Fri | Jan 18, 2019

History suggests US in control of Jamaican property sought by China - Goat Islands, Vernamfield foreign policy conundrum

Published:Friday | September 13, 2013 | 12:00 AM
The airstrip at Vernamfield in Clarendon. - File
A fishing boat approaches the Goat Islands on August 22, 2013. - Ian Allen/Staff Photographer

 Richard Browne, Business Reporter

The United States (US) Embassy in Kingston has reached out to Washington for answers on whether the United States still holds a lease and, therefore, rights to the Goat Islands and Vernamfield.

Jamaica itself is still unsure, but wants to finalise an agreement with China for development of the islands under a deal worth billions of dollars.

China and the US are seen as reluctant allies whose foreign-policy positions often conflict, but whose economies are connected - China as the US' largest creditor, and the US as one of China's largest export markets.

Jamaica has strong relations with both.

When the Financial Gleaner asked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade about the status of the lease, a representative checked with Minister A.J. Nicholson and came back with the reply: "He is not able to answer that question for you."

The US Embassy said it was awaiting word from Washington in order to comment.

The 1940 pact

What is known is that the Americans got a 99-year lease on the Goat Islands and Vernamfield on September 2, 1940 under the Bases for Destroyers agreement. The agreement predated Jamaica's independence from Britain by 22 years.

This pact between the United Kingdom and the US allowed the British to receive 50 overage destroyers from the Americans more than a year before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour in Hawaii and the Americans entered World War II.

The agreement was further ratified in March 27, 1941, and the Americans spent some US$17.5 million to create the airfield at Vernamfield and the seaplane base on Little Goat Island.

That sum would be worth some US$290 million or almost J$30 billion in today's money, based on US annual inflation rate of 3.95 per cent.

This compares to the projected spending of US$1.5 billion or J$150 billion for the China Harbour Engineering Company's proposal for a port and logistics centre at the Goat Islands.

The Americans have done a fair bit of preparatory work at the islands over time.

"A total of 2,800,000 cubic yards of dredging was necessary to remove shoals from the seaplane runway and to deepen the anchorages and channel approaches to the piers. Gasolene storage, totalling 75,000 gallons, was provided in eleven underground steel tanks," according to the publication Army Air Forces in World War II, Vol I, Plans & Early Operations, January 1939 to August 1942.

Lease retained

Shortly after the war, the two bases were abandoned by the US. But the Americans retained the lease for them and others around the Caribbean, including Chaguaramas, which was to become the capital for the fledgling Federation of the West Indies in Trinidad.

This was not something that pleased Premier Eric Williams, who staged a four-year campaign to end the lease.

A new agreement on the US military bases in the West Indies was signed on February 10, 1961, "concluding months of negotiations that left all sides professing satisfaction," The Gleaner reported on February 11, 1961.

"Under the agreement, the US will give up 80 per cent of the 61,680 acres it acquired," The Gleaner reported. But the Jamaican bases were not to be a part of that 80 per cent.

"Subject to defence needs, a time limit of 17 years was agreed for US retention of Chaguaramas and small strategic areas in other islands. This may be extended by mutual agreement."

On February 12, 1961 The Gleaner reported that areas to be retained included Chaguaramas, missile and space-tracking facilities at St Lucia, oceanographic research station and satellite-tracking facilities in Antigua and navigational aid facilities in Jamaica.

Prime Minister Sir Grantley Adams signed for the West Indies Federation. John Hay Whitney, former US ambassador to London, signed for the US.

Reconciled to History

The Federation would soon be reconciled to history, however, and Jamaica would gain independence a year and a half later. The newly independent Jamaica then replaced Britain as party to the US agreement, according to the US State Department website.

"By an exchange of notes on August 7, 1962, between the High Commissioner for the United Kingdom in Jamaica and the Prime Minister and Minister of External Affairs and Defence of Jamaica, the Government of Jamaica agreed to assume, from August 6, 1962, all obligations and responsibilities of the United Kingdom which arise from any valid instrument (including any instrument made by the Government of the Federation of The West Indies by virtue of the authority entrusted by the Government of the United Kingdom). The rights and benefits heretofore enjoyed by the Government of the United Kingdom by virtue of application of any such international instrument to Jamaica are from August 6, 1962, enjoyed by the Government of Jamaica," the State Department says.

Almost 40 years later, on June 18, 2002, a new agreement was signed between the US and the UK terminating the lease agreement for the US bases in Bermuda. But this agreement does not mention the Jamaican bases.