Known for its strong sense of self identity expressed through its music, food and rich cultural mix, Jamaica's influence extends far beyond its shores.
With luminaries such as the black nationalist Marcus Garvey and musician Bob Marley, Jamaicans are proud of their cultural and religious heritage.
Jamaicans have migrated in significant numbers to the United States, Canada and Britain and their music stars are known around the globe.
The island is the birthplace of Rastafarianism, a religious movement which has been adopted by groups around the world who venerate the former Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie. Once regarded as a revolutionary threat, Rastafarianism became a cultural force, reflected in art and music.
With its roots in the island's ska and rocksteady forms, reggae made Jamaica a leader in music, with Bob Marley as its most famous ambassador.
The island is also known for its beauty, political stability and plentiful resources in the form of bauxite and sugar. However, these features contrast with widespread poverty and crime.
At a glance
- Politics: Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller from the People's National Party won a closely-fought election in late 2011
- Economy: Jamaica is one of the world's most indebted nations; bauxite and alumina production and tourism are key sectors
- International: Prime Minister Simpson-Miller says Jamaica should break with the British monarchy and become a republic
Country profiles compiled by BBC Monitoring
Since independence from Britain in 1962, power in Jamaica has alternated between the social-democratic People's National Party and the conservative Jamaica Labour Party.
While elections have often been marred by violence, their results have always been accepted and, on the whole, political institutions have managed to retain their legitimacy.
But political stability has not turned into social and economic harmony. Contrasting with the luxury tourist resorts are densely-populated and impoverished ghettos.
The government has at times deployed army units to suppress violent unrest. There were more than 1,300 reported murders in 2006 and there have been accusations of extrajudicial killings by law enforcers. The murder rate declined in 2010. The police have secured outside help to deal with what is one of the world's highest murder rates alongside South Africa and Colombia.