Front page news: Caribbean crime will be the death of us

Just a few hours ago, we were a year away. Today, hope starts anew with the first day of a new year. It’s an illusion that things are new, but let’s go with it.

Last night, as we were driving home, the radio was pumping a local song “Church out. Crab crawling.” Simply put, the need to focus on the serious matter of religious worship had to be cut short because it was time to feed. I took that as metaphor for many things in  the Caribbean region. We are often ready to drop dealing with serious issues for something fun. Crime is one such issue that may fall into that category.

The Bahamas, where I am now, is trailing by many hundred in the raw number of murders, but are on a trend that is truly frightening, leading (if that’s really the right verb) the region in murders per head of population. Last week–in the midst of Christmas–a horrible drive-by shooting occurred in a community named Fox Hill; four people were murdered. The country is appalled. The Prime Minister, Perry Christie, hastily called a cabinet meeting, after which he issued a statement with a ‘20 point plan‘ to tackle violent crime. It may be a good basis to deal with the problem, though I have my doubts.

My concern here, and in Jamaica–where the level of murders in above 1,000 a year–is that the only real measures that can address crime are broad changes in how our societies  work. More people involved in crime have to be convinced that killing, robbing, and terrorising their fellow citizens is insane. For people who live outside our geographical area it may be hard to understand what it’s like to be in fear of attack, not from foreign invaders, but by people around you. Most people in our islands have no understanding of how it is that mostly young men can be hellbent on taking each others’ live and the lives of those who make up the whole community. In Jamaica, reports show that nurses and other caregivers have now become targets for robberies and violence. Imagine, seeking to hurt and attack people who could be the very ones to help save the lives of the attacker. My mind cannot fathom it.

That sense of inability to understand is driving many to grasp for solutions that sound fine in terms of appearing to deal with the problem in a brutal way. The death penalty is one measure for which Bahamians are clamoring. People may accept that such a measure is not a complete deterrent, but it surely metes out punishment. For many people, that addresses many issues. “You kill our people? We are going to kill you,” satisfies many consciences. It’s in the eye for an eye mould.

If asked, many would condone the ‘extra judicial’ killing by police ‘in the line of their duties’. They want to be rid of those who are frightening everyone and perhaps likely to break in, maim, rob and kill.

The social solution is, of course, slow to resolve the problem. Even if hanging, or another death penalty is introduced, the society has to stem the processes that produce young people who see a future based on killing their neighbours. Where we have a major problem is that alternatives for young people are scant. In a society that has promoted money and wealth but not been able to give many the realistic option to even earn enough for a basic living, pressures to ‘get rich quick’ or ‘get it’ just build. That’s where the song comes back. We’re ready to move from serious consideration of problems to ‘eat’ quickly.

I discussed with a Bahamian friend over the weekend the problems that need to be addressed if crime is to be reduced, and it cannot happen if enough people are not committed to rooting out the problem. That means hurting themselves in many cases–communities living off the proceeds of crime will have to give that us and give up the people who bring in ill-gotten gains. His view, and mine, was that this ‘critical mass’ does not yet exist, especially about those in decision-making positions. Maybe, that’s because they are not too affected. If so, it will be interesting to see how the recent robbery at the home of the Deputy Prime Minister changes that sense of safety.

As the new year begins, the page on crime reduction and prevention needs to turn. It’s been well-thumbed and looks dog-eared. The Bahamas is emblematic of what the region is dealing with. Crime at the levels being seen can easily destroy what little economic base is working. Many enterprises have folded and stated that one of the reasons for that was crime. The Bahamas faces the real threat to its tourism that visitors will choose other destinations, and one major cruise line is on the brink of pulling out from the island. The impact of that on the livelihoods of the majority of the country would be devastating. Maybe the gap between those who are affected by crime and those who are not is large–remembering that much of the violent crime seems to be about ‘settling scores’, but innocent parties get caught up in squabbles between criminal elements.

The public presentations of ‘solutions’ to crime have been very focused on national issues and actions. I believe that the transnational base of much of the crime suggests that such approaches wont work for long. But, Caribbean political practices don’t tend to lean on collaboration. Our way or no way is common. Lacking, too, is the clear willingness to stand up and denounce criminals at all costs–and for some, that cost is real in terms of funding and being able to keep constituents contented.

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)