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On the future of US-Jamaica relations

Published:Friday | November 13, 2015 | 12:00 AMChristopher Tufton, Contributor

As close as Jamaica and the United States (US) are, historically and geographically there are paradoxes in our relationship with each other. We are not always in agreement on issues, even while Jamaicans fully appreciate the importance of this relationship to their everyday lives.

Many Jamaicans, even while waiting in long lines to get an American visa, are critical of aspects of American foreign and domestic policy. And given access to travel, improved communication through cable television and telephone calls from relatives and friends residing in that country, Jamaicans tend to be up to speed on the most recent happenings in that country.

The recent visit of President Obama to our shores, tangibly demonstrated our fascination with America and in this case, its first black commander in chief. Crowds lined the streets of Kingston just to get a glimpse of the motorcade and the president himself. The University of the West Indies was packed with young people all anxious to see and dialogue with the president. Obama enjoyed a cult-like status amplified by his attempt at Jamaican vernacular as he greeted his audience.

Regardless of where we stand diplomatically with the US, we will always be tied to them because of the sheer number of Jamaicans who have migrated to that country over the past 100 years, and who continue to do so in their thousands each year. US official figures have it that there are 700,000 Jamaican-born US citizens — and this number does not include those who are the offspring of Jamaicans, who are resident aliens. If we include the undocumented Jamaicans, those numbers would possibly rise significantly. Immigration is a huge political issue in the US, particularly now in election season, and even if the current debate is more focused on the US’s southern border, any changes in immigration policy will affect us.

Those Jamaicans in the US also provide 17 per cent of our GDP through their remittances and approximately two thirds of our tourists to the island. Similarly, the bulk of our exports in critical categories like agriculture and agro-processing end up on the tables of American consumers.

All this said, our closeness and relationship with America does come with some concerns to both countries. For the same reason the US marketplace represents significant opportunities for Jamaica, so too it represents significant opportunities for deviants, who achieve gain through illegal activities. 

The guns and illicit drug trade as well as the lottery scamming are all disruptive activities that threaten both societies in varying degrees. For example, the current ruptures in the correspondent banking relationships between Jamaican banks and many US banks who are concerned about the remittance streams being used for money laundering, represent a threat to legal commercial activities between entrepreneurs in both countries. Any disruption or cessation of correspondent banking relationships with Jamaican financial institutions for the purpose of remittances could have disastrous effects on our economy and thousands of Jamaicans who depend on these flows to survive

China and Cuba
More on the diplomatic front, but also as it regards the question of Jamaica’s prosperity, we wonder to what extent the US has concerns about the increasing Chinese presence in the region, and in Jamaica specifically. Is there a concern? Should the US be concerned? Will our deepening political, economic and investment ties with China affect our special relationship with the US going forward?  Jamaica has always maintained a good relationship with China and this is only likely to deepen over time.

And what of the new dynamics between the US and Jamaica as the US and Cuba begin the process of transforming their relationship? How might it affect us? How might we affect it? As a long-standing advocate, even at the level of the United Nations, for the US embargo on Cuba to be lifted, perhaps Jamaica can be a bridge as two of our closest neighbors seek rapprochement with one another.

Extraditions and deportations

US-Jamaica relations have also been impacted by attempts at cross border security and justice administration. The more controversial activities in this area take the form of extradition requests and deportation orders. Most Jamaicans know someone who has been deported and extradition requests are normally public events. On these issues, there are mixed feelings, which at times have led to verbal and even physical conflicts, as was the case in West Kingston with the Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke extradition. Even while the West Kingston enquiry continues in the glare of the public, the full impact on both the US and Jamaican societies with each extradition request and deportation order, is unknown.

Same-sex marriages
A more recent controversy among a significant cross-section of Jamaican society is America’s policy towards same-sex couples and same sex marriage. The Obama administration has hailed the ruling of the highest court in that country in support of same-sex marriage as a positive turning point for that country and seems to be anxious to make the promotion of this new phenomenon a part of US foreign policy.  Already the churches here in Jamaica have signalled their intentions to strongly oppose any move such as this within our Jamaican parliament. I suspect that the churches will have majority support in the wider populace, which would clearly demonstrate a point of disagreement between both democracies.

With all this said, a harmonious Jamaica-US relationship is critical for Jamaica’s growth and development. Strengthening those ties requires ongoing dialogue between the two countries, respect and an appreciation of each country’s sovereignty and perspective. Jamaica is clearly the smaller and more vulnerable of the two countries, which means we may need to make more effort in making our case to benefit from this relationship. We should not kid ourselves that this is a case of two equals.

At the same time, an economically depressed or destabilised Jamaica or Caribbean region, in the backyard of the US, cannot be good for that country.  In one sense we are joined at the hip, and need each other for the stability of the region. We should work to understand the issues that affect us both and make the effort to strengthen the quality of our working relationship, and also our friendship.

- Dr Christopher Tufton is a former government minister and co-executive director of the Caribbean Policy Research Institute, a University of the West Indies, Mona, policy think tank. Email: and