'Rejuvenated' politician back in fray in Jamaica
BY YVES COLON
Former Jamaican Prime Minister Edward Seaga, at age 70 and out of the limelight for the past decade, is ready to make a comeback.
That's why he was in Miami recently, as well as Toronto and New
York City, to meet Jamaicans in the diaspora, and, most importantly, to
establish contacts with
potential investors in anticipation of his Jamaica Labor Party winning in the next elections.
``We want to do preliminary work with those whose interest we could accommodate in the future,'' Seaga said.
The next elections are not constitutionally due until December
2002. But he likes Labor's chances, though Prime Minister P.J. Patterson's
People's National Party will
determine the timetable for those elections.
``Something is going to happen this year,'' Seaga predicted, explaining
that Jamaicans can pressure the government in calling for early elections.
``No wise government
stands in the way of a people when they're ready for an election.''
Recent polls show that the PNP's popularity has declined drastically,
while Labor's has increased. A recent Gleaner newspaper poll showed Seaga's
JLP ahead of the
PNP by 13 percentage points. This month, the Labor Party scored an important victory when a Seaga relative won a close race for a seat in parliament over a People's
National rival. If elections were held today, Seaga said, the Jamaica Labor Party could win up to 45 of the 60 seats in parliament.
THE ROUGH '80S
All this promises a period of intense political turmoil, although
maybe not as rough as it was in the 1980s when supporters of the PNP and
the JLP squared off in Kingston
The Labor Party has always been identified with Seaga, who as
prime minister for nine years in the 1980s represented the anti-socialist,
fiscally conservative position. His
foe then was former Prime Minister Michael Manley, who Seaga said was ``flirting with alien ideologies'' because of his interest in Cuba.
``We stopped it,'' Seaga said.
Much has changed since 1989, after Labor lost its majority in
parliament and Seaga stepped down. He went back to business, running a
hotel on the north coast of the
island, and continued to serve in parliament, as he has done for the past 40 years.
In 1996, he divorced his wife of 30 years, a former Miss Jamaica, and remarried the following year.
``I took a break, to reexamine issues, develop a new focus,'' he said. ``I was reacquainting myself with family life. Politics takes a great toll on family life.''
Don't expect to find a new Edward Seaga, warns Carla Vendryes, the new Mrs. Seaga, who is 30 years younger than her husband.
``He may be mellower, but he's just as intense,'' said Vendryes, who was working to help poor Jamaicans set up their own small businesses when she met Seaga.
Said Seaga: ``You could say I'm rejuvenated,'' a rare smile breaking across his face.
The party is still highly centralized, with Seaga its standard
bearer, and well organized, though it became fragmented in the 1990s after
a string of defeats at the polls.
Bruce Golding, former chairman of the Jamaica Labor Party, broke away and formed the National Democratic Movement.
Seaga said he intends to rally Jamaicans to his side by asking them whether they are better off now than they were a decade ago. He expects the answer to be ``no.''
Over the past decade, Jamaica's economy has been stagnant. More
than 40 banks failed in the past decade. Unemployment hovers around 15
percent, a source of
discontent, especially among youths.
Jamaica's immediate future is clouded by huge national debt and the U.S. economic slowdown.
``People are beginning to feel that the government has been in
long enough and has not been able to turn things around in a positive way,''
Seaga said. ``They have not
been able to make the market economy work. They are repentant socialists and reluctant capitalists.''
The son of Lebanese parents, Seaga is steeped in the culture of his country. He has written on Afro-Christian religion and was an early producer of reggae music.
He has an invitation to go to Cuba, a target of his criticism back in the '80s.
``A lot of things are happening there and I would like to see
how it's done,'' he said. ``The experiences they have are extensions of
our own. We learn from each other.''