I would not fault anyone from outside the English-speaking Caribbean for not noticing that it is going through an immense social crisis. For most who are not from there and have any inkling of life there, it is often in terms of the sensual pleasures it offers: sun, sea, sand, sex, music, food, exotic drinks–the stuff of paradise in the eyes of many. The trouble is that the small, mainly island, communities, have gone on a rampage of violence, aimed more at themselves than foreigners. So, even though many tourists may have some sense that crime is high, they are little touched by it, whether they are shielded by the walls and gates of all-inclusive resorts or not tempted to venture far by the dire warnings.
The World Bank reported in 2007 on how high rates of crime and violence in the Caribbean are undermining growth, threatening human welfare, and impeding social development (see Crime, Violence and Development). Murder statistics went off the charts years ago for Jamaica. But many other countries in the group did not feel that it was something that would touch them. Trinidad soon found that was not true, and that having exceptional wealth was no protection against rampaging crime; in fact, it added reasons, and kidnapping and ransoms became more common words. But, the scourge has moved far and fast. It hit a nadir of sorts this past weekend, when Jamaica witnessed gunmen attacking a patty shop in Kingston. Barbados also witnessed a very savage robbery, where the thieves set a shop ablaze and killed at least six people. A Barbadian journalist-friend, Julius Gittens, wrote evocatively about the latter over the weekend (see A Nation’s Death By Fire). I wont attempt to better his words.
The Jamaican incident is indicative of how common place crime has become in its capital, when you cannot take for granted that going to get the Jamaican equivalent of fast food will be incident-free. That the response to the crime was slow, that the police did not seem to have a clear idea of what was going on for many hours, and that the gunmen got away is indicative of some other problems that go far in explaining public lack of confidence in institutional responses to crime. It’s not that uncommon for citizens to take matters into their own hands and mete out ‘justice’ if they can. That did not happen this past weekend in Kingston, but it could have.
Barbados has different problems to Jamaica, and many there have not been willing to see that certain trends were already in place that signalled a fall into more savage crimes. As the perpetrators of the weekend’s robbery are sought, there will be speculation about who they are and if they are persons who could be called nationals, or foreigners, or long-standing residents or returning nationals. Whatever they happen to be, the reality is that the nature of crime has changed. On a small island of fewer than 300,000 people, the general belief is that it is hard to stay hidden for long, yet an incredible proportion of crimes go unsolved. That suggests a willingness of a large proportion of the population to harbour criminals, either directly or indirectly by not disclosing what they know. Whether that stems from fear or indifference is important, but not as important as the willingness to tolerate wrong-doing.
Jamaica has been through the traumatic transformation of its society over the past 40 years, where violence, whatever its roots (and they are many and complex) has taken a vice-like hold of people’s lives. Crime in the Jamaica has had some of its roots in drug and gun trafficking–where the Caribbean region is a major transit point. It has also been mingled with politics–with politicians initially wanting power so badly that they sometimes found it better to ensure it by force, but now cannot rebut that force. It has spread to touch and be part of business. So, it’s hard for many parts of life to remain untouched by it. That same pervasive aspect has not yet moved into crime in other English-speaking Caribbean countries, but can it be far away? Yet, many know that even with high crime rates the society does not cease to function, even thrive in many other ways. Crime and poverty can spur, though I would not advocate them as necessary ingredients for success. What concerns me is whether the sight and knowledge that crime is taking a tighter hold leads to realistic reactions to stem that, or a wait and hope it goes away mentality.
Crime within a country does not usually become the concern of other nations if it is not being exported or is not hampering the daily lives and business of another country. So, for the most part, the crime will go on, and maybe flourish, without too much interest from outside. Occasional stories may hit the news media in north America or Europe, and they will often be linked with stories about crime in areas where there are Caribbean migrants. So, most people abroad will see it as about ‘them’ not ‘us’, and it will grow and spread until and unless it is addressed effectively at home. The problem is that it is also seen largely about ‘them’ (barons of drugs, guns, politics, business, etc.) and not about ‘us’ (ordinary citizens). While that division exists in people’s perception I have no reason to believe that the problems that unlie the crimes will be addressed.