How Stable is Jamaica?
Published: Sunday | February 8, 2009
Kevin O'Brien Chang, Contributor


Inspector Gregory: Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?
Sherlock Holmes: To the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime.
Inspector: The dog did nothing in the night-time.
Holmes: That was the curious incident.
- 'Silver Blaze', Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Since becoming independent in 1962, Jamaica has remained uprising free, suffered no major political assassination, adhered to the rule of law, maintained a free press, and held regular multi-party elections in which the incumbent party has been voted out more than once.

This might seem a rather common-place achievement. But over the past 46 years, few of the over 150 nations with more than a million people can make such a collective claim. In fact you can count them on fingers and toes: Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Germany, France, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Holland, Finland, Norway, Switzerland, Costa Rica and Jamaica.

The first 15 are in Western Europe, or have populations of mostly Western European descent, and all rank in the World Bank top 30 by per capita gross domestic product adjusted for purchasing power parity. Costa Rica's inhabitants also originated chiefly in Western Europe, and its per capita GDP (PPP) of $10,658 is 71st on the list. Jamaica is by far the poorest in this rather exclusive group, with an 84th ranking GDP (PPP) of $6,461, and the only one whose population is not mainly of Western European ancestry.

None of this suggests that Jamaica is a more successful society than, say, Sweden (Premier Olaf Palme murdered 1986), America (President John Kennedy assassinated 1963), Mauritius (State of Emergency and Opposition jailed from 1971 to 1976) or even Trinidad (Prime Minister A.N.R. Robinson wounded in 1990 coup attempt). It shows, rather, that freely ordered societies are rare, and peaceful change has been the exception, not the rule. In Sherlockian terms, the curious thing about Jamaican democracy is not its obvious imperfection, but its virtually unprecedented stability compared to countries of similar circumstances.

To the edge

The 1976 state of emergency election, and the 1980 near civil war campaign, took us to the edge. But despite garrisons and political violence, the people's will has always prevailed. Every leader has been constitutionally chosen by the majority, and all losing candidates have accepted the ballot count. If you agree with Sir Karl Popper that democracy is "the type of government which can be removed without violence", then independent Jamaica is an extraordinary democratic success.

A popular current question is whether the global economic downturn will lead to worldwide political upheaval. Already we see daily television scenes of riots in Greece, demonstrations in France, protests in Iceland - and that's only in Western Europe, the richest and most advanced region on the planet. Will the fallout in poorer, less-developed places be widespread insurrection, coups or revolutions?

It's anyone's guess how bad things are going to get, and I'd hate to be a goatmouth reverse prophet. But looking around Jamaica, it's hard to imagine any non-electoral change of government. Disgruntled colonels at Up Park Camp staging a military coup? A rabble-rousing populist firebrand whipping up the masses to torch Gordon House? Suicide bombers destroying the New Kingston financial centre and sparking a popular revolt? None seem even remotely conceivable.

For the country to judge

In another dispensation, perhaps deejays like Mavado or Vybz Kartel might be thundering against an oppressive oligarchy and urging the overthrow of the status quo. But in present-day Jamaica, the idols of the masses spend most of their time boasting about their lyrical ability or celebrating the joys of 'daggering'. Whether this is good or bad, well, that's for the country as a whole to judge, not any lone individual.

Is the present global credit crisis just another recession a la 1982? Or is it another great depression like 1929? Well, the finest economic minds in the world don't have a clue. My best guess, which is worth as much as it costs, is that the 'this time it's different' folk are as wrong now as they were two years ago. Investors have learnt that US house prices could not grow to the sky. They'll sooner or later likely realise that the market won't fall into the ground, and the sub-prime crisis, too, will pass. But no one knows when that will be, or how tough times will get in the meantime.

Yet, while most other places built up some fat during the boom years, we Jamaicans have always lived on the edge. Countries like Trinidad, Barbados and Singapore not only grew at more than five per cent, but invested surpluses in infrastructure and national reserves. Jamaica probably averaged less than one per cent real growth over the past 20 years and piled up nothing but debt. Like the grasshopper who danced and sang in the summer, we look on enviously at these cosily housed ants, as we feel winter snowflakes fall.

No accident

Still, let's not despair. While it would be foolish to ignore our economic failings, they shouldn't blind us to our great hidden reserves of social capital. Almost half a century of unbroken democracy does not come about by accident.

Naturally, many factors are involved. Perhaps the most important and, paradoxically, maybe the most unrecognised, is our common sense of purpose. Our almost unlimited freedom of speech, which we often use to cuss each other blue, sometimes blinds us to the fact. But every Jamaican has in common a passionate love of country that stands out wherever we go, and makes this little island loom larger than life around the globe.

Tony Rebel, who has witnessed it all across the planet, puts it this way. "Everyone admires our strong sense of self-identity. Maybe it's inborn character. Or maybe it's middle passage survivor resilience. But Jamaicans are so openly proud of who we are, that others embrace in us what they wish they had."

This Jamaicanness cuts across all classes and colours. The differences between the likes of Cherry Gardens and Tivoli Gardens are glaringly obvious. But our business and political elite have never sought to cut themselves off from the rest of the country into 'I'm all right Jack, and to hell with you' self-contained enclaves. It's no big thing to see young pillars of society at, say, the Passa Passa street dance.

In this together

Nor, whatever the situation in the past, do our business leaders seem very interested in running across the sea with their money? Listening to those involved in the talks between government ministers, business leaders, and union heads, you get a very strong sense of 'We are all in this together, and have to solve it together'.

Our intense self-criticism - evidenced in the daily torrent of talk show callers who run down anything and everyone - is again one of those overlooked invisible strengths. Whatever our societal faults, all voices are heard here. And Jamaicans certainly don't lack outlets to vent their frustrations at the government or business sector or churches, or whoever they see as the root of their problems.

Which might explain the almost complete absence of mass protest since 1938. Political scientists might point to the 1963 Chinese riots, the 1968 Rodney riots, the 1985 gas riot, or the 1997 gas riot. But by world standards these were mighty small potatoes, with a combined death toll of less than 20. And when last has there been a national demonstration involving even 1,000 Jamaicans?

The present crisis is forcing international financiers to examine every overseas investment in detail, with one overarching question in mind - just how stable is that country?

Our crime rate and disorganisation and abysmal productivity are hardly secrets. But how stable is Jamaica? The historical record gives an unequivocal answer - remarkably stable indeed.

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