DATELINE

Tentative calm on the island after the storm

Divisions run deep, and memories of the campaign are painful

Cynthia Brown March 9 1981
DATELINE

Tentative calm on the island after the storm

Divisions run deep, and memories of the campaign are painful

Cynthia Brown March 9 1981

Tentative calm on the island after the storm

DATELINE: JAMAICA

Divisions run deep, and memories of the campaign are painful

Cynthia Brown

"No more fighting,” says Nick June, a 22-year-old Kingston taxi driver. “We got peace now.” Four months after Jamaica’s national elections, the streets of the capital are sociable again, and relief is in the air. For the moment, at least, this nation of two million is enjoying its calm after the storm.

Within a few weeks after the Oct. 30 elections, which saw the Jamaican Labor party win 51 of 60 parliamentary seats and Edward Seaga installed as prime minister, the nightly political clashes, which had tormented Kingston neighborhoods throughout the ninemonth election run-up, diminished and then disappeared. Streets that were sealed off by defensive barricades are now open. The bars are full of customers drinking beer and eating spicy “jerk pork.” Correspondingly, the partisan war of words between the island’s two major newspapers has been, if not entirely suspended, at least noticeably moderated. As one civil servant puts it: “We have survived. The story now is that life goes on.”

The Labor party campaign promised

a great deal more than mere survival, however, and high expectations are the order of the day. Store owners, hotelkeepers and others in tourist-related businesses are unanimous in looking toward the fruits of tranquillity. In Montego Bay, whose beaches have helped make tourism Jamaica’s secondlargest foreign-exchange earner after bauxite, hotel bookings are up over last year, when they dropped by 20 per cent. According to Angella Scott of the Jamaica Tourist Board in Montego Bay, a further increase is expected throughout the balance of the winter season. Even in Kingston, where fewer tourists go, the words on many lips are that “foreign money is coming in,” through investment and visitors, to revitalize the economy.

The government, too, is emphatically optimistic. While admitting that uncontrollable factors such as oil prices and international inflation will greatly affect the rate of economic change, Tony Johnson, minister of state for the ministry of industry and commerce, says that since the elections there has been an “amazing amount of private economic activity” based on expectations of a free-market policy for trade and investment. Johnson says his ministry is “besieged” by interested investors, both Jamaican and foreign. Although it is too soon to tell whether the manna will materialize, Johnson is hopeful that his government’s pro-business stance and its encouragement of nontraditional export industries will turn much of the interest into commitments. While Canadian businessmen are still cautiously waiting, Americans appear quite ready to go along. Gulf & Western Industries, Inc. is talking about agriindustrial projects, including cigar production. Maidenform Co. is discussing a joint project to manufacture garments. And a few computer parts companies are considering moving their semiconductor assembly plants to Jamaica—at least one of them from violence-plagued El Salvador.

In the meantime, 50-year-old Seaga, a man known for his no-nonsense approach to management and politics, is firmly in place as his own minister of finance, of information and of mines. As one prominent businessman says, “They’ll not make a move unless Eddie says so.”

This is not a simple case of euphoria, however. Divisions beneath the surface calm run deep, and memories of the election campaign are painful—more than 600 people died by violence during the campaign—and bitter rhetoric polarized the parties as never before. When Lester Ferron, a middle-aged Kingston dress shop owner, talks of the eight-year social-democrat administration of Michael Manley, his language is sharp with denunciations of Cuba and food shortages. By the same token, when John Maxwell, a television journalist and prominent member of Manley’s People’s National Party (PNP), walks through downtown Kingston, he is loudly greeted from buses and trucks, and is stopped for a pat on the back by several supporters, reminding the observer that some 43 per cent of Jamaica’s popular vote went to the democratic socialists, even when food was shortest and discontent highest. The key to Seaga’s election campaign, on which all expectations hang, was the promise of prosperity and unity—a tall order after seven years of stagnation and in a society so intensely politicized. Industrial production at election time was at 50 per cent of capacity.

Now, just a few months after his election, it appears that Seaga is well on his way to keeping some of his promises. In the final hours of the Carter administration in the U.S., $40 million of bilateral economic aid was approved for Jamaica and an additional $40 million in loans was subsequently obtained from foreign banks with counterparts in Jamaica. On Seaga’s visit to Washington on Jan. 28 (he was the first foreign head of state to visit Reagan after his inauguration), he announced two agreements with the U.S. aimed at promoting economic co-operation and tourism for Jamaica. One of the agreements would, in principle, enable U.S. organizations holding conventions in Jamaica to deduct their expenses for tax purposes, similar to a provision that Canada recently regained. The other would lead to the establishment of a joint group of members of the U.S. business community and of the Private Sector Organization of Jamaica designed to increase economic investment in Jamaica.

However, a complete economic program in Jamaica cannot reasonably be expected for at least a year, despite popular hopes for immediate results. But its earliest outlines—which will emerge with the foreseen completion of an International Monetary Fund (IMF) agreement in coming weeks—are bound to displease some sectors, notably labor. In return for the requested $600 million (U.S.) of IMF assistance over three years, the government is likely to face the standard IMF stabilization requirements, including cuts in public-sector employment and wage restraints. With unemployment at 30 per cent, electricity and food costs rising quickly, Tony Johnson admitted that “we have not been able to formulate an employment policy.” Jamaica’s government may well face a new storm, no matter what the long-range promises offered by potential investment.

Unity, too, is an elusive quantity. The government’s attempts to promote nonpartisan feelings have so far been ambiguous, mixed as they are with warnings against radicalism which emphasize party differences. A typical mixture appeared in one of the prime minister’s recent speeches, where the concept of unified nation-building was combined with a denunciation of past “excesses that produced the extremisms tailored to suit minority views” and of “alien designs” on the nation’s future— this last evidently a reference to Michael Manley’s close relations with Cuba.

Incidents such as the January explosion and burning of an Esso oil installation in Montego Bay dramatize the underlying strain. Although lacking any evidence pending an investigation of the disaster, the conservative Daily Gleaner hinted strongly at political sabotage, harking back to a December warning by army chief Brig. Robert Neish that threats of industrial sabotage existed, as well as the possibility of unspecified “radical political activities.” A Montego Bay supporter of the opposition PNP, angered by the Gleaner viewpoint, says, “They’re hanging everything on us now.”

Thus, the two political camps watch one another warily. The elections are over, the campaign violence is past, and now comes the waiting.