I spoke with my friend, who many of you may know as @SiggonKristov from Twitter, about his involvement in politics in Jamaica, my home country. Jamaica has a somewhat unique political climate, as it is compounded with conservative domestic politics meshing and moving with the outside influence of Western tourism, as well as Western imperialism. I decided to talk to him about these things, including his political party LANDS that he helped found.
First, thank you for taking the time to do this short but important interview (and taking a break from dragging me online to answer some questions).
I know you were recently in Venezuela on an official delegation from Jamaica. I'm sure that was an incredible moment for you both politically and personally. Can you tell me about it a bit?
It was the result of our attendance to the Assembly of Caribbean Peoples in 2017. That Assembly consisted of political parties, labour unions, and social movements. After returning from that assembly where we built relations with other organisations, we were invited to the International People’s Assembly that should have been held in early 2018. It was postponed to 2019 because of the political situation. We decided that we would still attend; soon after, more attacks on the Bolivarian Revolution posed a threat to the assembly. The actual “International People’s Assembly” was postponed again, and what went on in Caracas was an assembly in solidarity with the Bolivarian Revolution, but organised by the Secretariat of the International People’s Assembly and consisting of about one third of the persons who were to attend the original assembly. It included less of us because they had to downsize, not because of any lack of interest. Some aspects were unavoidably rushed.
What has been your main takeaway from traveling in an official capacity to both Cuba and Venezuela?
I’ve personally been critical of the way some persons go about attending these conferences; there is a sort of over-reliance, especially among older folks, on the holding of in-person conferences to make decisions on certain issues. It’s not a matter of liking to travel or wanting to go on vacation, because we are on very tight schedules with meetings and activities all day, with the day usually starting at 7am and ending at 11pm, so we’re working while we’re there. I just think that older Comrades don’t realise that it is easier for them to travel; also, they are not that great with technology, so I understand why there is an over-reliance on in-person meetings, but some younger Comrades and I want to strengthen our communication networks so that we can communicate substantively outside of these in-person meetings. There is a group of Comrades I caucus with, and it took them 3 meetings from October 2017 to February 2019 to finalise details that I think could have been done in less time.
That aside, I was grateful for the experience in both these countries. I loved being in an environment that didn’t feel overpoliced, where I didn’t have to see multiple assault rifles everyday, even when I went into ‘ghetto’ areas. I loved meeting other comrades from the Third World who have the same outlook as me on many topics, the type of stuff I can’t get across to Leftists in the US or the UK.
Before we get into Jamaica and Jamaican politics, I fear unfortunately many readers of this interview likely don't understand the political economy and perspective of Jamaican politics, even when their governments are responsible for much at play in Jamaica. What are a few initial common misconceptions Westerners (an non-Jamaicans in general) have about politics in Jamaica? What are some of the biggest struggles taking place on a grassroots level on the island today?
I have no idea what misconceptions may exist about Jamaican politics. Sadly, there aren’t really any nationwide grassroots struggles, as we have a lack of social movements. Instead of social movements, we have NGOs dominating political advocacy. Some still push somewhat progressive agendas, like environmental justice and LGBT rights. More grassroots struggles are less visible, and usually just persons doing work in their communities like organising classes on vocational skills or projects to fix roads, rather than any long-term political goal. Our main struggles are along the lines of workers’ rights and human rights; there are still workers’ disputes with employers in the private sector, and recent IMF requirements have slapped workers in the public sector. On the human rights scene, we deal with overpolicing and some would even say a gradual militarisation of the state. It’s difficult to oppose because we have a ridiculously high rate of violent crime, a lot of murder taking place, not just things like petty theft. Then there’s also gender; we are still struggling to secure reproductive rights, i.e. the right to access safe abortions. Women also face sexual harassment daily; it’s a terrible problem in Jamaica, and the government needs to speed up the passing of the Sexual Harassment Bill. Another thing we could talk about are land rights; a lot of people don’t own the land they live on, and build informal settlements. Some of these places don’t get adequate public services, and the ‘owners’ of the properties can displace them in a whim. We want to secure land rights for people who need land to live, as well as some small farmers who need to own the land they use.
You actually helped form a political party in Jamaica, the Left Alliance for National Democracy and Socialism, or LANDS as commonly referred. What led to the formation of this party?
Well LANDS is actually the organisation that got invited to the Assembly, so my attendance to those events were all representing LANDS.
We formed LANDS because we felt like there was the lack of a Left organisation in Jamaica. Persons in our mainstream Socialist party, the PNP, openly renounced Socialism and spoke of abandoning it. They alienated hardened Socialists when they enthusiastically embraced the IMF, rather than just fulfilling their deals out of necessity.
What has been the general reaction to the emergence of LANDS in Jamaican politics, both from other established parties, politicians, and locals? And what are a few initiatives you hope to begin or continue?
We have a very mixed reaction from the PNP; some of its members are wary of us, and others are quite supportive of us. Some are supportive of us as individuals but wish we would form an affiliate organisation within the PNP. We have good relations with the PNPYO, the youth arm of the PNP. The current president and the former president are both very progressive women who have shown willingness to work with us. Some young persons respect us but think that we’re naive to be supporting Socialism; we have avoided forming a relationship with the PNP Patrios, their ‘young professional’ arm for this reason.
Surprisingly, we haven’t gotten a negative reaction from the JLP. We can’t reconcile our different foreign policy stances, but they don’t seem to have a problem with us as an organisation, and I speak to JLP supporters who are anti-Israel and anti-USA. We are cordial with Young Jamaica, the JLP’s youth arm, but we haven’t established official relations with them or the G2K (their ‘young professional arm’) yet.
We want to form some sort of local forum, similar to the international assemblies we attend, that bring these groups together. There we will also see how labour unions and other groups react to us. We want to start some community assemblies and a network of community projects that promote self-reliance, and I think we’ll have more ideas for that now that I’ve visited a successful project in Venezuela. We’d hope to have delegates from these communities, and from other communities that may not be in our network, to be in the assembly.
We haven’t really gotten any negative reactions from anyone, though we have kept ourselves below the radar somewhat. Most persons who know about us are supportive - in a general sense but not necessarily a sense of being willing to vote for us if we ran tomorrow - with everyone else being at least curious.
Jamaica tends to be a conservative political sphere, at least within the scope of the Caribbean, and LANDS tends to be, well, quite the opposite both socially and politically. How do you all navigate such an impasse, or is it an afterthought?
I saw someone else recently pointing out that the right-wing is just more organised. Conservative churches, for example, are louder and more efficient at disseminating their messages, but they don’t speak for a majority of Jamaicans.
Many older Jamaicans tend to be very left-wing on economic issues, and younger Jamaicans are becoming increasingly progressive on social issues like secularism LGBT rights.
The personalities in the main political parties are a mixed bag, and even the progressive ones are slow to work on legislation or policy on important issues. Their priority has been passing IMF tests, and the rigid austerity programmes have generated discontent, so our anti-IMF stances aren’t weird or unpopular to Jamaicans.
Most people who are aligned with us are just demotivated. Our priority has more been to organise more people, in terms of getting commitment, not so much worry about convincing people to agree with us. On our general ideology and economic stances, we get support and intrigue, sometimes constructive critique, but rarely opposition. The only time I remember us getting opposition was from some PNP Patriots, in a meeting that we had with them and the PNPYO where we swung the PNPYO to actually adopt our position on land. On social issues, we haven’t really had issues with getting younger people to be on the same page, but we are bound to run into difficulties with getting some older folks to support certain progressive policies.
With such focus on the last few decades on places in the Caribbean like Haiti and Cuba, it often feels like the political struggles of islands such as Jamaica can get ignored by the international left. Do you agree? How do you see Jamaica's political struggle in the larger context of the global working class movements?
I would say the same of Cuba and Haiti that I say of Jamaica, despite Cuba getting more attention and Jamaica getting a bit less; those who claim to be in solidarity with us just do it symbolically, and don’t seem to care about the specifics of our struggles. I’ve seen a British Leftist respond to a reactionary claim that Cuba has no elections or democracy, but they responded while accepting the claim, rather than taking the time to learn more about Cuba and give a better and more honest response; they were supposedly defending Cuba, but really misrepresenting it.
Someone once told me that I was being divisive when critiquing American Leftists, and the topic of solidarity came up, and I asked if they were in solidarity with the struggle in Jamaica; they claimed to be in solidarity but couldn’t tell me one thing we were facing in Jamaica. Jamaica’s main problems, for which we would want international solidarity, are not unique problems. Our entitlement to reparations is connected to a broader call for this from other former colonies and slave societies, our struggle with the IMF is definitely not unique to us, the way free trade affects us negatively is not unique to us. We’re definitely not unique in our struggle with general core/periphery dynamics like caring more about white tourists than our own people because we need an inflow of money, needing to ‘attract investors’ by relaxing labour and environmental regulations, etc.
People speak of these things in an academic sense and seem to care, to score points in public spaces, but don’t care about the specifics and are uninterested in any solutions. It feels like solidarity is symbolic but not real. Some persons seem to value my voice because I’m Jamaican, like being from the Global South is an identity, and will say they’re in solidarity but don’t even know what they’re in solidarity with or against. The Left has become obsessed with buzzwords and we have to start talking more about specifics. I don’t even see solidarity with Haiti; I see pity. My Haitian Comrades were also more interested in discussing the specifics of solutions to their problems, including combating free trade by re-establishing tariffs to protect their local farmers. I want more conversation about the specifics of the dynamics of Capitalism and imperialism.
I know one aspect of imperialism and capitalism in Jamaica, or maybe more specifically the ongoing British colonial hand on the island, which includes building prisons in Jamaica’s countryside and laughing at the very idea of reparations and keeping Jamaica locked into the Commonwealth. We tend to get caught up in the generalities of imperialism and fiery sloganeering but, as you mentioned in your last answer, miss these specifics and dynamics. It seems at times that neo-colonialism, as Kwame Nkrumah defined as actually the highest stage of imperialism, may be the most apt description for Jamaica and the Caribbean?
Well there are things lacking from the relationship between Jamaica and the UK that were present in Kwame Nkrumah’s work on Neo-Colonialism. They want us to build more prison space so that they can deport Jamaicans who are serving sentences in the UK, but they aren’t exporting their everyday problems to us and their government is too neoliberal to invest in the welfare of British people sufficiently. We are owed reparations, but we don’t have much wealth otherwise that the UK could be said to be looting or any resources that they are exploiting. We are in the Commonwealth, but that’s almost insignificant in domestic politics, and it doesn’t give the British government any real power over us.
The UK is only a secondary power, and their domination of us is in the past, leaving relics and unsettled debts (like reparations). Our most serious problem with the UK, apart from their treatment of the Windrush Generation and their families, would be poaching our skilled workers and causing brain drain, but more of our people go to the US if I’m not mistaken.
If we were to remove the UK from focus here, we could better apply Nkrumah’s work to describe that. The current governments in the US, UK, and France are uninterested in providing adequate social services, but the mainstream ‘progressive’ politicians in these countries are willing to improve social conditions there while exporting their problems to us. We’re seeing this mostly among progressive politicians in the US who support increases in the wage gap and some ‘Green New Deal’ that will require more exploitation of our resources, and we’ll watch this happen and these countries get their universal healthcare and free tuition while we are told that we don’t have enough money to give pay increases to our nurses and teachers.
Are there ways for people outside of Jamaica, maybe in the U.K., Latin America, the U.S., or elsewhere, to get involved with LANDS?
Definitely. LANDS is comprised of units, what other organisations would call chapters or branches. We have 6 units, and 2 of them are based overseas. We have Jamaican diaspora, and Jamaicans studying abroad, so we created these units to accommodate them; one is based in the US for Comrades in the US and Canada, and one is based in the UK for Comrades in Western Europe. They meet online, but are as integrated into the organisation as the other units. Non-Jamaicans are allowed to join the units as observers, and to participate in our meetings. We welcome them because it’s a way that they can stay in tune with Jamaica’s struggles. For other persons from the Third World who live in North America or Western Europe, it’s a political space outside of the reactionary and xenophobic crap they may have to deal with otherwise. Americans and Europeans join, can get organising experience if they volunteer to help with some tasks, and can be bridges between LANDS and other organisations.
When people discuss targets of imperialism, they tend to romanticize a definition of imperialist victims which only extends to those facing direct military warfare, places like Syria, Iran, or even Venezuela. But small island countries like Jamaica are being ravaged by imperialist exploitation nonetheless and often undiscussed, right?
Yes, there is a reduction of imperialism to the more overt acts, and less concern with the everyday economic exploitation. They’ll talk about imperialism vaguely, but never really discuss the specifics of economic exploitation or what would need to change to end oppressive relationships.
We’ve discussed this briefly before, but I want to bring this idea back up. Jamaica is one of those countries that’s situated difficulty in the “Three Worlds” ascription of the world’s countries, because it is not imperialist nor could it be located in the First World, but many would simultaneously argue it doesn’t compromise the Third World either. Personally, I think such distinctions become trivial for a country whose minimum wage is, like, 800% less than that of France’s of the U.S., whose local agriculture industry and trade have been destroyed by the IMF and exploitative Western land-grabs and trade deals. Nonetheless, I want to get your take again on this question of “locating” Jamaica in a global Three Worlds system, and beyond that simply locating Jamaica in the world political economy.
The Three Worlds Theory used by Mao and Kaunda was never about development; it was about global power which was more on the politics side but had to account for economics. Western European countries, despite being developed, were never considered to be First World in that model. They, to a lesser extent than us, are still vulnerable to international economic shocks.
Jamaica can have a good domestic economy under what neoliberals would see as ideal economic conditions internationally, but we have no power in the international scene and are therefore vulnerable to shocks. Our low wages are a part of a larger problem of lack of purchasing power. Cuba still has a high HDI, and Cuba and Venezuela are far more developed than Jamaica, but they still consider themselves to be Third World. The First World consists of whatever countries have global influence and power, the Second World consists of the highly-developed former colonisers including Japan, and the Third World consists of the countries in the periphery - the political and economic periphery - where Jamaica and Cuba definitely are.
Lastly, and you know I have to ask this question because I’m a Rodneyite, I’m curious about the legacy of Walter Rodney in Jamaica. Though he wasn’t proper Jamaican, he’s a testament to a true Pan-African identity, having influenced politics and popular protest in Jamaica, with his deportation (refused entry) sparking the second largest riots in Jamaican history. The last time I was in Jamaica I mentioned his name in a conversation, and then everyone in the room began discussing their love for ‘Groundings’. Is this sentiment still the same?
Among certain people, yes. He is still on the tips of the tongues of the older left-wing lecturers at UWI, Black Nationalist and Pan-Africanist circles, and he’s still associated with August Town. But these are specific spaces and circles, large but still not something where you’d say that every Jamaican knows who he is or why he’s significant. The older left-wing lecturers want to continue his legacy, to do more grassroots engagement, to take back Leftism from the campus, and there is a real need for that.