Jamaica celebrated its 49th anniversary of independence on August 6 with much public, and generally critical, comment on the state of the society and economy as the country approaches a half century of sovereign independence. In general national sentiment seems to reflect disappointment that the country’s economic growth has been so laggard since the end of the 1970s, and in that context, comment on the extent to which Jamaica, which could be said to have been somewhat ahead of the island of Singapore in the mid-1960s has slipped so far behind that country. The country’s growth rate in recent years has been largely negative – 1.4% in 2007, -0.6% in 2008 and -3% in 2009. And there is much cognizance that one of the leading sectors of the 1960s and 1970s, the bauxite-alumina industry, has drastically declined, and can hardly be said to be a driving force of the economy, though efforts are being made of late to encourage private external sector recapitalization.
But although over the last few years, the weakness of the economy has been perceived as a major challenge, efforts to deal with it have been dominated by widespread criminal activity driven by the drug trade, and now perceived as a major threat not only to the stability that is required for economic growth, but to the very governance of the country itself. The uproar over the so-called Dudus affair, involving resistance by Prime Minister Golding’s government to accede to an American request for extradition of an alleged drug baron with links to the ruling party, cast much doubt on the resilience of Jamaican political and governance institutions. This, in turn, has led to doubts about the country’s suitability for external investment.
There now appears to be widespread public doubt as to whether the Commission of Inquiry established by the government in the wake of the Dudus affair is really a satisfactory investigation of the matter, and some concern as to whether the commission’s report and recommendations, are sufficient to allay external, and in particular United States’ concerns that appropriate remedial measures have as yet been taken. Prime Minister Golding has himself visited the United States for discussions with American officials, and addresses to leading institutions, including the influential policy-advising Brookings Institution, to allay some of the remaining concerns.
It is fair to say, however, that the return of the Jamaica Labour Party government to office in 2007, after the eighteen-year rule of what seemed by then to be an exhausted People’s National Party, permitted a new approach to economic reorganization. The government immediately commenced a number of initiatives, the first of which has been a re-engagement with the IMF after much public discussion, given the generally negative perception of that institution. And the conclusions of Minister of Finance Audley Shaw’s discussions have been reflected in a decisive attempt to find an approach to diminution of the massive public debt, an accompanying effort to disengage the government from loss-making enterprises whether in the sugar industry or with the sale of Air Jamaica, widely seen as virtually a symbol of the country’s sovereignty, a new approach to the collection of tax revenues and a major intervention of public sector reform. In general, though, the measures have been seen by the Jamaican public as burdensome; much of the population has generally accepted them as desirable, even while recognizing that a return to meaningful economic growth is not exactly around the corner.
It has also, no doubt, been encouraging to the government that the official People’s National Party opposition has generally accepted the IMF programme, in spite of the fact that the government has never been loathe to foist on them the blame for the country’s predicament. The PNP has hardly been pleased at Prime Minister Golding’s decision to establish the so-called FINSAC Inquiry into the banking crisis of the 1990s that debilitated many of the country’s private financial institutions. But the government has itself not been helped by allegations of conflict in relation to the commissioners themselves, with the Chairman, former Justice Boyd Carey, being eventually removed. The PNP’s displeasure has spilled over into the Commission of Inquiry into the Dudus affair, where, by common consent, the party’s chief legal advocate, former PNP, now Senator, Minister Knight, virtually caused much discomfort to Prime Minister Golding, and then humiliated the Attorney General to the extent that the Prime Minister felt it necessary to dismiss her following the publication of the commission’s report.
So while it is fair to say that there appears to be a general consensus that the government’s pursuit of a new agreement with the IMF, and then its decision to eventually concede to the US extradition request and to appoint a Commission of Inquiry have represented something of an easing of public discomfort with both the economic and the political crises, there seems to remain a level of tension between the government and opposition political parties that is abnormal for Jamaica. As a new election approaches in 2012, however, the polls suggest public partiality for a return of the PNP to office. Yet there does not seem much dispute between the two parties as to the course of economic policy, which suggests a continuity of what is deemed to be the critical relationship with the IMF, and a continuation of reform of public institutions originally initiated by the PNP. Over the last decade at least two critical institutions were introduced that have seemed to increase public confidence in the system of governance. One has been the Electoral Commission, which has been given widespread autonomy, and which has carried out extensive reform of the electoral process; and another, the Office of Contractor-General, with responsibility for monitoring the award of public contracts in the government system. The procedural arrangements of both of these initiatives can well be emulated in the rest of Caricom.
Jamaica’s public presence in the region has been somewhat muted over the years of the JLP government, though Prime Minister Golding, on taking up the Chairmanship of Caricom on his assumption of office in Jamaica, attempted a resolution of the so-called governance of Caricom issue. It appears that Jamaica would wish to see some movement on the issue of appropriate pricing of Trinidad’s natural gas within the context of the CSME, to facilitate its own reorganization of its industrial activity. Trinidad and Tobago entrepreneurs have spread their wings into Jamaica, in the context of the failure of many industries there during the long period of recession, and the Jamaicans seem to feel that the CSME, or indeed the CSM is, as far as their economy is concerned, too one-sided. In recent weeks, Prime Minister Golding has emphasized the importance of more collective Caricom activity, particularly in relation to the required diplomacy over aid, trade and debt questions in the international arena.
But it looks as though the country’s domestic situation is so overwhelming, that few initiatives in that regard can be expected from Jamaica on the regional front as the country moves into its fiftieth year, and is drawn into another electoral contest, in 2012.