Fri | Sep 30, 2016

The largest divisions

Published:Friday | February 12, 2010 | 12:00 AM



Different types of politicians respond to different stimuli. Military dictators respect only the force of arms, as exemplified by Stalin's famous contemptuous remark: "How many divisions does the Pope have?" Since the Pope has no military might, he may be safely ignored. Stalin could not ignore Hitler.

Politicians who practise democracy respond to public opinion. In democratic countries, people are encouraged to write to their member of parliament or their congressman. Petitions have a long history in western civilisation; a politician receiving a document signed by 20,000 or 50,000 citizens has to stop and take notice. Democratic politicians respond to widespread comments on talk shows, and the results of public opinion polls.

These are polar extremes - dictatorship and democracy - and few real politicians lie at either pole, for military dictators have to listen to the demands of their soldiers, and democratic politicians are often swayed by the wishes of special-interest groups, particularly those which give campaign contributions.

Jamaican governments are known to respond to protests. If you want your road fixed, or your water supply restored, block the road. And better still, call in the television cameras. Writing your MP or the relevant government agency will not even result in a polite acknowledgement of your letter. This is a good indicator that our politics is not as democratic as we would like to think.

I remember the budget speech of 1999 when the government announced massive increases in the price of gasolene. Letters to the press were written asking for a roll-back; hundreds of talk-show hours were devoted to similar calls, but they got only a deaf ear. Then the people spoke in the gas price riots of April 1999; after three days of islandwide roadblocks and protests, nine people were killed, 14 policemen were injured, 16 police vehicles were damaged and more than 152 people were arrested. Jamaica lost tourism earnings from missed cruise ship visits, some children were unable to sit CXC examinations, and about 160,000 litres of milk had to be given away or dumped as a result of the blockage of rural roadways. The result: the government partially rolled back the gas prices.

Organised demonstrations

The demonstrations were marketed as being "spontaneous", but everyone knew that they were organised by the opposition Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). If the question had been asked: 'How many divisions does the opposition have?' the question was answered - in spades - and the answer had to be respected.

But not everywhere suffered protests, and the prime minister was publicly reported to have personally thanked certain local 'dons' for keeping the streets open and the situation 'normal'; the government party had their divisions too.

Jamaica is a democracy - sort of - but our politics has its totalitarian character too. The quality of a political meeting is often judged by the size of the crowd, which is why political meetings are so expensive to stage: thousands of people have to be bussed in from distant parts, and fed with curry goat and besotted with drink. The People's National Party (PNP) quickly called off its recent protests when they realised that the party faithful were not, after all, so faithful as to turn up without the 'lubrication'. A financially strapped PNP unable to generate massive crowds can be effectively ignored.

Both JLP and PNP governments have learned that they can safely ignore teachers when they demand pay increases; closed schools do not hurt that much. They have to pay a little more attention to nurses, for closed hospitals will cause a public hue and cry. But the police force - no matter how corrupt - will always have its way, for every Cabinet minister at home or on the street is guarded by policemen, and a sick-out by one's bodyguards would be intolerable.

Both JLP and PNP governments have learned that they can safely ignore environmental activists for, after all, 'how many divisions do they have?' Demon-strations on environmental issues are notoriously small, and populated with lots of light-skinned people. If ever those troublesome environmentalists were able to so educate the public on environmental matters that Jamaicans would take to the streets in protest, the politicians could easily truck in the 'faithful' to break up pro-environment and pro-sustainable development rallies.

Secure in this knowledge, both PNP and JLP governments have ignored protests against lack of access to Jamaican beaches by Jamaicans, non-functioning sewerage plants which kill coral reefs, deforestation which causes soil erosion, and permits given to investors in the name of 'development' to destroy and degrade our natural heritage.

Peter Espeut is a sociologist and a Roman Catholic deacon.