Sunday | July 1, 2001

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Futile Jamaica

Diana McCaulay, Contributor

IT'S BECOME for me difficult to write over the past three weeks; I'm grappling with a sense of futility. As soon as I begin to put new words on paper, they seem distressingly familiar and I think: Surely I've said this before? Perhaps in over seven years of writing a weekly column, I've said all there is to say. People who see me after my recent 10-month absence suggest I should write about their pet Jamaican problem immediately.

"I already have," I say. They look slightly embarrassed, as if my columns were required reading and a test might follow. My Jamaican life doesn't seem fully reclaimed yet. I moved both house and office as soon as I got home, and for a while had very little time to pay attention to national issues. I'd vaguely hear the tally of the body count, the development of the crime plan, some recent-but-not-new political tussle between the PNP and the JLP, as I went about my business, struggling with power cuts, traffic and the low educational level of far too many of our citizens.

(Wanting to feel rooted here again, I planned a garden for my new house. I went to buy plants and having selected them, asked how far apart they should be planted. The man dealing with me looked completely blank, so I said, "Should I plant them this far apart, this far or this far?" indicating different distances with both hands. "Yes," he said. Then, while attempting to organise power for our new offices, we were told by JPS that they could give no information on when this might be achieved. They had no access to their computer system due to a power cut!)

When I surfaced from unpacking boxes and the gradual assimilation of an old life into a new place, I found a radio, organised newspaper subscriptions and connected the TV. Jamaica leapt out of the shadows. I realised how little time there is to process anything here. Events happen too fast, piling one on top of the other, it's no wonder we're punch drunk.

Sexual orientation

We've not quite recovered from the Prime Minister declaring his sexual orientation on radio when a senior police officer declares with conviction that three-quarters of Jamaicans are involved in crime. We're just wrestling with that when yet another squatter settlement is annihilated in the night ­ not bulldozed, it is repeatedly emphasised, as if the precise tools of destruction matter. There are the usual charges and counter-charges of political victimisation.

Commentators use the same words as always ­ Gestapo tactics, the jackboots of the state. The Prime Minister deplores the action and promises financial relief to the displaced squatters. This is how we do things in Jamaica: One agency of Government goes on a rampage, another decides to make reparations at taxpayers' expense. And the response to all this? Government agencies are mandated to develop a policy on squatting within seven days. We all know it's unlikely anyone will be found responsible for the St. Ann incident. How many times have we been through this? What new can possibly be said?

During the unpacking, I found the 1993 Report of the National Task Force on Crime, otherwise known as the Wolfe Report. It starts out with the rationale for the Task Force and you've heard many versions of these words too, describing "national concerns as to the prevailing levels of crime and violence, the deleterious effect of crime on the social order and its negative potential for economic development etc." The Wolfe report points out that there had already been several similar initiatives. These were: the 1975/6 Barnett Commission on crime, a United Nations team in 1977 had been mandated to do a detailed study of the Gun Court, a 1980 Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Justice had also studied the Gun Court, the 1981 Fraser Commission had tackled the death penalty, another United Nations Committee had provided guidance on the establishment of a crime research unit in 1982, there had been a National Advisory Council on Crime and Justice in 1985-6 and then a 1990 National Advisory Committee on Crime and Violence.

The 1993 Wolfe Report notes: "Throughout the length and breadth of Jamaica the concern was whether or not the Government would implement even a minority of the recommendations." Those concerns were well-founded. The recommendations of the Report included: Provide incentives to businesses in rural areas to stem rural-urban drift, improve living conditions in inner city areas, "re-socialise" the Jamaican people, especially the young, discourage media violence, implement meaningful skills training programmes, provide economic opportunity through a variety of stated measures, control the availability of firearms, adequately equip and train the police force and so on.

Eight years after the Wolfe report, crime levels are still completely unacceptable. It is clear that we are afflicted with a Government that is unable to maintain law and order. The present administration has no response (except further study) to the level of crime in Jamaica. What, then, do we need the present administration for? (And true as I believe these words to be, is there any point in writing them?)

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