Jamaica at 50: Island Nation’s PM Talks About the Queen, the Caribbean and Usain Bolt

As Jamaica celebrates its golden anniversary of independence on Aug. 6 — the same week its Olympic sprinters look set to dominate in London — its first female Prime Minister sits down with TIME to discuss the island's, and the Caribbean's, mix of festive and frustrated emotions

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Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller of Jamaica arrives at Buckingham Palace in London on July 27, 2012, for a reception for heads of state and government attending the Olympics opening ceremony

Jamaica celebrates its 50th anniversary on Aug. 6. The first and largest (pop. 3 million) of 10 Caribbean islands to win independence from Britain, Jamaica has a lot to fete: it’s kept up a working, uninterrupted democracy, no mean feat for any former colony. Institutions like the University of the West Indies have gained international respect. And from reggae music to Rastafarian chic, few small, developing countries have ever branded themselves as famously as Jamaica has — a point likely to be driven home at the London Olympics by a juggernaut of Jamaican sprinters, led by Usain “Lightning” Bolt, who could win every race at the same moment their nation marks its break from British rule.

But those triumphs can’t hide the social and economic crises that Jamaica and the strategically located Caribbean basin face. The U.N. warned this year that the region’s economies are being stunted by inordinately high violent crime — though murder is down in Jamaica, it still has one of the world’s highest homicide rates. Five of the world’s 13 most indebted nations, as a share of gross domestic product, are Caribbean islands, including Jamaica. Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, 66, the country’s first female leader, spoke with TIME’s Tim Padgett at her Jamaica House office in the capital, Kingston, about her reform plans — and the mix of jubilation and angst that Jamaica and the Caribbean are feeling this summer. Excerpts:

(MORERemaking Jamaica)

Beyond Jamaica’s impressive national branding and Olympics fame, how would you describe the country’s feeling of accomplishment, and perhaps also disappointment, as it approaches its 50th anniversary?
Independence is a long journey, and despite our challenges, I think we’ve done very well on balance our first 50 years. We’ve proven a strong and determined people. Jamaica is more than just the “brand” the world recognizes so well; it’s a place of pride for the people who live here, its educational institutions, its sports achievements, its science and technology growth.

In your January inauguration speech, after your landslide December election victory, you called for a referendum on eliminating the British monarch as your head of state and making Jamaica a republic. Why now?
I am a fan of the Queen [Elizabeth II]. I think she is a wonderful person. But as I said, independence for us is a long journey, from slavery and then from colonialism, and now it is time for us to have our own form of government. I do not believe that is unreasonable. We would remain a member of the [British] Commonwealth. But the time has come.

Your fans call you Sister P. Do you represent a historical shift, not only as Jamaica’s first female Prime Minister, but also as the first to hail from the sort of urban, working-class and predominantly Afro-Caribbean community that many, if not most, Jamaicans themselves are from?
I was actually born in deep rural Jamaica and came to Kingston as a high school girl. But I do believe women are natural caregivers who bring that certain perspective to leadership, [that] having more women in leadership is pushing governments forward around the world. As for inner-city constituencies like mine, I want the world to know that we do have strong businesses and industry there, that we do produce professionals, yet people there are still too poor, and we can’t continue to leave them behind. Poverty is a hellish state.

Critics of Jamaica’s severe economic inequality say those left behind too often have to turn for help to criminal “dons” like Kingston druglord Christopher “Dudus” Coke, who was just sentenced to 23 years in a U.S. prison. Jamaica has one of the world’s highest murder rates — so can you replace the influence of kingpins like Coke?
I’ve spent my political life fighting all those in our country who bill themselves as “dons.” If you empower people in their communities and get them jobs, no one like Dudus Coke can win their hearts and minds and hold them hostage. We’ve created a new anti-organized-crime task force to target kingpin finances, but one of the biggest challenges is job creation and our new Jamaica Emergency Employment Program (JEEP). So far we’ve got 6,000 persons employed in infrastructure projects, and we’re getting people trained for even better jobs.

(MORE: Can Jamaica’s Sprinters Fight Crime?)

Jamaica’s debt is a very heavy, 129% of its $15 billion GDP. Can you really stimulate more jobs with that kind of fiscal crisis on your hands?
We’re in discussions with the [International Monetary Fund], and that requires prudent fiscal management. But at the same time, I’ve indicated to IMF officials that if we’re not able to satisfy our people’s basic needs we will not have a country. Even when you have to be repaying that level of debt, you still have to ensure the quality of your education, so you can start children right and bright and allow them the opportunity to help the nation grow its economy out of that debt. So we have to be able to carry out the jobs and training efforts while working to attract investment, like new hotel construction and especially the expansion of our ports.

Yet the Jamaican and Caribbean economies also have to move beyond low-wage tourism.
We don’t rely on tourism as much as people think. But we feel agriculture is ripe for development in Jamaica. Our cocoa beans, for example, have a very distinctive taste, and with assistance from countries like Brazil, we’re developing more value-added products and factories and industries around that.

You remarked recently that the world should pay some of the attention it gives Greece’s debt disaster to the crisis in the Caribbean. Given that this region is the western hemisphere’s nexus — and how vulnerable it is to drug trafficking — why doesn’t the international community recognize its importance?
I think they know the Caribbean is a region that matters. But yes, it too often gets taken for granted, and that’s why we have to strengthen CARICOM [the Caribbean regional integration organization] and why we’re seeing more interest in regionalism here. By ourselves I don’t think [Caribbean countries] can achieve as much, like debt renegotiation with multilaterals, as we can if we speak with one, more powerful voice. The powerful countries should pay more attention to the Caribbean if only because of our strategic location. If we don’t have the ability to deal with our problems, it can prove a problem for them.

(MORE: The Republic of Jamaica: Why Ditching the British Queen Isn’t Enough)

You’ve also called for improved civil rights for homosexuals and for a parliamentary review of the sodomy law that criminalizes homosexuality. That’s considered fairly courageous given the severe and sometimes violent homophobia that exists in Jamaica and the Caribbean. Can you repeal the sodomy law?
I’m a Christian woman, but I believe in human rights. I do not go into people’s bedrooms. I appoint people based on their capabilities, not their sexual orientation. If we’re to do anything about [the sodomy law], we have to go to Parliament, and I’m not sure if it would be repealed because I’m not sure how the members would vote. But there is a popular view internationally that Jamaicans are very intolerant; I personally do not share that view. If Jamaica was such a homophobic society, I doubt I would have won the [December 2011] election by a landslide after what I’d said on this issue.

How important will the performance of Usain Bolt and Jamaica’s sprinters at the Olympics be to the nation?
Whether or not they win medals I just love them because they show that when Jamaicans want to be brilliant and good, we are the best at what we do. They represent not only Jamaica but the Caribbean — they remind us of the high hopes we all have for the next 50 years, and not just that we will pay our debt and create strong growth and development, though at the end of my tenure I hope Jamaicans will feel that kind of change happening. They inspire us to feel that when we pass the baton ourselves we’ll have left Jamaica better than we found it.