Rights Activist Challenges Jamaica’s Status Quo

Kathy Barrett

HAVANA TIMES, Sept. 23 (IPS) — For the last 50 years, Jamaica’s modern history has been shaped by two powerful parties – the Jamaica Labour Party and the People’s National Party. Although dozens of others have periodically emerged, the political graveyard has inevitably been their final resting place.

Betty Ann Blaine appears undaunted by this fact. A historian, university lecturer, children’s rights advocate and talk show host, Blaine took the plunge in August, launching the New Nation Coalition (NNC). She hopes to prove the sceptics wrong and emerge victorious when Jamaicans go to the polls in the next general election, constitutionally due in 2012.

The daughter of a market woman from rural Jamaica and a well-to-do white father, Blaine grew up relatively poor in what is now one of the more depressed areas of the capital, Kingston.

“Because my father, who was a white-skinned Jamaican, decided to marry my mother, who was a black country woman, his family didn’t want to have much to do with us. We literally became the black sheep of the family. While his family lived very comfortably, we grew up relatively poor… his side of the family was really ashamed of us,” she told IPS.

Blaine received her early education in Jamaica and in 1971, she migrated to the United States where she attended Hunter College and then Columbia University for postgraduate studies and became active in the Afro/Caribbean movement.

On her return to Jamaica years later, Blaine focused on the rights of children, working mainly in the poorer neighbourhoods of Kingston. Best known as the founder of the lobby group Hear the Children’s Cry, Blaine eventually made her way onto the political scene in 2001 when she became a founding member and vice president of the now defunct United People’s Party (UPP).

Blaine, who recently quit her job as a talk show host, believes that the time is right for her to enter the political arena.

“It is my walk, the bumps and bruises along the way, the good and the bad, my life experiences that I think will allow me to be a good leader and this is how I’m presenting myself to the Jamaican people,” she said. “You can’t be a good leader without having made mistakes…. the hardest thing to do is to build a political party, the easiest thing to do is to do nothing.”

Blaine, who heads Jamaica’s 46th third party since independence in 1962, will obviously face an uphill battle. Lloyd B Smith, a political commentator, says the NNC will have to overcome major financial and sociological challenges.

“You have to begin to appeal to that Jamaican who has been turned off from the current system and it is going to be a difficult challenge because political parties depend a lot on funding and nobody likes to back a loser,” Smith told IPS. “Most of the big spenders in Jamaica do not want to back a new party so that will be a challenge as well.”

For her part, Blaine believes Jamaica is ripe for another party and divine guidance will give the NNC immunity from an early death. “We are saying who we are, we are not telling you who you are. Christianity is our brand, but our product is open to everyone,” she said.

One issue that helped Blaine in deciding to re-enter the political arena was the much publicised controversy surrounding the extradition of alleged drug lord Christopher “Dudus” Coke to the United States, with a siege on poor communities in Kingston that resulted in 73 civilians and three police officers dead.

“Jamaica’s image was badly tainted. We have to regain and recapture the image of who Jamaicans really are, we are not drug lords, we are not strongmen, we are not criminals and

drug traffickers, there are criminal elements in our country, we know that. But the majority of Jamaicans are hard working, talented, gifted and God-fearing people and that is the message we are putting out there,” she said.

A different kind of energy

Blaine says women also bring a different kind of energy to politics – not just in Jamaica but the wider Caribbean.

“I think it’s going to be very important for the women who step into those kinds of leadership positions to really provide the kinds of models for other people to see. We see things differently,” she said. “We should come with that nurturing spirit that we have as women. I want to see more women coming into politics and serving.”

If her party won a majority, Blaine wouldn’t be the first female prime minister; that honour goes to Portia Simpson-Miller of the People’s National Party, who held office from March 2006 to September 2007. Simpson Miller is currently opposition leader, having been succeeded by Bruce Golding.

Still, Yvonne McCalla Sobers, an outspoken human rights activist and founder of Families Against State Terrorism (FAST), says the step taken by Blaine should be applauded.

“I think that there is a significant role for women in politics because first of all, the male approach has brought us to where we are,” she said. “I think that females can bring an approach which is more humanising.”

On the NNC’s future, Sobers has words of caution.

“You have to give me a reason to vote, not give you a default vote but to actually vote for you. Come to me with some clarity, tell me about your funding – if not, you can talk all you want but you will never take over from the two main parties,” she said.