Tillerson’s Jamaica visit will divide CARICOM, Unless…
Ambassador Curtis A. Ward
While Secretary Rex Tillerson’s scheduled visit to Jamaica has been received with some level of scepticism, any visit by a U.S. Secretary of State to Jamaica should be welcome news. Ordinarily, such visits are expressions of good working relationships, and often used to strengthen ties even further. On the other hand, there are also visits by U.S. Secretaries of State which are triggered by disagreements on bilateral, regional, and global issues, and such visits are used to heal wounds or to issue threats. While we support the positive reasons given ahead of this visit, we cannot be oblivious to the possible negative implications inherent in a Tillerson visit to the region at this stage of Trump administration’s hemispheric relations and policies.
Those of us who have been around long enough and have keenly followed geopolitical issues will remember the December 1975 visit by then U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to Jamaica. His primary mission was not bearing gifts, but to coerce then Prime Minister Michael Manley to reject Cuban President Fidel Castro and Cuba’s response to South Africa’s Apartheid regime’s invasion of Angola. Failure of Manley to succumb to U.S. pressure meant the U.S. would not support any trade concessions, and would oppose any loan or lines of credit from the international financial institutions, as well as American financial institutions which Jamaica desperately needed at that time. Manley’s rejection of Kissinger’s vulgar blackmail resulted in what many believed to be a destabilization of Jamaica by the U.S. Government. However, Jamaicans, some quietly, were proud of their country.
Tillerson’s visit to Jamaica cannot be divorced from Trump administration’s regional immigration policies, and policies and actions advancing U.S. geopolitical interests having regional and global implications. Importantly, Prime Minister Holness’ responses, or lack thereof, to issues significant to U.S. geopolitical agenda have not been explained clearly by the Jamaican government in order to engender broad support from Jamaicans at home and in the Diaspora. Jamaica’s positions, oftentimes at variance with other CARICOM members, constrain Jamaica from assuming a leadership role in the region. Divisions in CARICOM’s responses to the United States have laid bare the lack of leadership and cohesion in the region which Jamaica offered and facilitated in the past. Tillerson’s visit will divide CARICOM further, unless Prime Minister Holness proactively pushes for a regional agenda which focuses on issues of concerns to the region as a whole, while simultaneously addressing bilateral U.S.-Jamaica issues.
There are several issues of bilateral and regional concerns. These include: U.S. budget cuts which will curtail or end valuable USAID programs in the region; current and future threats to security and law enforcement assistance programs and security cooperation under the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative; cuts in programs to build resilience to climate change; energy security, including alternative energy development in the region, as well as guaranteed natural gas supplies; ending Temporary Protected Status to some 60,000 Haitians which will put pressure not only on Haiti but on the entire region; proposed changes in U.S. immigration laws to end family-sponsored immigration disguised by reference as “chain migration” and replacing it with a merit-based system that would not only prevent family unification, but would contribute significantly to the regions’ brain drain.
In addition to the issues I just identified, there are extremely troubling hemispheric issues. In particular, the Trump administration’s approaches to Cuba and Venezuela have created jitters throughout the hemisphere generally, and in the Caribbean region in particular. President Barack Obama made significant strides in reducing tensions in the region through policies pursued to regularize relations between the U.S. and Cuba. Actions taken against Cuba so far by the Trump administration have sought to reverse President Obama’s initiatives. The entire region welcomed U.S.-Cuba rapprochement and applauded President Obama for reducing a significant irritant to U.S. relations in the hemisphere.
CARICOM member states and the countries of the hemisphere are divided on U.S. policies towards Venezuela. This became quite evident when the Trump administration failed to persuade OAS members in June 2017 to support U.S. policy towards Venezuela. While most governments in the hemisphere are deeply troubled by ongoing events in Venezuela, most rejected the heavy-handed approach of the Trump administration. Jamaica’s vote in support of the U.S.-backed resolution at the time was interpreted by many as support for the U.S. Since the OAS debacle, the Trump administration has ratcheted up its sanctions regime against Venezuela and the governments of the region have been muted. A number of CARICOM countries remain dependent on Venezuela for concessionary oil supplies under Petro-Caribe and are treading softly. Will Tillerson seek to further isolate Venezuela by enlisting Jamaica’s support to sever Caribbean ties to Venezuela?
Prime Minister Holness must impress upon Secretary Tillerson the negative implications for Jamaica and the region should the Trump administration continue to pursue these stated policies. Should Prime Minister Holness fail to address these issues in bilateral discussions with Secretary Tillerson, it will be taken by the U.S. as acquiescence by the Jamaican government with Trump administration’s policies and actions, and will be interpreted by other CARICOM states as Jamaica’s ambivalence on matters of significant regional concerns. Should Mr. Holness fail to put these items on the agenda, his non-proactive approach will be interpreted by some as weakness.
We know that to ingratiate oneself to President Trump is the way to show support. A series of actions by the Holness-led government has signaled to the Trump administration that it is in Trump’s corner. In January 2017, Prime Minister Holness visited Israel and made common cause it seems with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against the Palestinians. In October 2016, Jamaica was conveniently absent when UNESCO voted on a resolution vehemently opposed by Israel and the United States. On December 21, 2017 Jamaica abstained on a UN General Assembly vote overwhelmingly rejecting Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. At the time of that vote the Trump administration warned that those who did not support the U.S. decision would be marked for some form of retaliation. The Trump administration has left no doubt as to its intention to punish non-supporters.
At the recent Davos conference President Trump again raised the spectre of punishing those countries that voted against his Jerusalem decision. He was clear in the future use of U.S. aid and other assistance to countries that are not lock-step with his policies. Tillerson’s scheduled visit to Jamaica and other countries in the hemisphere emerges from these set of preconditions. Tillerson will use this visit to Jamaica and other countries to enforce its position, in particular on measures to further isolate Venezuela. Tillerson will offer guarantees of energy supplies – natural gas and oil to Jamaica. Tillerson will offer increased security and law enforcement support – Jamaica is desperate for the latter. There is room for optimism that Jamaica’s response to Tillerson’s offers will not be driven by coercion, and it is hoped that Holness will uphold the country’s integrity while acting in the best interest of the people of Jamaica.
© 2018 Curtis A. Ward/The Ward Post