Jamaica riots force rethink on tax rise

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CALM WAS returning to Jamaica yesterday after the Prime Minister, Percival J Patterson, promised to reconsider proposals for increases in fuel taxes that had sparked a wave of civil unrest. Rioting over several days cost six lives and brought businesses and tourist operations to a near standstill.

The Prime Minister backed down in the face of mounting violence and concerns that the trouble would cripple the island's tourist industry. Demonstrations reached a peak on Wednesday with protesters barricading streets in the capital, Kingston, and in other towns, looting shops and setting fire to tyres.

Among those killed in the unrest was a 25-year-old pregnant woman, who was hit by bullet as security guards tried to protect a hardware store from looters. In Tawes Pen, west of Kingston, two people died, including a man who was shot in an exchange of fire between police and protesters.

By Wednesday several airlines, including British Airways in London and American Airlines, had suspended some flights to Jamaica. The cancellations raised concerns that thousands of tourists already on the island would become trapped because of the unrest. Those fears were receding yesterday.

The tax rise of about 30 per cent was intended to help to pay for transport infrastructure improvements as well as for a bail-out fund for some 2 million depositors in two failed banks. Popular resistance to the increases was encouraged by the opposition Labor Party, led by Edward Seaga.

Mr Patterson appointed a special parliamentary panel yesterday to study his proposals and recommend whether they should be implemented or shelved.

The panel, to be headed by Peter Moses, head of Citibank in Jamaica, will report by Sunday; its findings will then be considered by Mr Patterson and his cabinet on Monday. Mr Moses has already indicated his personal opposition to the increases.

Many involved in the tourist industry have meanwhile warned of the consequences of any further unrest to the island's reputation as a holiday destination. "The gas tax will be a joke compared to the money we are going to lose in tourism," one resort owner, Gordon Stewart, said.

Tourism has already suffered from the recent killing on the island of a German tour operator.

The fuel tax demonstrations first erupted last Friday. A large march was organised by Mr Seaga in Kingston on Wednesday. It went off peacefully.

History offers warnings to Jamaican leaders proposing to raise taxes on fuel. Two governments that enacted such increases fell from power and the island saw similar petrol price riots in 1979 and 1985.

Yesterday there were signs of a return of the holiday mood at many resorts. By Wednesday evening, the popular Margueritaville Bar in Montego Bay had reopened after closing its doors for two days.

"We had a pretty good day," one of the bar's managers confirmed.