Tue | Dec 6, 2016

Obama must aim higher

Published:Sunday | April 12, 2015 | 12:00 AMIan Boyne
President of the United States of America, Barack Obama, addresses a youth forum at the University of the West Indies, Mona, on Thursday.

A telling and poignant indication of Jamaica's vastly diminished geostrategic significance was demonstrated when the one American journalist who was given the opportunity to question President Obama after his bilateral talks with the Jamaican Government asked about Cuba and Iran, and mentioned not a word about the host country.

His Nicodemus trip to the Bob Marley Museum seemed to have excited international media attention more than the security and energy issues he discussed with the Government. It's just not like the last time a US president visited in 1982 when the Cold War was raging and Jamaica was being rewarded for its anti-socialist, anti-Cuban, stoutly pro-American stance.

Make no mistake about it: For Jamaica, Barack Obama's visit is huge, and for Portia Simpson Miller, it is a personal and political triumph. A US president's visit should never be taken lightly. It means something - just as his not visiting would. After strained relations under the Golding administration, the visit of Barack Obama is an unmistakable indication of the restoration of trust.

But as usual, we Jamaicans go overboard with these things and we seem to think the world revolves around us. Yes, we do punch above our weight, but in geopolitics, we had better get a hold of reality. Even some of our commentary in print and on the electronic media - coming from people who should know better - has been so fanciful and in the realm of dreaming as to be laughable. This newspaper kept publishing articles from prominent people calling for jobs, big economic and trade ventures, some new Rockefeller plan, etc. All oblivious to changed global economic circumstances and new geopolitical realities.

The Cold War is over. We no longer matter strategically. If you follow the US press, even the few times when it addresses US-Caribbean relations, that is usually in the context of other countries - Venezuela and Cuba and sometimes China. So even this energy initiative from the US is seen as countering Venezuela.The Caribbean has been a major thorn in the side of the US over the years regarding Cuba's isolation, and therefore, the region is overjoyed at Obama's announcement of the intention to establish full diplomatic relations with Cuba.

America's major foreign-policy issues have little to do with the Caribbean. To put it bluntly, the Caribbean has absolutely no clout in geopolitical terms. We are just not important in this post-Cold War era. In a unipolar world, we can't make threats or invoke any fears of backsliding. For there is nowhere to backslide to! Plus, we are firmly in the clutches of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), of which the United States is the most important player. In fact, the most serious discussion on the eve of Barack Obama's visit here was a paper issued by the Left-leaning Centre for Economic Policy and Research in Washington titled Partners in Austerity: Jamaica, the United States and the International Monetary Fund.

The most serious discussion I saw after checking on the US coverage of this Obama trip was an article in the highly respected Huffington Post titled 'President Obama visits Jamaica, but what is his government doing to Jamaica's economy?', written by someone from the same Centre for Economic and Policy Research. While the article, like the paper, was unbalanced and one-sided, it, like the paper, brought to the forefront some issues that have regrettably been sidelined in the wake of neo-liberalism.

 

SEVERE SICKNESS

 

The paper did not give enough attention to our policy and implementation failures here and seemed gave the impression that our problems and setbacks are purely manufactured outside. That is not true. Besides, some of the stringent measures demanded by the IMF are because of our own fiscal recklessness and mismanagement. Our sickness has been severe, and so the medicine has had to be equally severe. I concede that, and the paper did not help its case and the progressive cause by not making certain admissions.

But let us not make some obvious flaws in the argument-ation of the paper detain us from seeing its overarching point that the Obama administration would do well to use influence in the IMF to get more favourable terms and to work for a broad development initiative. I was happy to hear Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller say that the president discussed multilateral issues such as the post-2015 development agenda. This is where I think Barack Obama has an opportunity to really make his mark and to leave a lasting legacy.

If he really wants to positively influence the youth of the region, merely setting up a youth initiative where a relatively few bright sparks can shine is not enough. If Barack Obama wants to ensure a brighter future for Caribbean youth and the Caribbean people in general, he has to do more than provide funding for clean energy, youth initiatives and other such laudable programmes. He has to find a way to help highly indebted, middle-income Caribbean countries that are not eligible for concessionary financing because they are not poor enough, but which are not rich enough to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Barack Obama needs to think bigger.

He needs to be bold; he can afford to be so in his last term. He must stop the tinkering and really announce some major initiative regarding the post-2015 agenda. While the following statement does not represent the whole truth, I commend its essence to President Obama: "Rather than subject the Jamaican people to further declines in living standards on the back of continued austerity, multilateral development banks should work with Jamaica and other creditors to provide meaningful debt relief, freeing up needed resources to invest in the future."

Yes, I reiterate: IMF austerity measures are necessary but not sufficient. Even without an IMF programme, there are certain things we would have to do in our own interest because they are the right and necessary things to do. But I do believe we need to re-examine that high 7.5% primary surplus requirement.

We can't blame the IMF for all our problems. But some of our problems are not home-grown. Some problems are structural and some are due to the unjust and iniquitous international economic system and the costs imposed by irresponsible actors.

Barack Obama and the Democrats have rightly identified the greed and casino capitalism mindset that were responsible for the Great Recession. This recession has imposed a heavy cost on the international community. President Obama had to spend immensely to rescue the American economic system and had to engage in stimulus, counter-cyclical policies to do so. We can't get out of our hole without some stimulus - though we can't afford it now. This is why we need development assistance and why we need for resources of the IMF to be channelled to us on a concessionary basis. There needs to be a development fund for distressed countries like Jamaica. This is what Obama must use the remainder of his term in office to do: To help to push for meaningful changes in the IMF and the World Bank, which would lead to a better economic future for the countries of this region. He has to go beyond the modest measures he announced in Kingston and is likely to announce in Panama City. He needs to aim higher.

I have been strongly supportive of Barack Obama's foreign policy. He has restored respect for multilateralism and liberal internationalism. He has shown respect for the international community and has rejected the chauvinistic use of American power. He has not been a weak president, as the Republicans have charged, but he has been responsible and discreet in his use of power. The deal on Iran is a credit to his sagacious foreign policy and restraint. He has been right in his restraint on Syria. His policy of offshore balancing in Asia and in his utilising that Asian pivot against Chinese power has been wise. Obama has been a refreshing, welcome change since the disastrous Bush years. His policy on Cuba is right and overdue.

Barack Obama has been good for the world. But he has not done enough for the development of the developing world. He must now devote his attention to helping to push for reforms of the global economy. While neo-liberal guru Damien King has been thrashing the new Centre for Economic and Policy Research paper critiquing the IMF, the IMF itself just reported last week on a new study published in the April 2015 World Economic Outlook, which shows that economies have entered a new, lower-growth phase as a direct result of the recent global recession.

"Since the onset of the global financial crisis, many economies have faced lower growth in their productive capacity, which may slow the rise of living standards in the future," the IMF says.

This is unjust and unfair to developing countries. Concessionary financing and debt write-offs helped spur growth in sub-Saharan Africa, in addition to market reforms. (I know the structure of our debt is different). My point is that a broad development deal needs to be struck for Caribbean states like Jamaica. It's good to come here, woo our youth, and enjoy that visit to the Bob Marley Museum. But we are not just to be romanticised and celebrated. As Professor Rex Nettleford would say, we are more than just minstrels.

- Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist working with the Jamaica Information Service. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and ianboyne1@yahoo.com.