By the end of WW II, Britain began to realize that its war ravaged economy would not allow it to continue to be a world power and maintain its empire. Britain had already begun to divest itself of its former colonies as early as 1931 when Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa became self-governing dominions. In 1947 India and Pakistan became independent and in the early 1950s Britain began to push the British West Indies to be weaned off of the economic hand-outs that colonies had grown accustomed to. Although Britain wanted to reduce the burden the Caribbean was placing on the British economy, they had no intention of giving up their political influence in the region.
In 1958 Britain devised a West Indies Federation of all their former colonies in the Caribbean. But the Federation was doomed to failure because of the petty jealousies and rivalry among the rulers of the islands, a situation that had been spawned by the “divide-and-rule” strategy by the British throughout the colonial years. Among the vexing issues that led to the break up of the West Indies Federation were the questions of taxation, intra-regional trade, the role and function of the Federal Prime Minister, the siding of the Federal Government against Trinidad in negotiations with the U.S. to give back the WW II naval base to Trinidad, and Jamaica’s proposal to construct an oil refinery in Jamaica to compete with Trinidad’s oil industry.
In 1961 Jamaica, Trinidad, and Barbados, the islands with the three biggest economies, announced their intention to pull out of the West Indies Federation. This was the final “nail in the coffin” for the Federation. Soon after, in August, 1962, Jamaica became independent from Britain and proudly hoisted its flag of black, green and gold as Britain’s Union Jack was lowered. Like the former colonies such as Canada, Australia, and India, Jamaica became a member of the British Commonwealth of Nations, a status that it still maintains today in 2006.
Since gaining independence, Jamaica has exhibited a strong democracy with power being exchanged between the two main political parties, the Peoples National Party (PNP) and the Jamaica Labor Party (JLP). Jamaica became the first country to have written in its constitution a provision guaranteeing a “leader of the opposition” although making no reference to political parties. Thus, it is virtually impossible for a one-party state to be created without over-turning the constitution. The government consists of an Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary branch. The Executive is a cabinet of at least 12 Ministers headed by a Prime Minister, all of whom must be members of the House of Representatives elected every five years by the citizens of the country. The Legislative branch is made up of two chambers; the House of Representatives and the Senate which is appointed by the Governor-General under advice of the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition. Both chambers are represented in the Cabinet. The Judiciary is made up of a Court of Appeal, a Supreme Court and other lesser courts. The legal system is based on British Common Law and Practice. As a member of the British Commonwealth of Nations, the local Governor-General represents Queen Elizabeth II as “head of state” a purely ceremonial role with no real political power.
The Jamaican economy has continued to experience much turbulence since gaining independence. The early government adopted what is known as the “Puerto Rican Model” for economic development. This model essentially entices foreign investment by granting tax holidays for the companies in exchange for the setting up of “screw-driver” manufacturing plants, hotels, and other service industries. But throughout the planning, in the first two decades after independence, no attempt was made to restructure agriculture or to bring the underdeveloped and backward rural areas into an overall national economic plan.
In 1972 a populist leader by the name of Michael Manley, a mulatto and son of the man who formed Jamaica’s first political party, led the PNP to victory at the polls. Manley espoused a democratic socialist ideology, preached the doctrine of self reliance and attempted to overhaul the agricultural sector. Manley put idle land to work and encouraged farmers to grow crops that would substitute foreign imports with local products. For example, flour made from plantains and cassava was used instead of wheat flour imported from North America. Manley demanded more money from the buyers of Jamaica’s bauxite and alumina and initiated an international debate on establishing a New International Economic Order. In his view the system was rigged so that richer countries continued to grow richer while the poorer countries sank deeper into debt. At the same time, Manley became friends with Cuba’s Fidel Castro and established closer ties between Jamaica and Cuba.
The U.S. congress began to act to put economic pressure on Manley. The result was a severe deterioration of Jamaica’s balance of payments (the difference between the hard currency the country earned from its exports and the payments for its imports) and negative growth in real GDP. The government was forced to borrow money from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to meet Jamaica’s international debt payment obligations. For its role in the “bail out”, the IMF imposed strict rules and regulations on the local economy. These included devaluations of the Jamaican currency, a sharp increase in taxation, restrictions on wage increases, decrease in the power of trade unions, and a ban on the importation of certain foreign goods. Naturally, all of this led to social upheaval as the Jamaican workers experienced a sharp (40%) increase in their cost of living and a 25% decline in real wages in a single year. Supporters of the government alleged that “external agents” had entered the country to destabilize the economy. Whether or not this was actually true is up to speculation. Nevertheless, the mid- to late- 1970s in Jamaica saw much political unrest and violent demonstrations against the government which in turn caused a sharp decline in tourism earnings. Manley was finally voted out of office in 1980 and the JLP took over the reigns and quickly signaled to the newly elected Reagan administration that Jamaica had had enough of its experimentation with socialism and was ready to resume its close alliance with the U.S.