It's campaign time in Jamaica, and elections there are rough.

Families and friends divide. Violence, bloodshed and even death erupt amid the emotions of the contest for power. Against this turbulent background it is reassuring to note that Jamaica has weathered eight democratic elections since 1944, and seems always to return to its more relaxed tropical demeanor once the vote is in and the victor determined.

In the meantime, the Jamacian press, radio and television flail away, often in scurrilous fashion, celebrating freedom at the expense of truth. And once again the United States, the powerful neighbor to the north, has become a prime campaign target. The issue this time is destabilization.

I do not believe that the U.S. government has been involved in attempts to destabilize Jamaica. But the question as to weather the allegations of destabilization are simple campaign rhetoric or unwarrented paranoia obscures the point, because a case can be made that there is outside interference in this diverse island nation.

Throughout the Caribbean area, for instance, there exists an underground network of narcotics and gambling interests that can find its way into Jamacian politics.

There has also been a recent infiltration of powerful and sophisticated weaponry, as evidenced in a recent attack on a bus carrying enthusiasts of the People's National Party from a campaign rally. Prime minister Michael Manley, leader of the PNP, told me during a recent trip to the United States, "The power of the bullets ripped away the entire side of the bus. This was powerful stuff that can't be bought in Jamacia."

Manleys party activists insist that if the present pattern of violence and killings is not the work of governments, then it must be the design of ardent right-wingers, funneling money and weapons to local thugs associated with the opposition.

The question about destabilization may never be resolved, but the U.S. influence on Jamacian affairs will remain an issue.

The American difficulties with Jamaica began with Henry Kissinger in 1975. When Kissinger launched his propaganda campaign against Cuban intervention in Africa, he sought Manley's support as one of the Third World's leading spokesmen. Manley, in turn, expressed concern about Kissinger's complicity with South Africa in the invasion of Angola, and subsequently adopted a position held by most of black Africa that the Cubans were assisting African liberation.

The tension between the Jamacian and U.S. governments subsided for a period with the election of Jimmy Carter, but the present obession of this administration with Cuba and Manley's friendship with Fidel Castro doesn't contribute to good relations.

The administration's Caribbean analysts got themselves somewhat bent out of shape over Manley's speech at the non-aligned summit in Havana last year. They are now convinced that Manley is losing control of his party to more "radical" elements of U.S.-educated intellectuals. Of all this, Manley says, "I just happen to be a friend of Castro's. I'm certain that he views me as a fuzzy liberal. I'm a Democratic Socialist and he is a firm Communist, and that is an essential difference."

In 1972, Michael Manley, son of one of Jamaica's founding fathers, Sir Norman Manley assumed leadership of a nation whose population was rigidly divided along class lines, and was overwhelmingly poor and young. Jamaica also found itself inflamed by a black power rhetoric imported from the United States and a romantic Marxism from Cuba.

Manley launched a series of reforms in an attempt to bridge these conflicts and fulfill some of the democratic socialist ideals he had acquired at the London School of Economics. Public schools were opened to all, health services were extended and minimun wage laws for domestic and farm workers were enacted. Jamacia's masses began to get a piece of the action.

In the midst of the current election campaign, Jamaica is beset by inflation that exacerbates the problem, eats away at the economy and threatens the further development of social services and improvement of living standards. t

Edward Seaga, the leader of the opposition Jamaica Labor Party, pledges to revitalize the ecomony by renewing the confidence of American and British investors. But with a world recession under way, it is hard to imagine his getting more support from these sources than Jamacia is now receiving in private investments from Norway, West Germany and Canada.

The polls and press have counted Manley and his party out, but these are the instruments of the middle upper classes. The Jamaican populace is predominantly poor and working class and from the bottom up, the progress over the last 10 years has been more significant than the suffering. Poverty has always been known there, but the poor are not going to give up their progress and their hope without a good Jamaican fight.

The outcome of all this struggle will redefine this island nation's identity and set its course for the next five years.