THE PEOPLE of Jamaica and the Caribbean Community in general have something of much political significance to look forward to now the Easter holidays are over. Yes, it’s the impending brief official state visit on Thursday April 9 of US President Barack Obama.
After all, it’s a rare occurrence for the leader of the world’s sole superpower to include even less than a one-day state visit to a small Caribbean island, but one with a most impressive post-emancipation history that spreads the gamut with names well-known to President Obama, his advisers and the American people.
Whether, that is, the issues relate to Caribbean and international political developments; ‘Rastaman and ‘ganja’ culture; sports and the performing arts; or names like Marcus Garvey, Bob Marley and Usain Bolt.
Also in the era of hemispheric political developments we can well recall Michael Manley’s linking of his People’s National Party as a firm ally of Fidel Castro’s revolutionary Cuba and, subsequently, for Jamaica to become one of the original quartet of CARICOM states to bring Cuba out of the diplomatic isolation to which it had been placed by then President Jack Kennedy’s administration.
The US President’s visit to Jamaica also provides for a hurriedly arranged summit meeting between Mr Obama and CARICOM Heads of Government. However, once there is the will, decisions of significance could be achieved before the US President flies out to Panama to participate in the coming Seventh Summit of the Americas on April 10-11 .
So far as the few hours of summit meeting in Jamaica is concerned, CARICOM Secretary General Irwin LaRocque said in our telephone conversation that he expects a ‘very positive response’ by the Community’s leaders.
No high expectations
Nevertheless, if such previous high-level summit meetings offer any guidance, our Heads of Government would be advised against high expectations for gestures of significance from the US President, despite frequent ‘friendship’ assurances.
Increasing challenges to social and economic development within CARICOM remain constant amid comparatively high levels of unemployment–including rising joblessness among youth–as well as the depressing rates of murders and other gun-related crimes across the Community, including Barbados.
These and related issues would most certainly be major concerns for discussion during the CARICOM leaders tight working hours with Mr Obama—the third US President to make an official visit to this region within 32 years.
The first of the presidential trio to do so was Mr Ronald Reagan in 1982 to Jamaica. Mr Edward Seaga was then Prime Minister. Curiously, Reagan’s Jamaica visit was to be followed by the US military invasion of Grenada in October 1983, in which Prime Minister Seaga and his now late prime ministerial colleague of Dominica, Dame Eugenia Charles, were key players.
Then followed in May, 1997, President Bill Clinton’s summit meeting with Caribbean leaders in Barbados with a special focus on regional security that included sensitive issues on drugs trafficking and illegal trading in small arms. Host for that historic event was then Prime Minister Owen Arthur, currently sitting as an “independent” in parliament.
The scheduled caucus between President Obama and CARICOM leaders in Jamaica would contrast with informal meetings they held with him on the margins of both the Fifth and Sixth Summits of the Americas held, respectively, in Trinidad and Tobago in April 2009 and Colombia in May 2013.
Now comes President Obama’s tightly packed official visit to Jamaica. Perhaps it’s time for some critical reflections by CARICOM governments on the pluses and minuses from the separate visits to this region and discussions held with the trio of US Presidents—Reagan and Clinton and, soon, with Obama.
In between those years, the only US President to host a structured formal meeting with CARICOM Heads of Government in Washington was President George W. Bush, in contrast to recurring requests by CARICOM for a scheduled summit with President Obama who, nevertheless remains popular with the people of this region and, generally, more so with the wider Caribbean/Latin America diaspora in the USA.
It would not be surprising if President Obama seeks to raise his administration’s concerns over what it projects as growing undemocratic and dictatorial tendencies in Venezuela under the administration of President Niclolas Maduro, successor to the late popular revolutionary leader, Hugo Chavez who had maintained close and relations with CARICOM member states via trade and economic projects.
For their part, while CARICOM governments have, varyingly, expressed interest in the normalisation of diplomatic and economic relations between Washington and Caracas, in the interest hemispheric peace and stability it would be surprising to witness any immediate shift away from the prevailing confrontational politics between Washington and Caracas.
President Obama, leader of the world’s sole superpower, would be aware that Washington has a very hard political row to hoe in making out Caracas as the original ‘villain’ for their deteriorating soured relations.
Let’s hope that expressions of “genuine friendship” between superpower USA and the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela could yet deliver practical forms of new initiatives to replace today’s unhelpful, hostile posturings in Washington and Caracas. As of now, their diplomatic stand-off seems set to further unravel in Panama during the 7th Summit of the Americas.
President Donald Ramotar faces the tough choice of being in Guyana for Tuesday’s Nomination Day and making himself available for the Obama/CARICOM Summit on April 9 and also, hopefully, the subsequent 7th Summit of the Americas in Panama.
(Rickey Singh is a noted Caribbean journalist )