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Latin America Report

Is Jamaica's Election Upset Good Or Bad For Its Debt Crisis – And The Caribbean's?

Jamaica Information Service/Prime Minister's Office
Jamaican Prime Minister-elect Andrew Holness (center) with supporters after his upset victory last Thursday.

These days the Caribbean seems better known for debt ruin than for dark rum.

The region – South Florida’s next-door neighbor – is home to some of the world’s most indebted countries. Since 2010, five of them have defaulted. The government of Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, may soon shut down thanks to its epic debt crisis.

But Jamaica – whose more than $16 billion debt represents 130 percent of its GDP – may be the Caribbean’s debt champ. And that’s a big reason Andrew Holness is expected to be sworn in this week as the island’s new Prime Minister.

In last Thursday’s general election, Holness and his conservative Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) scored a razor-thin upset victory over current Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller and her liberal People’s National Party (PNP). The JLP took 32 of the parliament’s 63 seats; the PNP 31.

RELATED: Puerto Rico Crisis: Let's Stop Ignoring The Debt - And Deceit - Of Small Economies

The election was largely a referendum on the economic austerity program that Simpson-Miller – and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – have used to push back the sea of red ink.

I spoke with Jamaican-born Miami attorney Marlon Hill – he is a partner at the firm of Hamilton Miller & Berthisel, a past member of the Jamaican Diaspora Advisory Board and past president of the Caribbean Bar Association – about the election results and what they mean for the Caribbean.


WLRN: Portia Simpson-Miller is Jamaica’s first female Prime Minister – a popular politician whom many Jamaicans call “Sister P.” Why did Jamaicans apparently decide to change course?

HILL: Jamaicans are fiercely independent people, and a number of factors could have gone into play. One is a historically low turnout, about 47 percent. The PNP decided not to debate before the election. Jamaicans don’t take heart being disregarded or disrespected, so that may have been a factor.

And the PNP’s austerity measures, like wage freezes?

They were staying the course. Jamaica was one of the most austere countries in the world – and many people say those measures are directly correlated to the economic growth it had in the last year. But a few weeks before the election the JLP said they were going to move in a different direction. They were promoting the word “prosperity,” whereas the PNP were promoting the need to continue the progress they’ve accomplished.

It's very important for the people of Jamaica to take a very close look at what the JLP is promising in terms of putting more money in people's hands. There's going to be a reality check. -Marlon Hill

So it was a choice. And with austerity, there are many families that really feel a sense of distress about being able just to meet their daily needs.

Who is Andrew Holness and what do you think we can expect from him as a Prime Minister?

Well, Andrew Holness was a Prime Minister before. One of the youngest.

Briefly, in 2011.

He’s from St. Catherine, a parish outside Kingston. His wife is also a legislator; she won her seat as well. But I think it’s very important for the people of Jamaica and those in the diaspora to take a very close look at the JLP’s manifesto and what they are promising to do in terms of putting more money in people’s hands. There’s going to be a reality check when they meet with IMF director Christine Lagarde to talk about whether or not the IMF deal will be renegotiated.

So what message does Jamaica’s election upset send to other Caribbean governments – especially Puerto Rico?

You have to tighten your belt, and you have to have a real serious talk with your people.

But voters in Jamaica seem to have just rejected that.

Credit Carl Juste / Miami Herald
Miami Herald
Jamaican-American Miami attorney Marlon Hill

That may be. But there’s going to be a real spirited discussion, and a real test case and a teaching moment. Greece has gone through this discussion.


The other big issue for Jamaican voters was violent crime. A decade ago, Jamaica had the world’s highest murder rate. That’s dropped in recent years, but it’s still among the top 10.

The rule of law is there. The institutional infrastructure is there. It’s really a factor of whether or not the institutions are being effectively run.  When you compare Jamaica to a place like Barbados, they are more effectively run than in Jamaica. If we could get rid of the real impact of crime and violence, it could really open up a new pathway to prosperity.

South Florida has the U.S.’s second-largest Jamaican community behind New York. But expats can't vote in Jamaican elections – even though the diaspora sends back $2 billion each year in remittances. Is that fair?

It doesn’t sound right, right? There’s discussion about whether the diaspora should pay Jamaican taxes; there’s discussion about whether to create a special diaspora seat in the [Jamaican] Senate. But [Jamaica] could benefit from leadership and input and perspective from persons overseas of Jamaican descent who do still want to have a very interconnected relationship with Jamaica.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.