Mon | Jun 24, 2019

Mark Wignall | ‘Belgium’ in Grants Pen, a study in long term poverty

Published:Sunday | February 10, 2019 | 12:13 AM

I began writing for this newspaper in March 1993. At that time, I noticed that the country’s politics was making a turn for the better but I was still concerned that many of the debilitating personnel hangovers from Jamaica’s violent political past were still nailing down their seats, even as they were considered most desirable in heading to the exit gate.

My practical studies were quite devoid of anything structural or geared towards preparation for a professor’s examination. I wanted to get inside people’s heads and their lives. I wanted to know what made them tick, why they loved and hated, and killed and repented and felt made whole or forever broken. And the in-betweens. And why they voted the way they did.

Two communities intrigued me. One was Grants Pen in St Andrew, where the depressed community of Belgium is. Two Thursdays ago, a fire there claimed the lives of two toddlers, and many residents were once again reminded that a lifetime of poverty means existence on the most brutish plane that humanity can descend to and seemingly settle on.

Where Grants Pen had the convenience of proximity to Havendale where I lived, the other area which totally fascinated me in a thousand ways was West Kingston and especially Tivoli Gardens and Denham Town. But with West Kingston I was drawn in by the proximity to danger but with important caveats.

Depending on the situational crisis, I would either be protected from bullets by the dons of the street or, where it involved the police, I would have convenient protection from both sides. It was never that I felt no fear, only that I had to experience fear to truly know the people and understand what made them tick.

A fearful place like Tivoli with lifetime loyalty to the JLP guaranteed by a lifetime of political brainwashing and a hate for the PNP was always very close to an inner-city garrison pocket like Belgium, a name which bears absolutely no social, economic and cultural resemblance to the European country.

Two Fridays ago, I visited ‘Belgium’ and saw residents there using shovels to clean up the charred remains of the hovels they lived in and the possessions they owned.

What immediately struck me, even though I have walked on the outskirts of the community before, was how close the housing units were to each other. People were literally living on top of each other.

INNER-CITY LIVING CAN BE HELL

Years ago in the late 1970s, I spent the night with a friend at a board house he rented in Jones Avenue on the outskirts of Spanish Town. He was having problems with his woman and simply needed a friend to save him from himself. I can distinctly remember rats tearing at the floorboards and people in another section were making sexual grunts and shrieks. It must have been how hell sounded.

“When me come into di politics in the 1970s as a councillor, is a place like Belgium that mi wanted to see change,” said Errol Stephenson, a JLP councillor in the 1980s. “A place like that should lick down long time and ways found to re-accommodate the people. Is not the first fire incident take place there, but this one is the most tragic.”

It seems unimportant to the person who has the physical space to spare, but as I walked through a section of the burnt-out ruins, I could feel and see in my mind the people constantly living and breathing in the fetid claustrophobic air that made them feel as if they were lesser beings. People jam-packed against each other has never been a recipe for good social outcomes.

We who live uptown or even in rural hills where our personal space is guaranteed could never spend more than one night in Belgium. I could not. And if it is not good enough for me, why should it be considered satisfactory for the residents of Belgium – man, woman, child and toddler.

I do not envy politicians like Delroy Chuck, member of parliament for North East St Andrew, where Belgium is. Chuck is an uptowner and as a highly educated man, a lawyer and a man who probably sleeps on soft fleece at nights, I happen to know that his job is not one that I would want.

First, someone like Chuck cannot change the basic face of many of the poorest sections of his constituency. He has tried and, the fact is, he keeps on winning at election time. His solid voting bloc among the few in the middle class who vote along with the high percentage of voters like those in Belgium will always take him first past the post.

But for now, it will not significantly change the fortunes of those who live in Belgium. With two children’s lives horribly snuffed out, we who live on the outside of the small fishbowl can afford to view the residents of Belgium as case studies, and we get to walk among the ruins, speak in hushed tones to the residents stuck there, but afterwards we get to wallow in the luxury of walking away and going home.

To gated communities and mosquito screens and $100,000 memory foam mattresses and multiple, spacious rooms and a well-stocked kitchen cupboard. And a comfortable smile and a kiss and a meal in the living room and iPhones and two crissas out front and hearing of and reading and feeling guilty about those stuck in persistent misery.

IS JUAN GUAIDO AUTHENTIC OR A CIA ASSET?

The people of Venezuela have been brought to their knees by the ruinous socialist policies of Nicolás Maduro, whose best days seemed to have been as the late Hugo Chavez’s afterthought. Maduro can make all the claims he has made about US interference in the affairs of his country but that will not reverse the direction of the political, social and economic death spiral that the country, is caught up in.

Maduro owns the economic direction and it is a very dark path ahead. That said, it is quite valid for one to be anti-Maduro and not pro-Guaido.

Once the streets of Caracas broke out in violence and in wider demonstrations over the humanitarian crisis facing the country and Guaido proclaimed himself president, it immediately struck me that I have read this playbook before. The ready and immediate embrace of Guaido by the intellectually stunted and cruel US President Donald Trump implied that America’s Monroe Doctrine was playing out right before our eyes.

The Venezuelan people have little choice for now in the political directions. America and its covert CIA operatives will have to broker a deal with a third country to provide safe haven for Maduro as the country settles down with Guaido and a significant infusion of American help for the Venezuelan people.

This is the only deal left for the people to accept and it is the price they will pay for electing populist leaders who eventually lapse into dictatorship.

That Guaido has vaulted so far in front of other known opposition figures tells me that whatever deal the CIA was offering to those people was considered to be immediately unacceptable or they have conveniently gone into silence because the deal with Guaido includes their silence. For now.

It is hardly unlikely that the level of street ferment could be taking place in cities in Venezuela without the CIA being there in the thick of things covertly controlling the directions and the politics of those who are allowed to be made puppets.

This has played out in many countries before. To me, the best deal would be for Guaido to govern as president and, within a year, elections should be called. By then the people of Venezuela would be in a better position to make rational choices.

- Mark Wignall is a political- and public-affairs analyst. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and mawigsr@gmail.com.