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In March 2006, Portia Simpson Miller took office as Jamaica’s first female prime minister following the retirement of P.J. Patterson, who had led the country on behalf of the People’s National Party for 14 years. Simpson Miller’s ascension was seen as a large step forward for women in Jamaican politics, but it did little to change the policies of the ruling party.
Jamaica, a member of the Commonwealth, achieved independence from Britain in 1962. Since then, power has alternated between the social-democratic People’s National Party (PNP) and the conservative Jamaica Labor Party (JLP). In 1992, the PNP elected Percival James Patterson to replace Michael Manley as party leader and prime minister. In the 1993 parliamentary elections, which were marred by irregularities and violence, the PNP won 52 seats in the House of Representatives and the JLP won eight seats. The parties largely agreed on the need to continue Jamaica’s structural adjustment, begun in the 1980s to bring economic stability and growth to the country, but the JLP’s electoral chances had been hurt by long-standing internal rifts.
The Patterson government confronted labor unrest and an increase in violent crime carried out largely by gangs operating a lucrative drug trade that was loosely tied to local party bosses. In 2000, Patterson promised to stanch Jamaica’s “rampant criminality” by introducing new gun-control measures, creating a new police strike-force to target organized crime, and reinstating the death penalty. The pledges came after leaders of the vital tourism industry joined Jamaicans from all walks of life in demanding an end to the street crime, which had been spiraling upward over the previous two decades. The crime wave had crippled local businesses and spurred an exodus of middle-class Jamaicans from the island.
In 2002, Patterson became the only prime minister in Jamaican history to be elected to three consecutive terms. His PNP won 34 of 60 seats in the House of Representatives and retained control of the premiership for an unprecedented fourth term. The JLP remained in opposition with 26 seats. An observer delegation led by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter said that despite measures taken to restrain voter fraud, such activity remained common in areas controlled by politically linked gangs. In taking office, Patterson also became the first head of government to swear allegiance to the Jamaican people and constitution, rather than to the British monarch.
In June 2003, the JLP won a landslide victory in bitterly contested local elections that appeared to be a referendum on the PNP’s fiscal policies. The JLP secured control of 11 of the 13 municipal councils at stake; 23 percent of the candidates were women. Following the vote, 27 people, including 2 police officers, were killed during security operations in western Kingston, and 16 others died in gun battles in the eastern part of the city as gangs loyal to the two major political parties clashed. The JLP announced in November that it would not support a new antiterrorism bill that it claimed gave the government “draconian powers” to confiscate private property and suppress antigovernment protests; the party continued its opposition through 2004, but the bill eventually passed on April 8, 2005. The PNP also pushed to give the military the power to conduct searches and make arrests even in the absence of the police.
In 2006, Jamaica continued a generational transition of leadership that had commenced in 2005, when Edward Seaga’s 30 years as head of the JLP ended with the selection of Bruce Golding as leader of the parliamentary opposition. In March 2006, Patterson announced that he would step down after 14 years in power, setting off a hard-fought PNP leadership battle between Minister for Local Government Portia Simpson Miller, National Security Minister Peter Phillips, and Finance Minister Omar Davies. Simpson Miller handily fended off her competition by securing 46 percent of the vote among 3,800 party delegates. Her closest rival only managed to get 40 percent support. Her victory was heralded as a major advance for the role of women in Jamaica’s politics. By the end of 2006, Simpson Miller remained a popular figure with approval ratings exceeding 55 percent, and the PNP retained a plurality of support among the electorate heading into the 2007 elections.
Jamaica is an electoral democracy. The British monarchy is represented by a governor-general, who is appointed by the monarch on the recommendation of the Jamaican prime minister, the country’s head of government. Following legislative elections, the governor-general appoints the leader of the majority party or coalition in the lower house, the House of Representatives, to be the prime minister, who in turn recommends the deputy prime minister. The bicameral Parliament consists of the 60-member House of Representatives, elected for five years, and the 21-member Senate, with 13 senators appointed by the prime minister and eight by the leader of the parliamentary opposition. In 2006, Parliament began to debate a new constitutional amendment that would provide a “Charter of Rights,” with fierce disagreement as to whether the bill should include privacy rights and a ban on capital punishment.
Jamaica’s recent political history has been characterized by an ongoing rivalry between the left-of-center PNP, long dominated by the late Michael Manley, and the more conservative JLP, whose veteran leader was Edward Seaga. In the 1970s, the two parties developed urban “garrisons” that strove to bring their preferred candidates to power by means fair and foul. In 2005, the JLP elected Bruce Golding as its new leader. In 2006, Prime Minister Percival James Patterson stepped down after more than 14 years in power, and his successor, Portia Simpson Miller, became the country’s first female prime minister.
In 2006, the Access to Information Act of 2002 was fully implemented. However, most of the state’s 264 agencies were not ready to comply. Government whistleblowers who object to official acts of waste, fraud, or abuse of power are not well protected by Jamaican law, as is required under the Inter-American Convention against Corruption. Jamaica was ranked 61 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The constitutional right to free expression is generally respected. Broadcast media are largely state owned but are open to pluralistic points of view. There are an estimated 1.9 million radios in Jamaica—the highest per capita ratio in the Caribbean—but only 330,000 television sets. While newspapers are independent and free of government control, readership is generally low. Journalists are occasionally intimidated in the run-up to elections. Public opinion polls play a key role in the political process, and election campaigns feature debates on state-run television. The government does not restrict access to the internet.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the government generally respects this right in practice. The government does not hinder academic freedom.
Freedoms of association and assembly are generally respected. Jamaica has a robust civil society, though the most influential nongovernmental actors tend to emanate from business interests. Labor unions are politically influential and have the right to strike. The Industrial Disputes Tribunal mediates labor conflicts.
The judicial system is headed by the Supreme Court and includes several magistrates’ courts and a court of appeals. The Privy Council in London was formerly the highest appellate court for Jamaica, but it was replaced with a Trinidad-based Caribbean Court of Justice, inaugurated in April 2005. Recent Privy Council rulings against the death penalty had angered many in Jamaica.
Despite government efforts to improve penal conditions, a mounting backlog of cases and a shortage of court staff at all levels continue to undermine the judicial system, which is slow and inefficient, particularly in addressing police abuses and the violence in prisons. In May 2006, Amnesty International reported that 168 people had been killed by the Jamaican police during the preceding year, but that the persisting culture of impunity had led to only one police officer being convicted for unlawful killing during the preceding six years. Although there has been some willingness by authorities to charge police for extrajudicial killings, the system for investigating such abuse lacks personnel to pursue cases, protect crime-scene evidence, take statements from officers in a timely manner, and conduct adequate autopsies of victims. Attorney General A. J. Nicholson criticized Amnesty International’s report, saying it lacked balance and underestimated the nature and severity of crime in Jamaica.
Officially, police are allowed to use lethal force if an officer’s life is threatened or a dangerous felon is escaping, but its use is more widespread in practice, and officials have promised to adopt a stricter policy. Other disputed criminal justice practices include death sentences following trials of questionable fairness, corporal punishment, alleged ill-treatment by police and prison wardens, and appalling conditions in detention centers and prisons.
In 2006, Jamaica remained trapped by a vicious cycle in which violent crime helped to depress tourism and investment. The high murder rate remained a source of major concern; the country suffered nearly 1,700 homicides in 2005—a level of violence that compared on a per capita level to countries like Colombia and South Africa. The mounting crime rate in recent years led the government to take controversial steps toward restoring capital punishment and flogging; rights groups protested both measures. In July 2004, the Privy Council struck down the Offences against the Person Act, which imposed a mandatory death sentence for certain crimes, saying that it amounted to inhuman and degrading punishment. In 2006, the murder rate declined by 20 percent to 1,340 homicides, a change mainly attributed to better policing and a drop in drug-related violence.
Jamaica is a central transit point for cocaine shipped from Colombia through the Caribbean to U.S. markets, and the drug trade is now largely controlled by Colombian crime syndicates. Much of the island’s violence is the result of warfare between drug gangs known as “posses.” Contributing factors include the deportation of Jamaican-born criminals from the United States and a growing illegal weapons trade. Meanwhile, civilian mobs have been responsible for numerous vigilante killings of suspected criminals, and inmates frequently die as a result of prison riots. Jamaican officials have complained that the U.S. government presses them to stop the flow of drugs into the United States but does little to stem the flow of guns into Jamaica. Improved cooperation between the United States and Jamaica has increased U.S. authority to pursue suspected drug smugglers into the island’s territorial waters and airspace.
Persecution of homosexuals is rampant, with same-sex intercourse punishable by 10 years’ imprisonment at hard labor. In recent years, several gay Jamaicans have been granted asylum in Britain on the grounds that they were in danger in Jamaica because of their homosexuality. Amnesty International has identified gays as a marginalized group that has been targeted for extreme harassment and violence. The antigay lyrics of Jamaican entertainers, particularly reggae singers, remain a source of contention, and many gays and lesbians do not report acts of violence committed against them because of police hostility. In June 2004, Brian Williamson, a spokesperson for the advocacy group Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG), was brutally murdered in his New Kingston apartment. The perpetrator was sentenced to life in prison in May 2006. Separately, Steve Harvey, a prominent activist on behalf of HIV/AIDS-related causes, was killed in November 2005. In 2006, Jamaica’s attorney general declared that there would be “no opening of any door to same sex marriages or decriminalization of homosexuality.”
In 2006, Portia Simpson Miller became prime minister with widespread popular support summed up by the campaign slogan, “It’s woman time now!” Simpson Miller pledged to help improve the status of women in Jamaica, especially since violence against women remained widespread. Although the constitution and the country’s employment laws give women full legal equality, workplace discrimination, including lower pay, is common. Children are also vulnerable to violence. A 2004 UNICEF report found that 119 children were murdered, 430 were shot, and 900 were sexually abused that year. In 2006, the U.S. State Department upgraded Jamaica to a Tier 2 rating on human trafficking, which meant that the country was taking steps to comply with international minimum standards on that issue.