U.S.-Jamaica Relations then and now, and in between
Ambassador Curtis A. Ward
(05 August 2023) — The overwhelming favorable response I received to my recent article, “Jamaica-US diplomatic imbroglio over same sex spouse” prompted me to look briefly at the bilateral relations between the two countries under former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, and current President Joe Biden. Overall, relations between the two countries have traditionally served the mutual interests of both countries. There were exceptional circumstances where the Jamaican government of the day was pressured or coerced by the U.S. government to support Washington’s policies. However, for the most part, Jamaica has been a net beneficiary of the friendly bilateral relations which has existed over the 61 years as an independent sovereign country.
I revisited a conversation I had, on March 2012, with Ambassador Pamela Bridgewater, then U.S. ambassador to Jamaica, who was appointed by then U.S. president Barack Obama. This conversation was a part of series staged by the U.S. State Department under the rubric, Conversations With America. I was invited to have such a conversation with Ambassador Bridgewater moderated by Cheryl Benton, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Public Affairs. The entire video of “Conversations With America: U.S.-Jamaica Relations” can be viewed on this link.
I found this interview reflected well the excellent bilateral relations between the Obama administration and the Jamaican government led by Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller. When asked about the state of U.S.-Jamaica relations, Ambassador Bridgewater said, “The relationship between the U.S. and Jamaica is a sound and a very positive one. We value very much our relationship with Jamaica. President Obama phoned prime minister Simpson-Miller to congratulate her. Secretary Clinton phoned the prime minister as well as the minister of foreign affairs to talk about their areas of priorities so that we can assist even further the government and people of Jamaica. So, in a word we have excellent relations.”
I concurred with Ambassador Bridgewater’s views. That is the way it should be. If we are not so now, we must move rapidly in that direction. The majority of Jamaicans at home and in the diaspora expect no less.
And who could forget President Obama’s historic visit to Jamaica, April 8-9, 2015, three years later. An ABC News headline, “President Obama Feels the ‘Love’ on Jamaica Trip” tells the story. Jamaica loved Obama, and Obama loved Jamaica back.
President Obama’s progressive policies towards Jamaica inured to the benefit of the people of the country. Millions of US dollars were going to law enforcement and security capacity building in Jamaica under the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI) which President Obama launched in 2010. USAID programs in Jamaica helped the government to target issues related to human security; Obama’s Caribbean Energy Security Initiative (CESI) and other energy security initiatives would advance the growth of investments in alternative energy, in particular in the use of liquefied natural gas in Jamaica; and Obama’s policies helped set the stage for restructuring of Jamaica’s debt portfolio, a difficult set of reforms of Jamaican government financial structure, and economic recovery from the recession. The bilateral relations between the U.S and Jamaica were on an excellent tract.
The Jamaican government switched from the Simpson Miller People’s National Party to Prime Minister Andrew Holness Jamaica Labor Party on March 3, 2016. Obama’s presidency was replaced by Donald Trump’s on January 20, 2017. The bilateral relations between the U.S. and Jamaica during Trump’s presidency concurrently with the Holness-led government underwent a seismic shift. The Holness government had to contend with Trump’s America First coercive policies and seemed to have succumbed to Trump’s demands in order to maintain American bilateral programs even if at a lesser-funded level under Trump’s USAID budget cuts. Trump’s chaotic and shambolic foreign policy seemed to have infested the Holness government which abandoned traditionally held core principles of Jamaica’s foreign policies. In as much as respect for Trump’s global leadership plummeted, so did respect for Jamaica’s foreign policy deteriorate internationally.
Prime Minister Holness was re-elected for a second term and sworn in as prime minister on September 7, 2020. President Biden replaced Trump as president on January 20, 2021. This set the stage for a renaissance, or perhaps renewal of the respectful and mutually beneficial bilateral relations which existed pre-Trump between Jamaica and the United States. The transition to Holness-Biden occurred during the greatest impact of the COVID pandemic and Jamaica turned to the U.S. and other international partners for help. The Biden administration responded with significant assistance to Jamaica’s health sector to deal with the pandemic. Since then, improvements in the bilateral relations of the two countries have been on the upswing.
The Biden administration’s bilateral policies though implemented through the State Department and its USAID, are being carried out under the portfolio for the Caribbean given to Vice President Kamala Harris whose father is Jamaican. It also important to note that President Biden’s ambassador to Jamaica, Ambassador Nick Perry is Jamaican born and a Jamaican high school graduate. This is an excellent environment for the U.S. policy priorities identified for Jamaica and the Caribbean by President Biden and Vice President Harris at the IX Summit of the Americas in 2022. The priorities identified – energy security, food security, and climate change compliment the CBSI and CESI and are in sync with some of the core issues facing Jamaica and the Caribbean.
Against this background, it came as a shocking surprise when the recent diplomatic spat between the U.S. and Jamaica over the grant of immunity for the spouse of foreign service officer exploded publicly. The relevant issues were discussed in detail in my prior article referred to above. The level of bilateral damage may not be known. Major players in the diplomatic community on both sides have played down the dispute. Many analysts are not convinced by the scant statements they have made, as there are still many unknowns from the perceived diplomatic clumsiness of the Jamaican government and lack of detailed and comprehensive explanation from Jamaica’s chief diplomat, the minister of foreign affairs and foreign trade, Sen. Kamina Johnson Smith, of what really happened.
Credit to Jamaica’s ambassador to Washington, Her Excellency Audrey Marks whose press release sought to dispel what she said was misinformation on some of what was being reported. Ambassador Marks statement, while not absolving the foreign minister of her responsibility to explain the circumstances to the Jamaican people, sought to refute three issues raised in media reports.
First, ambassador Marks said, that based “on the. timeliness of the response” by the Jamaican government to the U.S. government’s request, it was evident “… that the request by the United States was not ignored, and contrary to reports, no ‘second demand’ was made.” Failure of a timely response, hence a second letter, was one of the reasons given for sparking the ire of the U.S. Government.
Second, the ambassador refuted the possible effect of the fallout on her personal tenure in Washington. She said, “… at no time was a request made by the U.S. Department of State to have Jamaica’s Ambassador to the United States … leave the USA… immediately upon the expiration of her diplomatic visa.” Ambassador Marks also indicated that it was intended that she would be leaving her post in accordance with the regular diplomatic rotation.
And the third point she made was “that Jamaica’s leaders have not been snubbed in any way, shape, or form by the United States.” While not directly addressing some reports that the recent lack of courtesies to prime minister Holness passing through a U.S. airport was a result of the spat, other reports attribute this to a lapse in communication between the Jamaican embassy and the U.S. State Department. However, the ambassador’s statement suggested there was no change in the way the Jamaican leaders are treated by the U.S. Government.
What is very important right now is that regardless of errors in judgement and diplomatic statecraft that created the diplomatic imbroglio which seemed to have shaken if not derailed the relationship between Jamaica and the United States, and considering the steady recovering from the diplomatic chaos of the Trump presidency, it is incumbent on the Holness government to exercise diplomatic maturity and engage with the Biden administration in a wholesome way. It is also incumbent on the Biden administration to treat Jamaica as a sovereign country and respect the differences that exist between them. Both countries have divergent interests, but convergence of our mutual interests are far greater.
(c) Curtis A. Ward/The Ward Post