The past week has been one of unusual and alarming events, globally…
A meteorite the size of half a football field hurtled out of the blue sky and exploded in mid-air near a Siberian city with a blinding flash, injuring 1,200 people and smashing thousands of windowpanes. It entered the earth’s atmosphere at 44,000 miles per hour and exploded with the power of thirty Hiroshima bombs, fifteen miles above the heads of the freaked-out residents of Chelyabinsk.
Pope Benedict XVI threw the Catholic Church into shock by announcing his retirement from Popedom – the first Pope to do so for six hundred years. He plans to settle down quietly in a convent in the Vatican, presumably surrounded by nuns. Hope he doesn’t cramp the new Pope’s style too much.
On the same day as the meteorite’s startling arrival, asteroid 2012 DA14 whizzed past our planet just over 17,000 miles above us – closer than many satellites and closer than any other known asteroid. If it had decided to change course, I guess I would not be writing this today.
The fascinating, handsome and heroic athlete, South Africa’s Oscar “Blade Runner” Pistorius, sobbed in court as he was charged, astonishingly, with the premeditated murder of his girlfriend inside their high-security compound in Pretoria, on Valentine’s Day. The compound is surrounded by a high wall topped with an electric fence, but he still had a gun, baseball bat etc in his bedroom…Sigh.
In Jamaica we have had some surprises of our own, mostly of the fiscal variety. But today, half of uptown Jamaica was out in its finery (designer sports gear etc) in support of the annual corporate Sigma Run, now in its fifteenth year. In case you didn’t know, charity runs/walks have developed into the latest occasion to see and be seen in Kingston – they are multiplying. But at least it’s in a good cause, while the well-toned upper St. Andrew residents get to show off their taut bodies on the street and talk in loud voices along the way. Many do seem to take it seriously, though, and the organizers are hoping to raise J$16 million for local charities. Good for them.
But I digress. Back to our tottering economy. Firstly, we had another nationwide broadcast, which I mentioned in last week’s post. Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller and Finance Minister Peter Phillips were a tag team. The PM did the usual “let’s all work together” spiel, while Minister Phillips filled in with the hard stuff. He announced that Jamaica will embark on a National Debt Exchange (NDX). This has been in the offing apparently since around last September, according to Bank of Jamaica governor Brian Wynter. The People’s National Party (PNP) administration cannot, of course, call the exchange by the same name as a Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) program, That was the JDX, and this is the same concept. The government hopes to reduce the debt “by 8.5 per cent or around $17 billion per year between now and 2020,” according to Minister Phillips. But of course, “it’s a process,” as government technocrats love to say. The private sector has to buy into it. Will they? The offer closes on February 21 and will be settled the following day, and already at least two financial institutions (Bank of Nova Scotia and Sagicor) have said they are in.
So, we did learn from this broadcast that the Simpson Miller administration, pushed and prodded by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) team, will be making moves to reduce our incredibly high debt (now one of the highest in the world). According to the Bank of Jamaica, our debt to GDP ratio is around 150 per cent.
OK. Moving on. But the following afternoon the Finance Minister dropped his bombshell. He announced a huge taxation package (J$16 billion) not mentioned in the broadcast in the House of Representatives. His side of the house insisted that the package be approved that very afternoon, without debate. You can read details in the links below. The JLP was naturally taken aback. Opposition Finance Spokesman Audley Shaw claimed that the government had not even mentioned the taxes in a meeting the day before – at which the NDX was presented to them pretty much as a fait accompli. Opposition Members of Parliament slowly and deliberately gathered up their papers, their bags and laptops, and walked out of the Lower House, holding a press conference in a nearby meeting room immediately afterwards. Generally, I hate to see these “Opposition walkouts,” which happen fairly regularly – but on this occasion I sympathized. And ironically, one television station aired a clip of the Finance Minister (then in Opposition) railing against the imposition of taxes without consultation in a Rotary Club speech! One radio talk show host considered the whole affair the height of arrogance and disrespect to all stakeholders.
Of course, the tax package was passed. So much for our democracy. And aren’t the Opposition members of the house elected by the people, too? Yes. Thought so.
The private sector was extremely sour about all this. It all came as a complete surprise to them – a bolt from the blue, like the Russian meteorite. Business leaders have not minced their words. Union leaders and civil society groups have also expressed discomfort over the “Nicodemus” tactics of the government (Jamaicans love to refer to Biblical characters; Nicodemus came at night – but was he a bad guy?) Thus, the taxes were sneaked in under the radar, so to speak… Phrases like “lack of trust” were bandied about. Just not good enough.
Besides the $16 billion tax package, the government also proposes to take $11 billion per year for four years from the National Housing Trust (NHT), to which all working Jamaicans contribute. Now, the Chairman of the NHT is Mr. Easton Douglas, a former People’s National Party Member of Parliament and Housing Minister; there are other PNP members on the Board too. Mr. Douglas told journalists Emily Crooks and Naomi Francis on radio last week that he had not had to twist the arms of his board to comply with the administration’s wishes, but that they had a good “discussion” on the matter and agreed to it some three weeks ago. He added that despite the huge dip into its funds, the NHT will certainly remain “viable and sustainable,” noting that there will be a “paradigm shift” in the government agency towards lower income housing.
And of course, this is not the end of it. Although at the end of the week the government and the IMF announced that they had reached a staff-level agreement, I don’t think this is much more than a Memorandum of Understanding on the way forward. What about the IMF’s required “prior actions”? What about the public sector wages, which I have been mentioning every week recently? The police are getting edgy, now. What about waivers and incentives? What about actual, real tax reform? And how will the JDX 2 (sorry, NDX) affect bondholders, pensioners and others on fixed incomes?
So now, everyone is looking to pick up the pieces – rather like the Russians, who are busy searching for fragments of the exploded meteorite. Like them, so far we have only found the huge hole the tax package has already created.
I really enjoyed my friend Earl Moxam’s program “It’s a Wrap” on RJR today as he discussed the issues with an interesting group, including financial analyst Errol Gregory. Mr. Gregory regards the IMF agreement as a “temporary reprieve,” giving Jamaica time to put its house in order and “get production going.” But “growth has simply eluded us,” Mr. Gregory added. And all agreed that the crisis facing the country, and this lack of growth over decades, was not just about economics, but about “social attitudes.” Ian Wilkinson of the Jamaican Bar Association said that by now, “We should be fishermen, not begging fish.” We should also get out of campaign mode and party considerations. You just cannot govern while still in campaign mode, ranting and raving on party platforms. NO! Enough of that! Judith Wedderburn of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung pointed out that we should not “rely on mega-projects funded by the Chinese” to stimulate growth; small business and agricultural production must be encouraged, with short term projects built in to address the needs of vulnerable groups. Ms. Wedderburn described them as “slipping and sliding.” How true.
By the way, diGJamaica.com has been posting a series of very useful graphs and statistics on our current economic state. There are a couple of links below. As noted before, this is a very good resource for all things Jamaican!
OK, I know this means little or nothing to the Jamaican man/woman on the street. But they will be seeing the effects of all of this before too long. One hopes that the media will seek to clarify it all in a more digestible way for the average Jamaican. Meanwhile, the good thing is that (one sincerely hopes and believes) there will be a much higher level of transparency and accountability from here on in. This is absolutely essential for the Simpson Miller administration, going forward. It must really make huge efforts to engage the Jamaican people on what to expect, when and how. However unpalatable it may be (and some of the medicine will be very bitter – we are still using the former Prime Minister’s analogy) please tell us the truth! The truth shall set you free! Or at least, as close to it as you can get without jeopardizing your chances of winning the next election… And let’s get on with – somehow – producing a real growth strategy (highways don’t count) that enhances productivity.
Can we get real, please: Local churches are frowning on the sale of lottery tickets on Sundays – the Jamaica Umbrella Group of Churches, to be precise. “While we are in this plight we have to bear in mind the values or the importance of our morals,” says the group’s Reverend Gary Harriott.
Speaking of “morals”… Perhaps a higher priority for our church people might be, for example, the sexual exploitation of young girls (many under the age of consent of sixteen) by older men. This issue came starkly into focus during the week, when sixteen-year-old Martha Byrowe, was stabbed to death – allegedly by a 33-year-old man whom she was living with (for at least a year) in a small rural community. The girl’s mother lived just down the road. Mom has declared her innocence, after being charged with failure to report a child in need of care and protection and failure to exercise proper care and guidance to a child. She says the man was an old friend of the family, almost like a brother. The surrounding community is also expressing equal surprise and puzzlement over the developments, although they seem to have been fine with the schoolgirl’s alleged domestic arrangements. We shall see.
The point is, though, that such arrangements are not unusual in Jamaica. It is complex, and not easy to understand or explain, but mothers will turn a blind eye to, condone (and sometimes encourage) relationships between their young daughters and older men. Some reasons are clear: In a society where men are still earning more than women and where there are still higher levels of unemployment among women, mothers who are struggling (often as heads of households) are glad for whatever monetary support the man can offer. They are prepared to sacrifice their daughters’ wellbeing for this. Please read my fellow blogger Damien Williams’ very apt post on this topic, below.
I have to write more on this topic at a later date, but can we please start seeing our young girls (and boys) however precocious, as children. Children need nurturing, love, guidance; they need to be protected. For some reason, no one wants to talk about it. The community where young Martha and her lover lived seem to have adopted the “See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil” approach. The much-hackneyed phrase “It takes a village to raise a child“ would be the best policy in communities, one feels. So please tell older men who are watching young girls in their school uniforms: Leave the girls alone! Let them grow up, let them study and develop naturally! Forget this “force ripe” idea; it’s not the girls’ fault. And having sex with a child is nothing to be proud of. In Jamaican parlance, No Guh Deh! For more information on this, please contact Eve for Life Jamaica, the local non-governmental organization that supports women and children living with HIV. Support their campaign! (And by the way, girls aged ten to nineteen years are three times more likely to contract HIV/AIDS than their male counterparts).
Let me get down off my soap box.
Just a couple more things, as I am running out of time… Our former “Bronze Queen,” Merlene Ottey, paid a rare visit to Jamaica this week to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Technology. The social media included many snide comments from younger Jamaicans about Ms. Ottey, that I thought were unkind and uncalled-for. Ms. Ottey did a great deal to put Jamaica on the map in athletics. In 1980 she became the first female English-speaking Caribbean athlete to win an Olympic medal. She remains Jamaica’s most-decorated female athlete. She became a Slovenian citizen in 2002. There were controversies along the way, it is true; but I think we should recognize Ms. Ottey’s achievement. And yes, she probably does not speak English that much any more, hence the peculiar “farrin” accent. OK?
Heather Little-White was an incredibly warm person, and a former Fulbright Scholar, who overcame personal challenges with a smile. I noticed that at the huge thanksgiving service for her life yesterday, former Prime Minister Bruce Golding was in attendance. I thought he looked tired, thinner and very serious. Jamaican singer Jimmy Cliff, however, was jolly as ever – he just won a Grammy Award. I wish he would visit our shores more often.
And finally – big ups to the Jamaica Public Service Company and its energetic CEO, Ms. Kelly Tomblin, for its participation in the Valentine’s Day global effort to raise awareness about violence against women - One Billion Rising. I hear Ms. Tomblin was dancing up a storm at the celebration in Kingston. My only complaint is that this was not advertised much more widely. Along with my colleagues at the 51% Coalition, I would loved to have been a part of it. I couldn’t find any photos of the event… Next year, let us plan ahead!
Question of the Week: What sacrifices is the Portia Simpson Miller making, while asking the Jamaican public to do so? Trade in the Prados for Honda Accords, perhaps? “Just asking…”
I am so sad that the following Jamaican citizens were killed violently in the past week. My deepest sympathies to all their families and friends, who must be suffering grief and loss at this time:
Sebastian Smith, 48, Robin’s Bay, St. Mary
William Barrett, 52, Robin’s Bay, St. Mary
Anthony Williams, Bishop Lane, St. Mary
Levy Cohen, Greendale, St. Catherine
Jermaine Walker, 23, Linstead, St. Catherine
Martha Byrowe, 16, Knockpatrick, Manchester
David Lee-Chung, 55, Anchovy, St. James (Chinese national)
K. Duncan, 32, Darlington, Westmoreland
Shot dead by the police:
Jermaine Reid, 35, Red Pond, St. Catherine (Feb. 9)
“Sekou,” Big Lane/Central Village, St. Catherine
Related articles (local blogs highlighted in purple):
http://digjamaica.com/blog/2013/02/12/new-taxation-measures/ Ministry Paper: New taxation measures – diGJamaica.com
http://www.jis.gov.jm/news/leads-104/32978 Government looking to raise $15.9 billion in revenue: Jamaica Information Service
http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/news/-16B-in-new-taxes_13630287 $16 billion in new taxes; government also taking $45 billion from NHT funds: Jamaica Observer
http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/news/No-love-lost-_13629477 No love lost: JLP, JCSA, CAPI scream foul on “Nicodemus” taxes: Jamaica Observer
http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/news/Fewer-NHT-houses-in-wake-of-Gov-t-drawdown_13653627 Fewer NHT houses in wake of government drawdown: Sunday Observer
http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20130217/lead/lead1.html Finance Minister accepts that Government must prove its commitment to sound economic decisions: Sunday Gleaner
http://digjamaica.com/blog/2013/02/15/net-international-reserves-at-lowest-since-january-2001/?utm_source=Subscriptions&utm_campaign=c1e39118cb-RSS_EMAIL_CAMPAIGN&utm_medium=email Net International Reserves at lowest since 2001: diGJamaica.com
http://digjamaica.com/blog/2013/02/17/chart-of-the-week-trade-imbalance-widens/ Chart of the Week: Trade Imbalance Widens: diGJamaica.com
http://www.imf.org/external/np/sec/pr/2013/pr1343.htm Statement by an International Monetary Fund mission to Jamaica: http://www.imf.org
http://www.jis.gov.jm/news/leads-104/32996 IMF and Government reach staff-level agreement: Jamaica Information Service
http://www.imf.org/external/np/sec/pr/2013/pr1351.htm IMF Mission and Jamaican Authorities Reach Staff-Level Agreement on Key Elements for EFF-Supported Program: http://www.imf.org
http://rjrnewsonline.com/local/police-groups-call-for-urgent-meeting-with-government Police groups call for urgent meeting with government: RJR News
http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/columns/Blackness–Monkey-and-Mawga-Dawg_13626906 Blackness, Monkey and Mawga Dawg: Grace Virtue op-ed/Jamaica Observer
http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/letters/Leadership-crisis-in-Jamaica_13628167 Leadership crisis in Jamaica: Letter to Editor/Jamaica Observer
http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/letters/Dear-Prime-Minister—_13601822 Dear Prime Minister: Letter to Editor/Jamaica Observer
http://www.caribjournal.com/2013/02/12/mcneill-jamaica-must-press-ahead-on-new-tourism-projects/ McNeill: Jamaica must press ahead on new tourism projects: Carib Journal
http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/news/Palisadoes-shoreline-project-completed-within-budget—Davies Palisadoes shoreline project completed within budget – Davies: Jamaica Observer
http://www.jis.gov.jm/news/leads/32966 HIV/AIDS Workplace Policy tabled in the Senate: Jamaica Information Service
http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/news/JPS-crew-stoned_13652710 JPS crew stoned: Residents offer resistance: Jamaica Observer
http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20130215/cleisure/cleisure5.html#.UR7G9YBEvc8.facebook End scare tactics on gays: Javed Jaghai op-ed/Gleaner
http://redforgender.wordpress.com/2013/02/16/751/ Gay student challenges Jamaica’s anti-sodomy law: redforgender.wordpress.com
http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/letters/Unprotected-gay-sex-is-medically-unsafe_13628288 Unprotected gay sex is medically unsafe: Letter to the Editor/Observer
http://dmarcuswilliams.blogspot.com/2013/02/when-being-woman-is-criminal.html When being a woman is criminal: dmarcuswilliams.blogspot.com
http://rjrnewsonline.com/local/churches-frown-on-sunday-sale-of-lottery-tickets Churches frown on Sunday sale of lottery tickets: RJR News
http://rjrnewsonline.com/local/male-students-in-st-catherine-forming-gangs Male students in St. Catherine forming gangs: RJR News
http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/news/8-injured-in-Nannyville-attack_13652655 Eight injured in Nannyville attack: Jamaica Observer
http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20130214/sports/sports1.html Ottey will keep going: 52 year-old sprinter sets sights on World Champs: Gleaner