Few things are as embarrassing as when all of your faults are laid bare for all to see. It’s hard to cover them up, but some still try. I have that feeling about what is going on in Kingston, ahead of the State visit of President Obama.

One part of me wonders who in the government, at any level, really believes that the POTUS is going to be fooled into thinking that Jamaica has become some sort of Caribbean Utopia by the ‘special works’ that are being undertaken? Another part says that the officials feel the need, or have been told, to at least make huge efforts to ‘make the place look pretty’.

If you check on the Internet, searching for ‘Jamaica’, you will find enough information to satisfy even the most curious, and it comes with lots of pictures. Many of these are of the beautiful coastline, mountains, and waterways, for which we are now famous. Jamaica, as paradise, an idyllic island.

Idyllic Jamaica

Idyllic Jamaica

If you refine the search just a little and add the word ‘poverty’, you will get more information and more pictures. This time, they show Jamaica’s squalid living conditions and ragged people. They show the garbage-filled gullies and channels, which most people who live in Jamaica know to be common. Many know such conditions first-hand, most know them at least second-hand.

Jamaican 'poverty'

Jamaican ‘poverty’many know, if not first-hand, often second-hand.

So, with a few clicks, anyone can see the beautiful and the beastly of Jamaica.

President Obama, however, is not just anybody. He happens to have been in office when Jamaican security forces entered Tivoli Gardens in a search for Christopher (‘Dudus’) Coke, in 2010. That ended with the loss of many civilian lives, and is now the subject of an official Enquiry–which happens to resume today. He would have had reports of this terrible event from his Ambassador to Jamaica, and from his country’s extensive intelligence sources. If he were just curious, he could again just turn to the Internet for a snapshot of the events as provided by YouTube. 

In fact, Presidents (and other political leaders) gets such varied information about countries all the time. So, what is going on in Jamaica and what the place and its people are like, especially in the context of things that concern the USA, is not new to President Obama. If politics and espionage have been what they were for decades, he will know much more, based on ‘eavesdropping’ and ‘inside information’. So, when he lands in Kingston, whether he’s moved from the airport by helicopter then road, or road all the way, he will see a country that he knows is not the one that is there most of the time. In other words, the quick lick of paint and spreading of asphalt, and wrecking of vendors’ stalls, or clearing of vagrants, or removal of windscreen washer boys, will have not much impact on his impression of Jamaica. It may help cement his impression of the politicians here, however.

Squalid living conditions in Jamaica

Squalid living conditions in Jamaica

So the ‘beautification’ of Kingston for his visit is largely a farce–a comic dramatic work using buffoonery and horseplay and typically including crude characterization and ludicrously improbable situations. So, what does it show?

It shows embarrassment that comes from neglect at many levels. The inability to house your nation, decently, especially its poor, is a classic failure of both private sector and government. The inability to deal with decaying infrastructure is another failure of government. In countries that suffer various forms of natural hazards or disasters, prevention is often better than a cure. Regular drought or rain or hurricanes pose particular problems, but they are never solved if they are only ever patched over, if I can use that phrase. Nature will expose the folly of that in a heartbeat. Jamaicans know this all too well, as year after year roads are patched with thin covering that is washed away within months, only for the process to start again. We have not invested in repair and replacement of pipes and dams, so each year we have a water ‘crisis’. We have not dealt with the obvious problem of inadequate waste disposal and every year we have another ‘crisis’ with fires at dumps or epidemics that are caused by breeding grounds for diseases being left untouched.

If your home is generally untidy, when visitors come unexpectedly, you rush to say “Excuse the mess.” If they are invited, then you do what you can to make the place look presentable, and if that’s only one room, then you keep them right there.

A government doesn’t need to be neglectful; in fact, it’s set up to be careful. It has routines and schedules that produce orderliness. One of these is annual budgets. That’s how you set priorities for the year ahead, at least, or a few years ahead, if you can. But, if you budget badly–and that is not just about the balancing of finances, but about the decisions on what to do and what to leave undone–then your life becomes Hell. Welcome to Jamaica!

What we see now, with the hurried planting of flowers is just the result of years of bad budgeting. Keeping roads in good shape was not a priority. Cleaning gutters and keeping the streets free of weeds was not a priority. Improving living conditions was not a priority. Building an economy to offer people options other than selling on the roadside was not a priority. We can see what were priorities, and it’s things that largely benefit a few, not most.

Theologians may disagree, but I often see Jamaica as part of the ‘parable of the talents’. We are ‘rich’ in natural resources, but small, so we’re like the man who received one talent.

We had little and we turned it into little more

We had little and we turned it into little more

We’ve chosen, through accepting limited political visions, to bury our talents. We end up, therefore, with little more than we started–which is essentially that we are a country naturally well-endowed.

We did not invest in education to the extent that our students could command jobs almost anywhere in the world. We did not invest in turning our artisans and crafts people into producers of high quality items: wooden carvings and honey in old rum bottles on the road side are quaint…just quaint. We did not invest in developing our agriculture so that our products would be demanded anywhere in the world (our coffee is an exception, and GraceKennedy show that it’s possible with manufactured foods). We did not invest in transforming natural resources into things of higher value (we needed much help from other countries to make that work and there are ways to make that happen, which we did not take). We did not make our workers and population in general understand that quality and consistency count more than anything: you cannot succeed if that comes from the random outcome of meeting the right person, you need training so that everyone can provide the ‘right’ or ‘best’ service or goods.

Our love of “It just so” has been our downfall. It’s apathy, but it’s been fuelled by years of letting people believe that by accepting that doing nothing to change things for the better is a viable route. It’s utter rubbish! Letting people squat on land they do not own and building property on it without proper sanitation is rampant apathy. Letting people believe that by voting for a particular party they would be free from normal obligations such as paying for services provided by government is rampant apathy. Who in their right mind would pay for something that can be obtained free and without penalty? As I’ve said before, Jamaicans are not stupid, but they have lived in a world that is full or unreality. They’ve been led to believe that many things that are expensive to provide can be obtained for free, or in exchange for votes.

Our suddenly acquiring gleaming new ‘roads’, sidewalks without long-time vendors, and streets without ‘undesirables’ are just another chapter in the story book of living in unreality. We never had to get there, and it would have been so much better to have not embarked on projects like that while gullies are rammed with trash and people live in hovels.