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A major challenge to caribbean governance

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“The country could not have had a Dudus Coke without a corrupt political system and while Coke must take personal responsibility, the truth is that the system encouraged and facilitated his ascendancy to power.” (Betty Ann Blaine writing in Jamaica Observer, 25/05/10).

The tragedy which has unfurled in Jamaica represents a challenge, not just to the authority of the Jamaican state, it is the biggest challenge to governance in the entire English-speaking Caribbean since the attempted coup in Trinidad in 1990. It has placed the region in the glare of international scrutiny, at the mercy of a hostile global media when it least needs to be in that position.{{more}} For this is a Caribbean, and a Jamaica with the financial wolves of the IMF literally at our door, a Caribbean reeling from the effects of the global financial meltdown and deep economic crisis, a region caught in the crossroads of the deadly traffic in cocaine from south to north with all the attendant crimes and murder, a region struggling to recover from negative trade pacts which threaten the livelihood of hundreds of thousands.

The mayhem which has erupted in Kingston reflects badly, not only on Jamaica but has repercussions for the rest of the region. Already some in the international media are blaring out headlines, smearing leaders, politicians, the governance system, us all, with a brush which paints us as a region beholden to drug barons and dependent on their largesse. They are not far from using the term “failed states” to characterize the problems in our governance. We all stand to suffer and therefore cannot be just curious spectators of the Jamaican situation. It poses a real threat to governance in the rest of the region as well.

That a Prime Minister would allow his country to descend to such depths leading to open insurrection and large-scale death and destruction says more about the system itself than about any inherent weaknesses in Prime Minister Golding himself. The quote with which I began this article is therefore right on target. In many ways PM Golding and alleged drug-trafficker/gun-runner Dudus Coke (what a name!) are themselves victims of this system. If we are not careful, many more of us and the societies we live in can well get sucked in as well. Today’s world is one in which material advancement, by any means necessary, is the order of the day. Drug traffickers, money-launderers, murderers and all kinds of criminals flaunt their ill-gotten gain with impunity before a fawning populace. Escobar of Colombian infamy would be proud to see how successful his example has become.

In Jamaica, the connection between politics and gangs has been well documented. The legendary “garrisons” of Kingston with their allegiance to the two warring political tribes are even openly admired in some political quarters in the Caribbean. In the process, the two-party system has not only become firmly entrenched, it has become enmeshed in a web of corruption, gangsterism and adulation of the “Dons”. Jamaica today is paying the ultimate price. The almost fifty lives lost in the current conflict are but the exposed tip of the iceberg. It is estimated that over 30,000 Jamaicans have met violent deaths since independence.

That two-party tribalism became so entrenched that Golding himself, who tried to break out of its clutches, had to abandon his third-party experiment, and take on the mantle of leader of one tribe, the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). Two salient points are worth noting. First, Golding succeeded Edward Seaga who had built up a fearsome reputation as representative of one of the most infamous garrison constituencies, Tivoli in West Kingston. The other, is the reputed role of Dudus Coke in getting Golding accepted as Tivoli’s man in government. Dudus is called “President” in the constituency. The train had been set in motion and has now brought the chickens home to roost.

While the scenes that have erupted in Kingston may shock us, we cannot for a moment feel isolated from those events. In many other countries in the region there are allegations of unholy connections. Too many of us-politicians, business people, top-ranking police officers, lawyers- are only too willing to hob-nob with criminal elements and provide them with a veneer of respectability. Jamaica vividly demonstrates the dangers of this for those who pursue the life of crime to enrich themselves are no respecters of life, limb, or the democracy we pretend to uphold.

In all of this though, there are lessons and opportunities for significant change. In Jamaica there have already been calls, not just for Golding’s resignation, but for a total revamp of the political system. The critical issue of funding of political parties is at the centre of this. Election campaigns, in small, poor countries like ours, have become multi-million dollar businesses. Where do those funds originate? At what price? Holding a country to ransom as in the case of Jamaica?

Our neighbour’s house is literally on fire and we must not only take note, but act appropriately. We may not like to admit it but it is imperative that we overhaul our entire political system, revisit our values and reshape our societies.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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