“History is nothing but a record of the crimes and misfortunes of man” wrote Voltaire. A famous Chinese proverb agrees - “Fortunate countries have no history”.


Compared to the often chilling chronicles of our nearest neighbours - Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic - Jamaica’s past makes pretty tame reading. We have no ‘Remember the Maine’ invasions, Citadelle Lafferriere horrors, or Trujillo massacres to contemplate with fascinated dismay. The Sam Sharpe slave uprising, the Morant Bay rebellion and the Frome riots would scarcely rate footnotes in these countries a mere 100 miles away. Jamaica did have to endure the unspeakable brutalities of slavery, but that was an almost universal New World experience. Even then slaves in the English speaking Caribbean were freed by decree a generation earlier than anywhere else, and there were no brutal liberation wars here as in Haiti.


Granted a bloodless independence and untouched by war, 20th century Jamaica has also been exceptionally fortunate in escaping violent upheaval. If history was Darwinian a peaceful past should create a quiet and docile people. Yet rarely a day goes by here without a roadblock demonstration protesting bad roads, poor water supplies, police brutality or price increases. Excitable and aggressive in defending whatever they view as their rights, Jamaicans have a reputation for belligerence even among other Caribbean nations. Jamaica also has one the world’s highest murder rates, and ‘yardies’ and ‘posses’ rank among the most violent criminal gangs on earth.


Which makes Jamaica’s political history all the more striking. Since becoming independent in 1962 the country has held regular multi-party elections, remained assassination free, suffered no serious uprisings, adhered to the rule of law, and maintained a free press. This might seem a rather common place achievement, but over the past four decades very few countries of over a million people can make the same collective claim. Indeed you can almost count them on two hands: Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, France, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Holland, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Japan, Switzerland, Costa Rica. 


It is remarkable how many countries fail to meet such very basic criteria. The USA over the same period has seen the assassinations of John and Bobby Kennedy, an attempt on Gerald Ford’s life, and the wounding of Ronald Reagan. Trinidad suffered a major coup attempt in 1992 where the Prime Minister was shot. Swedish Premier Olaf Palme of was shot dead in 1989. Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro was kidnapped and found dead in 1985. India has suffered the assassinations of Indira and Rajiv Ghandi and numerous large scale riots. Zimbabwe and South Africa first had free elections in 1980 and 1994 respectively, while continuous democracy is virtually unknown in the rest of Africa or the Middle East. Political freedom has been experienced only intermittently in the Far East, being new even to Taiwan. Singapore still occasionally bankrupts opposition figures and jails journalists. Free elections are also a fairly recent novelty in Eastern Europe and Latin America, apart from Costa Rica and coup-attempt plagued Venezuela. 


None of this argues that Jamaica is a more successful society than Sweden, America or even Trinidad. It shows rather that freely ordered societies are rare, and that peaceful change is the exception, not the rule. Jamaica is certainly no Jeffersonian utopia, but power here has never come through the barrel of a gun. Don controlled garrisons and corrupt electoral officials may yet destroy the Jamaican body politic, but so far they have never prevented the will of the people from ultimately prevailing. Every leader of this country has been constitutionally chosen, and all losing candidates have in the end accepted the ballot count. Karl Popper once defined democracy as “the type of government which can be removed without violence”. From this perspective independent Jamaica is unquestionably one of the world’s great democratic successes.


At the same time however, the Jamaican economy has been one of the planet’s worst performers. In 1965 Jamaica’s real per capita GDP was over 50% higher than Mauritius’, over 30% higher than Malta’s, and slightly higher than Singapore’s. In 1997 it was less than half of Mauritius’, less than one fifth of Malta’s, and less than one twentieth of Singapore’s. Indeed according to World Bank figures real per capita GDP in Jamaica actually declined between 1965 and 1997. This may not reflect black market realities, but by any reckoning Jamaica remains a very poor country.


(But though Jamaica ranks 71st out of 148 countries on per capita GDP, it ranks 31st on life expectancy. Our average of about 74 years is not far behind the US’s overall 76, and well ahead that of the 67 of US blacks. Strong democracy here has meant good primary health care.)


So here is the Jamaican paradox. It is a country of highly volatile people with a demonstrated propensity for violence which has nevertheless proven to be one of the world’s most stable democracies. Yet this nation with a free press, multi-party democracy, and an independent judiciary has nevertheless remained mired in poverty. In short, almost alone among the over 180 countries on the planet, Jamaica since independence has managed to be both a political miracle and an economic disaster.


No other country with such a low per capita GDP has witnessed comparable political stability. No unbroken democracy has ever lasted so long on so little. But then none has lasted so long and produced so little. Should we marvel at the heroic preservation of liberal democracy in the face of sometimes crippling financial pressures? Or lament the gross economic mismanagement that has produced almost no real growth since 1962 despite the absence of any serious social disruption?


(Nearly all societies experience large-scale civil disorder at some time, but on a global scale Jamaica’s disturbances have been decidedly minor. Our gas protests were tea parties compared to the Los Angeles riots of 1992.)


Imperfections obviously exist, but the lynchpins of liberal democracy are firmly entrenched here. Jamaicans are well informed on national matters, are mostly free to vote for the candidate of their choice, and can normally expect due process of law. We have experienced no devastating wars, despoiling revolutions, kleptocratic dictatorships or shattering natural disasters. In the context of the country’s size and location, Jamaicans have more or less decided their own destiny. For good or bad, our fate has largely rested not in our stars but in ourselves. 


Democracy is based on the premise that given the consistent right to choose for themselves, a reasonably well educated populace will in the long run choose well. And the Jamaican people have had the good sense to maintain the institutions that make political choice possible. Yet they have also continually endorsed patronage politics and distributive financial policies which have consistently failed to produce economic growth. Changes of party, leadership and ideology have made little difference. All financial paths have led but to an inexorably expanding national debt.


According to the April 10-16 issue of the Economist, Jamaica currently has the worlds’ fourth largest proportionate budget deficit. (Only Kuwait, Angola and Lebanon are worse, and adding in FINSAC would make us number two.) Debt repayment will consume 62% of the current budget, and the total national debt of $337 billion represents 150% of our national income. This is clearly not sustainable. A nation that so heedlessly lives above its means awaits inevitable bankruptcy.


So what does our future hold? Will ever mounting debt burdens keep pushing the nation imperceptibly into Haitian style poverty where the only law is the belly? Will a Jamaican government eventually default on its obligations and make the country an international financial pariah? Will poor people get fed up with elected governments and either explode in Liberian-like anarchy or acclaim a populist strongman promising gain without pain? Or will the populace eventually learn from the past and elect an able government willing to make the harsh fiscal decisions necessary for long-term growth?


The Scottish historian Alexander Tyler claimed that "A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until a majority of voters discover that they can vote themselves largess out of the public treasury."


Will Jamaica prove him right, or wrong?

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