Yes, summer is definitely here. Gusty winds, the sun burning grass, and the birds are frequent visitors to our bird bath. And a huge cloud of Saharan dust blowing across the Atlantic from West Africa… The Petchary – my namesake, and a summer visitor – is snapping at the other birds on the telephone wire. And my weekly news review nearly got blown away with the wind and sun and dust.
LAST WEEK, AS ANTICIPATED, WAS LARGELY A MONEY WEEK. THE BUDGET, THE DETAILS OF WHICH FINANCE MINISTER PETER PHILLIPS BATTLED THROUGH LAST TUESDAY, DOMINATED THE NEWS. THE JAMAICAN PUBLIC HAD BARELY DIGESTED THE HUNDREDS OF BILLIONS BEFORE THE REACTIONS STARTED COMING IN, DRIP BY DRIP. THIS WEEK, ONE CAN EXPECT A FLOOD OF RECRIMINATIONS, COMMENTARY FROM FINANCIAL ANALYSTS, QUERIES AND COMPLAINTS. TODAY’S OBSERVER, FOR EXAMPLE, INCLUDES A FRONT-PAGE EDITORIAL ON WHAT IT SEES AS A SEVERE IMPACT ON THE ALREADY AILING TOURISM SECTOR, HEADLINED, “THE TOURISM GOOSE IS COOKED.” THE GOOSE THAT LAID THE GOLDEN EGG, THAT IS. I GUESS THE GOLDEN EGG HAS BEEN SCRAMBLED, TOO.
But let’s start with sports, for a change. And it’s all been a struggle, too. Yesterday, Panama beat the Jamaican “Reggae Boyz” (1-0) at the National Stadium in what was supposed to be a good preparation match for World Cup qualifiers (I’m talking football/soccer, of course). It was not so much the scoreline, but the lackluster effort of the Jamaican players that disappointed the fans, who uncharitably booed their performance, at the end of the game. And just as the Finance Minister exhausted himself during his budget presentation, our superstar sprinter Usain Bolt struggled hard to win a race with a slower-than-usual speed at the Golden Spike athletics meet in Ostrava, Czech Republic. He is very busy with all kinds of marketing and promotions and has a new music track (his husky voice repeats, “I need to go faster.”) Poor Mr. Bolt is under serious pressure. And now, for those who follow cricket, the West Indies team was “crushed” during their tour of England, losing the Test series. All pretty woeful. But one brushes the Sahara dust off oneself and tries again, eh? Better luck next time, I’m sure.
Back to the Budget (and don’t ask me why the font has changed – I know, it’s annoying but I can’t seem to fix it). I felt a certain sympathy for Minister Phillips, who did not sound as if he was enjoying himself as he presented his first Budget as Finance Minister. I could see him mentally mopping his brow. The presentation actually offered us some of the “bitter medicine” that former Prime Minister Andrew Holness had (rather unwisely for him) foretold during the election campaign. We, the long-suffering and over-taxed Jamaican public, did not enjoy listening to it, either. The two items that jumped out at me with alarm bells ringing furiously were the imposition of General Consumption Tax on books, and the heavy taxation of the tourism industry. Yes, we know that Minister Phillips has to plug the gap – which is now 19 billion Jamaican Dollars within the 612 billion. Eighty per cent of the budget will go to debt payments and public sector salaries, by the way.
What it boils down to, Dr. Phillips suggests (and I believe he is right) is that, although it would be lovely to go for the stimulus approach, as Eurozone leaders are now leaning towards, little Jamaica just can’t afford it. Dr. Phillips called a stimulus package a “mirage” that would not quench our thirst. Our debt burden (at 128 per cent of GDP) is one of the highest in the world, and is crippling us. Economist Wilberne Persaud called the debt crisis a “modern-day tragedy” last week. We have no choice but to “bang our bellies” and tighten our belts. Sacrifices will have to be made – but no one wants to make sacrifices. Many of us – in particular the hard-pressed “middle class,” or what is left of it – have already sacrificed so much. Ms. Maxine Walters eloquently pointed this out in a Letter to the Editor, bemoaning the plight of the “educated poor.” The less educated poor, of course, will continue to get poorer (despite the Prime Minister’s professed love for them) – and the rich will get richer (especially those who avoid paying their taxes).
Keith Collister, the Observer’s financial analyst, had two very useful articles last week. In one, he calls the tax package in the budget “very severe.” In the other, he points to several “signs of distress” in the local and regional tourism sector. The Observer (owned by tourism mogul Gordon “Butch” Stewart) has not minced its words on the subject. I can’t help but agree. I thought tourism was our precious foreign exchange earner?
As for the tax on books, a Facebook correspondent reminded me this morning that Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller herself vehemently opposed such an imposition, just two years ago in Parliament. Ms. Simpson Miller, then the Opposition Leader, called a proposed tax on books a “huge mistake.” This is recorded in Hansard, if you don’t believe me. But then, haven’t we come to expect such changes of heart? (I am being kind; others might call it hypocrisy). Anyway, we are choking down that bitter medicine now. And we still have the IMF to deal with. Five months after the triumphant General Election, things are starting to look a little wobbly, a little off-key.
My friend and a great columnist, Jean Lowrie-Chin, has as usual sought to put a positive spin on things today. What’s the point of hand-wringing? We just have to deal with it. Jean’s column last week was equally hard-hitting in that “gentle but firm” style of hers, which I greatly admire. She touched on another tricky topic: the unedifying and downright depressing saga of the lotto scammers. Last week, to our great shame, some local residents (their faces hidden from the camera) expressed support for the scammers (many of whom have been rounded up in recent weeks) and went so far as to say that cheating elderly, lonely and often helpless Americans out of their life-savings was “pay back” for slavery. Another shameful incident that the television stations highlighted last week: demonstrations by parents and students outside a primary school, where a teacher had been arrested on suspicion of sexually molesting a twelve-year-old student (who is now doubly traumatized by the school community’s response). Nothing good is going to come out of any of this – but I hope, at least, that we can move on and do better next time. Ignorance is a terrible thing.
Unhappy anniversaries: There were two anniversaries last week which were dealt with, if somewhat superficially, in the local media. It was as if the budget news was bad enough, and we couldn’t take the reminders of two painful episodes that took place in May, all in the same week. On May 22, 2009 seven girls who were wards of the State died in a fire at the Armadale child facility in St. Ann. The painful details still burn in our heads – the burnt mattresses, the scorched windows, the anxious relatives clustered at the gate in the night. As youth activist Jaevion Nelson noted in his excellent op-ed piece in the Gleaner last week, the Government’s initial response was appropriate, but in general the issue of child protection remains sorely neglected. Jamaicans for Justice made a number of recommendations to the Government; a Commission of Enquiry followed the fire and highlighted many severe deficiencies in the system – but I saw JFJ’s Susan Goffe on television recently asking for at least fire extinguishers to be placed in children’s homes. Are we serious?
We also remembered, with a sense of dread as well as deep sadness, what is now euphemistically called the “incursion” by the police and military into Tivoli Gardens on May 23, 2010. Tivoli was then the West Kingston stronghold of Christopher “Dudus” Coke, the don who was called by residents “Prezi.” They were searching for the chubby-faced Coke, who was led away in handcuffs by Drug Enforcement Administration agents not long afterwards. Meanwhile, 73 residents of Tivoli Gardens (the official number), mostly young men, were dead. An agonizing television report last week recalled the grief of a mother whose son went missing during the attack; she discovered that he had been lying in the street, grievously wounded, for six hours. He died as she eventually got him to the hospital. Human rights activist Yvonne McCalla Sobers noted in the Gleaner last weekend that there has simply been no closure. The Public Defender’s report on the issue has not yet materialized. The Director of Public Prosecutions is not ready to rule on the shocking death of accountant Keith Clarke, whose house was attacked by the military in the middle of the night and who died in a hail of bullets. There will be no Commission of Enquiry, which Amnesty International has been calling for. Questions and more questions remain unanswered, piling on top of each other.
Meanwhile in New York, the long-drawn-out drama of Mr. Coke’s sentencing hearing created some dramatic headlines, with witnesses giving what appeared to be damning, and certainly detailed evidence. There was excellent reporting from the Gleaner’s Fern Whyte (also on Power 106 FM) and from CVM Television’s Andrew Cannon – who is on the ball, as usual. Congratulations to my former colleague, Fern! Meanwhile, Mr. Coke (and the rest of us wait until June 8 for the final episode to unfold in court.
Not the cheeriest of weeks, I suppose… And the Jamaica Observer continues its unrelenting anti-gay stance – it seems to be a mouthpiece for the fundamentalists, such as Reverend Peter Garth. Today they have wheeled out a “reformed” gay American, imported by Reverend Garth & Co. Columnist Betty Ann Blaine (the one who declared Jamaicans to be “Christians, not homophobes”) fights a strong and passionate rearguard action. Thank God (I have probably blasphemed here) for columnist Tamara Scott-Williams, who pointed out in the Sunday Observer that the so-called “Gay Manifesto” that Reverend Garth and others arm themselves with is in fact a satire.
But hey… There is a glimmer of light somewhere, isn’t there? The TeenAge section of the Jamaica Observer continues to keep its standards up, and I especially like the Teen History feature for Jamaica 50 (don’t get me started on that topic, though; I would still like to know what will actually be happening at our Independence celebrations this year, but cannot penetrate Mr. Robert Bryan’s slick marketing jargon. Don’t use the word “legacy” Mr. Bryan – oh, what was the legacy of the Cricket World Cup, again?) Can someone please tell me what the Jamaica 50 celebrations will consist of?
I was delighted that the wonderful charity Food for the Poor provided a new home for the tragic little rural family in Stepney, St. Ann, who were living in a ruin. Congratulations, too, to the Geology Department of the University of the West Indies, which celebrated its fiftieth anniversary last week. Appropriately enough, the original Professor of Geology unveiled a huge boulder (what type of rock was not specified) on the campus grounds. I’ve always been fascinated by those people who go around with a small hammer, tapping on rock faces. I rather think it must be fun to be a scientist.
Talking of science and so on, may I commend the Caribbean Maritime Institute for their forward thinking. They are engaged in a project to turn seawater into drinking water,using clean energy. Big ups to the CMI, as well as to the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and the local Solar and Fire Protection Services Limited, who are also partnering with it on an excellent project that trains inner-city students to make LED lights. Marvelous!
Thanks also to the World Bank’s Giorgio Valantini. He believes in young people, and asserts that “an engaged, employed youth” with IT expertise can move Jamaica forward. Jamaica, do we believe in our youth? As I asked in an earlier post, are we listening to them?
Mr. Omar Robinson is not only charming and hospitable, but also a true professional who fully deserves the award of Hotelier of the Year from the Jamaica Hotel & Tourist Association. Congratulations! We met him quite a few years ago at a Sandals/Beaches resort in Negril. He is now General Manager of the beautiful Round Hill resort in Montego Bay. They are lucky to have him!
And the Jamaica Cancer Society’s Relay for Life celebrates ten years this year. The event will take place on June 9-10 (overnight, that is) at the Police Officers Club on Hope Road, Kingston. Check for enrollment details at http://www.jamaicacancersociety.org/relayforlife.htm. And you can also donate online.
I am proud of the efforts of the Jamaican diaspora to support Jamaicans at home. Last week, Children of Jamaica Outreach Inc (COJO), a U.S.-based organization headed by Gary Williams, presented scholarships to three wards of state who had no funds to pursue further education after leaving state homes. Grace Kennedy Group CEO Don Wehby had some important things to say about the plight of our children at the ceremony, too. Well done and thank you, COJO!
Last but not least… The past week or so has been a wonderful one for culture! You will read more from me on this, but I would like to congratulate rising poetry star Ann-Margaret Lim on the launch of her first volume, “The Festival of Wild Orchid” (available at all good Kingston bookstores, Bookophilia, Bookland etc). It was good also to have the Calabash International Literary Festival back under the theme Jubilation! 50 – a happy reunion in hot and humid Treasure Beach, St. Elizabeth. I ventured to the Open Mic for the first time, and the audience were kind to me! On the same weekend were two other great events: Performances by the Dance Theater of Harlem organized by the U.S. Embassy’s Public Affairs Section (so appreciated by Jamaican “culture vultures” who stayed in town specially); and yesterday’s Festival of the Dancing Child, organized by the effervescent, dedicated dancer Kofi Walker and attended by hundreds of eager participants. Kofi, your dedication and love knows no bounds!
The arts uplift, when the news does not!
http://jamaica-gleaner.com/videos/video.php?id=433 Usain Bolt runs a music track
http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20120526/sports/sports1.html “I just never got going”
http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20120525/lead/lead91.html Budget in brief
http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20120525/business/business8.html Jamaica’s debt crisis a modern-day tragedy
http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/columns/Let-s-make-the-best-of-it: Jean Lowrie-Chin
http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/letters/Equity-lacking-in-Jamaica_11525491: Letter from Maxine Walters
http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20120527/lead/lead6.html: Lotto scam: A Tale of Glamor, Death and a Free Ticket to a U.S. Jail
http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20120522/cleisure/cleisure5.html: Armadale Still Burning: Jaevion Nelson
http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20120520/letters/letters2.html: Tivoli Gardens – No Closure After Two Years: Yvonne McCalla Sobers
http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20120523/lead/lead9.html: Amnesty International calls for Tivoli Incursion Probe
http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20120523/lead/lead1.html: Deadly “Dudus” tales
http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20120524/lead/lead1.html: “Dudus” eyes June 8
http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/columns/Gay-Manifesto-the-rantings-and-ravings-of-a-revolutionary_11543999: Tamara Scott-Williams column
http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20120523/lead/lead4.html: COJO presents scholarships to three wards of state
Sunday Simmer (petchary.wordpress.com)
Sunday Stunner – Early Edition (petchary.wordpress.com)
Gold, Silver and Bronze (petchary.wordpress.com)