Cablegate: Jamaica: March Political Roundup

DE RUEHKG #0280/01 0941325
P 031325Z APR 08





E.O. 12958: N/A

REF: A. 07 KINGSTON 1301
D. 07 KINGSTON 1336
E. 07 KINGSTON 1803


1. (SBU) The current Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) led
government continues to press forward, albeit at a snail's
pace. When the JLP released their manifesto, during the
campaign for the national elections last summer, it was full
of promises for innovations and reform proposals (Ref A).
Now, with no relief in sight for rising prices, falling
exchange rates, near record crime rates, and the distraction
of implementing their first budget as a ruling party in
almost 20 years, the JLP faces many obstacles.

Early Promises Kept

2. (U) Since Prime Minister Bruce Golding (PM Golding) led
the JLP to victory in September 2007, there has been progress
on some fronts. Most notably in the promises of free tuition
at public primary and secondary schools, and starting on
April 1, free basic access to health care at government
hospitals and clinics. What remains to be seen is how well
this implementation is undertaken, whether the budget will be
able to continue to support these institutions without the
help of user fees, and whether or not the people of Jamaica
are really getting valuable service from these government
institutions. However, recent success in tax collection,
including extensive media coverage of prominent citizens
brought before the court to explain their tax arrears, are a
positive sign that the budget may be able to provide the
necessary funding for key programs (Ref B).

3. (U) The abolition of school tuition fees was a key JLP
election promise and was widely promoted in the media in the
run-up to the election. Thus it was unsurprising, especially
since the election took place right before the start of the
new school year, that the JLP was quick to act on it.
However, the public school system is still under fire for
high illiteracy rates, high failure rate on standardized
testing, and churning out high numbers of students with no
job skills. The Ministry of Education has recently announced
plans to hold back students unable to pass the Grade Six
Achievement Test (GSAT). The early feedback on the plan is
mixed, as an earlier proposal using the Grade Four Literacy
Test was supposed to identify children at risk of failing and
provide additional instruction. Unfortunately, no additional
funding or hiring of teachers has been put in place. So
while the standardized testing helps identify struggling
students, they are not receiving substantive assistance to
overcome their weaknesses.

4. (U) April 1 marks the second venture into the world of
free access to essential services with the abolition of most
user fees for basic health care at public medical
institutions. As the first step in the process, the
Government of Jamaica (GoJ) has allocated an additional J$
1.7 billion (approximately USD 24 million) for the first year
of implementation. Time will tell whether an already
strained and under-funded sector can handle the additional
load without breaking.

Budget and Economy Woes

5. (U) Since the recent tabling of the budget in Parliament,
issues of balancing debt repayment and allocating funding for
key projects is in the forefront of the GoJ,s focus (Ref B).
The heavy burden of debt keeps PM Golding and his Cabinet
from making more improvements to the infrastructure and from
implementing many reforms they would like to enact. Rising
prices for most staples has led to inflation worries and made
labor negotiations for public sector workers and unions more
polarized than usual. Compounding the budget woes and red
ink in the GoJ coffers is the national airline, Air Jamaica
(Air J) Not only is the well publicized search for a private
buyer a major distraction, but the struggle with labor issues
caused a one-day demonstration when all Air J flight
attendants called in sick which forced the cancellation of
all outbound flights on March 25 (Ref C).

Soaring Crime Rates

6. (U) Jamaica continues its run to become the murder capital
of the world. As of March 31, there has been only one period
of more than 24 hours without a reported murder on the
island. According to media reports the police have
documented at least 350 murders since 2008 began, putting the
country right on pace to equal or exceed last year's total of
over 1500 people. In a recent press interview, new
Commissioner Rear Admiral Hardley Lewin expressed concern at
the continued high rates of major crimes and said that
analysis of the numbers and potential causes was underway by
the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF).

7. (SBU) The continuing trend of murders on a daily basis is
putting severe strain on the JCF and the Ministry of National
Security (MNS). When Poloff recently approached a senior
technical staffer in MNS for details on anti-corruption
efforts, and she complained that she was spending all her
time either in meetings with high level government officials
to discuss the crime rate or dealing with issues within the
ministry and their reform efforts. Other senior police
officers admitted that while they were trying to focus on
issues such as corruption, intellectual property rights, and
human trafficking, that it was hard to find enough time and
resources due to the demand to deal with the murders and
other serious crimes.

Election Petitions and the Slim Majority

8. (SBU) Another area of concern which potentially might
complicate PM Golding's ability to push through some reforms
is the slim majority of the JLP in Parliament. Since the JLP
has only a razor-thin 32-28 majority, Golding must walk a
fine line to keep all of his own party members onboard with
the proposals (Ref D). He has not been able to have a
cabinet of true loyalists because of the need to satisfy
other elements of the party in the distribution of power and
portfolios. Some of the current struggles faced by the GoJ
are partially due to the lack of leadership on the part of
some ministers. To date, all major reforms implemented in
crime fighting and the JCF have been spearheaded by the
dynamic Hardley Lewin, Commissioner of Police (Ref E).

9. (SBU) The JLP cause took another blow on March 29, when
Supreme Court Judge Lloyd Hibbert ruled that People's
National Party (PNP) Member of Parliament (MP) for East
Hanover should continue to serve the people. JLP candidate
Barrington Gray had challenged the vote count, filing an
election petition stating that the voters were
disenfranchised when ballots that were improperly torn by the
presiding election officer could not be counted.

Ambassador Meets with Minister of State

10. (U) On March 31 Minister of State and MP Robert Montague
met with Ambassador Johnson. During the meeting he revealed
the JLP plans for reforms in local government and stated that
his current position was established as a two-year project.
After two years the responsibilities for local government
will be passed on to the regional parish councils and city
mayors. Among the many proposed reforms for local government

-- Entrenching local government in the Constitution

-- Implementing recommendations in the National Advisory
Council 2006 report

-- Strengthening accountability, transparency, and probity in
the local authorities

-- Developing a prototype of the ideal local authority

-- Strengthening community based organizations

-- Establishing a Local Parish Public Accounts Committee in
all 15 parishes

-- Identifying and dedicating a percentage of the national
budget to local government


11. (SBU) While March was not a month of big announcements or
change in the GoJ, the JLP-led government continues to press
forward with their reform plans. Preparing the annual budget
and beginning the budget debates in Parliament is taking up
most of the government's focus at the moment. At the same
time, the continued rise in violent crimes, especially
murders, is keeping many of the government on the defensive.

12. (SBU) The government is also pushing to bolster the
tourism industry, which is not an easy task with the U.S.
economy in a downward trend. There is a renewed focus now on
attracting visitors from Canada and the EU, especially Spain,
with the influx of Spanish owned resorts. However, selling
foreigners on visiting Jamaica is not an easy task when the
media is filled with reports of crime, murder, and
corruption. Also, the one day sick-out by Air J,s flight
attendants which delayed the return flights of many tourists
did not improve Jamaica's image either (Ref B).

13. (SBU) The GoJ needs to address its image and needs to
continue to improve the overall quality of life here on the
island. Until the crime and corruption issues begin to wane,
there will always be a large segment of tourists afraid to
take a chance on vacationing in Jamaica. The government
also needs to rid itself of the debt ridden national airline,
and hopes that a private investor can improve the image of
Air J and use it to grow the tourist market locally. The JLP
appear to be on the right track to improving governance in
Jamaica, but whether these reforms will have staying power or
long term effect is still unknown.

© Scoop Media

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