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Editorial: Obama’s visit: tempering expectations

Published:Wednesday | April 8, 2015 | 4:00 AM

Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller and her Caribbean Community (CARICOM) colleagues must enter their talks with President Barack Obama tomorrow with realistic expectations, recognising the limits of what he can, or may be, willing to do. But that doesn't mean there isn't value to be extracted from the visit of the US leader to Jamaica. Much of that is political and symbolic - critical signals, which, if properly packaged and executed, can be converted to economic gains.

Three decades ago when Ronald Reagan visited Jamaica, the first signs of a potential thaw were only just emerging in the Cold War. The Left-Right ideological wars still raged, and Jamaica and the Caribbean were at the forefront of the campaign. In Grenada, Maurice Bishop's People's Revolutionary Government had not yet cannibalised itself, while in Jamaica, Edward Seaga's pro-West Jamaica Labour Party had not long since defeated Michael Manley's democratic-socialist People's National Party at the polls. Left- and right-wing movements remained at loggerheads in Central America.

 

marshall plan

 

That is the context in which Mr Seaga proposed a Marshall Plan for the Caribbean, and he and others persuaded the Americans and the Canadians to offer non-reciprocal free-trade agreements in the Caribbean Basin Initiative and Caribcan and in which, for a time, US per capita aid to Jamaica was second only to Washington's spend on Israel.

In the intervening years, the Cold War ended and geopolitical imperatives changed; the US, Canada and Mexico established the North American Free Trade Agreement, which diminished the preferences of the CBI and Caribcan, which were further eroded with the establishment of the World Trade Organization and its handmaiden, globalisation. Then 9/11 shifted America's focus to the Middle East and led to its disengagement from the region.

As welcome as it would be, we do not expect any significant opening of America's pocketbook by Mr Obama. Nor should anyone expect an enhanced CBI that insulates CARICOM from the ravages of global competition. In that regard, if anything comes of the so-called framework agreement on trade last year signed by Joe Biden, the US vice president, and CARICOM's then chairman, Michel Martelly, it is likely to lead to reciprocity.

 

debt crisis

 

But Mr Obama can do other things for Jamaica and the Caribbean, not least of which is to focus global attention on the crisis of debt in the Caribbean, but from which the region, because of its so-called middle-income status and a muscled lobby, is denied relief and locked out of many programmes of aid. Jamaica, for instance, with its debt-to-GDP ratio of 139 per cent, is doing painful things to right itself. President Obama should do more than recognise such efforts and throw the power and prestige of his office to bring international support to the effort.

Helping to steer foreign direct investment to an economy like Jamaica is another way President Obama can help. In 1982, President Reagan co-opted David Rockefeller, then chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank, to head a committee that steered capital to Jamaica. That blue-ribbon team included then big names in corporate America such as Seymour Milstein of United Brands; John Blomquist, Reynolds Metals; William Norris, Control Data; and Curt Strand, Hilton International.

It is a model that, if Mr Obama is so inclined, could be usefully employed.