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Forty years ago, the CIA had its eye on Jamaica—and Bob Marley got shot by David Cupples

ActivismForty years ago, the CIA had its eye on Jamaica—and Bob Marley got shot by David Cupples

The Night They Shot Bob MarleyForty years ago, on Dec. 3, 1976, Bob Marley was shot in a gangland assassination attempt in the heat of a contentious Jamaican election campaign pitting the United States’ favorite (Edward Seaga) against the incumbent prime minister (Michael Manley). The shooting in Marley’s Kingston home—which also wounded his wife, Rita, and at least two others—occurred 12 days before the scheduled elections and two days before a free concert Marley had agreed to play in hopes of bringing the people together and cooling the violence that had been occurring.

The events surrounding the “Smile Jamaica” concert make it one of the 20th century’s key moments in developing countries of the Third World. There are indications that the United States was running a destabilization program against the democratic socialist administration of Michael Manley—Manley writes about it and former CIA case officers Philip Agee and John Stockwell have said explicitly that such a program existed. Agee even named the CIA case officers stationed in the U.S. Embassy in Kingston. (My novel “Stir It Up” comprehensively summarizes in narrative form the evidence for the destabilization program, including typical CIA methods described by Agee.)

Cuba, the United States’ archenemy in the Western Hemisphere, had been invaded with U.S. backing and subjected to a crippling embargo that would continue to the present moment. Now here was Manley buddying up to Fidel Castro and implementing socialist programs that were benefiting the Jamaican people rather than American companies and investors—interests to which Manley’s challenger, the Harvard-educated Seaga, was more favorably disposed.

A destabilization program, in the immortal words of Richard Nixon, who was directing CIA efforts (via Henry Kissinger) to undermine Salvador Allende in Chile, is intended to “make the economy scream” so the people will suffer and rise up to vote, or otherwise boot out, the culprit—such as an Allende or a Manley. It’s not a Nobel Peace Prize-worthy endeavor, and if it doesn’t work, more serious action might be considered, such as assassination or military invasion (see the Agee hyperlink). 

For various reasons in Jamaica—including poverty and political cronyism after four centuries of colonial rule—street gangs became affiliated with the two major political parties: Manley’s Peoples National Party (PNP) and Seaga’s Jamaica Labor Party (JLP). To call the gang lords unofficial enforcers for the parties would not be much of a stretch. As the 1976 elections neared, the rivalry between PNP and JLP toughs escalated. The streets and tenement yards of Kingston ran red with blood, causing international airlines to cancel flights to the island.

Bob Marley and the Wailers were riding the crest of international fame on the strength of the “Rastaman Vibration” album and tour. Rolling Stone named the group the band of the year, and Time called Marley “a political force to rival the government.” The former barefoot country boy and big-city “rudeboy” had become a populist champion of human rights and an international symbol of struggle against the lingering structures of colonialism. His growing fame put him in danger. The gang lords on both sides desperately wanted him as their own.

‘Smile Jamaica’ and the assassination attempt on Bob Marley

It was of utmost importance to Marley that “Smile Jamaica” be seen as a symbol of unification rather than an attempt to stump for Manley. A date and venue were chosen: Dec. 5, 1976, in Kingston’s National Heroes Park. Manley called the national elections for 10 days later, and Marley’s neutrality was cast into serious doubt.

On Dec. 3, two nights before “Smile Jamaica,” two carloads of armed men drove into Marley’s Hope Road yard and shot up the place. The wounded Marley was evacuated to Island Records magnate Chris Blackwell’s estate in the hills, protected by police guard and machete-wielding Rastas. Marley pondered the wisdom of playing “Smile Jamaica” in a nighttime, open-skies venue with the shooters still at large.

Whether the CIA was connected to the attack is unclear. But Marley was stirring up the populace with lyrics of resistance and revolution, inciting the people to think breaking from “the system” was a good idea. Marley was too much aware not to understand this—as he sang, “Rasta don’t work for no CIA” in “Rat Race.”

Marley decided to play. Political violence was tearing the country apart, and he dearly wanted to send a message of unity to the population. Although he did not relish the idea of going onstage with a figurative bull’s-eye on his back, Marley would trust his fate to Jah and carry forth with his mission, gang lords and the CIA notwithstanding.

As darkness fell Dec. 5, Marley was driven down from the hills to Heroes Park at breakneck speed under police escort. The rest of the band straggled in from their hideouts, Rita Marley arriving in her hospital gown, her head wound hidden beneath her Rasta cap. Eighty thousand people had waited for hours in hopes that Marley would play, and here he was, wading through the crowd, greeting the prime minister—Manley also risked his life by showing up—and being boosted up onstage. Marley couldn’t play his guitar, because a bullet had nicked his chest and lodged in his left forearm, where it would remain the rest of his life. But by all reports, he and the Wailers put on a phenomenal show.

In the morning Marley fled into exile, staying in the Bahamas briefly before going on to London, where he worked on the “Exodus” album, which would be chosen by Time as the greatest album of the 20th century.

Meanwhile, Manley was re-elected. The glow of humanity Marley sparked with “Smile Jamaica” was short-lived, however, and the blood feud in the streets soon resumed. In 1978, again in the hope of promoting unity, the “One Love Peace Concert” was held, for which Marley returned from London to play. Marley even dragged Manley and Seaga up onstage and literally made them clasp hands.

As the 1980 elections approached—a rematch between Manley and Seaga—violence rose to truly appalling levels. Manley’s programs had been doggedly undermined by U.S. and CIA machinations, an
d some feared that under the looming shadow of Ronald Reagan’s election another Manley term would bring even harsher treatment, possibly military invasion. Seaga won in a bigger landslide than Manley had enjoyed four years earlier.

Adhering to his U.S.-approved neoliberal leanings, Seaga went the route of borrowing heavily from the World Bank and international lending institutions. Soon, Jamaica was buried under a mountain of debt from which it has never recovered.

The wisdom of Bob Marley

For an understanding of the U.S.-dominated world system, we gain far more insight from Bob Marley than from the entirety of the mainstream media, with its jingoistic cheering of American interventions overseas and uncritical swallowing of the approved U.S. version of events. Marley knew the system was a vampire “sucking the blood of the children” (“Babylon System”). He lived it every day of his life.

It was a system that forced “lifelong insecurity” (“Survival / Black Survivor”) in which the “big fish” ate the small fish in order to “materialize their every wish” (“Guiltiness”).

It was a system that resorted to “divide and rule” (“Zimbabwe”) and tactics like “bribing with their guns, spare parts and money” (“Ambush in the Night”).

A system run not by renegades and rogues, but the best and brightest the West could offer: “graduating thieves and murderers” (“Babylon System”).

A system in which, Marley knew, Jamaicans and black people in general were not invited to the party: “They don’t want to see us live together/ all they want us to do is keep on killing one another” (“Top Ranking”).

A system in which what was in plain view would be rationalized away: “Everyone sees what’s taking place/ another page in history” (“Trench Town”).

Marley, Pinter, Chomsky and Bernie Sanders

It’s stunning to see the overlap and parallel between Marley’s lyrics and the commentary of two major 20th century thinkers, Harold Pinter and Noam Chomsky. As Pinter articulated in his acceptance speech for the 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature:

“The United States supported and in many cases engendered every right-wing military dictatorship in the world after the end of the Second World War. I refer to Indonesia, Greece, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Haiti, Turkey, the Philippines, Guatemala, El Salvador, and, of course, Chile. The horror the United States inflicted upon Chile in 1973 can never be purged and can never be forgiven.

“Hundreds of thousands of deaths took place throughout these countries. Did they take place? And are they in all cases attributable to U.S. foreign policy? The answer is, yes, they did take place, and they are attributable to American foreign policy. But you wouldn’t know it.

“It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening, it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest. The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them. You have to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. It’s a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.”

With his vast erudition, Chomsky confirms what Marley divined through firsthand experience: The world system is set up so that the few rich may profit from the many poor, both domestically and internationally, and great suffering will be exacted to keep things that way.

The evils Marley struggled against remain crucially important issues in the lives of hundreds of millions around the world—evils typically decried only on the periphery, by independent media not beholden to corporate funding.

Neither candidate in the 2016 U.S. presidential election showed the slightest inkling that the United States ought to own up to its blood-drenched foreign policy, beyond those peccadilloes conveniently attributable to the other party. Hillary Clinton waxed glowingly about an American exceptionalism that has done nothing but good around the world. Donald Trump wants to lock the gates and go back to the good old days before all this civil rights and multiculturalism hullabaloo.

Marley’s One Love vibe calling for the unity of all peoples of good faith was far more inclusive than anything American politics have brought forth. It has always been too easy to write Marley off as a ganja-smoking Caribbean radical and ignore his message—a similar fate meted out to the marginalized and dismissed Chomsky (and Pinter’s scorching comments). Much the same might be said about Bernie Sanders, whose questioning of such sacrosanct matters as United States support for Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians was widely hammered down in the mainstream.

But for those with the will to look, the system is there to see. As the “Sanders Revolution” shows, the clamoring of the people for real democracy and change is growing strong. The system, for so long hidden behind a thick cloud of jingoism and propaganda, is emerging. In these dismal times, this is cause for hope and fighting on.


– David Cupples is the author of “Stir It Up: The CIA Targets Jamaica, Bob Marley and the Progressive Manley Government,” a novel. Cupples can be reached at his website and Facebook page. This article first appeared on Truthdig.

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