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Edward Seaga, Who Led Jamaica on a Conservative Path, Dies at 89

Edward Seaga, a former prime minister of Jamaica who helped set that island nation on a conservative course and forged a close relationship with the United States, died in Miami on Tuesday, his 89th birthday.

His death was announced on Twitter by Andrew Holness, Jamaica’s current prime minister. No other details were given. The Jamaican news media reported that Mr. Seaga (pronounced see-AH-ga) was being treated in Miami for cancer.

Much of Mr. Seaga’s career, as leader of the Jamaica Labor Party and as prime minister, was spent tilting in opposition to his political nemesis, Michael Manley.

In the late 1960s and early ′70s, the leftist People’s National Party was gaining power, with Mr. Manley as its head. He was elected prime minister in 1972. Pushing a populist agenda, Mr. Manley established a minimum wage, built housing projects and fostered closer ties with Cuba, all in sharp contrast to the policies of Mr. Seaga and the Labor Party.

Over the next few years, Mr. Seaga, an established capitalist, and Mr. Manley, an avowed socialist, staked out increasingly opposite positions. They became such vociferous critics of each other that their hostility stoked spasms of street violence among their supporters, leaving hundreds dead.

As the violence crescendoed, the reggae star Bob Marley, a major influence in Jamaica, sought to make peace between the two sides. At a concert at the national stadium in Kingston, the capital, Mr. Marley spontaneously called Mr. Seaga, the opposition leader in Jamaica’s Parliament, and Mr. Manley onstage and prompted them to clasp hands, though begrudgingly, as a gesture of unity. A crowd of 30,000 roared its approval.

But the rapprochement, widely recorded and photographed, was brief and had little practical effect, and the violence in the streets continued.

Mr. Seaga would go on to oust his rival from power and dismantle his socialist programs, while helping the country with its economic recovery.

Edward Philip George Seaga was born on May 28, 1930, in Boston, where his wealthy parents lived at the time. His father, Philip Seaga, was a businessman of Lebanese descent, and his mother, Erna (Maxwell) Seaga, was of mixed European and African heritage. The family was originally from Jamaica and returned there when Edward was an infant; he later went back to the United States to attend Harvard, graduating in 1952 with a degree in social sciences.

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Mr. Seaga and his wife, Marie Constantine, with President Ronald and Nancy Reagan on their visit to Jamaica in 1982. The next year, Mr. Seaga became the first foreign head of government to be invited to the Reagan White House.CreditAssociated Press

Back in Jamaica, Mr. Seaga conducted anthropological research and developed an intense interest in music, overseeing the recording of an album of island songs. In 1959 he set up his own record label, West Indies Recording Limited, and helped develop ska music, an indigenous Jamaican sound that incorporated American jazz and rhythm and blues and was a precursor to reggae.

At the same time, Mr. Seaga was becoming interested in politics. At 29, as a representative of the Jamaica Labor Party, he was appointed to serve on a council charged with establishing a framework for Jamaica’s independence from Britain, which it gained in 1962.

Mr. Seaga was elected to Parliament and would hold his seat for 43 years, longer than anyone in Jamaican history. As he became consumed with affairs of state, he sold his record label, though he retained his interest in music for the rest of his life.

He was appointed minister of development and welfare and later minister of finance in planning. In these posts, he redeveloped a notorious slum in his district, set up the Jamaica stock exchange and created Jamaica Citizens Bank.

He was married twice, first in 1965 to Marie Constantine, whom he divorced in 1995, and then to Carla Vendryes, a sociology researcher, in 1996. He is survived by Ms. Vendryes and their daughter, Gabrielle, and by three children from his first marriage, Christopher, Andrew and Anabella.

Mr. Manley’s tenure as prime minister was troubled by high inflation and widespread unemployment, and in 1980, Mr. Seaga, whose campaign slogan was “deliverance is near,” defeated him in a landslide. The violence soon began to ebb.

Mr. Seaga steered a conservative course, instituting more privatization and deregulation and severing ties with Cuba. In the process, he cemented the approval of Western allies like President Ronald Reagan in the United States and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain.

Mr. Seaga was the first foreign head of government to be invited to the Reagan White House, and he supported Reagan’s 1983 invasion of the Caribbean island nation of Grenada, which many other countries criticized. Reagan provided substantial foreign aid to Jamaica, and the financier David Rockefeller led an investment effort that helped with the island’s economic recovery.

Jamaica appeared stabilized throughout Mr. Seaga’s nine years as prime minister. In addition to fortifying the island’s financial position, he promoted cultural programs and national identity. But he made little progress against deep-seated poverty and unemployment, and in 1989 the voters rejected him and returned the People’s National Party, and Mr. Manley, to power.

As time went on, Mr. Seaga became marginalized, and in 2005 he stepped down as leader of the Jamaica Labor Party and as a member of Parliament. In his retirement, he wrote two political memoirs and resumed his research interests, studying Jamaican folklore at the University of West Indies.

Source: NYT

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