The Miami Herald
May 5, 1999
Jamaican leaders caught napping
Politicians unprepared for public reaction to gas-tax hikes

Herald Staff Writer

Three days of island-wide rioting last month dealt a severe blow to Jamaica's
tourist-based economy, but it's likely to recover. That may not be the case with
the island's political leadership, which many Jamaicans had already regarded as
out of touch and worn out.

The riots, sparked by a 50 percent increase in the gasoline tax that was later cut
in half, served to reinforce that view and intensify the public debate over the need
for a restructuring and reshuffling of the political process.

``There are a lot of things wrong in this economy and this society and I think the
main ones are more political than economic,'' said Wilmot Perkins, a popular talk
show host and veteran Jamaican journalist.

``It applies to the way in which politics are conducted and what is seen as the
purpose of government, which is largely to redistribute income along tribal lines
. . . politics is about getting hold of power in order to plunder the economy for the
benefit of your tribe,'' he said.

A `fight for scarce benefits'

He said incumbent Prime Minister P.J. Patterson once described Jamaican
politics as ``the fight for scarce benefits and political spoils carried on by hostile
tribes which seem to be perpetually at war.''

Others refer to it as ``distributive politics.'' Whatever its name, it is seen as a
politics that has increasingly excluded the many for the benefit of the few.

``What this crisis has given us is an opportunity to remake the relationships
between different groups in this society,'' said Douglas Orane -- managing director
of Grace, Kennedy and Co., a large Jamaica food processor -- who recently
chaired a task force on public sector reform.

``We are all on this island together and we have to find a way . . . There has been
an inability in the past because of tribal politics to develop a consensus on
national issues,'' Orane said.

Expressions of disdain for the island's political leadership spare neither of the two
traditional parties: the governing People's National Party (PNP) and the opposition
Jamaica Labor Party (JLP).

Perkins noted that no independent or third-party candidate has been elected to
the island's legislative body since 1949 -- 13 years before independence from

Joseph Forstmayr, president of the Montego Bay Chamber of Commerce and
Industry and vice president of Jamaica's Hotel and Tourism Association, calls the
current political leadership ``dinosaurs with antiquated structures that aren't
dealing with the problem.''

Both Patterson, 64, of the PNP and former Prime Minister Edward Seaga of the
opposition JLP, have been familiar figures on the Jamaica political scene for well
over three decades. Seaga was prime minister from 1980 to 1989; Patterson has
held the office since 1992.

Both appear to have been caught off guard by the vehemence of the public
reaction to the gas tax hike, even though similar disturbances had taken place in
1979 and 1985. Particularly inexplicable is Patterson's failure to see what was

While presenting a rather wooden public image, Patterson had a reputation for
keeping in touch with grass-roots sentiment. And although it was Finance
Minister Omar Davies who announced the gas tax, it is Patterson who is taking
the heat, accused of both insensitivity and failure to consult. Even supporters
acknowledge he has trouble connecting with the population, unlike his
predecessor, the late Michael Manley, who was a spellbinding orator.

``When Michael Manley spoke, people thought he said something even when he
said nothing,'' observed one commentator. ``When P.J. Patterson speaks, people
think he says nothing even when he says something.''

Some in Jamaica attribute the PNP leadership's failure to anticipate the gas tax
reaction to complacency and arrogance after an unprecedented third consecutive
election victory in which it won 50 of the 60 parliamentary seats in December

``Bereft of vision and the will to do what is right for the country, the Patterson
government, surrounded by people who fortify its culture of under-performance and
love for the good life among a few, has been moving to expand government and
assure its own hold on power, rather than seeking to expand the economy and
create wealth,'' journalist Franklin McKnight wrote in Jamaica's Sunday Herald.

Party in turmoil

On the opposition side, the Seaga-led JLP has lost three consecutive elections.
The party is in disarray, torn by internal turmoil and top-level defections,
generated largely by Seaga's insistence on retaining control, stifling any effort at a
change in leadership.

``His hope,'' Perkins said, ``is that if he sits long enough under the mango tree the
mango will ripen and drop in his lap.''

Paraphrasing former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who said a week is a
long time in politics, columnist John Maxwell wrote in The Observer newspaper
that ``a week in Jamaica was not long enough, either to restore Mr. Seaga's
credibility or to finally destroy Mr. Patterson's. But it was a close run.''

``Both government and opposition should have known what to expect, and the fact
that they proceeded in their majestic, shortsighted ways to do what they did is
evidence of the dysfunctionality of Jamaican political leadership,'' Maxwell said.

``But this should not surprise anyone who has watched the 36-year-old civil war
which has cost us more lives than the civil war in Ireland,'' he added, referring to
the battle between the two parties for power since Jamaica became independent
in August 1962.

                     Copyright 1999 Miami Herald