The good, the bad and the ugly (May 4, 2014): What’s government all about edition

Good is that the proposed bank withdrawal tax was withdrawn. I think that episode holds many lessons for Jamaica’s finance minister, the PM and for ministers in general, and I wrote about that earlier in the week. Lots of people commented to me about the effectiveness and simplicity of the tax, but those were also the points of contention, in my mind. I felt, and many comments I heard also from people was that the constant tapping of the low-lying fruit, what I call the ‘hakuna matata’ mentality is just wearing people out.

Bank tax proposal was no laughing matter, really (Courtesy of the Observer.)
Bank tax proposal was no laughing matter, really (Courtesy of the Observer.)

Go after the difficult to catch (and it’s a simmering issue in the matter of dealing with electricity theft), especially those know to be friends and sympathizers. Stop going after the soft options. I think those who have eyes and ears working well will realize that Jamaica has a population that can wrestle with issue and express its opposition without having to mount barricades and torch buildings. The other lesson that was clear was that badly prepared politicians are a sight not pretty to behold. Sorry, to point fingers but the PM and finance minister deserve every squirming minute of agony they get from having to watch video replays of their not-finest moments.

Bad, going on ugly, is the case of the 234 Nigerian school girls who have been abducted.kidnapped girls The latest I read is that US Secretary of State John Kerry has vowed that Washington will do “everything possible” to help Nigeria deal with the armed group Boko Haram, who are the abductors. The kidnapping is wrong on so many levels, and having three daughters makes this situation so very discomforting. Whatever pacifist views I have got stretched to their limits when thinking about how to deal with the perpetrators. Give me strength! I’m curious, though, in all this mess, how the 2014 World Economic Forum on Africa, scheduled for Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, will just roll off like ice on hot metal. Just have to say “Goodluck, Jonathan”.

Ugly goes to the imbroglio–a word that is almost onomatopoeic–about who will be Jamaica’s next energy provider. The energy minister so wants it to be EWI, that’s apparent.

Clovis wasted no time lampooning the minister being lambasted. Lamb to the slaughter? (Courtesy of the Observer.)
Clovis wasted no time lampooning the minister being lambasted. Lamb to the slaughter? (Courtesy of the Observer.)

Why? That’s curious? How? By all means possible, it seems. As with the bank withdrawal tax, the government is seeing a base of support for its action that is absolutely crucial start to walk away at a fast clip. Civil society and private sector groups are saying that they don’t like the odour that is following them around because of the company they keep. It’s part brinkmanship, but it’s also good that bedfellows start to complain when the covers keep getting pulled off the bed. Stop it! Anyway, the story is moving on apace, with a new twist being that some Chinese ‘interest’ is there to help EWI out of its financing predicament: “Chinese suggested that they were willing to work with EWI, and vowed that they could secure the necessary financing from China’s Ex-Im Bank to get the 381-megawatt project going,” was what the Observer reported. Jamaica’s relationship with Chinese investors is another area where government had better watch out for public reactions. 

A funny thing happened on the way to the Embassy.

In any country, many things occur that are not seen by many yet may affect many. Today, I got a glimpse of some of these in Jamaica, which I will mention in no particular order.

Good morning, Jamaica. Here comes breakfast. My day started really early: I’d agreed to play golf at about 6am, but needed to get my partner from his house first, so was at his door at 5.40. “Man, this is early!” We headed out westward, and were on the course within a half hour. Traffic was light, but the usual bustle of early morning Kingston was evident: men riding on bicycles carrying machetes and lawn strimmers; school children heading to bus stops; vendors setting up stalls; workers walking up hills towards ‘uptown’ homes, where they would do a day’s work. No other players were on the course when we started; Monday is caddies day, when they can play for free. The course was being maintained, as usual, with men and women clearing dew from greens, replacing flagsticks (they change the style if tournaments are played over the weekends), and raking bunkers. No cutting was going on, as this is not usually done on Mondays. We were quickly reminded why humans are weak: mosquitos began to chomp on our arms. We grabbed our various repellents and started applying them vigorously. The bloodsuckers were fast at work and a few blood-gorged bodies were being slapped on arms and calves. We heard the hum of fogging machines and saw their smoke as we started to play. As the sun came–later today, because of the cloud cover–the mosquitos showed they were in for a real feast and did not back off till around 10am. After several holes, my friend and I stood puzzled and looked up at a tree that was humming. It’s purple flowers hung like mini-orchid petals; we did not know its name. “What’s that sound?” asked my friend. “I think it’s bees getting pollen,” I replied. So, it was. We noticed it for the next hour as we walked through a stretch that had more of these trees. Bees-are bizarre. We should be thankfully that, at least somewhere in Jamaica we have bees ‘working, working, working’. We continued playing and enjoying our many contacts with nature. The course is filled with fruit trees–mainly mangoes, but some other specialities, such as cashews. It’s more than worth the early wake-up.

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Cashews, not yet ripe

Chinese workers are popping out of the bushes. I write that not to frighten the average Jamaican, who may be getting the feeling that the country is being run by Chinese enterprises, but to remark on a simple fact. Some major engineering projects are going on, including to run a new water pipeline in St. Catherine, and to construct a new highway. The Chinese Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) is up to its elbows in getting this work done, along with a host of other projects. They even lent a hand two weeks ago to help control the fire at Riverton landfill/dump.

CHEC engineers are an integral part of redeveloping Jamaica
CHEC engineers are an integral part of redeveloping Jamaica

Several days a week I encounter some of their workers, carrying hoes, and pickaxes, measuring equipment and water bottles, wandering around the Caymanas Park Golf Course, which abuts both projects. They wander across the course, and then disappear into bushes.

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Chinese workers walking off to their bushes

Sometimes, from the elevated tees, I can see what is going on in the bushes. Some areas have been cleared and look quite naked. In some places, people have taken the clearing of forest to start making charcoal–for sale, I presume. Then, some of the Chinese workers reappear; they wander in the way of flying golf balls and after a warning I tonked three of them last week. They were excited by what they saw–myself and two ladies playing golf–came closer to take pictures of us playing. China is a fast growing market for golf, so these men may well be a new wave in Jamaica if they could get some clubs in their hands and take a few lessons.

Entrepreneurs are everywhere. My wife and I needed to renew our US visas, and visited the US Embassy in Kingston to do that. The Embassy does not allow visitors to carry cell phones within the building. I forgot to leave mine in the car, so went out to find if I could leave it with one of the security personnel. I took it that the shaking of the head meant no. “Cooeee! Here, mister!” I then heard, as a woman with bleached skin waved at me from the central median on Old Hope Road. She waved at me a clear plastic bag that she ripped from a strip. I walked over to her. “Me cyan tek yu fone. Gimme a four bills.” (Translation: it costs J$400 for her to look after the phone.) I gave her the phone, she gave me a one inch square laminated plastic card with ‘Nadine’ printed on it and her telephone number.

Jamaicans wait in line at the US Embassy in Kingston, and a 'Nadine' is on hand to hold valuables
Jamaicans wait in line at the US Embassy in Kingston, and a ‘Nadine’ (with hat and umbrella) is on hand to hold valuables

My wife had gone ahead through security, and I followed soon after. “Belt? Take off your watch. Any cell phone?” Syllables were in short supply, as the guard offered a plastic tray for my belongings. I’d already had the no-belt treatment last week, so had not bothered with one this time. “No cell phone?” I said no. After, we’d had our application taken, we headed back out to the street. Nadine’s associates, or other freelancers, were handing back phones to others leaving the Embassy; Nadine was a way off, talking to some people. She came to meet me on the median, and was unwrapping my phone. “$300?” I said. She scowled at me. I smiled and she took the J$500 bill from me. “Lemme keep di change, nuh?” she asked. I told her I had many mouths to feed; so did she; she gave me my change. We talked about kids and their expenses, and I went back to stand to wait for my wife’s driver to come back. Eureka! I had my phone, so I called him to rush him back. It was a mistake to keep my phone, but that was not too costly. “That’s a quick way to make $400,” my wife said. I just said it was a good service and power to Nadine and her like. Some people hustle with hand carts, some hustle to hold your phone and hand you plastic cards. This is yet one more clear market solutions that Jamaicans seem to find, simply and effectively.

Is Jamaica held in CHEC?

So, the good Dr. Omar Davies, Jamaica’s Transport, Works and Housing Minister, gave us some of what for which we had been longing. He told Parliament about the preliminary stages of plans, by China Harbour Engineering Company Limited (CHEC) to develop a logistics hub on the Goat Islands. The Port Authority of Jamaica will be responsible for project development and implementation. The Minister called this preliminary thingy an Initial Framework Agreement (we may call it ‘IFA’…IFA this…).

The project is expected to create 2000 jobs during construction; 10000 jobs will be there at the end. The government will negotiate ratios of Jamaican to Chinese workers. What kind of jobs, sir? Wait boy! There will be jobs.

We were ‘warned’ that Jamaica is not the only ‘game in town’. CHEC is ready to mate with other suitors, though Jamaica has certain ‘advantages’ (unspecified). I wonder if it’s our wonderful jerk chicken or maybe some of our other greenfield developments sprouting in our countryside.

CHEC can go ahead and conduct geotechnical studies and engineering surveys. A technical feasibility study should be completed by April 2014, then preliminary designs of phase 1 will begin and completed by end-June 2014. Then CHEC will present to the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), to seek terms of reference for an environmental impact analysis (EIA). At completion of the EIA, the project will be ready for presentation to Cabinet. Phew!

Oh, I nearly forgot. CHEC want to develop a coal-fired power plant on the Goat Islands. Imagine them not wanting to pay the current rate of US42 cents a kilowatt-hour.

If people were nervous about the whole development before, I think they are super worried now. “Look at that, Cheryl! Jamaica dun got itself some smoke stacks way off in the yonder that used to be blue.” Did I hear someone mention China’s record on pollution on coal-powered energy production? Turn up the gramaphone, dear. I love that song ‘Smoke gets in your eyes’.

Is there any chance the Chinese developers will produce some extra electricity to sell to other Jamaicans at a lower rate? That would be interesting to set aside current discussions on a 360 megawatt plant. What? Mega What!

Jamaica’s environmental lobby, mainly the Jamaica Environmental Trust (JET) has already raised its concerns about the whole concept of developing on the Goat Islands. Their CEO, Diana McCaulay, has already been quick to raise that “Coal is the dirtiest of all the fossil fuels, so there are emissions of mercury, arsenic, ash, a long list of them, and it is also the main greenhouse gas; the main gas that causes global climate change.” Will the ‘fight’ over this project also have to get dirty and dusty?

Johnny Nash was a great Jamaican singer and he had many songs still memorable today. I feel that his time may be coming again, after the little expose we got yesterday. There are more questions than answers.

The more I find out, the less I know.

I’m here to get fitted for my straight jacket: Jamaica on the verge of Paradise Lost

“Golf is all about confidence and expectations, just like the economy.” As I was struggling with my confidence and my expectations were being adjusted accordingly, I had to agree with that contention, put to me by a doctor with whom I had been playing in the annual SANTA tournament.

A few months ago, we had the not-so-stunning news that business and consumer confidence were at all-time lows in Jamaica. As Christmas approaches, I wonder if that has changed much.

Those who don’t have regular paying jobs may be feeling better because the government has managed to roll out the traditional ‘Christmas work’–cutting bush on road sides, minor road patching, etc. As I drive around I see groups of women raking grass and bagging it, or groups of men chopping bush, or groups of men and women tending flags by trucks and tar and marl being dumped into potholes. At least, there will be something available to put food or toys or books into little hampers.

The charitable season is in full swing. Salvation Army workers are in the malls and shopping plazas with their bells and buckets hoping for a little donation. I think I’ve put money into the bucket every time I go to the supermarket: my conscience won’t let me buy food for my family and think that I cannot spare a little to help put food on someone else’s table.

But, everybody wants a little money. My wife commented that Jamaica needed to get into the 21st century as she looked at brown envelopes, with handwritten messages, from various service workers. The man who delivers newspapers; from the garbage collectors (seeking “your usual contribution”–should we give nothing because we were not usually here having them collect our garbage?); the postman. I did not want to annoy her by saying that they had progressed by being so discreet and not just knocked on the door and put out their hands. I remember the days when that used to be the case, and it was often the way that some jamaican-christmas-cakeblack Christmas cake and sorrel (usually spiked with white rum) sorrel-drinkwould be offered to show that the season was here.

This week, a delegation of high-level Jamaican financial officials, led by Finance Minister Phillips, is in China. The delegation will meet with officials from some of China’s major private financial institutions and firms involved in overseas investments.
The agenda will cover trade, financial and investment relationship between Jamaica and China, and discussions on how China may assist in Jamaica’s efforts to address its debt-service challenges. We’re not quite heading off with a begging bowl, but we’re hoping the financial Salvation Army will be giving to us.

The country has had a beating that has sapped confidence and made a huge dent in expectations. That beating has not been just because of the economic struggles–for which, we really don’t have any heroes who can be seen to lead us forward. The litany of brutality has reached a stage where sane people must be questioning what is driving people to do such craziness. Literally, driving, in the case of the carnage on Jamaican roads. The number of road accidents is a breath away from 300 for the year, after expectations were set that 240 deaths would not be exceeded. Excessive speed in many cases has seen the all-too-familiar image of a crumpled car on a road, often tangled with another crumpled car, but sometimes with no other vehicles around. I was in a line of traffic the other day, when a motorcyclist and his passenger roared past me, riding in the lane for the oncoming traffic, and I saw the pair veer at the last moment as they tucked back in before an oncoming cement mixer truck. I asked myself why two people would hurtle towards near death, without even the protection of helmets, when it would be so much more sensible to at least wait until there was no oncoming traffic, or certainly none so potentially devastating as a truck. We have a country filled with road rage: raging madness. Every day, I see an accident. Most of them are on straight stretches of road. Most of them seem to suggest that at least one driver was not attentive: they are usually fender benders with minor damage. They are often on roads that don’t allow much speed. Extrapolate that lack of attention to roads that allow speeding–especially the stretches of highway on the north coast and there you have carnage central. I often drive on roads going over the hills because I find that less traffic uses such routes, and drivers are usually more attentive–mindful of the clear risks of losing control and heading off into a ravine. This week, we had a bizarre accident involving a large public bus driven by a learner driver, a madman, and a mother and child. No lives were lost, but the mother and child had to be taken to hospital.Screen Shot 2013-12-16 at 6.15.38 AM

But, the real confidence sapper for me and the thing that is likely to dash many expectations is the rate at which murders are being committed. The Security Minister, Mr. Bunting, talks a good talk. The Police Commissioner and his deputies talk a good talk. But gunmen, allegedly often in gang-related killings, are wreaking havoc on lives and seem to be incapable of doing anything but riddle people with bullets as if they were at the fun fair hitting targets to take home fluffy toys. I cannot fathom the trend of these brutal killings. I cannot understand some of the so-called crimes of passion, such as the recent incident in Nain, St. Elizabeth, when a man chopped his teenage ‘baby mother’ to death. Outrage came quickly as the man was besieged by a mob and barricaded himself in a house, having to be rescued by the police. Bizarre! Crazy!

The wave of killings in the western end of the island has reached epidemic proportions. Is it the outcrop of clampdown on the lotto scammers, who now seek to get their wants for high living met by robbing and killing? Gangs? Tit-for-tat? Years of vowing to “crush gangs” are not changing a thing. Talk is cheap! Intensification of efforts seem to have been met with an extension of the wave of shootings. The tourism sector must be wondering if and when this may spill over to them and really damage that activity.

Who, in their right mind, would think about investing in the inmates of an asylum as the next   set of trainees to rock the world? Maybe, the Chinese can see something that I cannot see even in my wildest dreams. Chinese-owned businesses in Jamaica have already been the target of much extortion, robberies and violence.

I am confident that our officials will expect good results, but I have no confidence and no expectations that these will be forthcoming. I’m an economist. I have to believe in rational behavior. But, I feel that we are just another scene from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest: “All I know is this: nobody’s very big in the first place, and it looks to me like everybody spends their whole life tearing everybody else down.”715255-one-flew-over-the-cuckoo-039-s-nest