Sunny Jamaica losing its gloss

Hardly a day goes by that there are not reports of a food riot, an industrial shutdown, or a workers' strike somewhere in Jamaica. So desperate is Jamaica's economic situation that about the only bright spot is tourism along the island's north coast, where thousands of vacationers from Canada and the United States are enjoying the warm tropical sun that blankets this Caribbean island.

In a way, the tourist industry has made a dramatic comeback from very lean years during the mid-1970s, when vacationers were scared away by reports of violence and turmoil. This year they don't seem to mind the reports.

"They are back in quite adequate numbers," says the Jamaica Tourist Board. "We are doing better this tourist season than in any year since 1971."

But tourism is not what Jamaica is all about. Only a fraction, perhaps 50, 000 people out of the island's 2.1 million, depend on tourism for a livelihood.

The rest look to bauxite mining, agriculture, small manufacturing, and service industries. And they do not have enough work.

These workers' personal misfortunes are mirrored by the island's overall misfortunes, which the government of Prime Minister Michael Manley has been unable to resolve during his eight years in office.

Part of the problem, of course, is the staggering price rise in petroleum, which affects Jamaica even more severely than most third- world countries. Jamaicans have a life style that is based in considerable measure on consumer imports, including oil.

And Jamaicans, like people in the United States, find it hard to give up these imports, particularly gasoline for vehicles. At first glance, seeing the number of cars on the highways and the mini-traffic jams at rush hours, the visitor gets the impression of affluence and, indeed, of prosperity.

But a second glance reveals the truth: This is an island becoming increasingly shabby. The economy is running down.

In February the government announced it would reduce oil imports 10 percent and stimulate use of other energy sources.

Lack of raw materials is leading to regular industrial shutdowns. Jamaicans are increasingly hard pressed to make ends meet. Strikes for higher wages are commonplace.

Jamaica's troubles are not new. there has been evidence of general decline for years, but now it is quite desperate. How it got there is a matter of dispute. Prime Minister Manley blames the skyrocketing oil prices, high interest rates on overseas borrowing, worldwide inflation, and the extremely poor terms of trade for Jamaica's bauxite. Most consumer goods must be imported at high cost.

The Prime Minister's critics, however, put the blame squarely on his shoulders. They argue that the Manley government has mishandled the economy and also cite his radical political rhetoric.

They note that an International Monetary Fund bailout loan of $250 million has been stalled in midstream because Jamaica failed to meet the IMF's foreign-assets test. Mr. Manley's subsequent efforts to get a waiver for the $ 30 million installment due Jan. 15 have so far been unavailing.

Some of those who criticize the Prime Minister are early Manley supporters who have turned sour.

The truth behind Jamaica's economic troubles probably lies in a combination of the factors singled out by Mr. Manley and his critics.

Indeed, there are people close to Mr. Manley who admit that government mismanagement has been endemic in the past eight years and that it is getting worse. But these observers suggest Mr. Manley cannot be blamed directly.

"After all, we are like so many third-world countries," a Ministry of Economy official says. "We have a very limited talent pool from which to draw and we are spread thin."

To this, Manley critics will reply that the pool was not so limited when Mr. Manley came to office, and that the Prime Minister's radical rhetoric -- calling for the socialization of the Jamaican economy and for ties with the socialist world -- led many to quit the country. In short, a brain drain resulted.

Emigration statistics support this conclusion.

Whatever the cause, there is no doubt that Jamaica's economy is in dire straits. And every Jamaican is affected. Jamaicans love their cars, and gasoline, which goes for $2.65 a gallon now, will probably rise to $3.00 a gallon by midyear. Bread is often unavailable in the supermarkets; wheat has to be imported, and somehow shipments do not seem to arrive on schedule.

But this could be merely a foretaste of things to come if economic indicators and economic analyses are correct.

Many factories are on limited work schedules with recent employees being laid off, and the possibility of massive layoffs is very real.

Finance Minister Eric Bell admits this may be the case. In recent remarks, he indicated "we could have some real problems with shutdowns, causing all sorts of other economic hardships" in the near future.

Raw materials are in very short supply. Wheat for bread is just one example. Brassiere factories do not have hooks, eyelets, and snaps. One of the factories has closed its doors. Another is simply producing and storing brassieres until it can get the hooks and eyelets it needs.

The Sunday Gleaner, Kingston's leading newspaper, recently carried a story about "dirty shoes everywhere" because there are no tins for the polish that is produced here.

The Daily Gleaner and the Daily News are full of stories about shortages. Hardly a day passes that they do not relate another aspect of the problem.

Just how Jamaica gets itself out of this dilemma remains to be seen. The problem is not only economic, but also political, for the pressure is on for Mr. Manley to hold elections.

He has promised to do that before the year is out -- "by October." But whether Mr. Manley's People's National Party or Edward Seaga's Jamaica Labour Party wins, it will have a whopping task on its hands.

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