Thu | Oct 29, 2020

Obama's Caribbean legacy

Published:Thursday | April 9, 2015 | 12:00 AM

So after all that work paving the highway between Harbour View and the cement company, and after removing the food vendors from the area of the Harbour View roundabout, President Obama did not pass that way at all! But I am not complaining! I have to drive that way every day, and I am happy for the new layer of material on the road surface, even if it isn't really that level and smooth. Drive on it and feel the roller-coaster effect. I hope it lasts at least a year. There is something wrong with the way we build our roads.

If we didn't know it before, the global power and influence of Jamaican culture must now be clear. Very few predicted that within an hour and a half of touching down in Jamaica, President Obama would have been inside the Bob Marley Museum for a late-night tour. For all we know, he might have wanted to sample some crab and bammy from the vendors at southwest Heroes Circle, but we have denied him that pleasure.

Jamaicans love President Obama, but not because of his political positions or achievements; in fact, if we believe the polls, most Jamaicans strongly disagree with his stance on homosexuality, gay marriage, and abortion. And few Jamaicans have felt any direct benefit from Obama's presidency - in this regard, a black US president is indistinguishable from a white one.

Many Jamaicans love President Obama for the same reason they love Portia Simpson Miller: Portia and Barack both represent the advancement and social mobility that we would love to have for ourselves and for our children in an economy and polity dominated by powerful minority interests. They have both overcome seemingly insuperable race and class prejudices to reach the highest political office in the land.

But that is where the comparison ends, for in one we see a man whose career bursts with achievements despite his race, in a majority white society; and in the other, someone whose greatest achievement and asset for success seems to be her race, in a majority black society.

Should racism be vanquished in Jamaica and the USA, Barack Obama's rise to power would be unremarkable, and all (including US Republicans) would be able to focus on the quality of his policies and the value of his achievements, rather than the colour of his skin.




Since he cannot be re-elected for a third term, President Obama can now concentrate on foreign-policy matters, like readmitting Cuba into the mainstream of hemispheric affairs, and re-establishing US hegemony in Jamaica and the Caribbean.

It will be relatively easy to wean us away from a dependence on Venezuelan oil we receive on preferential terms; it will be harder to dislodge China from its perch as the major funder of infrastructure projects in the Caribbean.

For one, China has developed a reputation for less-than-straightforward business practices. For example, in 2009, the World Bank debarred China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) Limited and all its subsidiaries from World Bank funding because of fraudulent practices under Phase 1 of the Philippines National Roads Improvement and Management Project. CCCC is the parent company of China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC), which operates in Jamaica.

Chinese banks fund the operations of CHEC, so that the safeguards that the World Bank imposes can be avoided. Morality in the US will not allow the US government to try to outdo China in underhandedness.

Second, countries like Jamaica will always prefer to accept funding from China rather than the US, the EU, and the multilaterals, because China does not require that environmental standards, gender equity and workers' rights be respected.

In a perverse sense, China offers funding with less strings, but there is such a thing as good and necessary strings. Cooperation with China will bring out the worst in corrupt Third World countries like Jamaica, as it is plain to see.

I hope that President Obama's legacy in US-Caribbean relations will be a mechanism to reduce Jamaica's propensity to collaborate with anti-labour and anti-environmental countries like China. As an anti-imperialist campaigner in the 1970s and 1980s, I never thought I would ever wish the US to interfere in our affairs as I do now.

In the end, Jamaica's sovereignty must mean that it gets to choose under whose hegemony it operates.

I am pleased that President Obama enjoyed his visit, and I hope he comes again after his presidency, when he can be a little more relaxed.

• Peter Espeut is a sociologist, environmentalist and rural-development scientist. Email feedback to