The colorful images of Jamaica presented in travel brochures don’t tell the whole story. As in most countries, beautiful, affluent places do exist. But in many other areas of Jamaica, poverty is the norm.
Jamaica’s economy has been in decline since 1974, when the energy-deficient country was hit hard by a rise in fuel costs. In addition, a worldwide recession reduced foreign demand for Jamaican products.
Housing has become another problem for Jamaica’s urban poor. When people move to Kingston in search of work, it’s often difficult for them to find jobs. Some people become homeless, while others are forced to accept low-paying jobs. To afford food and other necessities, they move into abandoned properties. Some become squatters, building shacks of cardboard, wood, and rusted tin on land owned by others. As Jamaicans have become more desperate and frustrated, violent crime has also become more prevalent.
The island - discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1494 - was settled by the Spanish early in the 16th century. The native Taino Indians, who had inhabited Jamaica for centuries, were gradually exterminated and replaced by African slaves. England seized the island in 1655 and established a plantation economy based on sugar, cocoa, and coffee. The abolition of slavery in 1834 freed a quarter million slaves, many of whom became small farmers. Jamaica gradually obtained increasing independence from Britain, and in 1958 it joined other British Caribbean colonies in forming the Federation of the West Indies. Jamaica gained full independence when it withdrew from the Federation in 1962. Deteriorating economic conditions during the 1970s led to recurrent violence as rival gangs affiliated with the major political parties evolved into powerful organized crime networks involved in international drug smuggling and money laundering. Violent crime, drug trafficking, and poverty pose significant challenges to the government today. Nonetheless, many rural and resort areas remain relatively safe and contribute substantially to the economy.