Urban warfare in downtown Kingston has led some to refer to Jamaica as the next narco-state (we already have one, Guinea-Bissau). Christopher (“Dudus”) Coke, the don whose requested extradition by the United States has triggered this furore, is being compared to Pablo Escobar, the Colombian drug cartel boss. The unofficial figure of 60 dead in four days (including two policemen and one soldier), and the pictures of pitched gun-battles in the barricaded streets of Tivoli Gardens between the Jamaican Defence Force and reputed members of the Shower Posse led by Coke are not reassuring.
Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding’s refusal for nine months to extradite Coke to the United States, where he is wanted for drug trafficking and gun running, is at the root of this crisis. Sixteen months into the Obama administration, there is no U.S. ambassador to Jamaica. Golding’s hiring of a California law firm to lobby the U.S. government to lay off raised a ruckus in parliament and forced his hand. He then announced the extradition order would be signed after all. This in itself raises many questions — extraditions should be executed rather than “announced.”
Yet, Golding, whom I have met, does not fit the picture of the corrupt politician he is portrayed to be. With a business background and a low-key, self-effacing style, he served honourably as construction minister in the government of Edward Seaga in the eighties. Although the leader of the right-wing Jamaica Labour party (JLP), he is independent-minded enough to have refused (twice) invitations to visit the White House in the dying months of the George W. Bush administration and to have advocated publicly the lifting of the U.S. embargo on Cuba. His predicament is a function of the clientelistic nature of Jamaican politics, and of the link between street gangs, organized crime and political parties in a country with one of the highest murder rates — 60 per 100,000 — in the hemisphere, slightly below Colombia’s.
It is no coincidence that Seaga, like Golding, also was an MP for West Kingston, where Tivoli Gardens is located. He had such a close relationship with Coke’s father, Lester Coke, also a crime boss, that he attended his funeral upon the latter’s death in a prison cell in 1992. The notion that the current PM should represent the same gang-infested area as his party’s predecessor and that he has to deal with the son, who inherited his lordship over it, reflects how the JLP machine operates. Under the circumstances, what is remarkable is that Golding has gone so far as to give the go-ahead to the extradition order.
The problem goes deeper than Golding’s attitude toward one don. The control exercised by the latter over West Kingston — where he is reputed to have even built medical centres — reflects the deep crisis of the Jamaican state, and that of the Caribbean more generally.
The lands of the Caribbean archipelago are in crisis, perhaps their worst ever, a condition that stands in stark contrast to thriving South America. The Caribbean economies have been unable to find a niche in a globalized world economy. Jamaica’s debt-to-GDP ratio is 130 per cent, one of the highest, and its unemployment rate is 14.5 per cent. Even Puerto Rico, once the most prosperous of all islands, is bankrupt.
Since its inception, the Caribbean has been the most globalized region in the developing world — in terms of the powers that made it, the populations that formed it and its integration into the world economy as “King Sugar” financed several European empires. After independence, the islands latched onto special access and privileges in the markets of the old and new colonial powers.
Yet with globalization and liberalization, these privileges evaporated (the banana regime with the EU comes to mind; tax havens may be next), and Caribbean nations have been left holding the bag. Even tourism, hailed as the region’s last best hope, is succumbing to global trends. As the airfare share of a travel package gets lower, a Thai vacation can be cheaper than a Jamaican one.
Globalization embraces some and tosses out others. The Caribbean is being tossed out. The dark side of globalization then takes over. Organized crime, drug trafficking and gun running step into the vacuum. Jamaican gangs (“posses”), spread throughout North America, are among the fiercest, most effective and most difficult to infiltrate by the police. Variously defined as the United States’ “third border” or its “front yard,” the Caribbean is becoming something else entirely — a convenient drug hub to North America, its last remaining comparative advantage.
The English-speaking Caribbean is one area of the developing world with which Canada has strong bonds. Some 200,000 West Indians live in Canada, many of them in Toronto. Urban warfare in Kingston is not an odd anomaly. It may well be a harbinger of things to come as the crisis unfolds throughout the archipelago.
Jorge Heine holds the chair in global governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs and is a distinguished fellow at The Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI).