Seaga's challenge: disarm Jamaica's bully boys
"Gentle animosity used to be the norm in jamaican politics," Neville Shields was saying as we crouched against a wall in the courtyard of Kingston General Hospital during a gun battle between the bully boys of the island's two political parties.
"But now it has become open hostility."
Shields, a laboratory technician at the hospital, laments the deterioration.
"It's sad, really, that Jamaica should have come to this."
A majority of Jamaicans appear to agree. Many voters in last week's parliamentary election cited the escalating violence on the Caribbean island as a major reason for their overwhelming support of the jamaica Labour Party (JLP).
The JLP scored a sweep in the balloting, winning 51 of 60 parliamentary seats , up from 13 in the last Parliament, and propelling its leader, Edward Seaga, into the prime ministership. He was sworn in nov. 1.
One of Seaga's first tasks as prime minister is somehow finding a way to cut down on the violence. No one here thinks it will be eliminated quickly, but there is hope that it will be lessened significantly in the weeks ahead. Much depends on the prime minister and his ability to get control of the 25,000 or more illegal weapons in the country.
Seaga must also control his own supporters, who are as responsible for the violence as are those who supported former Prime Minister michael Manley and his People's National Party during the past 8 1/2 years.
The bully boys of the two parties, many of them without work and bearing grudges against their counterparts, are the real culprits. Some members of both parties -- although neither Manly nor Seaga -- have condoned the violence.
Nearly 725 persons have been killed this year alone. Even on election day, 11 more died by violence, including a policeman. Certain sections of Kingston, mostly the ghettos of West kingston, are particularly trouble-racked.
As the firing subsided at the hospital election-day afternoon, Mr. Shields commented that he worried about such warfare every day.
The hospital is located in a no man's land in West Kingston between a sector that is dominated by JLP supporters and another district controlled by guns of the PNP.
As it turned out, the battle at the hospital was not so serious as first thought. Two people were injured -- but some of the shooting was simply exuberant JLP boys greeting candidate Seaga, who was making an inspection tour of polling booths in the area.
Later that afternoon, fighting around the hospital resumed and intensified. PNP men at one point used the hospital grounds as cover to fire on JLP supporters. Later, the tables were turned as the JLP used the hospital for cover. All the while, police and others sought to keep the two sides apart.
The hospital area has continued to be a scene of fighting since election day. Three persons have been killed there in the past five days.
Kingston area police stations are repeatedly under siege. Snipers held police at bay for eight hours at the Hope Bay facility in West Kingston. Reinforcements finally got into the area and sent the snipers "scampering away to vanish into the rabbit warrens of the slums," as a police official termed it.
Various JLP and PNP facilities were firebombed over election weekend, and violence, obviously carried out by persons from both parties, continued into Seaga's first week in office.
The government newspaper, the Jamaica Daily News, which until the election was in the hands of the PNP, called on the new leadership to "bandage the wounds of the nation. . . . The disparate elements in the society must be brought together in a spirit of unity. . . .
"There is no getting away from the conclusion that the passage is going to be rough."
It will be a lot rougher if the terrorists are not controlled and their weapons collected. And this is the rub. how to deal with it all remains a major question.
The security forces have rounded up more than 200 people in the wake of the election for illega firearm possession and other actions of violence. But the estimated 25,000 guns around the island will not be easy to locate and collect -- nor will the "astonishing supply of bullets," as columnist Vernon Witter termed it in the weekend edition of the Star, Kingston's afternoon paper. He concluded: "Let us hope that the new government will give prompt attention to the question of security and that the end of violent crimes is at hand."
Quoted on radio Jamaica, one of two radio stations here, on announcer added his own comment to Witter's words:
"To that i say, 'Amen.'"