Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Jamaican people have little reason to cheer

At the Montego Bay airport, a man balancing a stack of Sunday newspapers on his head and other Jamaicans roared with approval as they watched live TV coverage of Jamaican speedster Usain Bolt reclaiming the 100-meter world championship in Russia.

By Victor E. Sasson

"Welcome to the Third World" would be an appropriate message from the crew when your plane lands in Jamaica.

The small Caribbean island is poor, and many residents live in fear of gun violence.

The government is one of the most corrupt in the Western Hemisphere, and officials focus on lining their pockets, not improving the lives of citizens.

Jamaica celebrated 50 years of independence from Great Britain in 2012. This sign at Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay doesn't explain exactly what the nation's "mission" is beyond attracting tourists.

The government holds a 20% interest in Jamaica Public Service Company Limited, the exclusive distributor of electricity on the island.

The utility charges customers far more per kilowatt hour than does Public Service Electric and Gas in New Jersey, and there are no lower rates available from companies using wind and water power, as there are here.

I pay about 7 cents per kilowatt hour for electricity to a company that uses renewable energy. 

It's a steal

Electricity is so expensive for the average Jamaican that many people resort to stealing it from neighbors.

I know of one family that requested electric service, then saw their monthly bill swell month after month until it reached about $900 (U.S.), because neighbors hooked wires into their line. 

Taxing solar

The Jamaican utility's Web site mentions nothing about solar power, and solar panels aren't made on the sun-splashed island. 

In fact, the government discourages the use of solar, imposing a heavy tax on imported panels. 

Gasoline is about $5 a gallon for regular, but apparently none of the taxes are used to fix the  roads, some of the worst in the world.

A bar on Canaan Mountain in western Jamaica.

In 2011, The Gleaner newspaper reported a poll found 60 percent of Jamaicans believed the island would be better off "today," if it had remained a colony of Britain.

What would the percentage be, if the opinion poll was repeated this year? Seventy-five percent?

The wealthy 1% that rule the island are especially mean-spirited, because they are exploiting people of their own color.  

At Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay, I picked up a whole roasted fish to eat on the plane home for about 476 Jamaican dollars or around $4.75.

The big resorts and other elements of the island's struggling tourist industry are supported by low-wage workers.

I was shocked to learn a couple of years ago that a man I know who worked as a chef at the Ritz-Carlton Rose Hall, a 5,000-acre ocean-front luxury resort near Montego Bay, made less than $100 a week.

A system comprising 22 solar panels and 24 storage batteries at Zimbali Retreats on Canaan Mountain cost about U.S. $70,000 when it was installed 7 years ago, far more than an equivalent system in the United States.

Nearly every Jamaican has heard gun shots as they go about their lives -- going to work or school or marketing -- or knows a friend or relative who has been robbed, shot or killed.

The gun violence can be traced to a decades-old decision by the island's political parties to arm their supporters -- in a particularly savage voter-suppression program.

Jamaicans say the violence is fed today by the illegal importation of guns from the United States.

Running gun battles between the police and criminals are commonplace.

The wealthy who rule the island live behind high walls and gated compounds, and install security grilles on every window and door.

Many tourists trek to the Red Dragon Bar in Negril for its jerk pork, which is supposedly made in a drum pan -- roasted over wood in a oil drum that has been cut in half the long way and laid open on its side. The bar's interior is decorated with license plates sent in by fans from all over the U.S. and Canada, above.

My wife paid about $4 for this portion, but she wasn't impressed by the taste of the pork, which is rubbed in jerk spices before it is cooked. The drum pan wasn't visible, and the cooked pork was kept in a large covered pot under a lace tablecloth in another room.

At the Burger King in Negril, the driver of a green car and his family were so intent on eating there he parked in front of the wheelchair ramp.

Does any other Burger King have this view? I went in for coffee, but it is served only in the morning.

Jamaica is only a fifth the size of Cuba, its neighbor to the north, but the Jamaican government doesn't provide the free health care and education enjoyed on the Caribbean's biggest island.

And those high electric rates mean industry that establishes itself in Jamaica can't compete with established maufacturers in the United States.

A newspaper article estimates the cost as 44 cents per kilowatt hour in Jamaica, compared to 11 cents an hour in the U.S.

The island imports nearly everything, driving up the cost, and there are no Costcos or other discount stores to be found anywhere.

Many businesses are owned by Asian Indian and Chinese merchants.

On our last night at Zimbali Retreats, we went "jammin" in Negril, where we saw a reggae singer deliver credible versions of Bob Marley songs, above, and another group of African drummers and dancers (Seastar Inn, $5 admission).

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