New Jamaica leader targets slum politics

AP News
Posted: Nov 23, 2011 3:04 AM
New Jamaica leader targets slum politics

In the battle-scarred slum of Tivoli Gardens, Latoya Brown lavishes thanks on two powerful men who have taken care of her: a former top politician and a drug kingpin.

Brown, 30, credits ex-Prime Minister Edward Seaga for building her housing project in the 1960s and promptly filling it with partisans of his Jamaica Labor Party. Her other patron is gang leader Christopher "Dudus" Coke, who for decades ran the slum by doling out public services the government could never offer and enforcing a lawless, violent order. Come election time, Coke's brutal Shower Posse gang made sure residents voted for Seaga's party.

"We're always going to keep it Labor," said Brown, on a landing of the sun-parched complex, long the most notorious ghetto in a bleak gash of gritty neighborhoods in West Kingston.

Such symbiotic relationships between politicians and criminals have long been, in fact, the rule in Jamaica's sprawling slums, which are separated into areas loyal both to underworld bosses and one of the island's two clanlike parties. With elections looming in weeks, Jamaica's new prime minister, Andrew Holness, is saying it's time to finally cut the link between the country's legal and illegal power brokers.

His predecessor, Bruce Golding, resigned last month in part due to controversy over his reluctance to carry out a U.S. extradition request for Coke, whose slum stronghold was the heart of the Jamaican leader's constituency.

"Jamaica is yearning, crying out, for a new politics to emerge," Holness said at the start of his inaugural speech. "Zones of political exclusion are incompatible with freedom, and aspects of our politics are an affront to liberty. It is time to end garrison politics."

Holness has invited opposition leader Portia Simpson Miller of the People's National Party to walk with him through one-party areas in a symbolic gesture of change. He maintains that this will lead to concrete steps, as yet unidentified, to remove slum neighborhoods known as garrisons from the political landscape.

But Simpson Miller insists that Holness must first agree to a program of "social transformation" to help the slums before any symbolic walks can happen. Simpson Miller is a former prime minister who represents a powerful garrison constituency and whose party controls more politicized slums than Labor. She's complained that Holness' use of the word "garrison" only serves to stigmatize inner city communities.

"The opposition leader says it's just a name, as if garrisons don't exist," said Horace Levy, who works to reduce community violence through the nonpartisan Peace Management Initiative. "This is not true, they do exist. It's not as bad as it was 20 years ago, but they are still there."

Herbert Gayle, an anthropologist of social violence at Jamaica's University of the West Indies, said Holness' calls to finally end garrison politics seems like "a lot of salesmanship" ahead of the elections.

Vote-buying by the political parties is now a bigger problem than blatant intimidation by paid-off enforcers, Gayle said.

"The garrison relationships are becoming more sophisticated, more subtle," he said.

Still, the divisions remain tribal and occasionally erupt in bloodshed around election time.

In the 1970s, Jamaica's two main political parties enlisted gangs to intimidate voters, including arming them to enforce partisan loyalty. In the lead-up to the 1980 elections, more than 800 people were killed in political clashes.

Successive debt-wracked governments of both parties gradually ceded power in the slums to gang leaders who were the only real providers of social welfare. Slum powerbrokers called "dons" received government contracts for public works projects that included building clinics and schools.

Meanwhile, the gangs fought bloody turf wars over drugs and extortion rings that have provoked a cycle of seemingly endless revenge killings, giving Jamaica one of the highest homicide rates in the world.

With the gangs firmly entrenched, most poor people were forced to affiliate themselves with a party and an affiliated gang since they relied on patronage for jobs, houses and land.

Such pork barrel politics siphoned taxpayers' money into constituency development funds in a loyal don's turf.

"Politics in Jamaica for far too long has been about distribution _ who gets what, how, where and when," Holness, 39, said Sunday during a Labor party conference.

On a recent day in Kingston's Waterhouse area, an opposition slum in Holness' divided urban constituency, 29-year-old Mark Harrison and other young men sat on cinderblocks along a pitted road and expressed pessimism about the chance for any major changes in the slums.

"Politicians won't ever do nothing for us, no matter what they say," said Harrison, an ad hoc civic leader for the poor area.

Regardless of his distrust of what he termed "politricks," he and a 23-year-old man nicknamed "Zum" were still decked out in loud orange shirts promoting a candidate for the People's National Party. They had attended a party rally that morning.

During his political career, Golding also spoke of ending garrison politics, but he stonewalled for nine months when the U.S. asked for Coke's extradition, including hiring a Washington lobbying firm to try and stop the request. When Golding finally authorized the extradition in May 2010, the raids launched to capture Coke sparked violence that killed at least 76 people. Golding resigned last month.

Political analysts note that the capture and extradition of Coke, long known as the island's most powerful slum don, was initiated not because of internal pressures but only because the U.S. demanded it.

"Unless the U.S. are going to start calling for the extradition of all the dons, it is hard to see what pressures there are within the system which are going to bring about fundamental change," said Amanda Sives, a University of Liverpool academic who spent years doing research in Jamaica.

Some politicians representing garrison constituencies have asserted that political connections to the underworld no longer really exist, but you'd be hard pressed to find any other Jamaicans who believe that.

"Without politics, we all live good. But when elections come, the old lines separating us come back and things tense up," said Michael "Bizzie" Murray, a 54-year-old leader of the People's National Party-aligned Rollington Town area. Police have classified Murray as an East Kingston don.

Earlier this year, the Jamaica Gleaner newspaper ran a controversial series of editorials painting the island's two main parties as gangs, saying "politically aligned criminal gangs are praetorian guards of the parties." A Gleaner-commissioned poll of 1,008 islanders found that nine in every 10 Jamaicans agreed with the portrayal.

In Tivoli Gardens, Brown and other residents still express a loyalty to Coke bordering on fondness. But they also insist they will keep voting for the ruling party even though it was a Labor government that eventually extradited the slum boss.

Seaga, for one, has kept on giving to the neighborhood, she said, even personally paying her hospital bills if she asks his office for help. Just a few blocks away lies Bob Marley's old neighborhood of Trench Town, a sprawling neighborhood allied with the People's National Party.

Brown, who was blinded when a bullet cut her optical nerve in a police shooting, said she and her neighbors know the parties need the gangs to operate, just as much as the gangs need the politicians.

"Most of the politicians here build gangs," said Brown, as a convoy of security forces drove by her apartment, rotating machine guns at the ready. "They don't break gangs."


David McFadden on Twitter: