Tuesday 31 March, 2020

What's in it for Jamaica? Why American elections matter to us

With a mere few hours to go before a new president is elected, what appears to be a spectacle for cable news watchers is a real concern for those at the helm of Jamaica and other stakeholders.

 Loop News spoke with several former and present ministers and Jamaican political scientists on how a change in government in Washington could impact Jamaica.

While many shared candidly on the subject matter, the majority of politicians did not want to go on record about their views, fearing that comments surrounding the topic could jeopardise future relations with the superpower — depending on the election outcome.

The US is Jamaica’s largest trading partner, not to mention, Jamaicans rely on their northern neighbours for help with policing their borders, particularly as it relates to drug- and gun-trafficking, as wells as, aid and development.

The relationship between the two countries is two-fold — on the one hand, it describes Jamaica’s close proximity to the United States and on the other hand, it describes the island nation’s reliance and strong dependence on the US.

When there is a new administration in Washington DC, especially when it involves a new president, Jamaicans and the rest of the Caribbean are on high alert. 

This high alert is for good reason, as most Jamaican politicians seem to unanimously agree that people living in even the most remote areas of the island will be affected and are affected, whether negatively or positively, by the outcome of US elections. 

In Jamaica, there is a popular expression, that if the US sneezes Jamaica catch cold. This simply means that anything that affects the United States also impacts the island, and often, to an even larger extent.

One former minister noted that the foreign policy agenda rests almost exclusively with the president and his (or her) secretary of state. That being said, if they don’t see the Caribbean and Latin American regions as important being important, these areas will be neglected.

The region, ministers and other stakeholders say, cannot afford to be neglected, as it could mean crucial cuts to programmes that promote broad-based economic progress and social, political and regional stability.

Foreign aid is considered the quintessential instrument of US foreign policy and in absolute terms, with the US gov’t being the largest international aid donor.

US foreign aid to the region has dropped considerably since the 80s and continues on the downward trajectory.

Under the Obama Administration’s 2013 foreign aid budget, the region received a total of $1.7 billion USD. With Jamaica receiving approximately $5.4 million USD —monies, which ministers from both sides of the political divide, say have been critical to helping all sectors of Jamaican society, including education and healthcare.

They also note that these funds have been crucial in helping the fight against crime, protecting the nation’s borders as it relates to drugs and guns as well as in the fight against lotto scamming, which threatens the growth of the island’s BPO sector. 

Last week alone, one Jamaican minister noted that the US spent over J$40 million gifting the forensic lab, which will allow for more accuracy.

Another minister, in a related ministry, noted that the US has also supported programmes in the correctional services facilities, including rehabilitation programmes that have been successful in reducing repeat offenders and helping inmates, once released, reintegrate into society.

And while aid and technical expertise are important, it is not just aid — trade, immigration and general global security are at stake in US elections, Jamaican politicians say.

One minister told Loop News that while aid is a critical part of what’s at stake for Jamaica in the US presidential election, he noted that other areas are in jeopardy and expressed concerns over agreements and arrangements up for review, such as the Caribbean Basin Initiative.

He also pointed to Donald Trump’s utterance on the campaign trail in March, in which he proposed cutting the H-1B visa programme with “no exception”.

“Many Jamaicans rely on that programme to provide for their families and by extension help to grow the Jamaican economy. Farm workers, hotel workers, and babysitters, they go away and earn money. If Trump were to cut such a programme the Jamaican labour market would be in trouble,” he said.

While many have expressed doubt that Trump would actually stick to his campaign rhetoric, Jamaican politicians across the board were deeply worried about the issue of immigration.

“If you are bright, if you are smart, we will take you — that is better than saying if you’re an immigrant we will be kicking you out. So you will find on the immigration issue more people are comfortable with Hillary,” one minister said.

One St Ann politician spoke candidly of the perils of reintegrating deported individuals into society and the cost to the Jamaican state.

“While we encourage Jamaicans to become citizens of the US, the truth is there are many undocumented Jamaicans in the US. Sending them here to an already strained society is a problem,” he said.

And it isn't just concerns over Trump’s rhetoric that has weighed heavily on the minds of Jamaican politicians, as past events also factored into the minds of those who said they were “cautiously optimistic” about Hillary Clinton.

One advisor to a former Jamaican prime minister noted that while Bill Clinton was popular among African Americans, his foreign policy gravely disadvantaged others — namely small Caribbean nations like Jamaica, which suffered when preferential banana agreements with the EU were struck down by the WTO, as the US sought to protect US banana companies in the region.

“I prefer Clinton, however, let’s not forget her husband’s role in the end of the banana republics of the Caribbean," he said.

“I am hoping that, as she seems to suggest on the campaign trail, she will be continuing Obama’s foreign policy agenda,” he added.

The majority of Jamaican ministers shared similar sentiments — the hope that the next US president would continue Obama’s foreign policy agenda, which emphasized support towards the region.

One of the criticisms of past presidents and even of Obama’s first term, according to a political science professor at the University of the West Indies, was that he paid “lip-service” to the region and "kind of just ignored it". 

However, Obama’s visit to the island in 2014, was a crucial turning point, according to the professor, who regarded the visit as significant for a variety of reasons —but most importantly, that it signified a refocus on the region, among other things. 

He also noted that it signalled to the world that “Jamaica is a big deal” and that the relationship between Jamaica and the US is strong and, as such, is encouraging news for US investors interested in Jamaica.

Most importantly, he said, Obama essentially committed to investing in Jamaica and the region. He noted that shortly after Air Force One took off, partnerships and business began to swing and pointed to the export of LNG from the US to Jamaica as one benefit.

Jamaica is one of the first countries in the world to have received LNG exported from the US. Exportation began for the first time in March 2016.

He noted that, right now, the US is very committed to region based on the policy agenda set by Obama.

“Ambassador to Jamaica Luis Moreno, is very sincerely committed to Jamaica, and has been working very hard. I even recall him saying he was committed to leaving US$1 billion in US investment in the island,” he stated further to illustrate the point.

A similar sentiment was expressed by a minister, who told Loop News: “Anytime you have sitting US president visiting you it makes the world know you are important to the US. And it serves to your benefit if you are a trader in this region. It is something which will support you.

“The thing that makes people more comfortable with Clinton is that people assume that she will continue the policy of embracing the region.”

Meanwhile, one former minister noted that the regularisation of the US-Cuban relationship also creates additional benefits for Jamaica and the region. 

Particularly, he sees Cuba as the opening up of a new market of 11 million people that will facilitate trade and growth within the region. 

The former minister went on to add that the real problem with this election has been the lack of substance.

In truth, we don’t know what Clinton or Trump will do. Their policy positions are extremely vague, at best, with the focus having been on personalities and scandals.

Another minister shared a similar view point.

“Without specificity, people will make decisions based on posture,” the minister said.

“Are you kind to me, friendly to me? The majority of the non-white population are likely going to associate with Hillary because of her utterances — they are more embracing of immigrants and persons that are not seen as the majority in the US,” he added.

Among the pool of local politicians, “uncertainty” seemed to be the common theme, with even a former prime minister noting: “I don’t know enough about either of their policies to cast a useful designation as to which presidential candidate’s policies would serve us better as a nation. Like everyone else, I am gluing my eyes to the TV screen on Nov 8 and after because it is all up in the air.”

While the general sense was of more comfort if Clinton won the presidency, another local politician thought that even if Trump ended up in the White House it wouldn’t be all gloom and doom. 

“Immigration seems to be the 'it' issue for Jamaicans, but when you dig down deep into it, for us in Jamaica, our concern should really be trade relations,” he argued.

The minister, playing devil’s advocate, encouraged Jamaica and Jamaicans to see themselves as world players rather than just regional players and that despite the outcome of the election, the nation could benefit through a change in thinking.

“How the US interacts with other countries will also impact us — we are living in a small global village,” he said.

He then used a hypothetical example to make his point: “If the US takes a particular stance in relation to global trade — which allows for us to have more control of our market and cuts off a larger supplier or a large regions — that could open up some facilities for us.”

He noted that similar to ‘Brexit’, while it may have been disadvantageous to the England and EU, it can open up some opportunities for Jamaica, particularly to strengthen bilateral ties with England.

“So it not all doom and gloom. From the epidermis, it may appear one way. But you have to dig deeper and dissect and explore,” he said.

Another Kingston-based politician took a radically different stance, espousing the view that he doesn’t expect to see a significant change in US foreign policy. 

While he admitted that it is a possibility that a president that believes spending money in this region is not advantageous to the US   could cut aid – he highly doubts it.   

“It all goes down to the foreign policy posture of the US president, but US foreign policy has some fundamental elements that will not change regardless of who the president is, because those are just entrenched,” he said. 

He, however, cautioned Jamaican policymakers to be mindful and "play it cool" until of the new president’s posture on foreign policy is known.

“The US and Jamaica engage in a very delicate dance — one in which the island nation must be careful not to step on its partner toes, as this could be a costly mistake," he cautioned.

It was not too long ago he warned that a unit of the Jamaica Constabulary Force unit was barred from using equipment paid for with funds provided by the United States Government, who citied human rights violations under the Leahy Amendment (Leahy Law).


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