Yasuhiro Atsumi | Is Jamaica a “mixed island”? | Focus

Before I left for Jamaica last December to serve as Japan’s ambassador to Jamaica, I asked my predecessor what books I should read to learn about Jamaica.He immediately recommended Island of Chaos, by Orlando Patterson, 2019. He was a professor of sociology at Harvard University and, as I later learned, wrote the “Patterson Report” on education in Jamaica.

I have read that book several times and it was like a bible to me about Jamaica. He believes that Jamaica has many puzzling mysteries and paradoxes to explain, that it contains both the best and the worst.

Jamaica’s Westminster-style democracy and two-party parliamentary system work well. Each party elects the government through national elections, with high turnout. To my surprise, the two parties have been in a stalemate in forming a government. Since independence, the JLP has been in government for over 29 years and the PNP has been in government for over 31 years! Additionally, Jamaica enjoys adequate freedom of expression. Jamaica’s world press freedom ranking this year ranks 32nd among 180 countries (ranked 12th in 2022 and 7th in 2021), much better than Japan’s 68th. At the same time, Jamaica is plagued by crime and violence. Over the past few years, Jamaica has had either the first or second highest murder rate in South and Central America. Patterson argues that this combination of high democracy and high violence contradicts the “democratic peace theory,” which holds that democracy promotes peace (reduces violence).

Economically, at the time of independence, both Jamaica in 1962 and Barbados in 1966 were in similar economic conditions and had similar colonial histories. Unlike Trinidad and Tobago, neither country has the oil resources to grow its economy. However, Barbados’ economy is growing much faster than Jamaica’s. When Barbados became independent, its per capita GDP was US$3,400, and now it is about US$20,000, while when Jamaica became independent, its per capita GDP was US$2,200, and now it is about US$6,000, less than one-third of Barbados. This means that Barbados’s GDP per capita increased about six times after independence, while Jamaica’s GDP per capita only increased about three times. Although we cannot simply compare the two countries due to the difference in population size (Jamaica has 2.8 million people and Barbados has 280,000, which is currently one-tenth of Jamaica’s), why does Jamaica’s economic development after independence lag behind Barbados? Is this because of the geographical difference, Jamaica is an extremely mountainous island while Barbados is a flat coastal island? Did the neoliberal IMF do bad things to Jamaica and the same IMF do good things to Barbados? Are the policies of successive governments in Jamaica, such as education policies, inappropriate? Or is it because Jamaica has failed to develop a sizable middle-class population?

the fastest person

One of the most fascinating chapters in Patterson’s book is about why Jamaicans living on a small island, not the size of the U.S. state of Connecticut and with a population of less than three million, are the fastest people in the world. In August this year, Jamaican athletes performed as well as ever at the World Athletics Championships in Budapest, Hungary. They won 12 medals, ranking second behind the U.S. athletes’ 29 medals. The vast majority of people in the Caribbean are of West African ancestry, mainly from Nigeria and Ghana. But Jamaicans are primarily good at athletics, and neither Nigerians nor Trinidadians are. So, it doesn’t seem to be due to genetics.

Just before I came to Jamaica, I had the opportunity to meet Usain Bolt in Tokyo and asked the same question why the Jamaican, and him in particular, is the fastest man in the world. He told me, “I don’t know!” If he didn’t know the answer, we might be content with no answer. But Patterson offers several historical and institutional reasons to explain. One of his reasons was the efforts of Jamaican national hero Norman Manley, a top star athlete himself, who worked hard to make Jamaican athletes a source of pride during the country’s independence. Another reason is the virtuous cycle of the “championship” effect that attracts students, parents, coaches, and all other stakeholders to play sports for fame and money.

Another confusion I have when thinking about athletes is that while Jamaicans drive incredibly fast (and carelessly), which I feel is like sprinting 100 meters like Usain Bolt, Jamaicans rarely arrive on time. There is a word called “Jamaican Time”! If he drives in a hurry, he should be able to arrive on time. This is a mystery to someone like me who comes from a very punctual Japanese culture.

puzzling puzzle

Another confusing thing for me is that Jamaica seems to be a very female-centered society, even though there is so much domestic violence against women. The latest data from the International Labor Organization shows that the proportion of female managers in Jamaica ranks fourth among 189 countries (56.99%), much higher than Japan (14.75%), which ranks 167th. This female-dominated society may have arisen from the matrilineal family system inherited from West African societies. But surprisingly, approximately 80% of Jamaica’s university students are women, and most managers in government offices I happened to meet were women, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade. I have always admired the excellent work of the Department’s female (and male) executives, including Minister Kamina Johnson-Smith. This female rule might also be a good thing for democracy in Jamaica. But I wonder what happens to Jamaican men. At the same time, domestic violence by men against women occurs in large numbers. Do some stupid men resort to domestic violence to relieve stress because they owe women financially?

As I grapple with these dilemmas and paradoxes, Jamaica looks well-positioned to make progress.

Right now, the economic situation in Jamaica is very optimistic. Post-COVID-19, Jamaica has experienced nine consecutive quarters of GDP growth, expanding tourism, lowest unemployment, lower debt/GDP ratios, expanding exports, stable inflation, and top credit ratings from S&P and Moody’s. Even the International Monetary Fund praised Jamaica for its sound fiscal and economic management. Some economists say Jamaica now has the best-managed economy since independence. In addition, the number of crimes, especially murders, dropped slightly this year compared to last year. Politically, Jamaica is moving towards a republic, which many claim is “real” independence.

I completely agree with what Deputy Prime Minister Dr. Horace Chang told me recently that with such creative people at home and abroad, Jamaica will surely transform from a small country into a “big country.” Jamaica has surpassed the world in its image of reggae music, athletes, Blue Mountain coffee and a “sun-and-sand” paradise. But I’m pretty sure that Jamaica will have more impact on the world in other key areas as well. I’m so excited to see this happen!

– Yasuhiro Atsumi is the Ambassador of Japan to Jamaica. The views expressed in this column do not necessarily represent the views of the Japanese government. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com

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