Jamaica, is 'she gonna sink away'?

"Man, dis foolishness has gotta stop. This island, she is gonna sink away from all the trouble. Sometin' gotta give someways." Standing in front of his jerry-built stone, wood, and metal slum shack in Trench Town in west Kingston, Hedley Armstrong was talking about life in Jamaica today.

"It wasn't always dis way. When I vote for Mr. Manley back in 1972, Jamaica, she was properous, and everyone had work.

"Now, look at Jamaica. She in ruins."

Excusing Mr. Armstrong for exaggeration, for life in Jamaica today is clearly not as bad as he suggests nor were conditions on the Caribbean island all that promising when Michael Manley became Prime Minister in 1972, his views do suggest the way things have gone here during the past eight years.

"Downhill -that is how they have gone," says Joshua Brown, whose small clothing factory on the edge of Kingston no longer has a stockpile of raw material to assure steady, continuous operation." If he makes it a few more weeks, he will be lucky, he says.

And so will his remaining work force, down from 40 to only 18.

Over and over again, on this island of 2.1 million, comments like those of Mr. Armstrong and plights like that of Mr. Brown have become commonplace.

Jamaica is in deep economic trouble. Independent since 1962, the island is typical of many third world nations faced with growing pains.

With one major resurce, bauxite, which it sells at the prices set on the international market, Jamaica must pay all of its imports with bauxite revenues, and those imports are increasingly expensive. Oil is one example. Jamaica's 1980 fuel bill will total $400 million or more, up from a mere $75 million when Mr. Manley took office.

The growing pains, then, are typical -but in Jamaica these pains have been aggravated by what even people in the government admit are serious mistakes by the government.

And they have been aggravated by Mr. Manley's many social welfare schemes, which cost a lot of money.

The result is general Jamaican malaise that works against the Manley government.

If an election were held today -and one will be held "by October," Mr. Manley promises -it is likely that the Manley government would be overturned. Opinion polls suggest that Edward Seaga and his Jamaica Labour Party would easily trounce Mr. Manley's People's National Party (PNP).

Part of the trouncing would be done by people like Mr. Armstrong, long-time supporters of the PNP.

"I vote in 1962 for Mr. Manley's father, and I vote for Mr. Manley all these years. I not do that again."

Mr. Armstrong, whose white curly hair glistens in the warm tropical sun, was a contemporary of the elder political figure -Norman Manley, one of the two outstanding leaders on the island when it became independent.

It obviously is hard for him to break a long tradition of voting for the PNP and for the Manleys. And he might just renege at the last minute in the voting booth, but at the moment he seems determined to vote for the JLP "for the first time in my life."

And so are increasing numbers of Jamaicans. The Carl Stone poll here, which forecast quite accuately Mr. Manley's sizeable 1977 victory, says the PNP would poll a mere 35 percent of the vote this time, the JLP 47 percent, with 16 percent undecided and 2 percent going for the communist Workers Party.

Behind this significant shift in voter opinion is the economic crisis facing the island. Jamaicans are worried about their island's future. About the only bright spot in the economy is tourism which has rebounded nicely from the lows of the mid 1970s. The current tourist season, drawing thousands of North Amnericans from Canada and the United States, is the best since 1971.

But almost every other economic barometer is down. Not only are there shortages in raw materials, but shortages of food in the supermarkets. Food riots have taken place recently, as angry shoppers look for items on nearly bare shelves.

Unemployment is at an all-time high -some 30 percent. And it is likely to climb still higher, as factories continue layoffs. Mr. Armstrong, whose warm smile and lilting speech believes his situation, is one of the layoff casualties. He worked for 20 years in a furniture factory that has had to close doors, and now he relies on his son's earnings as a busboy in a hotel.

As Jamaicans look around for scapegoats, the obvious one is the present government. It came to office in 1972 promising major political and economic reforms for the island. It recognized that too many of Jamaicans, most of whom are black, did not have access to decent living. Mr. Manley, as time went on, adopted an increasingly socialist stance and began flirting with neighboring Cuba and the Soviet Union.

At the conference of nonaligned nations in Havana last September, for example , Mr. Manley delivered a fiery speech supporting the socilaist bloc and condemning the West, particularly the United States. There were many, who were surprised at the length to which Mr. Manley went in excoriating the West.

And back at home, Mr. Manley came under more heat than ever before.

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