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On reggae island

Updated Saturday, 2nd August 2008

Jamaica has lost its way since its progressive 1970s, and an air of fatalism hangs over reggae island

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Attending the ‘Crossroads’ cultural studies conference at the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica I was struck over and over again by the contradictions of being at such an event. I don’t mean to say it was a bad conference. Far from it. There were plenty of terrific papers, brilliant meetings with new colleagues, and extraordinary cultural events.

Kingston, Jamaica [image by Chrysaora, some rights reserved] Creative commons image Icon by Chrysaora under CC-BY-NC-ND licence under Creative-Commons license
Kingston, Jamaica

But here we all were, mostly from the global North, staying in uptown hotels or on the beautiful campus beneath the Blue Mountains. Meanwhile downtown in the decaying sprawl of what was once the administrative centre of the British West Indies the poverty stricken people were scuffling to get a crust, or simply survive one more day in streets where mass murder is a fact of everyday life. Indeed, as a recent UN report makes clear gun crime and gang violence in Jamaica have now reached a critical level. In the last five years alone 300 children have been murdered on this tiny island.

It is all too easy to see the problem as a local one. And it’s perfectly true that there is a local dimension. The well off in Jamaica lament the parlous state of the country and then promptly award themselves tax breaks or erect huge security fences to seal off their properties from the ‘sufferahs’ who have nothing. Yet as is the case with inequality everywhere, there’s a structural dimension to this.

Jamaica was once the market garden and dairy of the Caribbean. Then, in the 80s as neo-liberal policies bit, North American agri-business dumped agriculture products (i.e. exported them to the island at below cost) destroying local farms. At the same time the U.S. administration pushed the Jamaican government into wiping out the cultivation of marijuana thus paving the way for the rise of organised crime and a major import/export trade in cocaine from Columbia.

Now what’s left of the economy is controlled by an unholy axis of multinational capitalists and the ‘doms’ or gang bosses who fight each other – and kill hundreds of local people along the way – as they struggle for power over their ‘garrisons’. These are the fiercely protected patches of territory which make up the Kingston metropolitan area. In effect democracy no longer holds sway in this city. Instead politicians collude with gang bosses in a clientelist political system based on corruption and the delivery of votes for favours.

It wasn’t always like this. In the 1970s under the democratic socialism of Michael Manley’s PNP government Jamaica began to move towards a more equitable social order. There was limited public ownership of industry and new welfare programs together with some experiments in radical grass-roots democracy. But towards the second half of the decade, world economic crisis and the new ‘monetarist’ policies of the World Bank and World Trade Organisation did for Jamaican socialism. The economy collapsed and with CIA intervention the bloody election of 1980 (over 1000 killed) brought Edward Seaga and the JLP to power on a neo-liberal ticket. Jamaica has never looked back – though it has never really looked forward either.

Gazing out of my bus as we drove up Orange Street (still the music quarter of this most musical of cities) I wondered what would become of such an extraordinary culture and people. Fatalism is the prevailing mood on the island itself. Yet there are signs of hope in the Caribbean. Looking South to Venezuela it’s possible to see an alternative future. Here was a country also mired in poverty, corruption and the privilege of the wealthy few. Now change is in the air as the Chavez government pushes (albeit very slowly) towards redistribution and a fairer society. The point is, it’s never too late for social change. Or in the terser words of dancehall star Beenie Man we can, we must ‘Reverse De Ting’.

 

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