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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 June 2006, 10:18 GMT 11:18 UK
'I am seen as a symbol of hope'
By Bob Howard
BBC News

With the country's first female prime minister in office, many poor Jamaicans are starting to believe that their concerns may be rising up the political agenda.

Portia Simpson Miller - known among her supporters as "Sister P", or simply "Mama" - has broken the mould of previous prime ministers on the island.

Jamaican PM Portia Simpson Miller (right) greets the visiting Chilean President Michelle Bachelet
Mrs Simpson Miller has a warm welcome for another female leader
Apart from being the first black woman to become prime minister, she was born to parents of modest means in Woodhall, St Catherine.

Her constituency of South West St Andrew is one of the most deprived in the capital, Kingston.

Supporters say this puts her in touch with the poor. Her detractors say her failure to improve conditions in her own area shows she will not be able to deliver what she promises.

The prime minister's message when she granted me an interview at her official residence was one of great optimism for the future.

"I am now at the top, and I want to pull the rest of Jamaica with me. I am seen by many as a symbol of hope that they too can one day rise to greatness. For years I have been the face of the faceless and the voice of the voiceless in the corridors of power," she said.

Hard issues

Mrs Simpson Miller will have an uphill struggle in trying to make a difference in key areas of Jamaican life.

Last year saw a record 1,600 killings on the island. It is estimated that about one in six people are unemployed, and some figures suggest about 40% of the country's income goes on repaying foreign loans taken out by previous administrations.

I just have a good feeling right now that things are going to be moving in this country
Portia Simpson Miller
The prime minister says her main priorities will be reining in violent crime and providing jobs.

"I'm looking at some hard issues, issues of crime and violence, ensuring a strong social programme so that we create opportunities for people, particularly those in inner cities and poor communities across Jamaica."

John Radley, senior in lecturer in the department of government at the University of the West Indies, says that is easier said than done.

"She comes across as an old-time populist, but the money just isn't present for her to engage in old-time populism. She's going to have to come up with a message which somehow persuades people to exchange short-term pain for long-term gain."

Mrs Simpson Miller wasn't elected - she automatically became prime minister after securing the leadership of her party, following the retirement of PJ Patterson.

A West Indies' cricket fan waves a Jamaican flag
Mrs Simpson Miller aims to give Jamaicans reasons to be cheerful
Elections must be held next year, and some commentators have urged her to call them immediately to gain a popular mandate for reform.

She told me her priority was to instigate immediate changes on the island, and that she would call elections at a time of her own choosing.

Her chances of winning appear good, as the first prime minister for a generation who seems to have grass-roots support across what has been the country's yawning political divide.

She is confident the people will back her, and that she will change Jamaica for the better:

"I just have a good feeling right now that things are going to be moving in this country, and we're going to be seeing some changes as never seen before."

Jamaica gets first woman leader
31 Mar 06 |  Americas
Country profile: Jamaica
31 Aug 05 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Jamaica
28 Feb 06 |  Country profiles

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