“I remember how things were,” said Dr. Camara Brown, an eye surgeon who grew up in the labs and hallways of Jamaica’s hospitals. “Comparing it to how things are now, we are way behind. The general demise of standards is very sad.”
That demise, say observers, can be seen in an education and healthcare system that were once models for the Caribbean region but today are faltering amid brain drain and debt. It can also be seen in the ongoing political bickering over the upcoming anniversary celebrations: Earlier this summer, the governing People’s National Party canned the anniversary song that had been chosen by the Jamaica Labor Party before it lost last December’s elections.
“If the fight is about a song, then what can I expect for the next 50 years?” said Amba Chevannes, a writer.
Still, for Chevannes and others here, the traditional Festival Song that marked childhood independence celebrations was a social commentary and pleasant reminder of what independence and being Jamaican are all about: a celebration of culture and achievement in a developing nation all too often associated with violent elections, a failed brush with democratic socialism, and “garrison politics” — the power-sharing alliance between politicians and gang leaders.
“It is a great time to be Jamaican,” said businesswoman Suzanne Rousseau Bernard, tying the anniversary to the Olympics, where Jamaica has often had significant success. “This should be an opportunity for us to really celebrate our culture and our heritage, the best of Jamaica.”
Still, instead of looking at the best of Jamaica, many are looking at its shortcomings. Conflicted and disappointed, they recall the “golden era,” which marked the first decade after independence. .
“We have been taking forward and backward steps,” said former Prime Minister Edward Seaga, who helped draft Jamaica’s Constitution and designed its easily recognizable black-gold-and-green flag. “I think we are the only country in the world that has had four successive decades in which, after a strong start, there was backward movement in the ’70s, in the ’80s we had to put it back together again and in the ’90s there was backward movement again, and in the 2000 period the stagnation continues.”
With poor governance blamed for the lack of economic success, a newspaper poll found that six in 10 Jamaicans believe the country would have been better off had it remained a British colony. The affinity for Britain comes as Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller signaled that she’s prepared to ditch Queen Elizabeth II as head of state.
“Maybe if we had stayed with England, the money wouldn’t be so small,” said Kemar Stephenson, 29, a struggling street vendor who lives in Trenchtown, referring to the weak value of the Jamaican currency.
P.J. Patterson, who served as prime minister for 14 consecutive years before his 2006 retirement, said the vast majority of Jamaicans today have no personal experience of life before independence.
“Jamaica may not have achieved all that was expected,” he said. “We certainly have advanced in terms of breaking down the barriers of social divisions and of creating basic standards of life, which are distinctively higher than they were before.”
Herbie Miller, curator at the Jamaica Music Museum, said nowhere is Jamaica’s accomplishment more visible than in its music and athletics, both of which are on display this summer as the country, which gave the world musician Bob Marley and runner Usain Bolt, seeks gold at the London Olympics.
“We have carried this country on the wings of our music,” Miller said as he led a tour of a reggae albums exhibit installed as part of anniversary celebrations at the Institute of Jamaica. “As a result of all of that, here comes Bolt and all of them. At the end of their victory, what do they do? They dance to the reggae.”