September 26, 2020

Which way is up?


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Garnett Roper, GUEST COLUMNIST for The Jamaican Gleaner

The Rev Dr Garnett Roper is president of the Jamaica Theological Seminary

As Jamaica celebrates 50 years of political Independence, the question of the adequacy and appropriateness of its political-economic system is a moot one. It is clear that since Independence, the political economy of the country is one which has been able to take 70 per cent of its people forward. By any account, the present Jamaican political economy leaves 30 per cent of its people behind.

Some may argue that those numbers are unduly pessimistic, while others would contend that the situation would have been even worse, were it not for migration.

Whether or not the analysis is correct, the question deserves to be raised as to whether there are better political and economic models that would lift the standard of living of a higher percentage of the Jamaican population over the next 50 years.

Fortuitously, I recently visited the Cayman Islands and Cuba on the same afternoon. Even more fortuitously, I had more than passing conversations with members of the political Establishment in both places about their political systems.

Yudania Portales (left) talks to her mother Idania Alonso while watching television in a solar-powered home in Pinar del Rio, Cuba, on June 18. Despite modest lifestyles, Cubans rank higher than Jamaicans on several social indices - ap.

The first thing to be said is that all three countries, Jamaica, the Cayman Islands and Cuba, are in proximity to each other. Jamaica is 90 miles south of Cuba, Cayman is 480 miles west of Jamaica, and Cuba is visible from Cayman. Yet they each operate political and economic systems that are profoundly different from each other.

Cayman remains an outpost of British colonialism, while Jamaica is a multi-party democracy. Cuba is celebrating its revolution of 53 years ago, is a republic and is isolated politically and economically by a pernicious embargo perpetrated by the United States over the last 50 years.

I sat over lunch with significant political functionaries in Cayman, including Premier McKeeva Bush. They were in the throes of a painful budget exercise. The CARICOM News Network reported a broadcast by Premier Bush in which he said that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) had instructed the Cayman Islands government to cut the proposed spending plans for the next financial year, noting: “The position taken by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is that this [is] unsustainable expenditure. The FCO made it absolutely clear that they require further reductions to operating costs.”

In conversation with me, the premier betrayed the irony of the situation that Cayman finds itself in, in that Cayman has not received one cent of subsidy from Britain in 180 years. So why, I asked, “Are you not politically independent since you are already financially independent?”

In this January 2007 Gleaner photograph, construction workers are seen at a housing in George Town, Grand Cayman. Many Jamaicans leave their homeland to seek fairer financial prospects in the Cayman Islands - File.

Cayman has no poverty, or youth unemployment problem, and there is not a consumer item anywhere that you could not find in Cayman. On their own, and if they had been allowed to do so, they could have closed the gap in their budget by a US$59-million loan. But Britain says no, so the Cayman government has been plunged into crisis.

I had dinner the same evening with a Cuban deputy minister. He was German trained, with a PhD in innovation. Two things are most self-evident to me about Cuba: one is how vigorously independent they are and confident of their Cuban identity. The sign on the billboard reads, ‘Patria o muerta (homeland or death)’.

Cuba, the deputy minister insisted, will only receive goods and services from those places that are willing to make technology transfers, to give the Cuban people a chance to add value. Cuba is not prepared to simply be consumers of other people’s goods. The other thing which is clear to me is that in Cuba there is only one society. There is clearly an attempt being made to leave no one behind in Cuba, but to take all their people with them on the journey to development.

Cuba has been put through a remarkable struggle over the last 50 years, but it has made considerable progress being principled in its relationship and placing enormous confidence in its people. The Cuban road infrastructure compares favourably with any developed country. However, the cars on those roads are those from the 1950s, along with some from the 21st century.

I visited the Universidad de la Cientas de Informatica (UCI) (University of Informatic Sciences). This was a university that was founded in 2002. It has 7,000 Cuban residential students and 3,000 lecturers and staff also housed on the campus, which is some 200 hectares. The campus has dance floors, cinemas, theatres and all the services of a city, along with a 90-bed hospital. Here, students come up with software solutions to solve real problems for both Cuba and Venezuela. In case you missed it, all students go to university at the expense of the State in Cuba. Everything is provided, even meals.

As I returned to my hotel room in the five-star Spanish hotel, the Melia Habana, and as I shopped in the craft market in Old Havana, I asked myself, Which society is ahead? Which model has worked best? Has Jamaica, with its much-vaunted freedoms, its artistic and sporting magic, its modern telecommunication infrastructure, but with 30 per cent of its people no real chance of realising their human potential?

Has Cayman, which does not have universal adult suffrage, only 80 per cent of the people of Cayman can vote in political elections, and they are not the captains of their ships nor the masters of their destiny? Yet they are among the world’s wealthy economies.

Or is it Cuba, with 100 per cent access to health care and education, short on consumer items, closed because of the economic blockade but hospitable and generous in spirit? Is this society, with its commitment to a vigorous and ethical egalitarianism, that has had to withstand hurricanes and the political and economic tsunami imposed on it by the mightiest nation on earth, the one that has taken its people the furthest?

A multi-storey building near Revolution Square memorialises the words of Che Guevara – ‘hasta la Victoria Siempre (until victory forever)’. Perhaps the Cuban Revolution has succeeded after all, that is if the quality of life of its average citizen is any measure.

So back to the moot question. Perhaps the real solution for the next 50 years is that we should discontinue the system that allows next-door neighbours in the Caribbean to be so blissfully ignorant of each other.

The irony of it all is that Europe, which has bequeathed to us these divisions, no longer operates with borders on its continent. And America, which requires us to isolate Cuba on the pain of economic and political consequences if we do otherwise, is seeking to lessen visa restrictions for Brazil and China in order to encourage tourism to the USA.

One can take a train and cover the countries of Europe. But if you want to go to Cuba, it used to be that you have to travel to Madrid, Spain. We should travel and we should trade, and by all means we should come to know each other’s reality and struggles. The reward and help would be enormous if we did.

What is clear is that Jamaica cannot go forward to the next 50 years as if it has exhausted all its options for the political economy. Neither Cuba nor Cayman has the levels of violence that we do in Jamaica, so we must reject the idea that violence is an inevitable companion on our onward journey as a people. Neither Cuba nor Cayman has our problems of unemployment. Neither has the disorder and lack of cleanliness that we do in Jamaica. Therefore, there are systems within our reach that can help us overcome these things.

I am not suggesting that the learning needs to be one way. Cayman can learn from us: that money is not everything, it is better to be your own man in your own backyard. Cuba will inevitably learn that religion does not need to be an enemy of freedom or the pursuit of justice. The real future for Cuba, Jamaica and Cayman lies in creating our own trade routes and people-to-people exchange.

I met a Jamaican in Cuba and a Cuban who should be a Jamaican, and he said to me that we in Jamaica were a British colony but our temper and manners were not British. I suggested to him that we have a Caribbean genome. I see it in Jamaica and met it in Cayman, and it is there also in abundant supply among the warriors of the revolution.

Whatever we do, the way forward must bring us closer together as people who share the Caribbean Sea and a history of anti-colonial struggle.

The Rev Dr Garnett Roper is president of the Jamaica Theological Seminary and chairman of the Jamaica Urban Transit Company. Email feedback to [email protected] and [email protected]

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