The rioting erupted without warning and spread with uncontrolled fury. While 12,000 foreign tourists basked on Jamaica’s white sand beaches last week, hundreds of island residents swept into the streets to protest a steep rise in fuel prices. Demonstrators looted stores, threw rocks at police, erected barricades of burning tires and laid siege to Jamaica House, the white-
washed colonial mansion where Prime Minister Edward Seaga has his office. Vacationers—including many Canadian tourists—took refuge in their resort hotels on the north side of the Caribbean island and businesses, schools and government offices were closed. At the same time, airline traffic slowed, North American travel agents reported some winter vacation cancellations and the opening session of Jamaica’s Parliament was delayed. By week’s end, when riot troops restored order, five people were dead and another 20 injured.
The cause of the outbreak was a government announcement of immediate increases in prices of propane, kerosene and gasoline—the second in 13 months. The sharpest rise was for gasoline, which climbed 20 per cent to $2.19 (U.S.) a gallon from $1.80. In a radio broadcast former prime minister Michael Manley said the increases were “unwarranted,
unjustified and unbearable” and he called for an immediate price freeze. But Seaga insisted that the move was necessary to offset a devaluation of the Jamaican dollar last year by nearly 50 per cent, and he refused to moderate his stringent economic policies. Said the 54year-old Jamaican leader: “There is no possibility for the rolling back of the prices until the country produces the
level of foreign exchange it needs for imports.”
Seizing the offensive, Seaga accused the opposition of “orchestrating” the disturbances. The plan, he told a news conference, included a scheme to blow up a bridge and a causeway in the capital, Kingston, where the worst violence occurred. “We have known for some time that the opposition was planning for some demontrations,” Seaga declared. “They were just waiting for the right time.” The tiny Communist Workers’ Party of Jamaica conceded that its members had helped set up and maintain roadblocks.
The riots were the most serious challenge to Seaga’s government since he defeated Manley in a 1980 election, pledging a return to economic health through free enterprise and closer ties with the United States. Under his investment-oriented policies, Jamaica has
experienced significant growth in agriculture, manufacturing and tourism. But many Jamaicans have still not benefited from the improvements. Unemployment in the country of 2.2 million is more than 25 per cent. Inflation stands at 30 per cent. In the ghettos of Kingston little has changed since 1980 when the economy stagnated and more than 600 people died in political violence.
Capitalizing on economic discontent, Manley and his People’s National Party have increased pressure on the government. The PNP boycotted the last general election in December, 1983, when Seaga implemented an outdated voting system that effectively disenfranchised about 150,000 young voters who had turned 18 since the 1980 poll. Now, Manley and his opposition allies are demanding a new election, although Seaga’s term does not end until 1988.
The Boston-born, Harvard-educated Seaga has vowed not to change his economic course. His open-market development strategy—guided by the Washington-based International Monetary Fund—is designed to trim government spending, encourage foreign investment and build foreign currency reserves by boosting exports. In the past year he has ended government subsidies on such basic foodstuffs as rice, cornmeal and wheat flour, laid off 6,000 government employees and raised taxes. Successive devaluations have made Jamaican exports of coffee, bauxite and sugar less expensive for foreign buyers but they have hurt consumers, who must pay more for imported goods. Still, Seaga insists that the policies are necessary to restore economic well-being.
Washington, which has channelled more than $400 million in aid to the island since 1980, is watching Jamaica’s progress carefully. Under the Manley administration Jamaica had close relations with Communist Cuba to the north, but Seaga eliminated Cuban influence, turned to the United States and is now one of the strongest Caribbean allies of the Reagan administration. In addition to direct aid Washington exercises its influence through the IMF, which has demanded economic austerity measures in return for development loans and help in handling Jamaica’s $3billion foreign debt.
The opposition parties interpreted last week’s riots as a rejection of Seaga’s free enterprise strategy. “It’s a clear sign that their economic policies have failed,” said P. J. Patterson, chairman of Manley’s PNP. “We believe the country has reached the limit of its endurance.” And clearly, many Jamaicans are impatient with the relatively slow pace of Seaga’s economic revolution. The challenge for the prime minister will be to persuade them that it is worth waiting for. -MARCUS GEE
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