One of life’s sad realities is that we are all not blessed in the same ways. Those who could be termed ‘gifted’ (or a similar positive term) tend to have that accolade because ‘good’ things happen to them or ‘bad’ things avoid them, or both. Some have a rich mixture of both and will either feel neutral or tend to the side where the majority of experience tilts. This applies to people as individuals but also, collectively, as nations.
Jamaica is a place where the rich mixture applies. Blessed with a wonderful, warm climate over a lush and beautiful landscape, and surrounded by glistening sea water. The land and sea provide some of the best things that nature can offer. The people who now live there are mainly the offspring of slaves brought from Africa over 400 years ago, mixed with other immigrants from Europe, the Middle East, India, and China, who came voluntarily and involuntarily. They have melded and formed a fascinating multicultural mess. For most of its history, Jamaica has had few instances of civil strife between the different cultures. Yes, slaves rebelled against British landowners and political rulers. Yes, blacks have had instances of rioting against Chinese businesses. Yes, people who were not Rastafarians have attacked and victimized Rastas.
When Jamaica was a colony, it could not carve out unilaterally an identity for itself that was free from the control of its colonial masters. However, Jamaicans tried to show that they would not let these colonial rulers dictate without challenge. Slave riots in the 19th century resulted in significant changes in the relationship Britain had with the island it ruled. Labour unrest in the 1930s and the push for universal suffrage changed the perception of Jamaicans about themselves and their rights, and changed Britain’s view of this then-colony’s willingness to be subjected to second class or worse citizenship.
The world was changing and Jamaica was part of the trend that was underway to challenge Imperialism. After the Second World War, colonies across the world were looking to break away from colonizers. Jamaica was the first Caribbean country to take its Independence from Britian. Among its Caribbean counterparts, Jamaica has often been in the forefront of developments–good and bad.
Since, Independence in 1962, the country has tried to steer itself upon a path it wants to call its own. It’s been a rocky road. Its political life has been turbulent. The country has lived with a ‘tribal’ divide in national politics, which has seen divisions worsened by violent confrontations and developments of physical areas of control and exclusion in the so-called ‘garrisons’.
Its economic fortunes have not really been very good. Jamaica has been like many countries trying to develop but being small and not able to do much more than live off its natural attributes. Even though the country has seen its population grow rapidly, its economic base has not changed much in a fundamental way.
Jamaica has used its natural blessings.
Jamaica is what it grows: fruit, vegetables, fish, sugar cane. Jamaica is what is under the ground: bauxite, once discovered, became king. Jamaica, however, did manage to gain something more for adding value to its dirt by developing an alumina industry.
Jamaica is its climate. Once sugar and bananas did not hold sway as products to sell, Jamaica could sell its sunshine, sea, and sand, and foreign tourists flocked to sample them.
Jamaica was not about making many things. It bottled drinks and sold its excellent rums, and managed to create a great local beer. It processed some fruit and vegetables. It made medical products based on local herbs and plants, many of which have never had equal or better. It began to process its national dishes to sell locally and abroad. It tried to use its labour to make garments, a popular stepping stone for developing countries.
But, its blessings and things that came naturally have not been enough.
Jamaica was too small to develop many industries to dominate international markets. Its indigenous goods found markets but again have not seen demand swell enormously. It could not make cars, ships, steel, or other large scale items wanted by many countries at prices that would be competitive. It could use its people to offer services to each other and the rest of the world, but we have done that without being very competitive compared to local neighbors or others in further places–and these activities need us to be super competitive.
Those things that brought money to Jamaica, however, have not been enough to cover all the things that Jamaicans want to buy. As life changed, so did tastes. People wanted foreign food. People wanted to enjoy what richer countries had, and that mainly meant cars and the things that make cars work–oil. We wanted to enjoy electricity, and what it powered; we went with the production model that was common, fueling power generation by oil, which we did not have. We did not exploit our natural attributes in the form of sunlight, wind and waves. We wanted a life built on imports. Nothing wrong with that if you can afford it, but a big problem if you cannot and it becomes engrained, almost an entitlement.
Sadly, for Jamaicans, living beyond our natural and financial means has become the norm. We are now living with the pain that such excess should impose. Maybe, people thought that it was possible to live beyond our means for ever, or at least for a very long time. It really shouldn’t be hard to understand that living off gifts and loans has never been something that lasts very long, or occurs except on special occasions.
If Jamaica is like many people, it will take a lot of pain before being convinced that things have to change. Right now, the current wave of pain has not yet become extreme, but squeals of agony are beginning to get louder and come from places that were quiet before.
Much of the pain comes from a visual and real image that people do not like–their currency getting increasingly lower in value compared to other money in the world. That hits pride as well as pocket. Some of the pain is coming from bills not having the flexibility to be put off anymore. Debt allowed many (both persons and government) to enjoy what they wanted but really could not afford. Now, repaying debt is eating up literally what food people had eaten in the past. Some people may like to blame the government for being excessive, but individuals have done their part, too.
But, if change is to come, it will mean giving up much that people have taken for granted. That is unlikely to happen fast unless through some catastrophe. So, people will have to wean themselves or be weaned from the current patterns. Many will want to hang on till the last. People will also have to consider how to better exploit some ‘blessings’, which are almost natural, in that they are very much part of the country.
The country has a rich vein of creativity that has been captivating nationals and foreigners for well over a century. This has shown itself in music, dance, painting, writing, sport, food, different life styles, ingenious solutions to life’s problems, and more. We have exploited them, but not fully by any extent of the imagination.
We have gifted and talented people who cannot use their talents in the country or are not valued within the country. We understand that our doctors, nurses, teachers, artists, athletes may leave to ply their skills abroad, for more money, more fame, maybe more support, maybe more opportunities in the future. But, are we doing anything to stem that flow?
Platitudes won’t stop emigration. Jobs and good pay would help. Neither seems to be on the menu. Pleas of moral suasion won’t necessarily halt the flow, either. Pricking someone’s conscience will not affect them much if they also have to look at themselves and those they support and still see that they are in a plight. A pricked conscience does not pay rent, buy food, clothe children, or improve education and health options. That said, many have ‘hung on’ and not fled abroad, but for how much longer?
Migration has been a mixed blessing for Jamaica, both curse and cure. Many have left and supported those left behind. They took pressure off the local job market. But, we lost their sills and hardly gained a soul to replace those.
So, is Jamaica approaching a serious decision point, which has been on the horizon or a very long time? Can it change without catastrophe, or will it have to go through an extra layer of pain before curbing behaviour?
Economic policies can only affect directly some parts of a country’s problems and won’t go very far if the underlying behaviour problem goes unchanged, because people will soon revert to old habits. Jamaica may be on its way to tackling only a part of its difficulties and not really set to do more than find itself a breathing space.