Only the sun and sand, the black faces and the lilting accents tell you this is not Beirut, San Salvador nor any one of a score of other unfriendly cities where families barricade themselves indoors after dark and citizens fight each other with the ferocity of warring guerrilla armies.
The streets of West Kingston are piled high with rusting automobile, chassis, old tires and mountains of garbage. At night, these mobile roadblocks are moved into position to seal off the ghetto's potholed streets from intruders.
"You are now entering JLP zone. All PNP keep out. Manley. Killer. Judas." The walls of the crumbling houses and burned-out stores are splashed with such warnings and threats.
When a stranger ventures into West Kingston, even by daylight, residents stand on the street and stare. One man is asked to explain -- the barricades, the burnings, the graffiti. "This is war," he says.
In Jamaica, this is politics.
West Kingston is a stronghold of support for the opposition Jamaica Labor Party (JLP). Prime Minister Michael Manley's People's National Party (PNP) holds sway in the eastern and central parts of the capital, where the names change but the graffiti sentiment remains the same as Jamaica prepares for its fifth post-independence national election.
Manley's party stalwarts, and those of the opposition Jamaica Labor Party, believe that the stakes for the mid-October race are higher than ever before. Far from the routine selection of a democratic government in a country where each party traditionally has relinquished power to the other after two terms, this campaign has been set up as a classic battle of ideologies in which each side is convinced that the winner will take all.
The real issue here is Manley's eight-year record, and the two competing parties, naturally enough, have vastly different ideas of what that has been.
For the ruling PNP, an unprecedented third term will be affirmation that the country is committed to Manley's brand of socialism. It has said it will consider victory a mandate for expanding its social welfare programs and subsidies, strong government participation in business and industry and an "anti-imperialist" foreign policy. These, it maintains, take precedence over maintaining an economy that turns regular profits and measures up to Western capitalist standards.
For the JLP, led by Edward Seaga, the election means national salvation from a government that has ruined the economy, pulled the people along an alien political path, promoted violence and sold Jamaica's soul to the Communists.
Underneath the rhetoric, there is no question that, under the PNP, Jamaica has followed a different road from most of the rest of the Caribbean, one that has pulled it away from the traditional American-British trade and foreign policy axis toward the left and closer relations with the Soviet Bloc and the Middle East. Heavy doses of economic equality have been at the presumed expense of the moneyed class.
The sharpest indications of the seriousness with which the campaign is taken are the high level of political violence and the growing stridency of charges by each party that the other is being aided by "outside forces."
Until a joint military-police command with extra powers was established six weeks ago, an average of 43 murders were logged each week in Kingston, although most of the rest of the country, including the north coast tourist resorts, has been relatively calm.
Many of the murders are attributable to a traditional Hatfield-McCoy-style blood feud betwen followers of the PNP and JLP that in the past has had little to do with ideology and much to do with trade union organization, pork-barrel projects and the colonial legacy.
It is this neighbor-against-neighbor tradition that, at election time, turns city neighborhoods into closed partisan camps.
This year, however, there is a different flavor to the violence. Rusted pistols and machetes have been replaced by automatic rifles. Scattered shootouts among teenagers have turned into organized, military-style offensives.
Seaga and other Labor Party members chafrge that this "sophiscated" violence is plotted and abetted by Manley's good friend Fidel Castro and, behind him, the Soviet Union in a drive to take over the Caribbean.
While Manley himself shies away from direct accusation, the PNP has been the prime mover behind accusations that the opposition is part of a U.S. Central Intelligence Agency "destabilization campaign" to end socialism and bring Jamaica back to heel beside the West.
By most reckonings here, traditional, nonideological loyalty binds at least 40 percent of Jamaica's 2 million people to each of the two major parties. It is the remaining 20 percent that is fought over.
In most recent Jamaican polls conducted by both sides, Seaga's JLP is running from 11 to 13 percentage points ahead of Manley's PNP, although its lead is slipping slowly from more than 15 points last May.
If the PNP has any hope of victory, it is the hope that Michael Manley, a man whom even his opponents use words such as "charisma" and "brilliance" to describe, can rekindle the support that carried him in 1972 and 1976.
It would be useless for Manley to deny that Jamaica is not in desperate financial straits. Now nearly bankrupt, the country is expected to default on its massive foreign debt -- most of owed to U.S. banks -- by the end of September. While shops and market shelves are stocked with "campaign" goods bought with Jamaica's last pennies of hard currency, the unemployment and closed factories are impossible to ignore.
Instead, Manley travels the campaign trail through the hundreds of towns and rural villages where the race is to be won, reminding Jamaicans of the cheap health care they now get and the newly promulgated paid maternity leave program.
He also talks about the adult education program and the government-arranged lease to the peasants of formerly uncultivated land belonging to large farms. He tells the crowds of the pride they should feel over Jamaica's newly expanded international role, its friendship with countries of all political persuasions and its efforts to get the world's rich to give more to the world's poor.
At a campaign rally earlier this year, Manley wore the usual, open-collared tropical shirt that has become his trademark. His silver hair was combed back from his finely chiseled face and curled into the sweat pouring down the back of his neck. The words sprayed from his mouth passionately, throwing a fine mist into the bright outdoor lights.
To the American ear, the speech was intelligible only in spurts. Part of Michael Manley's genius is the ability to switch from crisp, British vowels to fluid island patois without missing a beat. On complicated subjects, he keeps his words simple.
"Destabilization," he told the crowd, "is where a group of people set out secretly, cunningly by plan to mash up the country. It's disciplined. It's got order.
" . . . [They] find young people vexed by life, very easy to upstir . . . one that looks like a leader . . . drop him $1,000 [to] get the boys to carry on a raid, and you wake up next morning and you hear the gunfire running like as hurricane.
"Look what an agent can do. Maybe electricity go off . . . market woman, her meat spoil . . . she go broke, get vexed, start to curse words.
"Next thing you know, somebody go say Michael can't run the country."
Within the committed 40 percent of the JLP's support are most of Jamaica's businessmen, who say precisely that. In terms of substance, the Manley government has done relatively little to change Jamaica's basic structures -- strong ties have been kept with the West despite closer relations with Cuba and the East, and the PNP advocates a "mixed economy" of public and private ownership -- but the same manner that has endeared Manley to some has engendered hatred in others.
The businessmen bitterly remember Manley telling them, on returning from his trip Cuba in 1975, that there were "five fights a day from Kingston to Miami" for those who did not like his programs. They resent what they see as his arrogance and his apparent expectation that they will invest in a country they believe he plans to take away from them.
Most of all, they resent his trying to shift the blame from what they see as his own economic incompetence to world economic problems and a hazy conspiracy of "imperialists."
Yet the business-allied JLP itself is quick to regard the Manley-Castro connection as a conspiracy, and tends to interpret every PNP policy -- from the formation of neighborhood committees to the establishment of police auxiliary militia -- as part of the leftist plot.
In equally large rallies throughout Jamaica, Seaga now is preaching the balanced budget, the need to return to Jamaica's traditional ties with old friends in the West. He denounces the programmed violence he says the PNP is indulging in to work its wicked will.
Whether most Jamaicans in either the committed or uncommitted categories understand, or even care, about destabilization or foreign ties is unclear. Identical charges were made by each party against the other in 1976, when Manley won nearly two-thirds of the seats in Parliament.
While rural residents undoubtedly appreciate the health care programs the PNP has given them, they cannot be unaware that the state-run hospitals are poorly stocked, because there is no foreign exchange to buy drugs overseas. Also, paid maternity leave for working women is hard to appreciate for those who have no jobs.
As in most democratic countries, the deciding factor in Jamaica's elections likely will be whether the people believe Manley's promise that the worst is over, and the fruits of their labors are just around the corner under his continued administration, or Seaga's warning that Manley means more disaster.
As for the violence in West Kingston, it is similarly unimportant to many Jamaicans whether it is carried out by the ideologically committed, or merely the poor who see their fortunes as hired party guns. Most simply wish it would go away.
At the edge of the western city sector, along a waterfront avenue that was once part of an area slated for a long-ago and only partially completed urban renewal scheme, is the Jamaican Craft Market, a warren of small shops selling straw goods and local carvings.
On a visit several weeks ago, it was completely empty of customers. "August was always good," said one market woman. "Now, I think the white people are scared to come here. All this violence, it's terrible. We used to have such a peaceful country."