KINGSTON, Jamaica (Reuters) - The timing could hardly have been better, with Jamaicans celebrating the 50th anniversary of their independence from Britain on Monday on the heels of a stunning display of the Caribbean island’s athletic prowess at the London Olympics.
Monday was a national holiday in Jamaica to mark the anniversary, and it was just as well since many celebrated late into the night after the country’s sprinters captured four out of the six medals in the men’s and women’s 100 meters finals, winning gold in both races as well as a silver and a bronze.
While the success of its athletes in the land of its former colonial master has given the nation of less than 3 million people much to shout about in terms of social achievement, poor economic conditions continue to cause problems for most of its citizens.
Several parts of the country experienced power outages on Sunday, a common occurrence in Jamaica where many people complain about the high cost of electricity provided by the island’s sole utility.
“This is not a good Independence Day. I don’t even have money to buy food, there is no electricity and I really feel like I am living in slavery,” complained Brandon Mattis, an inner city resident of the capital, Kingston.
The London Olympics have presented a golden opportunity for Jamaica to promote its best features, which contrast with more negative traits such as a 21 percent poverty rate, mounting unemployment and one of the world’s worst murder rates, largely due to gang-related violence fueled by drug money.
Jamaica received almost 2 million tourists last year and the industry generated $2.3 billion. The island’s tourism board has featured Bolt in ads promoting its sunny beaches and laid-back Caribbean culture, and Air Jamaica promotes its flights to the homeland of “the world’s fastest man.”
The anniversary is being celebrated with a cultural extravaganza at the National Stadium on Monday night, as well as concerts and parties all month in Jamaica, Britain and the United States.
Opinion polls have traditionally shown an even split over whether Jamaica should have sought independence in 1962. Its independence movement set off a chain of events around the Caribbean in the 1960s as one island after another broke away, beginning with Trinidad and Tobago barely a month after Jamaica.
Jamaican politicians have for years talked of going one step farther and dropping Queen Elizabeth as head of state, but have never put it to a vote.
Those who argue the island should have stuck with its colonial masters cite economic growth in other British territories, including the Cayman Islands, Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands.
Most politicians agree that independence was the right decision, though they disagree on the results. While some point to progress in healthcare, telecommunications, sporting prowess and tourism in particular, others cite poor results in the key areas of education and economic development.
Jamaica is one of the world’s most indebted nations and is currently in talks with the International Monetary Fund on a new lending agreement.
The economy has begun to pick up however, and the IMF is predicting that Jamaica will record 2.4 percent growth this year, driven largely by demand for bauxite and alumina as well as increased agricultural production.
“Fifty years later, the consensus on Jamaica’s performance is decidedly mixed. On the social front there have been many gains, as many barriers to advancement have been removed,” according to Christopher Barnes, managing director of The Gleaner Co, which publishes a daily newspaper.
“In economics, however, our performance is patchy to poor with growth trailing all global benchmarks and a heavy debt burden,” he added, writing in Monday’s edition of the island’s 170-year-old daily.
“Perhaps the greatest achievement of post-independence Jamaica is that, despite the stresses and strains on its institutions, we have managed to keep our democracy intact.”
And then there are the athletes. Bolt, who turns 26 later this month, is a living legend in his home country and is the island’s top celebrity after reggae’s Bob Marley.
Athletes are held in special regard in Jamaica, which has a long record of Olympic success since its first participation in the 1948 London Games.
At the 2008 Games in Beijing, Jamaica had its biggest medal haul, taking home six golds, three silvers and two bronzes, ahead of Canada (population 34 million) and Brazil (population 196 million).
Bolt’s training partner and fellow Jamaican, Yohan Blake, best summed it up after winning the silver on Sunday.
“Jamaica we ‘likkle but we tallawah’,” he said, using a term that means “small but mighty.”
Additional reporting by David Adams; Editing by Eric Walsh