Portia Simpson Miller first announced her desire to replace Queen Elizabeth II as Jamaica’s head of state with a Jamaican president during her swearing-in ceremony Jan. 6 after leading the People’s National Party to a resounding win in parliamentary elections. The queen is titular monarch of the otherwise independent nation.
In an interview Thursday with The Associated Press, Simpson Miller suggested a referendum on the idea could take place sooner rather than later, possibly even this year as Jamaica prepares to celebrate its 50th year of independence from Britain.
“I think the fact that August coming will be 50 years since we have gained our independence that it’s time for us to sever the ties,” Simpson Miller said during a break in a conference on attracting more foreign investment to Jamaica. “I really feel it is time now for Jamaica to have its own leadership fully, to take charge.”
While professing strong admiration for the queen, the prime minister described the political change she wants as a memorial for Jamaica’s national heroes and the unheralded victims of slavery. Historians say plantation slavery in Jamaica was particularly brutal.
“It is important to us because it is part of a journey, a journey that started when our ancestors were dragged, sold into slavery and brought here and elsewhere in the Caribbean. Their struggles were so that we can be free men and women today,” Simpson Miller said.
She said removing the queen as head of state and replacing the London-based Privy Council with the Caribbean Court of Justice as Jamaica’s top appeals tribunal “are two things that I would wish for Jamaica to concentrate on.”
Simpson Miller said her administration is focused on whittling down Jamaica’s heavy debt by spurring economic development and job growth. The island has debts totaling about $18.6 billion, or 130 percent of its gross domestic product — about 10 percentage points higher than debt-troubled Italy.
Simpson Miller has urged companies on the island to hire at least one unemployed Jamaican, and her administration says it will soon launch an emergency employment program that was the centerpiece of its winning election campaign.
She said her government is pushing for more foreign investment and wants more diversification in Jamaica’s tourist businesses, including more ecotourism and health tourism offerings. The island’s hospitality industry is mostly known for all-inclusive resorts in Montego Bay and Ocho Rios.
She said improving education is the key to spurring development.
“Education is primary and serious and No. 1. If you can get it right with education, then you get it right everywhere,” she said. “A child’s circumstance at birth should not dictate the quality of education that child should receive.”
Supporters have long admired Simpson Miller as a Jamaican who was born into rural poverty and grew up in a Kingston ghetto, not far from the crumbling concrete jungle made famous by Bob Marley. She has long painted herself as a champion of the poor.