Ownership, stewardship and 'ginnalship'

Garfield Higgins

Sunday, January 27, 2019

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Though the needle may be tiny, it can't be swallowed by the hen. — Yoruba proverb, Nigeria

We are not strangers to elaborate and carefully manufactured political intrigue and distractions in this country. For some, the last few weeks doubtless brought back memories of werewolf plots, clandestine schemes, ideological Russian roulette, and Alfred Hitchcock-like cliffhangers which dominated our politics in the 1970s.

In recent days a figure who featured prominently in a turbulent era of our politics which many would perhaps like to forget took to the media centre stage.

Some in the People's National Party (PNP) maintain that Paul Burke, its most recent former general secretary, and Dr Peter Phillips, who was the campaign manager in the February 25, 2016 General Election, equally deserve blame for the defeat of Norman Manley's party at the hands of the Andrew Holness-led Jamaica Labour Party. Burke and Phillips, it is said, built a political scaffolding constructed with rotten scrap metals taken from someone's abandoned garage.

Revelation man

Like him or not, Burke often adds colour to our politics, albeit that some in his party say he shoots from the hip.

Recall that it was Burke who told Nationwide News Network that the PNP might have got 500 fewer votes in the Westmoreland Central by-election if some supporters of the PNP had not bought votes. When asked if the PNP bought votes, Burke said: “I am not going to deny that there are members of the PNP who made or fulfilled promises... Some of our supporters felt that if they did not do what they had to we would have reduced our majority or lose.”

When asked how many votes for the PNP he thought might have been bought, Burke said: “I don't think it could have been more than 500 votes.”

Recall also that it was Burke who revealed that a lot of money was spent to influence the outcome of the party's vice-presidential election in September 2016. He protested that people were paid to not vote for his wife, Dr Angela Brown Burke, in that election.

Recall that Burke also made some explosive revelations in the 'campaign funds scandal' which rocked the foundations of 89 Old Hope Road less than three years ago. The then party chairman, Robert Pickersgill, defiantly told us that, “Nothing will come out of the Office of the Contractor General's investigation into the campaign funds scandal.”

Some thought that Burke had retired into political quietude after he was forced out as general secretary. They were wrong! His disclosure recently that he was offered US$1 million ($130 million) to successfully broker a deal between Venezuela and a consortium, of which he is a part, for the acquisition of the 49 per cent stake in Petrojam that is held by that country took many by surprise.

Phillip Paulwell, Member of Parliament for East Kingston and Port Royal, Opposition spokesman on energy, and close friend of Burke, according to media reports, said he was not aware that the former PNP general secretary had intended to use his East Kingston-based company, Cheriton Trading and Investments, with registered offices at 6 Cheriton Road, Kingston 2, to submit a bid for Venezuela's 49-per-cent stake in Petrojam.

Lisa Hanna, Opposition spokesperson on foreign affairs, who is not exactly a bosom buddy of Burke, has distanced herself from the offer made by her colleague PNP member to take control of Venezuela's shares in Petrojam. What a drama! Sounds like material ripe for a suspense tale, does it not?

There is more.

Gold rush

Some days ago the Old Lady of North Street carried this banner headline: 'Potential Petrojam buyer threatens legal action against expropriation'. The story said, among other things: “Attorney-at-law Arlene Gaynor, shareholder and legal counsel for A&A Lime Hall Development Limited, the company which has offered US$100 million for Venezuela's 41 per cent shareholding in the oil refinery Petrojam, said they intend to mount a constitutional challenge against legislation being put in place by the Government to retake the South American country's stake and which is expected to be unveiled in the House of Representatives next week.” ( The Gleaner, January 18, 2018)

A Jamaica Observer headline of Tuesday, January 8, 2019, read 'PNP against legislative action to retake Petrojam shares from Venezuela'. The news item said, among other things: “People's National Party (PNP) spokesman on energy, Phillip Paulwell, says the parliamentary Opposition is against the hostile takeover of Venezuela's shares in Petrojam.

“Paulwell was responding to this morning's announcement by Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade Senator Kamina Johnson Smith that the Government will take legislative action to take ownership of the 49 per cent share in Petrojam that is held by Venezuelan State-owned oil and natural gas company, PDV Caribe.”

What is really going on?

State of affairs

Recall the Latin phrase, cui bono [literally meaning “who benefits?”].

I believe these manoeuvrings against what is an obvious move by the Administration to protect our energy security and related economic recovery are elaborate distractions designed to shift public sentiments away from the many positive developments in our economy.

Now approaching three years, we have seen predominantly judicious management of our economy by the Andrew Holness-led Administration. It has ensured a stable dollar, interest rates are low, and the major international rating agencies — including Moody's, Fitch, and Standard & Poor's — have either affirmed and/or upgraded their outlook on Jamaica from stable to positive.

Jamaica is meeting International Monetary Fund (IMF) benchmarks with relative ease while not imposing choking austerity measures upon the population as finance minister and de facto prime minister Dr Peter Phillips did during the PNP's last turn at bat. Phillips imposed $58 billion in new taxes during his time as keeper of the national purse.

At present, Jamaica has just over US$3.2 billion in reserves in our central bank — the most we've had since our country's political independence.

Bloomberg greeted us last week with this wonderful headline: 'Welcome to Jamaica, home of the world's best performing stock market'. The story said, inter alia: “At the world's best-performing stock market things operate a bit differently than they do on Wall Street.

“No one complains about short sellers swooping in to drive down share prices or high-frequency traders eking out an unfair edge, because neither exist here.

“And forget about premarket or after-hours sessions that stretch the trading day around the clock.

“At the Jamaica Stock Exchange on the waterfront of Kingston Harbour investors have just three and a half hours a day to buy and sell.” ( Bloomberg, January 18, 2019)

The Jamaica Stock Exchange was incorporated in 1968 and started operation in 1969. Credit may be given to former Prime Minister Edward Seaga for the vision he had to start what has matured into one of Jamaica's biggest successes since political independence.

Today, a little over 123,000 Jamaicans own shares in companies listed on the Jamaica Stock Exchange. In practical terms, this means that companion to the significant dent in the hegemonic hold which a privileged class once had to influence what most Jamaicans thought and how often, thousands of ordinary folks are also now owners of the country's economic output. This is real freedom.

Major infrastructure projects throughout the country are set for completion this year and several are set to get off the ground.

Unemployment is at an all-time low. Just last week the Statistical Institute of Jamaica (STATIN) told us that, up to October last year, unemployment stood at 8.7 per cent. STATIN says in October 2018 the labour force stood at 1,335,300 people. Of the total labour force, 1,219,700 people were employed in Jamaica. More people are employed today than any other time since we have been collecting these data.

Consumer confidence remains at an all-time high.

Last Wednesday the country was told that: “Business operators' willingness to invest in new plant and equipment hit an all-time high during the last three months of 2018, soaring 10 points above the record of 141 points set in 2016.

“The data, which was released by the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce (JCC) yesterday, said more than 70 per cent of the firms surveyed continued to agree that the time was right for expansion. The results exceeded the 58 per cent average in 2017.” ( Jamaica Observer, January 23, 2019)

I believe the rumours about several companies [but no names] which are interested in Venezuela's stake in Petrojam, chatter about consortium bid [whose principals are top secret like the Manhattan Project], foolish talk about hostile takeover and related speech are all founded on political expediency.

I believe the Administration has recognised that it needs to press ahead with its development agenda and avoid attempts by political flashers to derail its trajectory with half-baked schemes, gimmicks, razzle-dazzle, and fluff.

As I wrote in my The Agenda piece five Sundays ago: “The Holness Administration will need to keep an even tighter rein on the economic fundamentals in 2019. No imprudent stroke play, like careless shots outside the off stump, or suicide running between the wickets will serve Jamaica's interests, especially given predictions by some credible international financial experts that another global recession is likely to begin in 2019.” ( Sunday Observer, December 30, 2018.)

They deserve better!

'Not one cent more for FINSAC report... Gov't takes hard line in the face of a request for more money', this headline in The Gleaner of last Sunday hit hard a lot of nerves that are still very raw.

Scores of Jamaicans have not lived to tell the tale of the financial and emotional damage done by the disastrous policies of the 1990s under former Prime Minister P J Patterson and Finance Minister Dr Omar Davies.

Recall that, according to figures by the Planning Institute of Jamaica, in 1971 the Jamaican economy grew by almost 12 per cent in that one single year. This is equivalent to the cumulative growth under Dr Omar Davies' entire 14 years as minister of finance between 1993 and 2007. Davies' high interest rate policy crippled local entrepreneurship. Some 45,000 small- and medium-sized businesses went under during the 1990s. Thousands of honest businessmen and women were ruined. Many have migrated. The association that represents Finsac'd entrepreneurs says 20 people committed suicide. Among those suspected to have taken their own lives are Morris and Grace Richards.

Recall this awful headline? 'Finsac crisis blamed for Mandeville couple's death'? The story said among other things: “A suicide note left behind by Morris and Grace Richards, the Mandeville couple who allegedly committed suicide on New Year's Eve, has linked their deaths to problems associated with the 1990s Finsac crisis.

“The police said Monday that there was no evidence of foul play and confirmed that they had found a suicide note at the scene. They said that, based on information from their investigations, the couple had 'personal problems', which may have led to them committing suicide. Both were in their 70s.

“The Jamaica Observer learnt from business associates yesterday that the Richards had lost their business, Richards and Richards Construction Company, to Finsac Limited — the company established by the Government to handle bad debts arising from the 1990s financial sector meltdown, which cost thousands of local entrepreneurs their properties and life savings.

“One close friend of the family, president of the Association of Finsac'd Entrepreneurs (AFE) Yola Gray-Baker, said yesterday that the couple was well known to her and other members of the association.” ( Jamaica Observer, January 3, 2013)

The global economy boomed in the 1990s. On average regional economies grew by three per cent and five per cent. Jamaica floundered.

Today, dozens who lost their businesses are like the 'living dead' [mere human shells compared to better times], as we say in local parlance.

Recall this story 'Zinc shack is man's home after Finsac takeover'. These are snippets: “Before Finsac, Mecheck Willis was living comfortably with his wife and five children in his four-bedroom, two-bathroom house on Patrick Drive, St Andrew.

“His thriving business, which employed three people, also afforded him to hire a full-time household helper.

“Now the lifestyle of the ailing 64-year-old is a far cry from what it was. He lives in a one-room, wood-zinc-and-cloth shack in a depressed community in the Six Miles area of St Andrew. His wife has since died, his family torn apart, his children's education has been disrupted, and he has to rely on his church and good Samaritans for meals.” ( Jamaica Observer, April 18, 2015)

Seven years after the commission ended its sittings thousands of Jamaicans are anxiously waiting to hear its findings. They need closure. This country owes at least that.

Jamaica's best days are ahead. I am betting on Jamaica, full stop!

We're all under the same sky and walk the same Earth; we're alive together during the same moment. — Maxine Hong Kingston

Garfield Higgins is an educator; journalist; and advisor to the minister of education, youth and information. Send comments to the Observer or higgins160@yahoo.com.

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