking about homosexuality in Jamaica, do you have any theories about why Jamaican people feel so strongly about this?
ES: Well, I can understand why they feel, they have a feeling because they are very bible oriented and the bible doesn’t allow for this but at the same time I can’t quite understand myself why they feel so strong. I think Gays just became a sort of scapegoat of men who sort of led down the male gender, if you know what I mean.
AP: Yes. Do you believe that men are marginalized in Jamaica as has been claimed by people like Errol Miller?
ES: No, there are areas in which men have the stronger or the bigger part of the handle, in authority and are recognized as the persons of greater authority and better performers than women but women are gradually taking over more and more of those areas and are very definitely in the ascendency where it comes to leadership roles.
AP: But there’s no sign of a female leader in the JLP who might one day become leader of the party, no?
ES: Not yet, not yet.
AP: Well, it’s a possibility you mean?
ES: No, I don’t think there’s anybody on the horizon, but there are many sub-leaders.
AP: Now, talking of female leadership, I want you to just touch on Portia Simpson-Miller Do you think that one of the problems that she faced was the problem of class, that she was viewed as not being as educated as a normal middle class person should be etc. etc.?
ES: Well, to the extent that it affected her, not so much because of the class but because of her lack of education and especially the party she comes from, have a vaunted opinion of themselves as the educated part of Jamaica which is no longer true. But at the same time they feel embarrassed that someone like that could lead them and that has been one of the things that has affected her.
AP: That’s what I feel too and I think it’s regrettable that there is that kind of bias.
ES: Well at the same time, you know, you have to understand that there is a limitation to what you can do as a leader in the Jamaica of today if you’re not educated enough to be able to understand how the system works and to be able to make the necessary statements and create the necessary plans and so on to work within that system to create something better. She’s a populist because that’s the simplest of our political systems.
AP: But, Mr. Seaga, neither did Alexander Bustamante have that kind of education.
ES: Right but Bustamante’s forceful personality made him a leader, quite apart from any other aspect of his character, made him a leader. He singlehandedly, and by virtue of his forceful personality, bulldozed his way through the authorities to achieve a lot of what was wanted and that made him a leader but in the political sphere, he also was more understanding of the system in which he was working and he ringed around him people who were intelligent and people who could manage and who could do things and he never had any fear of being challenged politically. So he governed on the basis that he was the supreme leader of the group but he allowed people to do the things that they had to do to make it successful. Portia doesn’t enjoy that, she doesn’t have a supreme position; she’s constantly being harassed by other people …
AP: Within her party?
ES: Yes, who don’t want her.
AP: Right. Do you think the fact that she’s a woman also held her back or …
ES: I don’t think so.
AP: Why it was that at the end of the ‘60’s it was Shearer and Sangster who became the leaders and not you. Was it because you only entered politics in ’59? So you were a new entrant at that point?
ES: That’s right. I was 29 years old….I was a youngster in the party. I never had any interest or desire or any focus on leadership. It was after the crisis arose when Shearer decided that he did not want to continue because he wasn’t getting any traction in the party that the younger members came to me and said “You’re the person that the people out in the country and elsewhere are calling for and we want you to know we will back you”.
AP: Did that come as a surprise at that point?
ES: A surprise in the sense that I didn’t think anything was happening in that respect. I had been out of the strictly political scene at that time because after we lost in ’72, I took off 2 years. I did my parliamentary duties, my constituency duties but the raw political duties I stayed away from. I had the feeling that politics doesn’t carry with it the kind of response to good works that you would like to see and therefore if good works don’t pay off what is the purpose of doing the good work.
AP: Just one last question. Do you think, I mean, just looking at the situation politically today, not only in Jamaica, in the region and the world, that the world has reached a point where there’s a crisis of political authority itself?
ES: In many countries, yes. Pre the last election with Obama that was the case. The kind of candidates that were being put forward were very definitely far lower than the level that you would expect from a developed country. Some countries have found leaders that are leaders who can perform and others are just doing what they have to do but there are no people who have risen to the heights of the great leaders of the past.
AP: But maybe it’s the kind of political systems that we have that need to change, I wonder, I don’t know. The two party system…
ES: It’s not a matter of the society producing the leader but the leader emerging from the society.
AP: Yes, because when you took the helm of the Labour Party you were suddenly thrust into it, right, into leadership after Shearer …
ES: Yes, yes.
AP: And there’s a way, I believe, there’s a way in which leaders emerge but when you are thrust into a situation and you are at the helm, over time you develop those qualities of leadership, don’t you?
ES: That’s right. You don’t start out at being a fully recognized leader, you were saddled as having leadership qualities and that grows ..
AP: Because I am thinking of someone like Indira Gandhi in India also. She was totally unsuited you would have thought, from her background, until she became Prime Minister. She had not shown much interest and wasn’t cut out to be a political leader but then when she became one she certainly rose to the challenge.
ES: Well it means she had latent leadership …
AP: Thank you.
 “The respondent Edward Seaga, a former Prime Minister of Jamaica and then Leader of the Opposition, commenced proceedings on 26 November 1999 against five defendants in respect of the content of a radio programme known as the Breakfast Club broadcast on 3, 6 and 14 September 1999. The first named defendant is the present appellant Western Broadcasting Services Ltd, a broadcasting company which transmitted the programme from its radio station Hot 102 FM. The second defendant is The Breakfast Club Ltd, which was sued as the company making the programme. The third named defendant Anthony Abrahams is sued as the host of the programme broadcast on the dates mentioned. The fourth defendant, an American journalist Laurie Gunst, is sued for publishing statements alleged to have been defamatory on the programme on 3 September 1999 and the fifth defendant Jeff Stein, also an American journalist, is sued for publishing defamatory statements on the programme on 6 September.” https://case-law.vlex.co.uk/vid/-54061547
An artist we don’t think enough about or include in discussions about Caribbean art is Janine Antoni. Her brother Robert Antoni is better known in the world of Caribbean writing. Perhaps this is because despite Antoni’s Bahamian/Trinidadian background she rarely references the Caribbean and her work has been effortlessly absorbed into the mainstream of Euro-American art. Still, young Caribbean artists have much to learn from this ethereal veteran of the contemporary art world about how to build an artistic practice, how to sustain it, how to nurture it without compromising yourself, the intimacy of your work or your ideals. Like many artists all over the world, and particularly in the Caribbean, Antoni had to figure out on her won how to fit herself and her work into the ‘business’ of art. Excerpted below are relevant portions of a 2008 Reality Check interview with Jackie Battenfield in which Antoni discusses how she got her start after graduating from RISD, the importance of audience, how to work with galleries and other art professionals, and how to negotiate the commercial side of an art practice.
Janine Antoni was born in Freeport, Bahamas. She is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship; the Joan Mitchell Foundation, Inc. Painting and Sculpture Grant; and the Larry Aldrich Foundation Award. She has exhibited extensively in the United States and abroad at venues including Luhring Augustine Gallery, The Wadsworth Athenaeum; The Irish Museum of Modern Art; The Reina Sofia; The Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art; The Whitney Museum of American Art; The Museum of Modern Art; The Guggenheim Museum; and The Aldrich Museum. Her work was included in the 1993 Venice Biennial; the 1993 Whitney Biennial; the 1995 Johannesburg Biennial; the 1997 Istanbul Biennial; the 2000 Kwangju Biennial in Korea; SITE Santa Fe in 2002; and Prospect.1 A Biennial for New Orleans.
JACKIE: So, when you left school and came to New York, how did you get yourself started? Did you visit the non-profits?
JANINE: Well, I found out that the Drawing Center would see anybody in those days. You could bring your drawings in and put them on the floor and they would look at them. So, I knew that I had a guaranteed studio visit of sorts. At the time, I did not make drawings. It was not a part of my process. I took the first date the Drawing Center offered. It was six months away. I drew for the next six months, preparing for that visit, and then to my surprise, I got a show. After the show, they gave me a job. So, that was also my first job in New York. I did a year of practical training, because I am a foreigner, so it was perfect. From there, Olivia Georgia gave me a show at Snug Harbor (on Staten Island). Thereafter, I exhibited at Artist Space. So, in those days, that’s how you did it. You began with the non-profits and then the commercial galleries found you there.
JACKIE: Is that how you would recommend artists do it these days?
JANINE: I don’t think that’s the way it’s done these days. At least, in the case of the emerging artists that I am most in touch with, some are showing in galleries before they leave the school. You can probably still do it through the non-profits and they certainly fill a role. It was great for me to begin my career at the non-profits because I didn’t have to deal with the commercial world. I could concentrate on learning to install my work and watch how it was being received before having to deal with the commercial side of things.
JACKIE: What is the best piece of advice that you got early on in your career?
JANINE: The best piece of advice is something that my husband, Paul, said.
JACKIE: You two met at RISD?
My main support came from my peers. We all moved to New York together, which I think was unique to our generation. I came here with Paul Ramirez Jonas, Spencer Finch, Beth Haggart, Ricky Albenda, and Andrea Zittel. It was quite an amazing group. And we all shared studios, living, got each other jobs and shows, and helped each other to make and install our work. So, I came with a readymade community. We had already developed a pretty rigorous dialogue in school. It was also important to meet other artists, because we had all been taught by the same teachers. All of us had a similar approach, even though our work was very different. Meeting other artists really broadened my education and made me realize there were all these other ways of making and thinking about art.
But, the advice that Paul gave me was: “You build your audience one viewer at a time.” And that is something that still rings in my mind.
JACKIE: So, you were talking about audience all the way back?
JANINE: I think I’m a little bit of a weirdo in that way. I’m really thinking about the viewer all the time, even though my work is so much about me.
JACKIE: But I am really intrigued with that, because I do find that when I lecture and ask artists, “Who is your audience? Who is your viewer?” they look at me blankly like they have never ever considered that concept. And yet, how can you know where to put your work or what opportunities to pursue if you don’t?
JANINE: Well, yes, you definitely need to know who your viewer is. That’s one issue. The other issue is to know who you want your viewer to be. And then, the thing that I always encourage in teaching is to fantasize about that viewer. For me, the creative process is about the perpetual shift from being in my own body as the maker to then trying to step into the body of the viewer. I think about how they walk, what they think first, and what they think second. But then, if you have a notion of the audience that you would like to reach, that affects all of your decisions. From where to show, to what you make, and so on. There is another way of looking at it. You put something out in the world, certain kinds of people respond to it, and you then have to understand why. For example, in the case of my work, why do women respond differently to it than men? This is crucial to the way I think about what I make. Why does a particular culture have a strong response to my work? Why do I get more shows in Spain than in Germany? And then, there is the issue of venue. There is a gallery audience, there is a museum audience, and there is a public audience. I recently showed in Luang Prabang, Laos where there are no galleries or museums in the city, so they have a limited exposure to contemporary art. In this case, you obviously have to give a context for the work or else it doesn’t make any sense at all to the viewer.
JACKIE: Isn’t it up to the curator to make the context for the work? I mean, how does the artist?
JANINE: Well, that’s a good question. That’s another way I think you define yourself as an artist. I would say that we make that context together. It’s about a kind of collaboration. The first thing I ask when a curator asks me to be in a show is, “Why? What about my work makes sense for the theme of your show?” I tell them whether I agree with that and then we work together to really talk about their idea versus my idea. They are not always the same and sometimes, that’s okay.
JACKIE: Because it reveals something new to you?
JANINE: At times, the differences between our ideas reveal something new to me. In the best-case scenario, it provides a new avenue into my work. The curator might have a broader idea, because they are putting a lot of work together. I want to be aware of my role within that broader notion. I’m happy to play my role within that. I provide certain things. In the gallery, there is a group of artists and hopefully each one has a unique voice, but together it is one perspective. It’s good to be aware of what you have to offer.
JACKIE: I like that.
JANINE: Again, it’s about the audience, because you only learn what you have to offer by how people respond to your work. Sometimes, you come to realize that you don’t want to offer what is being perceived, and then you have to rethink the whole project. It is a dialogue between you and this viewer and if you’re not paying attention to who that viewer is, then the dialogue doesn’t exist. For me, the dialogue’s really the exciting part. Are you communicating and how?
JACKIE: I find that some artists will say, “I don’t want to think about another viewer.” They worry that it will somehow dilute what they are making.
JANINE: When I first began to show, I loved the idea of site specificity as a concept, but I was not fully formed. Snug Harbor was a perfect example. I got there and I became so involved with the site that I lost my core. And so, I look at that work and wonder whether it was mine. Now, I feel like I can go, and find myself in a site. But that’s about knowing yourself as an artist, and that takes years to do.
There is certainly a conversation that you are having with yourself in the work. That’s important and I don’t think you want to lose that, but the conversation you have with yourself and the conversation you have with the viewer don’t necessarily have to be in conflict. If an artist is afraid that thinking about the viewer will dilute the work, then why show at all? You would just make work in your studio and have a great time with yourself. There would be no need to put it into the world.
JACKIE: Did you get any business skills or professional skills at RISD?
JACKIE: So, how did you learn to work with other professionals? How did you learn about the collaborative nature of being with a curator or how to work with your gallerist?
JANINE: I learned by making a lot of mistakes, I guess. I mean, I certainly had a lot of advice and people that I could call up and say, “What do I do now?” Older women artists, like Kiki Smith were really generous with their advice. I had my mother, who is a very good businesswoman. She taught me to be self-sufficient and to be aware. I think as artists, we hate that stuff. We just want to close an eye to it. She taught me that to know what’s going on is to be in power. That was a really good lesson. I have really taken that advice to the extreme. I mean, my gallery does a lot for me, but certainly at the beginning, I took the time to figure out what that whole art world was about in all of its details. I represented myself for three years. During that time, I had to do everything and I learned a great deal. Because I had done the gallery’s job, I knew exactly what I wanted when it came time to choose a gallery.
JACKIE: Was this between galleries?
JANINE: This was between Sandra Gering and Luhring Augustine.
JACKIE: So, you were self-managed.
JANINE: Yeah. And then, I just kept that system going. In fact, the gallery and I work in a parallel way. Everything that they have, I have.
JACKIE: What’s the advantage to that?
JANINE: I think the advantages are that you become part of all the decisions that dictate your career. Certainly, they know more than I know when it comes to what collections I should be in. When they say, “We think we should offer your work to this collector,” I ask “Why?” I want to know, “What work do they have? Have they ever put anything up to auction?” etc.
JACKIE: The goal is to make the effort to create any professional association as a partnership. You’re partners here, so it’s not handing over your career. It’s partnering. It’s two or more people collaborating on the decisions.
JANINE: I think we go in both directions. I use what they do for me as an opportunity to learn about how the commercial world works, but they are privy to my thinking from the beginnings of a project. So, I don’t just hand them an object at the end. I make sure that they have followed my creative process from the beginning. By the time they get the object, they understand it on all levels.
JACKIE: And you choose to work with a gallery that wants that kind of relationship.
JANINE: Yes, we find each other. I feel like they have something to offer me. I assume that all the professionals that I work with, whether it is the curator or the collector, are interested in how I make my decisions, and want to know what the creative process is like for me. To me, the creative process is what gives an object its value. So, I assume that we all love that part.
JACKIE: It sounds like you allow them to have a degree of intimacy and that carries over to how they can talk about the work with the collector or the curator.
JANINE: But also an intimacy that gets them excited about the show when they put it in their gallery. I’m not only talking about my dealers. I’m talking about the people who work in the gallery. I’m talking about the people who guard the work. My assistants and the docents. I’m talking about everyone that comes into contact with the work. As many as I can let in, I do. At the core, my work is very intimate. This is what I seek in all that I do.
JACKIE: I remember something you said when I brought the AIM artists to your studio that I have quoted ever since: “Your galleries interests are not exactly your own.”
JANINE: Yeah. It’s more complicated than that. I’d like to think that at some level, whether I’m working with a curator or gallery, we put the art first. But you know, their job is different than my job. They have something that is motivating them and I have something that is motivating me. One has to be realistic. I have to protect the work and make sure that it’s seen in the right way. That protection goes beyond the way it’s made, to the way it’s shown and talked about. Curators and gallerists have skills that I don’t have, and I want them to do their job. And I try to give them whatever tools help them represent me in the best possible way. Once this relationship is established, there needs to be trust on both sides.
JACKIE: A gallerist will have commercial interests at heart. They have staff. They have those exorbitant rents to pay. They want to think long term for you, but they have to think long term for themselves. There can be slightly divergent issues. You would be amazed by how little artists understand that. I don’t know what they think they are getting in a gallerist, Mom, Dad, or some unconditional love, but that is not there and it’s inappropriate.
JANINE: It’s interesting, because I think each artist has different needs. Like I said, each artist fulfills a different role for their gallery. It’s even more refined than that. Each gallery has a vision and a way they think things should operate. It’s really about finding two visions that somewhat align. I really feel like my gallery understands what makes me tick and what I think is important. And I know that I am different from other artists that they represent.
JACKIE: But you have gone through the trouble of educating them in a gracious and generous way.
JANINE: Yeah. We worked with each other for a year or two before we made a commitment. That way we both could explore whether it was a good fit.
What are some of your other guiding thoughts?
JANINE: Follow your Love.
Know what you are good at.
Get help with what you are not good at.
Make decisions that allow you to make work for the rest of your life.
Create an art family.
Help each other.
Fantasize about the viewer.
Don’t be too narrow at the beginning.
For instance, I could still be making chocolate sculptures, and that would be a disaster. You are defined by the thing that gets you noticed, and there is an incredible pull to repeat yourself. I think that the wider you make your base at the beginning, the more possibility you have for the rest of your life. Saying all of that, I think of On Kawara. You could make a fabulous contribution finding the nuances of a very narrow space. Wide view is my territory. Finding the same thing in very diverse forms.
JACKIE: But again, it is following your own advice. Knowing yourself. And for you that wouldn’t have been enough. It wouldn’t have been satisfying.
Linking to the second issue of PREE, an online portal of contemporary Caribbean writing started by a few colleagues and me. check it out! If I’ve stopped writing my Gleaner column, this is the reason. Not a multi-tasker so if i take on something new, something has to be dropped.
The second issue of PREE focuses on the theme ‘Pressure’. Pressure buss pipe, yes. But, pressure also creates diamonds. What does pressure do for us tethered to the Caribbean? Is there a pressure to be ‘Caribbean’, to perform Caribbeanness, to act St. Lucian, Grenadian, Trini or Jamaican for instance; a demand that we rigidly embody our culture(s)?
There is the financial pressure to turn coins into dollars and deflated dollars into meals and school fees. There is the cultural pressure to persist and the global pressure to give in. Economic pressure to expand tourism and environmental pressure to protect. The desire for freedom and pressure to remain ‘authentic’. There is social pressure, atmospheric pressure, population pressure, the pressure to achieve the impossible. Also, and sometimes fatally, for too many of us in the region and the diaspora, pressure builds in our blood. Pressure takes root in our hearts and manifests clinically as hypertension and the dangerous possibilities of stroke, heart attack, pulmonary embolism. Pressure underlies any number of presentations of mental illness. Pressure is not just a soul-killing thing, but a thing from which we can actually die. Whichever way you cut it, pressure exists as a powerful invisible force. These are just some of the possible launching points that we asked contributors to wrestle with in this sophomore issue. Via prose, poetry, essays, memoirs, videos, and artwork that explored the possibilities that exist for pressure, PREE contributors did not disappoint.
A response to a series of critiques of the National Gallery of Jamaica
In a post titled “Too Close for Comfort” dated September 22, 2018, former executive director of the National Gallery of Jamaica, Veerle Poupeye, has publicly censured the institution she used to head, the fifth or sixth critique since the start of the year when she demitted office. The gist of these critiques is that the Gallery can get little or nothing right since her departure, and now, minus her vigilance and guidance, is in danger of violating museum ethics as the Board, by implication, is unaware of the high standards that must be maintained.
Please note that this response to Poupeye’s latest ‘warning’ is made in my private capacity as a writer and critic and not as a representative of the NGJ Board, on which I’ve served since mid-2016. Since September 22, 2018, Poupeye has reposted the article mentioned above at least 4 times, apparently dissatisfied with the scant attention it was receiving from those she sought to voice her concerns to.
In the preceding months Poupeye has focused an acerbic gaze at every single exhibition mounted by the NGJ since her departure and—not surprisingly—found them wanting. She freely offers her opinions and judgments on her personal blog and on her Facebook page where among other things she scolds the new PR team for allegedly failing to put out a press release before rather than after the exhibition, chides her former curatorial team for various alleged imperfections, and raises ‘concerns’ about the rights and wrongs of a board member who is also an art impresario somehow ‘benefiting’ from two of the artists she represents being in a micro-show at National Gallery West even though it is the Senior Curator who would have made the selection and not the board member in question. It remains unclear how artists or their agents might benefit from exposure at National Gallery West, a tiny space not on the radar of most people in Jamaica, let alone the wider art world. In fact the premise of the exhibition was the opposite, to mount the work of interesting artists with connections to Western Jamaica for the benefit of audiences in that region–not to burnish the artists’ already healthy reputations.
In the screed under discussion Poupeye’s tone is lofty as she dwells on the shortcomings of the institution she has spent more than 30 years at, in one capacity or another. The subject of the former ED’s admonitions and cautionary statements is Susanne Fredricks, whose family owns HiQo Gallery, and who has recently set up an online platform called Suzie Wong Presents (SWP), designed to showcase and promote the work of Jamaican artists at international art fairs and other similar fora. Like myself Fredricks has been on the Board of the National Gallery since 2016, and has privately represented the same artists during Poupeye’s tenure as ED, although no alarm was raised at the time about this, even though the same artists were featured in National Gallery shows during that period.
The ambit and scope of what Fredricks is attempting to do with SWP is commendable, a much needed innovation that ought to be applauded rather than sneered at and disparaged as the former ED has done. Despite Poupeye’s facade of civility and feigned moral superiority her repeated attempts to try her case on social media a few days before the launching of SWP in London at 1-54, the relatively new African Art Fair held in conjunction with Frieze Art Fair, raise concerns about her motives. While Poupeye is careful to appear objective and impartial in her statements she cunningly allows her gullible followers to do the heavy lifting, generating snarky, derisive comments that verge on the libelous, and do little to show Jamaican art in a good light, as seen in the Facebook exchange below:
Veerle Poupeye Natalie D. A. Bennett Let me first say that I am delighted that these artists are getting this exposure opportunity. The required reading appears to make reference to Stuart Hall, who is referenced in the press material. Here is the other information I have: 198 is a charitable, non-profit gallery and organization in Brixton and the special projects at 1-54, to which they were invited to contribute, are not-for-profit, although the rest of the fair of course is. Suzie Wong Presents is, to my understanding, an online commercial gallery. Several works by both artists are being offered for sale through that gallery’s Artsy page. Four works by these artists that are presented as for sale on that page are presently on view in the I Shall Return Again exhibition at National Gallery West exhibition in Montego Bay. Susanne Fredricks, who operates Suzie Wong Presents, and who curated Required Reading as a collaboration with 198, is also a member of the National Gallery of Jamaica Board and the Chair of its exhibition committee.I am not familiar with the content of the display at 1-54.
Natalie D. A. Bennett what is that mi jus read…? the sed person who runs the commercial gallery that is charged with selling the works also sits on the public board of NGJ and used their position of access to put those works in a public exhibition suh more people can see it and thus buy it so dem can personally reap the benefits? so the public exhibition, while it’s bringing important and necessary visibility to the artists themselves, is actually enriching the person who put it on display in the public gallery? Suh ef it sell ah di individual an dem commercial gallery and not the public institution a get di money and then dish out fi dem portion to the artists? Suh fi dem commercial gallery nevva good enough an naa draw enough attention?
None of the above is true but Bennett has correctly decoded what was implicit in Poupeye’s statements. Alarmed by these insinuations Lucy Davies, director of 198, the non-profit, London-based gallery mentioned by VP responded to the same post pointing out there was little basis for the claims being made of conflict of interest. She also corrected Poupeye’s misconceptions about what constitutes a non-profit in the British context:
Lucy Davies It is most unfortunate that you have chosen to try and undermine our involvement in 1-54 with your posts suggesting that our partner Suzie Wong Presents is gaining financially from their participation . We in London have worked hard to achieve this opportunity for Jamaican artists and invited SWP to participate. You might be surprised to learn than no actual artworks are on display. Both partners invested considerable funds in creating a bespoke multi media installation (which has been really well received btw) without external sponsorship.
Even if works had been sold it is unlikely that any commission due to partners would have covered the costs incurred in providing this opportunity to two great artists. Also non profit does not mean you cannot sell works. We do this at 198 quite often. It simply means that any funds raised are reinvested in further work to support artistic endeavours.
You are welcome to post this comment on the Caribbean Artist network page as 198 would like there to be complete clarity on this. Also I’d like to suggest that any grievances you might have with SWP be approached via appropriate channels as calling people out on social media is not exactly a professional look.
In the back and forth that ensued on Facebook (see screenshots below) the former ED does what she does all too often; she climbs on her moral high horse and rides it for all its worth, accusing Davies of personal hostility and animosity although no one reading Davies’ calm and measured comments would come to the same conclusion. In fact a glance at her comments in the screenshots pasted below show that Davies is the one accusing VP of personal motives in the timing and nature of her attack on SWP but in a classic instance of gaslighting VP throws the accusations back at her with absolutely no evidence offered!
“The comments by you I have read since then ARE personally hostile and it is clear that you bear animosity towards me for reasons only you can clarify. I believe that it is your professional conduct that is inappropriate here and I will write the governing body of the organization you represent with a complaint about same. Enough is enough!”
It has become commonplace for any criticism of the ex-ED to be routinely dismissed as “highly inappropriate” or “distasteful” and the critique characterized as a personal attack. Quite often in her lengthy jeremiads Poupeye moralizes on Jamaican society beyond the art world. Her statements are oracular, and “delivered like Holy Writ, without sourcing or self-reflection or doubt”, a quote from Mark Judge’s article, “Are You Guilty of ‘Virtue-Signaling?’” in which he discusses the phenomenon of less than virtuous individuals going out of their way to signal their superiority and integrity by frequent expressions of moral outrage. According to Judge “Virtue signaling is the popular modern habit of indicating that one has virtue merely by expressing disgust or favor for certain political ideas, cultural happenings, or even the weather.”
It’s something one cannot help but notice in Veerle Poupeye’s Facebook utterances: her vigorous, indeed, aggressive virtue signaling. The following are examples of what I’m talking about.
If you sell works of art, in a space or online, you operate a commercial gallery, and you are a dealer; no matter how many times you call your operation a “platform.” or yourself a “curator”. Nothing wrong with selling art, dealers and commercial galleries are very important and the good ones fulfill many other roles, but at least be clear, and honest, about the fundamental nature and purpose of your operation and do not try to masquerade as a non-profit operation.
This statement indirectly references SWP, the fledgling art platform that for reasons best known to herself, VP seems determined to scuttle. Yet SWP has never masqueraded as a non-profit operation as suggested in the above Facebook post, and further it is an incorrect assumption on Poupeye’s part that non-profits can’t sell work, so what is all the alarmist talk and concern about? Let’s throw mud, some of it is bound to stick, seems to be the rationale behind it. In the following Facebook update, Poupeye tries a different tack, laying on her moralism with a trowel and introducing the victim card:
Why do some people attack the messenger in very personal and disparaging way when an issue they do not want to hear or acknowledge goes into the open, especially when they are directly or indirectly compromised in the matter. Should we just ignore things that are plainly wrong out of fear for those reprisals? What message are we giving to people who speak up for what they believe in, that they will not be supported and should keep quiet? That it is “all good” even when what is happening is clearly wrong, merely because it benefits them? And why is this happening in an era which is full of rhetoric about “speak truth to power” and “me too”. Very, very disappointing, especially when it comes from someone who should know better, but chooses to act otherwise out of self-interest. Whatever happened to integrity and principle? Is it just optional when it is convenient?
Earn your position through hard work, carried out with integrity, and through ability and achievement, and you’ll have my respect, no matter who you are or how I otherwise feel about you and what you represent. Earn it through opportunistic, talentless hustling (or with the hustle being your only real talent), and through dishonesty, disregard for others, and taking credit for other people’s work and vision, and I can only offer total contempt, no matter how far you get.
What is all this frantic virtue signaling about? James Bartholomew, the man who invented the term, gives us a clue:
“It’s noticeable how often virtue signalling consists of saying you hate things. It is camouflage. The emphasis on hate distracts from the fact you are really saying how good you are. If you were frank and said, ‘I care about the environment more than most people do’ or ‘I care about the poor more than others’, your vanity and self-aggrandizement would be obvious. . . . Anger and outrage disguise your boastfulness.”
In general Veerle Poupeye poses as a moral exemplar and has set herself up as the ‘conscience’ and gatekeeper of Jamaican art. But how reliable is she as an objective commentator on Jamaican art or anything else?
In the post under discussion Poupeye mischievously uses a bee metaphor to introduce her latest bee(f). The reference is to an essay by Kei Miller in the inaugural issue of PREE, a new online platform of writing on, from and of the Caribbean, that I am associated with. Titled The White Women and the Language of Bees, the essay prompted Poupeye to pen an open letter to Miller on her blog. Her blog has a ‘commentary facility’ she says to Lucy Davies. However Kei’s response to her open letter remains unpublished, for undisclosed reasons. Did it contradict Poupeye’s assertions perhaps? Was it an inconvenient counter to her narrative? Whatever the reason, to voice a strong critique of a writer, then decline to publish his response, is an act of bad faith and does not demonstrate a commitment to the fostering of critical discussion in the region, a claim often made by Poupeye.
Miller’s essay provoked quite a reaction in certain quarters, which caused us to temporarily take it down until the firestorm, in which Poupeye was a vociferous participant, subsided. When the essay was subsequently restored to the PREE website Poupeye immediately added a note to her post stating authoritatively that Kei’s essay had been “replaced by a substantially revised version.” This is patently untrue and I challenge Poupeye to provide evidence of these substantial revisions (WordPress keeps scrupulous track of edits so this is easy to do). I am the one who uploaded the new version and I struggled to identify the minor changes Kei had made to his essay long before PREE came out. We had published an earlier version and he asked us to put up the most recent version which he had neglected to give us at the time of publication. There were no changes made to the parts that caused the fuss, and the objecting parties continued to campaign against it, so it’s unclear why Poupeye felt the gratuitous lie was necessary. But lie she did, making one wonder how many of her sweeping truth claims are fabricated and how many or how few are accurate and true.
Finally, in her post “Too Close for Comfort” Poupeye quotes from a 2009 essay of mine in which I drew attention to the conflict of interest in one person, then curator David Boxer, simultaneously being Chief Curator, a practicing artist whose work was shown in almost every show the NGJ curated, as well as one of the biggest private collectors in the country. Poupeye rightly observed that “Any attempt to critique these issues was construed as a dismissal of the otherwise indeed valuable and pioneering work done by the NGJ and Boxer” but neglects to mention that she was very much part and parcel of this construal. I had been trying to draw attention to this problem long before 2009, but never received support from Veerle Poupeye who was then very much Dr. Boxer’s right hand woman, having been his protégé since the 80s. Mine was a voice in the wilderness, except for Roberta Stoddart, who in the 90s demanded a meeting with the then Board to insist that something be done about this conflict of interest.
Was Poupeye unaware then of the ICOM Code of Ethics she so frequently waves in our faces nowadays? Had she not found her moral compass yet? There is no published work I’m aware of in which Poupeye raised the alarm about the state of affairs at the National Gallery in the days when she was part of the inner circle. Her 2011 thesis Between Nation and Market certainly doesn’t mention the conflict of interest although David Boxer figures prominently in it. Incidentally my critiques of the incestuous Jamaican art world Poupeye is very much a product of, were disruptive in the true sense of the word. I take it she’s in agreement with my views now though there was never any indication of it back in the day when she could have done something about it.
One notes with amusement the former ED positioning herself as the lone disruptive voice today and generally posturing as a daring art crusader who will ‘tell it like it is’ whether Jamaicans like it or not. “I will continue throwing stones in the pond and to act as a “disruptor,” to use fashionable management speak, for as long as I can and as long as I am convinced that it is important to do so. I believe that it is needed for the health of the Caribbean art ecology.” Good! Better late than never, welcome to the stone-throwing club! But beware: if you live in a glass house don’t throw stones.
My writings about the insular curatoriat of the NGJ, of the fraught and problematic concept of the ‘intuitives’, of the importance of contemporary art, preceded Poupeye’s belated critiques by more than a decade, something rarely acknowledged today. What is curious is that Poupeye is suggesting that the non-issue of Susanne Fredricks’ online platform Suzie Wong Presents is equivalent to the conflict of interest involving Boxer’s triple role in his time. This is a false equivalence Madame Poupeye and you would be hard put to prove otherwise. If you actually believe this then it’s a clear sign that you’re dangerously out of touch with reality.
Let me close by relating an anecdote. A few years ago my friend Elsie was returning to Jamaica for the first time after retiring as Executive Director of an institution she had helmed here for about 15 years. Are you looking forward to visiting your old haunt and catching up with your former employees I asked? Elsie looked at me in horror, “Oh no! I would never do that,” she said, shaking her head vigorously. “It’s considered infra dig to appear at a company you used to head, I might be accused of interfering. As former head, best international practice dictates that I maintain a distance, allowing the new head to find his feet and develop relationships with the staff, without my casting a shadow over them. So no, I don’t intend to go anywhere near my former office.”
Poupeye, who is fond of reminding us of international best practice in relation to art and aesthetics should take a leaf out of Elsie’s book and stop haunting the National Gallery. It’s not international best practice for former executive directors to appear at every event and exhibition mounted by their former institution, haranguing staff and dominating q and a sessions. Stop policing your former employees, Board and institution unless you’re vying for a Provincial Best Practice medal. Your former position as head of the NGJ renders you unsuitable to provide meaningful critique on a subject that is much too close for comfort to your own personal history. Now there’s a true conflict of interest we can and ought to discuss.
It would be advisable also for Poupeye to pay attention to the reception of her posts. When you post an article on social media four times and still get the cold shoulder while a post about the possibility of starting an online art journal receives an enthusiastic response, your social media ‘friends’ are trying to tell you something. Drop the accusatory, finger-pointing mode and embrace the ‘building new platforms’ mode, something as I said you are uniquely well-placed to do. Of course to accomplish this you might want to park the high horse, rest the Voice from Above and ditch the Veerle Knows Best approach to art and life. It doesn’t sit well in this era of decolonial aesthetics. If possible bring back the Veerle Poupeye who wrote Between Nation and Market: Art and Society in 20th Century Jamaica, a magisterial study that I highly recommend to anyone interested in Caribbean art or just art, period.
Photo: Roxanne Silent
Photo: Roxanne Silent
Huge crowd at opening of Beyond Fashion. Photo: Roxanne Silent
If there was ever any doubt that the NGJ is undergoing a resurgence since Poupeye’s departure it was manifest at the opening of ‘Beyond Fashion’, the exhibition that has put her former protégé O’Neil Lawrence on the map. A record-breaking crowd of young folk descended on the Gallery on September 30, 2018, showing that there is indeed life and art after Veerle Poupeye. It’s a tough truth to swallow but take consolation in the fact that your protégé has done you proud. You deserve some of the acclaim for his success just as you deserve some of the blame for the many faults you continue to find with the Gallery, for you were in charge of this institution for at least 10 years, and associated with it for 30.
PS: As I get ready to post this Veerle Poupeye has just posted a review of Beyond Fashion in which she’s refreshingly self-reflexive about being too close for comfort to the subject at hand. She goes on nevertheless to level critiques against the curation of the show, the text panels, their placement, their content, “the thematic considerations that shape Beyond Fashion, and the underlying scholarship and critical engagement,” proving her point that she’s too close to the subject matter she’s discussing. We predict that Veerle Poupeye will continue to review every show presented at the NGJ and find them all wanting, in one respect or another.
Just to add that the unprecedented crowd at the opening of Beyond Fashion cannot simply be attributed to the Kingston Art and Architecture Walk (which had about 100 people) or the performance group Quilt both of which have happened there before without attracting such a large crowd. A lot of credit must go to the curator, O’Neil Lawrence and his team, the curator who according to Veerle Poupeye, can’t get anything right anymore. Yet this is the same curator Poupeye relentlessly tried to have appointed as Chief Curator some months ago, angrily vilifying those who suggested he might not be ready. Did you get it wrong then Veerle, or is your current judgment off? You were wrong then, or wrong now, proving that your judgement is not infallible. Time to stand down?