In the last year of his prime ministerial run from the violence-riddled latter part of 1980 to early 1989 the much unloved, highly autocratic and hands-on Eddie Seaga presided over an economy that saw the Jamaican dollar valued at US$0.18.
In 1989, J$100 could purchase basic food and grocery items for a family of five for a week.
In 2014 with the still loved and admired Portia Simpson Miller in charge but seemingly disconnected from active governance, that same J$100 can only purchase four minuscule packets of black pepper. In 2014 the Jamaican dollar is worth, at today’s rate, US$0.0089, less than a cent.
Only very few of us will admit that the slippage in matters of governance and the spiral into systemic governmental corruption was given its birth during the disastrous run of the PNP’s Michael Manley from 1972 to 1980. No leader was more loved than Michael, and as hands-on as he appeared to be, he was mostly led by his oratorical skills, his gross misreading of the US, and his appeal to Third World causes on the global stages.
One writer, Donald Howell, captured it in poetic tones when he wrote in early June as part of a continuing series of Facebook, “The introduction of Democratic Socialism in 1974 made the period 1974 to 1980 the age of foolishness, the epoch of incredulity, the season of darkness and the winter of despair.”
Today, the poorest among us would need J$200 to purchase a pound of chicken meat. They would need to find $160 to buy a pound of turkey neck and although they would get back J$10 change after buying a tin of mackerel, that same J$10 cannot purchase a small packet of black pepper.
Chicken back, at J$80 per pound, would give back J$20, but again that J$20 cannot buy a little packet of black pepper.
Last week I purchased from a little corner shop a small tin of ‘bully beef’ and a tin of condensed milk. In general I must confess that, unlike Chupski, I do not know the price of many items. I was, however, bowled over when the lady in the shop said, ‘Five hundred dollars.’ In 1989 the same purchase, which in 2014 can only get me two items, could feed a family of five for five weeks!
Michael Manley was loved to the point of being worshipped. Portia Simpson Miller is loved and is always given free passes by her supporters who place love for her as bigger a priority than the quality of her governance. Seaga in his day was barely tolerated by his ministers and the general population spoke of him as if he was the devil incarnate.
In grassroots terms, as much as Seaga was vilified and even hated, the poor among us could purchase ‘bully beef’ and there was then no need for the company to manufacture two sizes. Today, that same tin sells for about J$500!
Mincemeat and saltfish were staples among the poorest because the food items could ‘stretch’. The mince could be cooked up with diced potatoes and carrots and, with ‘nuff’ gravy, could go a long way with rice. The saltfish could be cooked with chopped cucumbers and the whole could go a far way with boiled green bananas and yam.
Today, mince hovers at around J$400 per pound, way outside the reach of the little woman and her three children. A pound of potatoes, if not purchased at Coronation market in the volatile West Kingston, will sell at a corner shop uptown for J$140, again, outside of her reach.
A pound of rice at that same shop (J$60) would only allow her to purchase half a pound of chicken back to feed her hungry children. If she lives outside of a rural setting, one dozen green bananas would cost her about J$130 and a pound of yam J$100.
So in 2014, food items that the poor could always fall back on in 1989 — saltfish, ‘bully beef,’ mincemeat, chicken meat — are totally out of their reach.
I can remember in late 1971 then Opposition Leader Michael Manley made much of a tin of condensed milk approaching one dollar! He described the increase in apocalyptic terms. Today the poor have grown inured to the high prices and the food items out of their reach. That, of course, is good for the politicians as the nation accepts the numb feeling and struggles to make it to another day.