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Jamaican makes history today

As Portia Simpson Miller becomes the country's first female prime minister, she faces many challenges.

By PHIL DAVISON
Published March 30, 2006


She's known throughout Jamaica as "Mama Portia" or "Sista P," but she's more into reggae than rap. She loves boxing, but also promotes golf and predicts that Jamaica will produce a "Caribbean Tiger Woods" from the ghettos of Kingston. And she's not happy about the fad of nude tourist weddings at the island's wilder resorts.

But when she becomes Jamaica's first-ever female prime minister today, Portia Simpson Miller will first enlist her friend Asafa Powell, the world-class sprinter, as a role model to help battle the island's most pressing problems - drug-dealing and drug-related killings.

Simpson Miller (the latter is her husband's surname) is to take over from outgoing Prime Minister P. J. Patterson after her surprise election by delegates of their People's National Party. Her selection has already brought a sense of near-euphoria and national pride to a country racked by 4,000 street killings in the past five years.

But she knows the job won't be easy.

Don't expect a honeymoon period, the opposition Jamaica Labor Party has warned her.

Her opponents have tried to demean her academic credentials, but it was Simpson Miller's grass roots appeal that won her the vote Feb. 25 and brought new hope to the poorer sections of Jamaica. Her political roots run deep in the ghettos in and around Kingston, where she served first as a local councilor and later as a member of Parliament for more than 30 years. It was in the Kingston ghetto of Trench Town, now virtually a no-go area for police, where last year as sports minister she launched a campaign to bring golf to young people who had seen it only on TV.

Previously, as minister for tourism and with the backing of church leaders, she fought to ban a nude wedding involving eight American and European couples at the island's Hedonism III resort. She failed after the resort invoked its right to privacy, but she vowed that as prime minister she will try to ban nude weddings.

"She's a woman who is very determined, a firebrand type of politician who has really hit home when it comes to the majority of people, especially women, the poor and the unemployed," Kathy Barrett of Radio Jamaica told the BBC. "She is seen as someone who has really risen through the ranks of the party, coming from a very, very poor section of Jamaica, to the top post."

One British member of Parliament compared Simpson Miller to Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister.

"Although Jamaica has no military war to fight, in the war against crime and violence, Portia will have to show all the attributes of the warrior queens of old," Diane Abbott wrote in the Jamaica Observer.

The war she will have to fight first is one against the drugs and drug-related violence that have blighted the island in recent years. In one of the worst incidents, on Feb. 26, four schoolchildren and their two mothers had their throats slit in an unexplained attack. A 39-year-old Jamaican man who had previously been deported from the United States has been charged.

Simpson Miller attended the funeral and promised to fight such violence, which last year left 1,669 Jamaicans dead, including 100 children - and that on an island of only 2.7-million people.

"This is savagery and barbarism," she said in one speech. "Jamaica is sick and tired of being sick and tired of the shedding of the innocent blood of our babies, little girls, little boys, young men and women and senior citizens. It is unacceptable."

She has said she hopes native sprinter Asafa Powell, who recently won the gold medal in 100-meters at the Commonwealth games in Melbourne, will help serve as a role model for the country's youth.

After he broke the world record, clocking 9.77 seconds in Athens, Greece , last summer, Simpson Miller, then minister for local government and sport, urged youngsters to give up guns and drugs for running shoes.

"He (Powell) didn't do it by moving around with a gun to destroy other lives. Can't you see there's a different way and a better way, that you can catch the attention of the world by doing something that is positive?"

Simpson Miller faces more than a sprint.

An opposition spokesman, Audley Shaw, said she should have resigned as part of the government that has let the violence spiral out of control.

"It's the same old rickety bus, just with a new driver."

[Last modified March 30, 2006, 02:15:33]


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