“Jamaica in Crisis” read a conference banner in Mandeville last month. “A Sick Democracy” was one pundit’s verdict on the local government elections. And “A ruined country” is the constant theme of some radio talk shows.


Now all Jamaicans are blessedly free to express their opinions. But you have to wonder which planet such people are living on. It’s one thing when the less educated display ignorance of the outside world. But it’s disheartening to hear supposedly informed commentators discuss Jamaica’s situation without any global perspective.


If Jamaica is in crisis, how do you describe places like Argentina, Venezuela and Peru where angry citizens regularly stage huge demonstrations? Apart from localized roadblocks there are few signs of mass discontent here. And let’s not hear any nonsense about ‘a dispirited people’. As if those boisterous hundreds of thousands seen in Half Way Tree last October would hesitate to march on Gordon House if they really were ‘fed up’.


If we are a sick democracy, where outside of Western Europe and the Anglo-Saxon nations is a healthy one to be found? Forty years of unbroken democracy, the best party balance in history, a strong independent electoral office, two consecutive violence free elections – these are signs of political vigour and not illness.


And if this is a ruined country, how is that - as Earl M. Bartley recently pointed out – Jamaicans’ living conditions improved significantly from 1991 to 2001? And how come cars have tripled in the past decade and new buildings are springing up everywhere? Retirement Road and Beechwood Avenue for instance are coming to resemble almost extensions of New Kingston. Officially growth has been negligible over the past 10 years. But cars and buildings do not multiply by magic. So those figures cannot possibly reflect the nation’s entire reality. As they say, are you going believe me or your lying eyes?


The PNP has much to answer for since 1989. Our highways should have been completed in half the time at one third the cost. The billions squandered in scandals like Netserv and Operation Pride could have built a western UWI. And the continuing power and water cuts alone make it undeserving of another term.


But this government has gotten the big things more or less correct and not tried to hold back the inevitable tide of globalization. Instead of fighting the currents, as we did so disastrously in the 1970s and to a lesser extent in the 1980s, Jamaica has ridden history’s free market wave.


In 1989 luggage was still searched at airports for “illegal” foreign currency – which was mostly obtained on the unlawful black market. People were once jailed for buying US dollars - we now have cambios everywhere and wire money freely abroad. Motor vehicle permits were also scarce then, with transport ministry workers sometimes being arrested for selling import licenses. The country is presently awash with car lots.


A fiscal revolution has seen personal income taxes cut, a value added tax introduced, and import tariffs slashed. I used to hear businessmen moan about near 100% levies forcing them to smuggle goods. If the government would only lower these rates they would comply fully – or so they claimed. Most duties are now 25% but many are still ‘beating customs’.


Our information sector has also been transformed. Once we only had JBC, RJR and the Gleaner. Now there are dozens of cable channels, a number of national and local newspapers, over 10 radio stations and the internet. Instead of endless waits for phone lines and exorbitant call abroad costs we have instantly available cellulars with cheap foreign rates.


All this came at a price. We had a exorbitantly costly financial crisis, manufacturing and agriculture were devastated, interest rates soared, the Jamaican dollar lost over 90% of its US value, and the huge national debt hangs over us like a sword of Damocles.


But though much suffering was avoidable, better to liberalize badly than not at all. For we are now more advanced along the globalization curve than most non-western countries. Many places with apparently booming economies will in time have to bite the bullet we did. When the Free Trade Agreement comes fully on stream protectionist countries like Trinidad and the Dominican Republic will have to contend with goods from China and India in an open market. And good luck to them.


Tiny Jamaica clearly cannot compete in manufacturing with countries where tens or even hundreds of millions work for subsistence wages. We have no choice but to focus on our competitive advantages, as all successful entities must. Luckily there is bauxite and the billion US dollar remittances of overseas Jamaicans – though obviously neither can last indefinitely. Even more fortunately we have the loveliest island on earth, and perhaps the planet’s most exuberant populace. We are exasperating at times, but tourist harassment is now minimal and most visitors and expatriates rave about Jamaicans’ genuinely warm friendliness. And despite all the bad publicity tourist arrivals through June are up over 20%. A country so beautiful and exciting will never lack for visitors.


Assuming of course we control crime. It’s hard for a country with one of the world’s highest murder rates to sell itself as a prime destination. Yet despite our shocking figures life goes on pretty normally here – apparently duppy know who fe frighten. There is not the great apprehension of kidnapping – knock wood! – that you hear about in South America or even in Guyana or Trinidad, where there is talk of a state of emergency. Nobody who drives around in a Kingston awash with partygoers on a weekend night could call it ‘a city gripped by fear’. Still, crime continues to be the nation’s number one problem. And areas like Mountain View show the battle is clearly far from being won.


One highly positive sign is the virtual disappearance of ‘badmanism’ from the dancehall. Indeed the don gorgon of gun lyrics Ninja Man has almost become an elder statesman on talk shows, holding forth not on magnums but true love. Bounty Killa has publicly rejected guns for girls, saying his goal is to be as big abroad as Sean Paul. I’m sadly a bit past it myself, but partygoing friends tell me Elephant Man’s claim that “Dancehall nice again” really is true. Since dancehall has always been a bell weather indicator of the national mood, this turning away from violence augurs well for our future.


Call me a pie eyed optimist, but I really am bullish on Jamaica. Though I’d be even more bullish if water and power cuts stopped for good. changkob@hotmail.com

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