GW In JA: Beyond the beach and reggae

By Talia Whyte
Special to Global Wire

Jamaica Americans not only make a valuable contribution in Boston, but
are also concerned about issues going on back in their home country.
According to the 2000 US census approximately 20,000 people from
Jamaica live in Massachusetts. However most people don’t know that
there is a lot of things happening on this Caribbean island beyond
beautiful beaches and reggae music. In fact Jamaica is currently going
through a major political and economic shift that Jamaican Americans
are part of.

Portia Simpson Miller, for example, was recently elected the island’s
first woman prime minister. A long time politician who ran on a
campaign platform of eradicating corruption, poverty and human rights
violations, Simpson-Miller is seen as a breath of fresh air for many
Jamaican Americans.

“Jamaicans in Boston are excited about the new Prime Minister,” said
Patricia Farr, special assistant to the Jamaican Consulate in
Boston. “Most people are positive about her uniting the country.”

However the jubilation ended abruptly just a week after Simpson-
Miller’s inauguration when she declared that she was “elected by God.”
Analysts became concerned about religion’s place in the political

“I get scared when people inject religion into their political power,”
said Marcia Johnson, a Jamaican from Mission Hill. “Portia is starting
to sound too much like Bush and the religious right, and that’s not
good. Is she secretly working for the Bush administration?”

Despite the criticism Simpson-Miller has found supporters amongst even
those who consider themselves secular.

“I love her,” said John Maxwell, renowned progressive Jamaican
journalist and professor. “I think she is the best thing to happen.
Over time people will calm down on her religious views and see the real
problems she is working on.”

Stereotypes about Jamaica run rampant in the American media. One of
them is the false notion that tourism is the island’s top money
grossing industry. In fact Jamaica makes more money through the large
sums sent by Jamaican Americans back home to family and friends.
Particularly Jamaicans in Boston have been very generous about giving
back to the home country during many occasions, including last year’s
hurricane disasters.

“My mother still is living in Jamaica and the roof on her house was
damaged by the hurricane last year,” said Bonnie Wright of Mission
Hill. “I had to take a second job just to make the money for her…My
mom lost her job when the factory she worked for decided to move its
operation to China. She also can’t get healthcare to deal with her
arthritis and heart problems. I might have to bring her here to get

Jamaica has been in a downward economic spiral since it gained
independence from in 1962. During the 1970s then Prime Minister
Michael Manley reluctantly took out loans with the International
Monetary Fund (IMF) and other institutions to get the country on track
financially. Loan repayment takes up 75% of the island’s budget.
Because of this only a minimum of money is available for other
essential programs like education, healthcare and sanitation.

Wright came to Boston because of this lack of social services. Like
her mother she is also a victim of losing her job to what she
calls “criminal globalized slavery.” Wright worked in Jamaica’s
infamous free trade zone, sewing t-shirts for an American clothing
company. The free trade zone is a section in Jamaica’s capital,
Kingston, where multinational corporations such as Hanes and Nike can
have their products assembled tax-free. When the free trade zone was
first introduced in Jamaica, it was seen as a way to bring in much
needed revenue, as the companies were hiring locals. However employees
worked long hours under stressful conditions and receive well below a
living wage. When workers complained they are fired and blacklisted
from working anywhere else. Wright lost her job because the Chinese
factory she worked for decided it would be cheaper to bring in Chinese

“The same thing I believe is happening with the stadium being
constructed in Kingston for next year’s World Cup,” Wright said. “The
Chinese government is building it with its own Chinese workers. No
Jamaicans are really benefiting.”

Today many multinationals have moved their productions out of Jamaica
to recruit cheaper labor in other developing countries. Marcia Johnson
is awaiting the arrival of her cousin, Clarence, who will be moving
here from Jamaica. Clarence worked in the once prosperous banana
industry. Once a moneymaking commodity, Jamaica’s banana production
has now become a product of neo-liberal policies mostly imposed by
Western nations and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Under the Lome
Convention quota Jamaica was able to sell their bananas solely to
England under a special agreement. However the US felt that this
agreement was unfair, proposing that US companies should be able to
compete in the market. This forced Jamaica to compete with larger
scaled exporters from Central and South America.

“The US doesn’t even grow bananas on its own soil,” Johnson
said. “Companies like Chiquita only grow bananas in places where they
can get cheaper labor. Jamaica can’t compete with the Dominican
Republican and Colombia. The funny thing is that the US sends their
food down there but Jamaicans can't sell food here because of so-called
low quality. But that’s not true.”

Because of the lack of employment opportunities, Jamaicans are leaving
the island in huge number for greener pastures in the US and England.
Along with Boston, New York, Los Angeles and Miami also have large
Jamaican populations. Jamaicans who stay on the island get involved in
underground industries like drugs and arms trade and sex tourism. The
economic upheaval has also caused a surge of violence in the inner
cities. Jamaica has one of the highest rights of violent crime,
corruption and police brutality in the world.

“People are unhappy about not having opportunities,” Wright
said. “It’s not true that Jamaicans are violent people by nature. The
people are just desperate. When people are desperate they turn to
desperate measures. Let’s be real here. You can’t expect people to be
nice when their jobs and social services are being taken away.”

Both Wright and Johnson hope to go back to Jamaica one day. But right
now they hope to help out the country from Boston by being activists of
trade justice and human rights abuses.

“I’m going to do what I can from Boston,” Johnson said. “It’s a big
job, but you have to start somewhere.”

To learn more about the issues addressed in the article, go to Global
Exchange at www.globalexchange.org.


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