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From the October 2001 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 48, No. 10)

This Island is not a Nation

Ian Boyne, The Jamaica Gleaner (on-line, centrist), Kingston, Jamaica, July 15, 2001

violence kingston
A man shot during fights in Kingston, Jamaica arrives at the hospital for treatment (Photo: Jamaica Gleaner).
July 7 in Kingston, Jamaica, was a familiar refrain from the 1960s: the rough-and-tumble of party politics played out by police and gangs. Three days of clashes left at least 25 dead. The latest disorder erupted after a series of tit-for-tat killings precipitated by the murder of a gang leader tied to the ruling party. The government sent troops into the Tivoli Garden neighborhood, ostensibly to disarm gunmen, but the opposition claims the action was really an assault on its supporters.—WPR

In the same weekend that Minister of Finance and Planning Omar Davies went to the nation to brag about the number of international institutions and agencies that have commented favorably on Jamaica’s economic achievements, his message was shot by blazing guns in West Kingston that concentrated the nation’s attention away from the economy.

What’s the use of having a great economy if you are not alive to enjoy it?

The week’s turmoil in Jamaica should be enough to prove my thesis that Jamaica’s fundamental crisis is cultural/sociological, not economic. And for those who doubted the fragility of an economic superstructure not bolstered by a strong foundation of supporting cultural values, the recent terror of West Kingston should make them think again.

There is nothing besides football that gives us a sense of common purpose. This is the tragedy of Jamaica, not simply our years of negative growth. Any growth that we were predicting for this fiscal year is surely threatened by the mayhem and anarchy that erupted not just in West Kingston but all over the corporate area [of the Kingston Metropolitan Region].

Many people sense that what is missing is this sense of unity: the sense of being part of a larger cause, the sense of nationhood. [Bar Association President] Derek Jones was wailing with [talk-show host] Wilmot Perkins that we need to put Jamaica first. Others were saying the same thing. [Economics professor] Damien King put it poignantly on the Breakfast Club radio program on Thursday morning: What is the sense of [Prime Minister] P.J. Patterson and [Jamaica Labor Party (JLP) leader] Edward Seaga’s meeting if they don’t trust each other? “The major problem is that of trust,” Jones said.

When I hear an economist, a member of the dismal profession, speaking like that, I nurture a sense of hope that we can somehow grapple with what is the fundamental problem, after all. If you don’t address this fundamental problem of the lack of trust, of the difficulty in forging win-win situations, and of our disastrously poor conflict-resolution skills, all the power of civil society will be dissipated.

It is one thing for the powerful private-sector people to force Mr. Patterson and Mr. Seaga into one room. But unity and uniformity are not the same thing. The men can respond because of public pressure and as a political compromise, but if their hearts are not in it, all the work of the Private Sector Organization of Jamaica, Jamaicans for Justice, the trade unions, and the churches will be in vain. This lack of trust is the greatest present and clear danger to Jamaica. The people don’t trust the security forces, and, therefore, we cannot unite to overcome the criminals. Society is bitterly divided on how to deal with these criminals.

How can we restore law and order when substantial sections of the Jamaican people and highly influential opinion-makers believe that what is seen as the constituted authorities for law and order are themselves a threat to law and order? Mr. Perkins is saying openly that if the state cannot protect the people in the inner cities, they have a natural right to defend themselves. When as a society you have reached a stage where a leading commentator can hold such a position and get support for it, then you know we are teetering on the brink of anarchy. I am interested in peace and “law and order,” but what about justice? Which again underscores the point that the divisions in the society are so deep and sore that there is no common point at which the various perspectives or minds can meet.

A most important speech, which got no publicity, was given by [banker] Sir John Goddard at the Le Meridien Jamaica Pegasus Hotel during “Exporters Week” in mid-June. It looked at the Barbadian [example]. Sir John talked about the years of economic crisis in Barbados. In 1990, 1991, and 1992 the economy declined 3.3 percent, 4.5 percent, and 5 percent, respectively. In 1991 foreign reserves were down to just a week’s cover. Unemployment reached 25 percent. Sir John showed how a social partnership agreement was brokered in the midst of the economic and social crisis.

This is what this country has not shown a capacity for. In the midst of the Barbadian economic crisis, Sir John told the exporters: “As has happened so many times in our history, Barbadians realized that they would have to rely on their great love for their country.” This is what Jamaicans lack. All of the JLP’s grand economic schemes will mean nothing if tourists and investors are scared to come to the island. Make no mistake about it: The [ruling] People’s National Party has the capacity to “mash it up,” too, if they decide to sabotage an incoming JLP administration.

The thousands who live in abject poverty and deprivation in the ghettos will not be rescued overnight by economic growth. If we don’t find a way to have them buy into something besides their stomachs, then be prepared for many more weeks like the last one.

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