Government and Economy

Government and Economy

The Jamaican central government is organized as a constitutional monarchy and member of the British Commonwealth with Queen Elizabeth II as its official head of state. On the island, the Queen is represented by the governor general, who is a signatory on all legislation passed by the bicameral Jamaican Parliament. The bicameral government comprises a Senate and a House of Representatives, known as the Upper and Lower Houses, respectively. Representatives are elected for five-year terms, one from each of the island's 60 constituencies. Of Jamaica's 50 senators, 21 are appointed by the governor general, 13 on the advice of the prime minister, and eight by the opposition leader. The cabinet consists of the prime minister and a minimum of 13 other ministers, including the minister of finance, who must also be an elected representative in the house, with not more than four cabinet ministers selected from the members of the senate.

Beyond the national government, Jamaica has been organized into parishes of ecclesiastical origin since the arrival of the British, who installed the Church of England as their watchdog and pacifier. The Church of England later became the Anglican Church, whose rectories are still some of the most impressive buildings in the more rural areas across the island. The 60 federal constituencies are subdivided into 275 electoral units, each of which has a parish councillor in the local government. The Corporate Area, as metropolitan Kingston is known, combines the parishes of Kingston and St. Andrew into one local government entity known as the Kingston and St. Andrew Corporation.

Local representation dates to 1662, when the Vestry system was installed to manage local affairs across the island. The Vestry was composed of clergy members and lay magistrates of each parish and was in effect indistinguishable from the Church of England insomuch as governance and policy were concerned, as it operated almost exclusively for the benefit of the landed elite. The amalgamated ruling class of the planters, clergy, and magistrates became known as the plantocracy. After 200 years of the Vestry system, it was abandoned in favor of a system of Municipal and Road Boards following the Morant Bay Rebellion in 1866. During the period when Jamaica was ruled by the Vestry system, the number of parishes increased from seven at the outset to 22 by the time it was abandoned. In 1867, the number of parishes was reduced to the 14 recognized today. In 1886, a new representational system of local government was installed consisting of Parochial Boards, which merged the operations of the Municipal and Road Boards into one entity. A general decentralization occurred during the intermittent period before the Parochial Boards were established, leaving local governments in charge of public health, markets, fire services, and water supply. Following implementation of the Parochial Board system, the oversight of building regulations, public beaches, sanitation, slaughterhouses, and streetlights was also assigned to the local government bodies.

Jamaica's political system is notoriously bureaucratic and corrupt, with little to suggest this will ever change--regardless of which party comes to power. Many say this is a legacy of British rule, but the fact that money is the chief motivator behind decision-making at Gordon House is generally acknowledged.


Jamaica's two political parties, the People's National Party (PNP) and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) were founded by cousins Norman Manley and Alexander Bustamante. Bustamante was a labor leader who came to some degree of wealth through his travels around Latin America before exploiting the anti-colonial sentiment of the day to push for greater worker rights and ultimately Jamaican independence. The PNP held on to power since the 1980s, instating Portia Simpson-Miler in 2007 before the JLP's Bruce Golding toppled her in 2008.

Election time tends to be tense and tumultuous in Jamaica, when memories of the political violence in the 1970s become fresh again. Kingston's poor neighborhoods bear the brunt of the tension and are often barricaded during elections to prevent opposition loyalists from entering with their vehicles to stage drive-by shootings.


Jamaica's economy is supported by agriculture, bauxite, tourism, and remittances (in order of increasing importance). The financial sector is closely tied to other English-speaking Caribbean countries, namely Trinidad and Tobago, with large regional banks and insurance companies dominating the market. Jamaica has a serious balance of payments problem owing to high external debt dating back several decades. Austerity measures imposed by IMF restructuring packages during the political reign of Edward Seaga left little money for education and social programs, a situation which persists today. A new IMF arrangement was brokered in 2009\2010, which will impose a heavy burden on the country, with a two-year public sector wage freeze likely to be accompanied by large governmental job cuts. Universal education, a promise made by the JLP prior to coming to power, has inched nearer with the removal of school fees, but the quality of schools varies widely from district to district, and many old timers claim education was better under British rule. Failure to guarantee universal education is a serious shortfall of both political parties and has directly impacted productivity. The flip side of the coin sees the country's best educated leaving for higher-paid jobs overseas.


Agriculture remains an important part of Jamaica's economy, if not in sheer numbers then for its role in providing sustenance. The cultivation of provision grounds established during slavery persists to some degree in rural areas today, where most households grow some kind of crop, even if it is limited to a few mango and ackee trees.

Sugar production is still ongoing on a handful of large estates across the country, some of them private, others government-owned, but the end of preferential pricing for Jamaican sugar in England has affected the crop's viability just as it dampened the prospects for Jamaica's banana industry. Apart from sugar, important export crops include coffee, the Blue Mountain variety fetching some of the highest prices in the world, and citrus including oranges and ugli fruit.


Bauxite mining and processing in Jamaica is dominated by foreign entities like Russia's United Company RUSAL, Norway's Norsk Hydro, and U.S.-based Alcoa. Bauxite is mined across the island, where gaping red holes in the earth are the telltale sign. Bauxite is converted into alumina before being smelted into aluminum, both processes requiring huge amounts of energy. Jamaica has a serious energy problem in that it is overwhelmingly dependent on imported oil for electricity generation. High global energy prices combined with global recession and low aluminum prices paralyzed the bauxite and alumina industry in early 2009, eliminating a large royalty revenue stream earning foreign exchange for the government. Jamaica remains one of the most important bauxite sources in the world, once ranked third in production of bauxite ore and fourth in alumina production globally, but it requires high aluminum prices and low energy prices to be viable. At its peak, the bauxite industry accounted for 75 percent of the country's export earnings. Other less important mineral resources found in Jamaica include gypsum, limestone, marble, silica sand, clay peat, lignite, titanium, copper, lead, and zinc. The export of crushed limestone, or aggregates, and limestone derivatives, is an important growth industry with several players across the island.


Tourism continues to be the primary driver of economic growth in Jamaica. Tourism development in recent years has taken the form of mega-projects that employ large numbers at low wages and keep foreign exchange and profits offshore. There seems to be little interest in seeing tourism dollars more evenly distributed among the population at large, with the government apparently happy to collect its general consumption tax for each guest that passes through the mass-market all-inclusive resorts. Despite the government's lack of effort to see tourism revenue more widely distributed, entrepreneurial Jamaicans see great benefits from tourism, with a slew of niche attractions having been created and developed to serve this market.


As a percentage of GDP contributed by remittances, Jamaica is ranked seventh in the world and fourth in the Caribbean--after the Dominican Republic--with nearly US$2 billion entering the country each year for the past several years. The "Jamaican Dream," pursued by many who are able, consists of leaving the country to pursue a career abroad for however long it takes to make it, and then returning to Jamaica to flex pretty. Sometimes the required time lasts generations, especially when those they left back home weigh heavily on conscience and wallet alike. In tough economic times, Jamaica is more dependent than ever on expatriates, with large concentrations living in Toronto, New York, Florida, and London.


Some say there are two Jamaicas, made up of the haves and the have nots. In fact, there are many more Jamaicas. You don't need a whole lot of money to have a high quality of life when the hot sun is shining; mangos, ackee, and breadfruit are ripe on the trees; and the rivers are pleasantly cool for bathing. So in a sense how you live is based on how close you are to the natural resources that make this a tropical paradise.

However, land isn't free, fruit goes out of season, and some days it rains. More importantly, there is a serious cash-flow problem in Jamaica, and as they say, what little there is goes like water. The reality is that many Jamaicans don't find the time, let alone the resources, to travel around and enjoy tourism centers in the focused and intensive way foreigners tend to on their two-week vacations. With nearly half of the island's population living in the Corporate Area and nearby Spanish Town, there gets to be competition for things that might otherwise be picked from the tree. But more overwhelming than the price of local produce from the market are imports, which basically covers everything else. With jobs hard to come by for underqualified youth, and even for qualified youth, there is a desperate situation for many, especially as prices for groceries and other basic goods keep rising. Add in the fact that it is not uncommon for a man to have several children from more than one woman, and the role of what's termed "social capital" becomes clear. If it weren't for the way Jamaicans help each other out--whether by raising children belonging to a niece or nephew, or employing a man around the house who really doesn't do much gardening but clearly has no better prospects--Jamaica would find itself in a far worse state. But it is this cycle of too many mouths to feed with too little to go around that maintains a steep class divide on the island. Education costs money, for school fees, books, and uniforms, and with competing interests vying for the limited resources in many cash-strapped homes, school can take the back seat. Without a proper education, the youth become stuck doing menial jobs or nothing at all, and to "breed one gyal" (a common, albeit crass, way to say "get a girl pregnant") may be the most rosy thing going for them.