Jamaica erupts in fuel price rioting

Katherine Butler
Wednesday 21 April 1999 23:02 BST

VIOLENT PROTESTS, looting and shootings triggered by a hike in fuel prices brought Jamaica to a standstill yesterday. Foreign airlines cancelled flights into Kingston after disturbances that left one woman dead and at least six other people wounded.

The woman was shot by a private security guard fending off looters. A police officer shot in the face on Monday was in critical condition.

Air Jamaica cancelled flights to Miami and London yesterday and British Airways cancelled flights to Jamaica on the advice of the British High Commissioner on the island, who is monitoring the situation.

Cruise ship passengers were told to stay out of the northern resort town of Ocho Rios and some hotels in Montego Bay reported tourists were unable to reach the airport.

There, rioters on Monday started fires, looted shops and set a large sugar cane plantation ablaze. Less violent protests continued there on Tuesday.

The Jamaicans, angry and wearied by years of financial hardship, compounded by bank failures, were gearing up last night for a massive protest march organised by the opposition Labour Party.

The demonstrations followed a government decision to increase a special fuel tax from $1.55 a gallon to $2 and impose a 30 per cent hike in the cost of licensing vehicles. The government said it needed the money to raise $74m dollars for the budget.

The island's Prime Minister, P J Patterson, went on national television on Tuesday to appeal for calm. He promised to appoint a team to find ways to soften the blow of the price hikes and to re-examine swingeing cuts announced in last week's national budget. But his call was ignored and protests continued through the night and into yesterday.

Demonstrators yelling "Down with the government" stoned and robbed motorists who tried to get past barricades of flaming tyres, household appliances, wrecked cars and rubbish.

Police firing tear gas and warning shots were unable to stop the looting or dismantle the dozens of roadblocks that sprang up across the island. The military deployed in the streets, some in armoured cars, and ordered all National Reservists to report to barracks.

Fuel price rises have led to the downfall of two Jamaican governments. Nine people died in fuel riots in 1979 and 1985.

Mr Patterson had said the tax would help to restore the lost money of some two million depositors in failed banks, 500,000 policy-holders in insurance companies and 55,000 pensioners.

But leading figures in the economy warned that alternatives should be found.

"By tomorrow morning the gas tax will be a joke compared to the money we are going to lose in tourism," said an entrepreneur, Gordon "Butch" Stewart, who owns the Sandals hotel resort chain. It's a hell of a signal to the government that enough is enough."

But the Finance Minister, Omar Davis, vowed not to alter the new fuel tax, arguing that the funds were required to improve the country's roads and public transit system.

A similar fuel price hike imposed 20 years ago by a previous administration of the governing People's National Party resulted in a virtual shutdown of the economy when demonstrations were orchestrated by the opposition.

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