The Miami Herald
April 25, 1999
Government tries to placate Jamaicans

Herald Staff Writer

KINGSTON, Jamaica -- It took three days of destructive demonstrations
across the island, but the government apparently got a costly message.
Jamaicans at all levels are fed up and they aren't going to take it anymore.

Ignited by a 30-percent increase in gasoline prices, pent-up frustrations
exploded in the streets over rising unemployment, the high cost of living, a
split-level society of rich and poor, and the perception of an uncaring

``The problem was that the people just wanted government to hear; they felt
the government wasn't hearing,'' said Monsignor Richard Albert, a Bronx-born
Roman Catholic priest who has been working in the Kingston ghettos for 23

The government heard last week, after the riots ended with nine people dead
and more than 150 arrested. Economic losses have yet to be tallied but they
include damage to property and infrastructure, loss of production and the
impact on Jamaica's vital tourism industry.

Prime Minister P.J. Patterson responded by naming an independent committee
to make recommendations on the gas price hike and alternative revenue
sources. The committee is to present its recommendations to the Cabinet on

It's widely expected that they will include a rollback of up to 50 percent of the
gas price increase. But that may be only a temporary tourniquet for a
deteriorating economic situation that has seen Jamaica register negative growth
for three consecutive years.

In an effort to raise funds to meet critical needs, the government had
announced tax hikes that boosted the price of gasoline at the pump from about
$1.55 to $2 a gallon -- an increase sure to reverberate through all sectors of
economic activity.

``What Patterson has done is to buy time'' by appointing the committee, a
foreign analyst said. ``The government is obviously rattled and will have to
provide some kind of compromise concession so it can say `We listened to the
people' and dampen the anger that's been generated.''

``People are feeling a lot of pain and they have a sense of great injustices
perpetrated upon them,'' said Wilmot Perkins, a popular radio talk show host.

Perkins sees last week's rioting as an ``incident in a worsening chain of events''
and even with a rollback in gasoline prices ``I should not be surprised to find
the demonstrations become more frequent and more serious.''

Perplexing to many is the fact that the intensity of popular reaction appeared to
catch Patterson and his government off guard, even though similar protests
against gasoline tax increases had occurred in 1979 and 1985.

Some attribute it to government complacency and even arrogance after
Patterson's People's National Party won a third term in December 1997 by a

``Now there is realization and disappointment that Patterson has been unable
to deliver,'' a foreign analyst said.

                     Copyright 1999 Miami Herald