EDWARD SEAGA’S political career came to be defined by his sharp rivalry with Michael Manley. Such was the intensity of the divide between both Jamaican politicians that even Bob Marley attempted to broker a rapprochement.
Marley’s efforts were in vain, violence on the streets of Kingston continued as two warring ideologies, Seaga’s capitalism and Manley’s socialism, battled for the soul of Jamaica. Manley would say later if he had to relive his existence he would have been softer on his promotion of socialism to Jamaicans.
Seaga, who died last week at the age of 89, was born in May 1930, in Boston, where his parents lived at the time. His father, Philip Seaga, was a businessman of Lebanese descent, his mother, Erna Seaga, of mixed European and African heritage. The family was from Jamaica and returned there when Edward was a baby; he later went back to the US, graduating from Harvard in 1952 with a degree in social sciences.
The Seaga name has come to be associated with Caribbean politics, but his contributions extended beyond that field during his long career. Before politics, he developed, as an anthropologist, a strong passion for music and set up West Indies Recording Ltd. He helped developed ska music, an important indigenous Jamaican sound which incorporated jazz and rhythm and blues and was a precursor to reggae.
But it is as a politician that Seaga will be primarily remembered. He was elected to Parliament and held his seat for 43 years, longer than anyone in Jamaican history.
In 1980 the world was changing dramatically and Seaga defeated Manley whose tenure as prime minister was troubled by economic woes. Seaga quickly set about to reverse the direction set by his predecessor. He steered a conservative course, instituting more privatisation driven by a free market ethos and severing ties with Cuba where Fidel Castro ruled the roost.
In the process, Seaga arguably cemented the approval of Western allies like US president Ronald Reagan and British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Unafraid to swim against the tide of other Caribbean leaders, he took a different approach to the question of the US invasion of Grenada, supporting Reagan.
Seaga’s efforts bore some economic fruit. He stabilised the country’s financial position and promoted culture and national identity. Still, he was not able to eliminate deep-seated inequalities, poverty and unemployment, and voters flipped back to Manley in 1989. Thereafter, Seaga continued to serve in opposition politics, until he became a marginalised figure.
Nonetheless, like figures such as Eric Williams, Forbes Burnham, Errol Barrow, and John Compton, during whose time he served, Seaga attained iconic status as a Caribbean titan who may have been the last from that most colourful era in Caribbean politics.
The length of his career alone is a monument to his service not only to Jamaica but to ideas about the destiny of Caribbean-island states. Seaga played a key role in reviving the integration movement, hosting, in 1982, the first heads of government conference after a seven-year hiatus.
History will assess his contribution, but it is clear he kept the idea of integration alive when it was most in peril.