Peter Espeut | Those expensive garrisons
From time to time, I try to put myself in the shoes of the politicians who took the active decision to create garrison communities within their constituencies. What would have been their motivation? What were they trying to achieve?
They must have felt very insecure. They must have asked themselves: "How can I guarantee that I will continue to win this seat? What I need are votes - guaranteed and certain votes. How can I get these votes cheaply?"
Using state power and state resources, these honourable politicians bought land or used government land to create housing schemes (they had to borrow money to do so) on which they settled known party activists and supporters. It must have appeared to be a win-win situation for all concerned: the residents paid no rent (even though they were supposed to), and they did not pay for electricity or water (even though they were billed); and politicians were assured of their votes.
Illusion of freeness
But the freeness was an illusion. The foreign money the Government had to borrow to build Tivoli Gardens and Arnett Gardens, and their ilk, had to be repaid with interest; taxes on the law-abiding citizenry had to be increased to do so. It cost money to produce the treated water and to generate
the electricity used for free by the residents of garrison communities; the water and electricity bills of legal customers had to be increased to absorb this cost. The taxpayers of Jamaica subsidised the political garrisons, and continue to do so!
These political garrisons became zones of political exclusion, and were reservoirs of political enforcers to intimidate residents of other garrison communities, or areas slated to become such; and guns and ammunition were distributed. Community dons filled the leadership vacuum and kept order in the garrison, although they still did freelance work with their political guns.
But who held the handle and who held the blade? Garrison residents demanded money for school fees, school uniforms, bus fare, lunch money, funeral expenses, and zinc and lumber to make repairs, and the politicians needed more money to keep the garrisons going.
And so the private sector was tapped by the politicians for donations to support the garrisons; and they, in turn, raised the prices of their goods sold to the public to get the money to give the politicians. Make no mistake: There are many routes through which all of us pay to finance political patronage.
To bring more money into the garrisons, the dons established lucrative extortion rackets; so now, merchants, bus and taxi operators, and even higglers have to fork out money daily to support the garrisons. I suppose it provides employment of a kind for hundreds of extortionists, 'loader men' and collectors, but running a garrison has become an expensive business, soaking up GDP and raising the cost of living for all of us, and raising the cost of doing business.
Soon the lines of control between the politicians and their henchmen weakened, and the political militia go on the rampage, freelancing for personal advantage. Now the State has to expend resources to keep order and to protect the uptown people. The hands of the police are somewhat tied, for some of the gunmen operate under political cover and protection.
Soon the crime rate goes up, and Jamaica has the highest murder rate in the world. What else was to be expected?
It seems obvious that what was needed was to dismantle the garrisons; but that would have exposed the dishonourable politicians. And so, instead, we respond by passing loopholey crime-fighting legislation, by creating expensive crime-fighting squads, and by making periodic invasions into the well-barricaded garrisons to 'capture wanted men', at the cost of dozens of civilian lives.
The latest strategy is to declare zones of special operations incorporating these garrisons, which will be expensive to operate in terms of manpower and materiel. Will the end product be the transformation of garrisons into normal places to work, raise families and do business, or will the garrison infrastructure be made stronger?
As an outsider looking on at the changing of the political guard in several of these garrison constituencies, I see no sign of any commitment to dismantling. The young politicians seem no different from the old!