Country Listing

Caribbean Islands Table of Contents

Caribbean Islands

Political Violence

Although the political system has enjoyed a tradition of stability, a darker side of politics--endemic violence--intruded increasingly on public consciousness after the mid-1970s. Violence has characterized Jamaican politics since the slavery era and has surfaced at times of protest or repression. Almost every general or municipal election since independence has been preceded and followed by gang warfare, street outbreaks, and occasional assassinations.

The first use of guns in Jamaican politics reportedly took place in Seaga's West Kingston constituency in the months before the 1967 election between Seaga and PNP politician Dudley Thompson. The political tension heightened after Walter Rodney, a Guyanese university professor and Black Power movement advocate (see Glossary), was banned from Jamaica in October 1968. The government of Prime Minister Shearer suppressed the riots that ensued.

The level of political violence escalated dramatically in the 1976 election campaign, in which 162 persons were killed. The political disorder and rising crime caused the Manley government to declare a state of emergency that remained in effect until June 1977. Some observers blamed the JLP for the sharply increased political violence in the late 1970s, but others attributed it to PNP militants linked to Cuba. More likely, extremist elements of the three parties--PNP, JLP, and WPJ--all bore some responsibility for the increase. These parties are all known to have employed and armed thugs and criminals at election time. In 1979-80 Estrada, Cubia's Ambassador to Jamaica, aided an extreme left PNP faction in smuggling an estimated 600 M-16 assault rifles into Jamaica from Cuba. Some of these automatic weapons originated from former United States stockpiles in Vietnam; others may have been obtained from black-market sources by JLP extremists. Their use during the ninemonth 1980 election campaign escalated the level of violence in Jamaican politics. Rampant electoral violence during that period left 745 persons dead, including one member of Parliament.

In contrast with 1980, the 1983 and 1986 elections were generally peaceful. Whereas political and gang feuds had accounted for 19 percent of all murders in 1984, this percentage declined to 12.2 in 1986. At the inauguration of the new Parliament in January 1984, however, Manley led about 7,000 PNP supporters in demonstrations against Seaga's snap elections, resulting in 4 persons killed and 160 arrested. A municipal election code of conduct between the JLP and PNP minimized violence in the local elections of July 29, 1986. Nevertheless, there were some reports of beatings of electoral clerks, the seizure of polling stations by armed men, harassment of voters, and a mob killing.

By raising popular expectations and not fulfilling them, Jamaica's political parties and governmental leaders were partly responsible for the alienation and protest that surfaced in violence. Until Manley's tenure at Jamaica House in the 1970s, each party in power had followed cautious policies designed to maintain the status quo, so as not to lose domestic or foreign sources of funds. In addition, on several occasions governments formed by each party attempted to use repression to control violence, thereby setting up a chain reaction. The legal system was not effective in dealing with politically motivated violence because suspects, victims, and witnesses remained silent and because police were reluctant to get involved in political disputes. In the interests of security, governments resorted to armed police, martial law, or emergency powers, practices which sometimes resulted in violent protests.

The nation's political violence derives from the socioeconomic structure of Jamaican politics, that is, social stratification along racial and economic class lines. Increasing political, social, and economic polarization in Jamaica has contributed to both political and criminal violence. According to Stone, it is rooted in what he has called bullyism, or a propensity to resort to violence, that is deeply ingrained in Jamaican culture. For example, since 1960s armed gangs have "ruled" some ghetto areas of Kingston, using violence and intimidation against anyone suspected of sympathizing with a rival party. These and other gangs, consisting of hardened criminals and numbering up to 3,000 members, have been blamed by observers for much of the street and electoral violence in Kingston since the late 1960s. Some groups believed or were led to believe that their sectional interests, such as race identity, would not be served by either of the two political parties and that violent expression of demands was an alternate form of participation in the national political process. Violence also erupted occasionally as a result of trade union rivalries, which were underscored by the affiliation of the major unions with political parties. In a speech given at the PNP annual conference on September 20, 1987, Manley made an emotional call for an end to "political tribalism" in Jamaica.

No known armed terrorist or guerrilla group was active in Jamaica in the first half of 1987, but there had been occasional subversive incidents on the island in the 1980s and several armed groups had been linked to such activities. The Seaga government tied several subversive and criminal activities in Jamaica to Cuban-trained extremists. In a speech to Parliament in 1984, for example, Spaulding, then minister of national security and justice, blamed the violence against policemen on the Hot Steppers Gang. The minister described gang members as "specially trained and highly motivated persons who constitute a special threat to Jamaica's security," and he linked the group to drug trafficking and Cuba, which, he alleged, provided guerrilla training for gang members. Spaulding also charged that the gang had political links with people in the top echelons of the WPJ, as well as with PNP activists. Although security forces dispersed the gang from its camps in the Wareika Hills in 1984, in 1985-87 there were several armed attacks by unidentified groups against police stations, from which weapons were stolen. The Seaga government blamed the WPJ for several bank robberies.\

As of 1987, Jamaica had not been subjected to any significant acts of international terrorism. Nevertheless, the country has expressed concern about the potential threat of terrorism and has subscribed to the principal international antiterrorism conventions. In a UN speech in October 1986, Foreign Minister Shearer called for a strengthened international law against hostage-taking, as well as consideration of a UN convention on the suppression of international terrorism. The Suppression of Crime Act empowers the government to combat terrorism. At the request of the Seaga government, the House of Representatives has extended this Act at six-month intervals.

Data as of November 1987

Country Listing

Caribbean Islands Table of Contents