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In 2008, recently elected Prime Minister Bruce Golding of the Jamaica Labour Party saw his popularity ebb amid a slumping economy and rising crime. Authorities in the capital city of Kingston imposed a curfew in May in an attempt to stem the murder rate.
Jamaica achieved independence from Britain in 1962. Since then, power has alternated between the social democratic People’s National Party (PNP) and the more conservative Jamaica Labour Party (JLP).
In 2002, Percival James Patterson of the PNP became the only prime minister in Jamaican history to be elected to three consecutive terms. His party won 34 of 60 seats in the House of Representatives, retaining 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, who remained the head of state.
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 fended off her competition by securing 46 percent of the vote among 3,800 party delegates. Her victory was heralded as a major advance for the role of women in Jamaican politics.
Simpson Miller remained a popular figure in 2007, with approval ratings exceeding 55 percent, but her government foundered due to poor economic growth and the fallout from Hurricane Dean, which struck the island in August. In parliamentary elections held in September, voters gave the JLP 33 seats in the House of Representatives, ending the 18-year rule of the PNP, which took 27 seats. Opposition leader Bruce Golding became the new prime minister, but Simpson Miller survived her party’s defeat, easily winning reelection to her parliamentary seat. By June 2008, the popularity of the ruling JLP lagged behind that of the PNP, due to a sluggish economy and the new government’s inability to stem the rising crime rate.
Jamaica is an electoral democracy. The British monarch is represented as head of state by a governor-general, who is appointed by the monarch on the recommendation of the Jamaican prime minister. 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. The bicameral Parliament consists of the 60-member House of Representatives, elected for five years, and the 21-member Senate, with 13 senators appointed on the advice of the prime minister and 8 on the advice of the opposition leader.
In recent years, the ideological gulf between the two main political parties—the center-left PNP and the more conservative JLP—has narrowed considerably due to the retirement of their respective veteran leaders. The PNP’s Michael Manley stepped down in 1992 and has since died, and the JLP’s Edward Seaga resigned in 2005. Violence has often accompanied elections, but in the 2007 vote there were only two shootings.
Corruption remains a considerable problem. The Access to Information Act of 2002 was fully implemented in 2006, but 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. In 2008, the mayor of Kingston reported that he had been receiving death threats tied to his anticorruption efforts. Jamaica was ranked 96 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 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. In 2008, one local television station began broadcasting the news in Jamaican Creole, breaking with the long-standing practice of using the dialect only in informal settings. There are an estimated 1.9 million radios in Jamaica—the largest number per capita in the Caribbean—and some 527,000 television sets. While newspapers are independent and free of government control, circulation is generally low. Journalists occasionally face intimidation in the run-up to elections. The government does not restrict access to the internet; about 40 percent of Jamaicans have access, more than double the regional average of the Caribbean.
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 the Trinidad-based Caribbean Court of Justice, inaugurated in 2005. Privy Council rulings against the death penalty have 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 violence in prisons. In April 2008, Amnesty International reported that 272 civilians had been killed by the police during the preceding year, but that punishment of negligent officers was rare given the persistent culture of impunity. 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.
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 guards, and appalling conditions in detention centers and prisons. While in opposition, Prime Minister Bruce Golding had strongly criticized a 2005 antiterrorism law for its potential infringement on civil liberties, but once in office he expressed little interest in repealing it.
In 2008, Jamaica remained trapped by a vicious circle in which violent crime helped to depress tourism and investment. The country suffered nearly 1,700 homicides in 2005, and while the annual total dipped slightly over the next two years, homicides rose again in 2008, topping 1,600 by year’s end. In May, authorities in Kingston imposed a temporary curfew after a particularly shocking string of murders put the nationwide total at more than 500 since the beginning of the year.
Jamaica is a transit point for cocaine shipped from Colombia 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 in 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. Still, counternarcotics cooperation between the United States and Jamaica has improved.
Amnesty International has identified homosexuals as a marginalized group that is targeted for extreme harassment and violence. Same-sex intercourse is punishable by 10 years’ imprisonment at hard labor. In recent years, several Jamaicans have been granted asylum in Britain on the grounds that they were in danger because of their homosexuality. The antigay lyrics of Jamaican entertainers, particularly reggae singers, remain a source of contention. In 2004, Brian Williamson, a spokesperson for the advocacy group Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals, and Gays (J-FLAG), was brutally murderedin his New Kingston apartment. The perpetrator was sentenced to life in prison in 2006. Separately, Steve Harvey, a well-known activist on behalf of HIV/AIDS-related causes, was killed in 2005, and four people were later charged in the killing. In 2008, prominent J-FLAG member Gareth Henry fled to Canada and filed for refugee status following an escalating series of threats against his life. The government remains resistant to decriminalizing homosexuality.
Violence against women remained widespread in 2008, with the record number of 774 reported rapes indicating a worsening social problem. Women’s rights groups, government agencies, and NGOs have noted that while much of the legal structure is in place to help reduce violence and discrimination against women, enforcement remains lacking. Although the constitution and the country’s employment laws give women full legal equality, workplace discrimination, including lower pay, is common.