Fri | Jan 18, 2019

That Obama visit

Published:Sunday | April 12, 2015 | 12:00 AMMartin Henry

National Heroes Circle crab and corn vendors and the rest of us are stumbling back to a semblance of normality. Particularly in the capital city, and especially along the routes and in destination areas for the Obama visit.

World Boss left for Panama, like many of our ancestors who travelled there to work on the American-built canal in the early years of the 20th century.

Staffers at the Canadian High Commission can now gain access to the bit of Canada in Jamaica. Same for the German embassy on the same Waterloo Road and the many others in New Kingston proper. Did the security managers spare a second thought for the diplomatic impact of the security arrangements for the visit of the president of the United States on the operations of other countries here to whom we have equivalent obligations?

Two of the 20th century's most influential black men, both from Jamaica, figured in the president's visit. Bob Marley with the visit to the museum, and Marcus Garvey, for whom pardon or exoneration for criminal conviction in the US in 1923 was again raised. Obama, first black president of the long-racist US, in many ways, is a grandchild of Garveyism, which paved the way for him to happen.

Mr Obama took keen interest in the (non-)performance of the Jamaican economy, the results of which desperate attempts were made to shield him from seeing in reality on the ground.

Jamaica's biggest economic problem

The debt burden is Jamaica's biggest economic problem. The president came endorsing the IMF programme, which a private think tank in his country says has delivered the most austere budget in the world.

But why would the US, up to the level of its chief executive, take such direct interest in our programme with the multilateral International Monetary Fund? And why should we let them? It is true that the US is the largest contributor to the IMF, but technically should not be a controller of the 'independent' Fund. This US interest simply strengthens the view that the US manipulates the multilateral institutions, to which it usually contributes the lion's share, to advance its own hegemonic interests of world domination.

Jamaica is being cheered on in paying down its debt, now taking 48 cents out of every Budget dollar. But the debt burden is an obstacle to the growth which President Obama came promoting as the way out of our economic problem. And everybody knows the dirty little secret that the debt cannot be fully paid off and the heavily indebted countries remain economically, politically and socially viable. The pretence of paying off the debt is necessary to keep the world's financial system temporarily stable. A jubilee of debt forgiveness is necessary. And President Obama is well positioned to lead it as the powerful United States did for global reconstruction after World War II.

After the war, the US initiated the Marshall Plan, conceived by the then Secretary of State George Marshall and named after him. The official name of the plan was really the European Recovery Programme. The US pumped $13 billion (around $120 billion in today's dollars) into rebuilding the war-shattered economies of Europe and Asia.

Jamaica and the Caribbean, Haiti more than all, need a mini-Marshall Plan. We have not been war-ravaged, but we are debt-ravaged. Even one-hundredth of the current value of the post-WW2 Marshall Plan would be a good deal.

America, the most generous nation on earth, has been good to us. The Peace Corps has worked here since its inception by President Kennedy in the year of our independence, 1962. USAID has poured millions into development projects in Jamaica, ranking only behind the European Union as lead donor. The United States has given us some debt write-off in the early 1990s in a debt-for-nature swap that allowed the establishment of the Environmental Foundation of Jamaica. Jamaica was to pay interest on the reduced debt in J$ (very useful for reducing foreign exchange demand pressure) into the environmental fund. The debt was a PL480 debt.

Does anybody remember the PL480, Public Law #480, Food for Peace programme? Rice, flour, milk powder, bulgar, vegetable oil ... ? A lot of which went into the School Feeding Programme.

In a stroke of strategic diplomacy, the law's original purpose was to expand international trade, to promote the economic stability of American agriculture, to make maximum use of surplus agricultural commodities in the furtherance of foreign policy, and to stimulate the expansion of foreign trade in agricultural commodities produced in the United States. The programme later shifted to a greater humanitarian emphasis. But one of PL480's unintended effects was the depression of domestic agriculture in beneficiary countries, like Jamaica.

We need more trade than aid. The US surpassed Britain as our number one trading partner at the end of the 19th century, in 1899, says the Handbook of Jamaica. It was bananas and sugar then. The subsequent exclusion of both commodities from the US market has done untold harm to the Jamaican economy. Bauxite and tourism came on board. We now need access for services. Former ambassador to Washington, Audrey Marks, is urging us to "switch from goods to services". But we need markets, markets, markets.

Cuba and Venezuela were at the table at the Summit of the Americas in Panama. Cuba, for the first time, following the Obama-led switch from the 53-year-old policy of isolation towards the communist state.

Venezuela has offered its own PL-480 type programme to the region, with oil under the PetroCaribe Programme.

In what may well be the single biggest American move on the Obama visit, the US is offering us natural gas, available now but which we are unprepared to take up before 2017. Since the collapse of PetroCaribe seems imminent with the decline of the oil-dependent Venezuelan economy, the US gas deal is a big deal.

Quite frankly, the youth, education and entrepreneurship programmes that won such applause when President Obama announced them at the Young Leaders' Forum are extensions of the Fulbright and other similar US programmes. These could well be handled, like virtually everything else on this symbolism laden, but very disruptive visit, at sub-presidential level.

As Obama raced around Kingston in 'The Beast' with his own security detail fully in charge, in this thoroughly free country with a press ranked freer than that of the United States, the papers were carrying as advertisement a letter from the World Social Movements to the US president. They were calling for the repeal of the March 9 presidential executive order declaring Venezuela "an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States". The order, they said, was "an act of aggression which violates international law". And they accused President Obama of "acting as a world bully who wishes to forcibly impose his might over the rule of law and over people's sovereignty". There were no signatories from Jamaica, but scores from the US itself.

Meanwhile, courageous members of the Jamaica Coalition for a Healthy Society, along with some other groups, staged a small protest at the edge of the Obama security cordon at the UWI, Mona.

They were protesting, they said, the loss of free speech under the Obama administration. They believe that Christians have lost their freedom of religion, especially on issues dealing with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. And, at the height of 'everything criss' Obamamania, the Jamaican media, one of the freest in the world, gave this little fringe group with a negative message some coverage. Mr President, the leader of the free world, would have been proud.

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to and