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Americas: Get Up, Stand Up: Problems of Sovereignty


After 30 years of strife, bloodshed and despair, the war between the member states of the Holy Roman Empire came to an end in 1648 when the Treaty of Westphalia was signed. The signed treaty guaranteed that all states had the right to choose their own religion and was no longer forced to accept that which the Vatican laid down.[1] This idea of ultimate authority within a defined territory was the beginnings of the concept of Sovereignty.


Today, sovereignty is considered the supreme authority within a clear set of borders and is viewed as the defining attribute of statehood. Internal Sovereignty (the license to exercise ultimate decision-making within a given territory) and External Sovereignty (the notion that all states are equal in the international arena) are the two components of the general concept.[2] The documentary, “Americas: Get Up, Stand Up: Problems of Sovereignty,” explores the reality that American nation-states encounter when trying to assert their sovereignty.


Jamaica—who gained independence in 1962—was used as an example to show a newly formed nation’s path in assuring her sovereignty. The documentary highlighted the unfair bauxite royalty agreement the new nation had inherited and its attempt to correct it. Then Prime Minister, Michael Manley, emerged from the negotiations with the bauxite companies victorious. This was one instant in which Jamaica certified her right to be an equal on the international stage. Manley’s goal of creating a self-dependent Socialist state was also another means of attempting to guarantee sovereignty. However, this did more to destroy the cause than help it, as fearing a Socialist government, many foreign investors pulled out of the country. Coupled with the world oil crisis of the 1970s, Jamaica’s economy plummeted and entered into a recession.


Edward Seaga, the leader of Jamaica’s opposition party, used the disastrous economic conditions of the Manley era to win the 1980 election. Seaga kept his promise of having foreign investor return to the island in hopes that this would boost the economy. Despite this, the profits that these companies and investors brought with them were unequally distributed. With a significant portion remaining in the upper crust of the society, the poor and average Jamaican’s economic situation remained unchanged. Realising that the policies of the Seaga lead government did not benefit the majority, the people once again turned towards Michael Manley in 1989. Nevertheless, this was not the Socialist Manley of the 1970s. He opted to continue the capitalist policies of his predecessor and so the people remained in poverty. This continued state of need, gave birth to a rise in gang activity and the gunmen who sustain it. This has become another threat to Jamaican sovereignty as the government seems locked in a persisting war with the gunmen to maintain control of the nation.


Sovereignty in the Americas is not only a problem for small-island, newly formed states but a true portrait of sovereignty has also managed to elude larger more established nations like Colombia. The documentary shows the decades old struggle between the government and the guerillas of the rural area, who have their own laws and taxation process. These simulated states are the products of years of political discontent, but they are allowed to continue, as the government tends to concentrate on more urban areas.


Regardless of the guerillas’ threat to Colombian sovereignty, the single greatest danger is the drug trade. The desperation of the poor, who feel the government has abandoned them, is the unlikely sustainer of this business that brings with it a culture of fear and violence. The trade has far reaching influences and many feel that the trafficking and traffickers have overshadowed the state and politicians respectively. Some citizens have resorted to forming their own local law enforcement groups to combat narcotic induced violence. This all serve to further underline the belief that the government has lost control of the nation.   


The United States of America, while trying to protect its citizens from the evils of illegal drug, made an arrangement with Colombia that stipulated the Colombian government would extradite its drug dealers to the United States for trial. However, the United States’ direct interference with Colombia’s internal affairs, succeeded in undermining the country’s claim to ultimate authority within its borders and helped to habour more resentment towards the government. Soon enough, the extradition agreement ended and Colombia decided to tackle her problems without international intervention. 


The documentary’s examples have demonstrated that sovereignty is no clear issue. Jamaica’s economic dependence on other international actors and her difficulty combating criminality have undermined both her external and internal sovereignty. Similarly, Colombia’s on going war with the guerillas and drug dealers and her willingness to follow American dictate, have also undermined both aspects of its sovereignty. The video allows us to ponder if sovereignty is the defining component of statehood, then by definition these countries at one period or another could not be called states. 


Michael Manley declared that it is an illusion to think anyone enjoys real sovereignty—the freedom to do whatever one likes—but for smaller countries like Jamaica it is harder because of economic dependence on larger nations. Columbia, after the extradition fiasco, drafted a new constitution in attempt to reassert her sovereignty.  With everything in account, the documentary appears to prove true the Orwellian idea that while all states are equal, some are indeed more equal than others (Kegley and Wittkopf 1989).








































[1] Compton’s New Century Encyclopeadia and Reference Collection, 4th ed., s.v “Thirty Years’ War.”

[2] Graham Evans and Jeffrey Newnham, eds., Penguin Dictionary of International Relations (London: The

  Penguin Group, 1998) s.v. “Sovereignty.”