Violence, economic turmoil threaten Jamaica's welfare

The warm tropical sun shines as briliantly as ever over this lovely Caribbean island, nourishing both the rich agricultural soil and the important tourist industry.

Yet the mood here is anything but sunny.

In fact, it is rather ugly. Violence and economic turmoil seem the order of the day. Since early February when Prime Minister Michael Manley announced parliamentary elections for later this year, there have been more than 250 violent deaths on the island.

Most of them occured in the slum areas of West Kingston, whose names are like a roster of poverty on this island: Trench Town, Jones Town, Tivoli Gardens, Denham Town.

Then this past week, the home of the United States Embassy political officer was shot up in an escalation of the violence -- moving the disturbance from slum areas to the more affluent suburds of this sprawling capital city where one-third of Jamaica's population lives.

In addition to the increasing violence is a general economic turndown, with resultant bankruptcies, plant closings, worker layoffs, shortages of raw materials and consumer goods and a weakening of foreign exchange. Heavy overseas debts have added to the burden.

About the only bright spot is tourism, which this past winter returned for the first time to levels of early 1970, the time when Jamaica was the Caribbean's brightest tourst jewel. Headlines in February called the influx a "tourist blitz."

But tourism director Desmond Henry warns that the violence "could result in a slow, strangulating suicide of the tourist industry."

Many Jamaicans would say, with Mr. Henry, that the current violence is slowly strangling the whole country.

"We cannot take much more of it," comments Edward Seaga, leader of the opposition jamaica Labour Party, "for the country is being torn apart by the violence." Opinion polls says Mr. Seaga is likely to outpoll Prime Minister Manley in the voting when it takes place, now thought likely to be in October.

The violence took a bizarre turn in late June when the Jamaican Defense Force (JDF) discovered a plot to overthrow the Manley government before the elections. The exact nature of the plot has yet to be disclosed, but a JDF probe is expected to make public details of the aborted coup within days.

In the wake of the coup discovery, Mr. Manley's popularity went up, but it remains unlikely that this improvement will be enough to reverse what looks like a probable defeat for the Prime Minister.

Part of Mr. Manley's problem is that Jamaica has gone downhill politically, eocnomically, and socially since he came to power. Not at all the trouble can be laid at Mr. Manley's door, even the more conservative Mr. Seaga agrees. But much of it springs from the Manley political philosopy, known as "democratic socialism," which has caused great divisions in the country.

Mr. Manley sees socialism as the only hope that Jamaica will ever cut its colonial dependence on Britain, the United States, and Canada, which he says has continued since independence in 1962.

This dilemma is one facing most Caribbean islands, many of which have looked to Jamaica as the example of a nation moving away from dependence on the West by turning to the socialist bloc, particularly Cuba, and to Latin America, particularly Venezuela.

But Cuban and Venezuelan aid has not been enough to halt the island's economic drift. As oil prices rise, vital foreign reserves are being used up. Moreover, the island is not producing enough either agriculturally or industrially. Crops languish because fertilizers and insecticides are not available and because of govenment red tape on sales and taxes.

Moreover, industry lacks raw materials and finds taxes eat up the profits -- and anyway, the consumers are not buying much in the way of nonessentials.

Although the shortage of foodstuffs is less evident today than in January and February when food riots took place, many Jamaicans are hoarding goods in anticipation of new shortages.

Bauxite, Jamaica's basic resource, ought to be bringing in more foreign exchange, but world prices have not gone up as rapidly as the government expected. Only tourism is proving a money earner -- and it is a fragile commodity, since the violence may well scare tourists as it did in the early 1970s.

Meanwhile, many Jamaicans are leaving the island in a tide that began flowing in the early 1970s. At the moment, 1 percent of Jamaica's population leaves yearly -- some 25,000 people.

The problem, admits Prime Minister Manley himself, is that "things are not working very well."

Others would add that Mr. Manley's economic policies are to blame. These include spreading socialism, growing bureaucracy, and outright featherbidding of state industries.

But as Jamaica's troubles mount and its economy languishes, Mr. Manley's solutions become less attractive to neighboring nations.

And at home, Mr. Manley's popularity dwindles and government propaganda and patronage have been unable to arrest the decline.

Along wit Mr. Seaga, a Jamaican of Lebanese extraction who regularly wins elections in a mostly black constituency, the opposition to Mr. Manley is spearheaded by the Daily Gleaner, Kingston's main morning newspaper.

While the government criticizes the paper for publishing reports of violence on page one, the Gleaner has not minced words on the problems. In a recent editorial entitled "The Killing Must Stop," it said "the escalating violence . . . is shocking to all citizens . . ..

"The society is on the verge of anarchy. Police stations are shot up, schools are entered and shot up, doors to homes are kicked down and people killed, citizens walking on the streets are sprayed with bullets from machine guns, bodies are found mysteriously damped on lawns, or in gullies or elsewhere . . ."

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