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Obama's subtle and not-so-subtle messages

Published:Thursday | April 16, 2015 | 12:00 AM

Last week, Barack Obama gave Jamaican politicians a master class in issue-based campaigning. At a so-called town hall meeting at the Assembly Hall, UWI, President Obama kept the huge crowd in front of him and behind him - and the hundreds of thousands in media land - spellbound and enthralled.

He fired up the "massive" without shouting at them, without punctuating his words with loud music, and without jumping up and down on the stage and wining up himself.

Jamaican politicians operate more like evangelical preachers or dancehall showmen, trying to stir emotions through gimmicks and histrionics, and going after laughs from heckling and bad-mouthing the other side. Jamaican politicians do not like talking about issues, or fielding questions from an educated audience for it will reveal how little they really know.

No wonder more and more of the young and educated are turned off from Jamaican politics.

It really boils down to whether you respect the intelligence of your audience; Obama did, but our politicians don't.

We did not invite President Obama to hold a town hall meeting with young people; that idea came from him. He had messages he wanted to deliver to Jamaica, and - literally - he set the stage (with some of his audience behind him as a backdrop where the camera would show them); and he set up the questions by advising the US Embassy on the sort of person he wanted to be present.

President Obama came to Jamaica to discuss issues of importance to him and his backers, and to the interests of the US government. He had a message to deliver personally to CARICOM leaders (and I don't believe we know the whole story about that yet); and he had several points to make to the Jamaican public.

Just to be sure it would come up, President Obama drew attention to a Jamaican lesbian activist in the audience and her work; that was one of the more predictable features of the Barack Obama Show. I was impressed with how gentle he was in his delivery; I'm sure the LGBT lobby wanted him to be much more aggressive.




Another predictable message was Obama's almost uncritical endorsement of the tough International Monetary Fund (IMF) programme in Jamaica. As the unpopularity of the People's National Party Government grows, President Obama is the latest in a line of top officials (IMF head Christine Lagarde, International Development Bank President Luis Alberto Moreno) who have paraded through Jamaica showing support and giving encouragement.

Possibly, the US government and the IMF are a little concerned that opinion polls indicate that the political party that spawned the Tivoli garrison led by the Coke dynasty, and which could not pass any IMF tests, might soon be back in power.

I expected (and wrote about it last week) that President Obama would bring a message of warning about our involvement with China. Ever the diplomat, he began by praising the Chinese government for hoisting millions of her citizens out of poverty in a very short time; I concur. But he warned us about countries (including the USA) bringing economic aid which really only benefits the donor.

When he mentioned China's practice of bringing its own labour to work on its projects instead of using local labour, it struck a familiar chord, and resulted in applause from the audience. I support the establishment of a logistics hub, but not on the Goat Islands; and I look forward to hearing that backroom diplomacy has shelved this aspect of an otherwise worthy project.

President Obama expected the ganja question, and handled it well; legalisation is not a "silver bullet", which will do away with the involvement of organised crime cartels and bring millions into Jamaica, he warned us. Others will benefit, not us. He obviously knows who gave the political contribution which has led to the hasty decriminalisation of ganja in Jamaica.

There was one clear message at the town hall meeting that I did not predict; a gracious guest does not criticise his hosts, but President Obama found a diplomatic way to say that corruption is a major obstacle to genuine development. He clearly knows a lot; not only has Dudus been debriefed, but so has a certain east Kingston don who has been in the USA for some time.

More than the streets of Kingston need to be cleaned, and I don't believe we have the courage or the will to purge our island of corrupt private sector and political interests who work hand in hand. It is going to require outside forces to act (as happened in Tivoli), and I hope they do so soon.

- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and human-rights advocate. Email feedback to