Paradise Losing

In the 1970’s, Ernie Smith did a song called ‘Jah Kingdom goes to waste’. Visiting Jamaica recently, I can’t help but recall the hauntingly familiar song.
I was there during the beginning of the budget presentation and wondered what bizarre world some people were living in. As I form this blog, protests had taken place over the gas cess. But let me take a step back.
I arrived in Jamaica the weekend before finance minister Audley Shaw did his presentation, on the weekend of ‘carnival/bacchanal’, and as usual whenever I go to my island home, I try to assess the pulse of the nation. I was only there for 10 days and didn’t go many places. So admittedly, this isn’t scientific and is just my personal observations, honed by years of experience as a social eyewitness of my country.
The first thing I felt, perhaps even before landing, is that there were now stricter racial and class lines of demarcation at play in the society. I felt there was a widening gap between rich and poor, and that ‘white was again, the new black’. Read into that what you wish.
The one thing that struck me almost immediately was that many Jamaicans, the black ones mainly, were far less complaining… as if they were resigned to their fate, deciding every day that whatever happened, they would make the most of their situation. This bothers me because I felt that there is a volcanic frustration welling up.
Interestingly, the complainers were often those who were ‘privileged’ by benefit of class and race. They were the ones it appeared, eager to flee the island, venting against the backwardness of this ‘third world country’ (a designation I absolutely abhor).
It appeared to me, that every time Jamaica dropped a notch, they took the rise in price of every little bauble as a personal affront, while the poor were being forced that much closer to extermination.
I noticed the tremendous rise in electronic gates and house alarms. The fear of crime I suppose, has to enrich someone.
I also noticed that every man is a hustler, a vendor, a dvd or cd seller (pirated music and movies), a guide (Ocho Rios), a taxi-man, a bus/taxi- loader, higgler of cheap foreign goods, crown and anchor man. I figured that it was the underground economy that was keeping the country afloat while at the top end, Digicel and Cable and Wireless (now Lime) are the current reigning corporate giants. Well, let’s not leave out NCB and Scotia, but it was the first 2 whose presence are felt everywhere. It’s not unusual to hear a cell phone conversation punctuated with the reference to ‘minutes running out’… life hanging by the thin threads of telephone credits.
It is woeful that the top corporations in Jamaica are not producers of tangible goods, but services, most are not net foreign exchange earners but net consumers. We have become a nation of shopkeepers to quote Margaret Thatcher.
The deterioration of the roads have really exploded since I was last there. Fern Fully and road into Ocho Rios from Kingston, should be a call for criminal negligence.
Downtown Kingston has gotten shabbier. The burnt-out buildings that I last saw in 2001 are still standing, seeming everlasting monuments to Kingston’s inability to throw off its mental poverty. Gutters in side streets were still reservoirs for garbage, creating a dark, stagnant, primordial soup suited to creating new but frightening life forms.
The old post office downtown was home to masses of indigent… apparently the replacement for Bellevue. Fresh paint was a scarce commodity with shopkeepers knowing that how the place looked didn’t affect people coming inside or not. You went there because you had to.
Cross Roads was much the same and Half Way Tree and New Kingston have taken on the decaying tone of downtown. What was in decay then remained so now or deteriorated even further. Buildings were shuttered, padlocked, abandoned with little hope of seeing better times. What development I saw was not an improvement. It was like development with destruction.
All three areas have lost their character, looking now as if town planning was never a concept. Jamaicans would say’ chaka, chaka’. It is felt worse in New Kingston, which had a pristine and modern look to being the financial center. Now it just looked like a design nightmare. Vendors and all the previously mentioned occupations were in full flow.
But in this bleak and gloomy overview, the sense of the people’s will to accept their plight and survive was both sad and affirming. Sad, because the fight has apparently been drained out of a once proud people and I couldn’t help but wonder how much more insane leadership they can take. Affirming, because it illustrates their underlying strength and resourcefulness… something the civic leaders all praise but fail to take into consideration in their economic planning.
The core of the Golding-led budget was the imposition of a J$8.75 cess per litre on petrol. It was frightening to hear a tv economist describe the budget as ‘great’, and others as the most ‘equitable’ way of sharing the burden.
But the budget is far from equitable. The rich will only make minimal changes to their standard of living mainly because they will pass on the burden to their workers and customers. The poorer class will always bare the larger burden because they have limited flexibility.
The cess on petrol is going to drive everything skywards as transportation of goods and service will be affected. Thus food stuff, like every other goods whether imported or not will rise, and it is the underclass that will be further marginalized. When fuel goes up as it most certainly will, then the ‘sufferation’ of the Jamaican people will increase exponentially.
Worse still, the government has seen fit to add GCT to items previously spared, including salt, noodle soup, syrup, most books and computers. The first 3 items are used extensively by the poor, and it is incomprehensible that it is going to cost Jamaicans more to read and learn, which is exactly what will happen by increasing the cost of books and computers.
Though the government has taken some of the burden from PAYE taxpayers, those gains will be more than completely eroded. And while there is a minimum wage increase, this won’t affect the thousands of people in the underground economy who really have no jobs to speak of, but little ‘hustlings’.
Those who could enjoy the benefit of a minimum wage increase might have to trade-in that for the ability to keep a job.
In speaking with many people, I got the impression that the upper echelons of the Jamaican society were greatly in favor of Bruce Golding, while dissatisfaction with him and his administration’s performance resonated loudly amongst black people.
The budget so far seems to underscore which side Golding is set to satisfy.
The budget in my mind, failed to address many issues including how the certain rise in unemployment will be addressed.
The problem is that the continued devaluation of the Jdollar will not make things any better as the so-called theory that it will ‘make our goods cheaper’ has long been disproved as an economic myth. The dollar devalued some 20% last year, mostly between December and March.
With some 60% of the island’s revenue going back into paying debts, it’s hard to see how this budget will set Jamaica on a path to economic recovery. It is fair to say that this administration, like all previous administrations, is trying the same old failed policies, offering the same weakened medication while the sick patient is getting sicker.
***
Usain Bolt became the topic of conversation recently for more than one reason. One was the car crash, where thankfully, it doesn’t appear that he was too badly hurt. But previous to that, it appears that his admission in an overseas to having smoked ganja as a youth, set off some furor and had some people questioning his intelligence.
For my next blog, I will address the that issue, by examining a noted columnist who criticized Bolt.

2 thoughts on “Paradise Losing

  1. I look at Half Way Tree on Google Earth and long to go there and walk the streets that I took to school as a child. I know it would sadden me no end–your blog makes me weep.
    My uncle once said years ago after leaving Jamaica “We had a paradise and we didn’t know it”.

  2. Hi Ms Ayers. I wish I could glibly say ‘its the price of progress’… except that it isnt progress, and it shouldnt be this way. It did sadden me and as I said, the only strength i drew from the process, was that the Jamaican people seem to be intent on surviving whatever their civic, religious and political leaders throw at them.
    Thanks for reading and thanks for your comment. til

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