Can a Young Prime Minister Reform Jamaica’s Old Criminality?

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When Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding announced his resignation last month, the only surprise was that it took him so long. Since last year, Golding, leader of the Jamaica Labor Party (JLP), has been embroiled in one of the worst scandals to hit Jamaica since it won independence five decades ago. His government faces accusations that for months it refused to arrest and extradite Jamaican drug lord Christopher “Dudus” Coke to the U.S. because of Coke’s long and close relationship with the center-right JLP. When Golding, who denies the charge, finally did agree to collar Coke in May of 2010, it sparked a lengthy, armed street battle between security forces and Coke supporters that left 76 people dead.

Now, fearing the Coke scandal could wreck its chances in new parliamentary elections that have to be held by December of 2012, the JLP is betting that more youthful leadership can distract Jamaican voters and clean up the venal house that Golding, 63, leaves behind. On Wednesday, October 5, JLP leaders anointed 39-year-old Education Minister Andrew Holness as their new leader and therefore Jamaica’s new Prime Minister. But Holness already has a big decision of his own to make as soon as the JLP ratifies him at its convention next month: whether or not to call early elections ahead of Coke’s Dec. 8 sentencing hearing in the U.S., when the kingpin might name Golding and other JLP bosses among his mafia’s political protectors. “Holness will be staring at Jamaica’s shadow of criminality from the start,” says Jamaican-American lawyer David Rowe, adjunct professor of law at the University of Miami.

(See “Behind the War on Jamaica’s Streets”)

Rowe and other Jamaica watchers say pulling the sun-splashed island out from under that lawless darkness, even more than solving its heavy economic problems, has to be any new PM’s priority. Heavily armed gangs like Coke’s Shower Posse, which rule communities like the poor west Kingston neighborhood of Tivoli Gardens, where Coke was based and which Golding represents in Parliament, have turned Jamaica into the murder capital of the Caribbean and the transshipment center for cocaine heading to the U.S.’s eastern seaboard. “The central problem for Jamaica,” says Brian Meeks, professor of social and political change at the University of the West Indies, “is that the crime rate makes it too unattractive for investment.”

When a New York grand jury indicted Coke, 42, in the summer of 2009 for cocaine distribution and arms smuggling – charges based on both U.S. and Jamaican wire taps – Golding inexplicably balked at handing Coke over to American authorities, despite a smoothly functioning extradition treaty between the two countries. Then came revelations that Jamaica had hired a U.S. law firm to lobby the Obama Administration to drop its extradition request. Golding has yet to be officially charged with wrongdoing; but after the May 2010 bloodshed that finally resulted in Coke’s arrest and extradition, calls for Golding’s resignation grew louder. Golding resisted – and the speculation in Jamaica is that he finally threw in the towel last month because JLP leaders convinced him that if Coke, who pleaded guilty to racketeering charges in August, does finger him in December, it would be better for the party to have him out of the prime minister’s seat by then.

Now that Golding is set to depart next month, it will be up to Holness to start the process of “extracting the JLP and the Jamaican government from these horrible connections to Dudus and racketeering,” says Rowe. Those ties aren’t just the JLP’s. Jamaican officialdom’s links to organized crime date back to the cold-war politics of the 1970s, when the JLP and its main rival, the liberal People’s National Party (PNP), often employed armed thugs. By the 1990s, those gangs had morphed into drug-trafficking organizations like the Shower Posse (named for the shower of bullets it fires on enemies), which are widely believed to help fund the parties as well as receive government contracts for businesses they own.

Holness, it’s hoped, represents a departure from that old generation of Jamaican politics. Though he’s a protégé of former JLP Prime Minister Edward Seaga, his past work in youth affairs (executive director of the non-governmental Voluntary Organization for Uplifting Children) and the private sector gives him a cleaner image, one he sought to emphasize this week by pledging to make anti-corruption polices a priority.

But because Holness won’t have much chance to make a real reform dent between now and December 2012, says Meeks, it may behoove the new PM-in-waiting to call elections sooner than later, “while the euphoria factor of a new generation taking power” still hangs in the Jamaican air. If it looks as though Coke will sing, the JLP may want to call snap elections before Dec. 8; but even if he doesn’t, analysts like Meeks see the party scheduling a ballot in early 2012, perhaps in February. The other factor is a struggling economy: the critical tourism industry remains healthy, but unemployment is approaching 15%, and the government faces serious fiscal perils as well.

No matter when elections are called, and even with the fresher Holness at the helm, the JLP still faces an uphill battle against the PNP and its leader, former PM Portia Simpson-Miller. “Portia is generally considered less tolerant of criminality,” says Rowe. Even so, Jamaica celebrates the 50th anniversary of its independence next year – meaning both Holness and Simpson-Miller have to face voter anger over how their parties could have let such dark clouds accumulate over their island at what should be a proud moment in its history.