Reflecting on Jamaica’s 50 Years of Independence

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Jamaica National Stadium

The National Stadium in Kingston, Jamaica holds a special place in the heart of Jamaicans. It is known as the “office” when the national football team, the Reggae Boys, play there. And every year, thousands come to watch the nation’s children compete in Champs, the schools’ athletics competition.

The stadium was also the stage for a key moment in Jamaica’s history when, on 6 August 1962, the union jack was lowered for the final time.

Jamaica’s 307 years as a British colony were over and an independent nation was born.

On Monday, the venue will once again be at the centre of events, staging the Grand Gala, the highlight of the 50th anniversary independence celebrations.

Efforts to transform the stadium have been non-stop, with workmen hammering stages and building concession stands for the thousands who will be attending the event.

But most Jamaicans will be hoping that the party starts the day before at a different stadium, in the Olympic Park in London, when the final of the men’s 100m takes place.

In recent years, Jamaica has come to dominate the event, despite having a population below three million.

Sporting glory

With the nation boasting world champion Yohan Blake and defending Olympic champion Usain Bolt, expectations are high for the 100m.

“We’re proud people and we’re excited about our sport. With our motivation and everyone pushing us so much there’s nothing stopping us,” says former world 100m record holder and medal hopeful Asafa Powell.

In the past few days the patriotism, as well as the sporting fever, have gone up a notch.

Walls, lamp-posts, telephone poles and even kerbs have been painted in the national colours of black, gold and green.

But many Jamaicans know that away from the athletics track, the nation has faltered over the past half a century.

At independence, Jamaica was the fastest growing developing country in the world. It had lots of the raw material needed to make aluminium and, being so close to the US made it a prime tourist destination.

Today, Jamaica has a national debt of $19.5bn – 140% of the country’s gross domestic product.

“We should have done far better than we did,” says former prime minister and CIA spy Edward Seaga.

“The economy is slightly better than back in 1960 to 1962. The education system is about the same and the criminal justice system is much worse.”

On the street, many say that they have been let down by their leaders.

“We need more jobs for young people and better schools for the kids,” says one man.

“How the politicians run the country could be better, but we have to keep going,” says another.

Tackling Jamaica’s debt burden has defeated successive governments.

With more than a million Jamaicans living in poverty, some accuse the two main political parties, the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP) and the People’s National Party (PNP), of putting politics ahead of people and development.

“It’s difficult for governments to implement reforms that are necessary because such policies don’t put you in power,” says Dr Damien King, head of economics at the University of the West Indies in Kingston.

“Tax reform would easily create growth and bring in more revenue to close this huge gap between expenditure and revenue,” Dr King says.

But, he says, the parties lack the political will for such a step.

World stage

Keen to boost growth, the government has turned to foreign funding.

China has put some $500m into infrastructure projects. Sugar, a key export crop, has also attracted attention, with Chinese investors buying state-owned refineries.

One Beijing pharmaceutical company is working on medicinal-plant research with a Jamaican firm.

“This is a great opportunity. Both China and Jamaica have a long history of these medicinal plants to treat disease,” says Dr Meng Yang, who runs AntiCancer BioTech.

“We believe that we can help each other accelerate drug discovery because there’s a huge market in both Jamaica and China.”

Jamaica’s anniversary organisers believe the country can capitalise on this year’s interest in the island.

“On 6 August, we’re expecting a Jamaican to collect a medal and the national anthem to play on the largest television platform the world has,” says Robert Bryan, who is organising the Jamaica 50 events.

That, he says, is a great opportunity to bring Jamaica and all the country can offer to global notice.

As the national flags continue to go up around the country and the celebrations start, Jamaicans will be hoping the next 50 years will be better – and of course that a Jamaican will bring home a gold in the men’s 100m.