Courtesy Reuters

Letter From Jamaica: The Fall of the Latter-Day Barons?

The Dons of Kingston

On June 22, Jamaican police stopped a car they had been tracking down a rain-sodden highway. Inside was a man rather poorly disguised to look rather like a woman on her way to a church convention. In fact, the man was Christopher "Dudus" Coke, the notorious gang leader whom police had been chasing for over a month. Two days later, Jamaica extradited him to the United States.

It has been a long journey from prince to pauper for the diminutive, media-shy Dudus. Since the early 1990s, after his father's mysterious death, he has been the powerful don of Tivoli Gardens -- Jamaica's most notorious garrison community. Now he faces gunrunning and drug-smuggling charges that could land him in prison for life. The story of Dudus, the Coke family, and Tivoli Gardens reveals Jamaica's creeping neo-medievalism, and how one man could plunge a country into civil war.

Jamaica obtained its political independence from the United Kingdom during the great wave of decolonization that followed World War II. As for many of the nations that emerged at this time, Jamaica's success was not preordained.

Initially, however, Jamaica seemed to manage the transition well. Riding a postwar economic boom, its economy showed healthy growth in its first decade after independence. New elites, drawn from the country's growing business and middle classes, occupied the shell of the old British regime. They consolidated their hold both by providing the trappings of a modern state -- public services, monumental architecture, and state patronage systems. To showcase its success, the proud new nation even staged international blowouts, such as the 1966 British Empire and Commonwealth Games and George Foreman's 1973 showdown against Joe Frazier.

Still, all was not well in the land. Despite apparent prosperity, agricultural output declined, and the capital-intensive development model favored by the new elites failed to generate sufficiently broad-based economic gains. Unemployment doubled, and thousands of migrants descended on Kingston in search of work. Finding none, they became restless and unattached, a problem depicted in the classic The Harder They Come.

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