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Jamaica-US relations: the long view

Published:Sunday | March 28, 2010 | 12:00 AM

In 1899, imports from the United States first exceeded those from the United Kingdom, the Handbook of Jamaica, referenced in the National Library of Jamaica, tells us. That was 111 years ago without any reversal of the trade data taking place since then.

Jamaica, with its own grievances against the British colonial government, backed the American War of Independence. Trade restrictions and increased taxes raised hackles both in the North American and West Indian colonies. The Jamaica House of Assembly sent off a petition to King George III supporting the action of the North American colonies and defending their right to make their own laws and not to have them made in England and enforced upon them - something which Jamaica wanted for itself too.

ja's bold stance

Jamaica boldly took this stance, fully recognising that the war could seriously affect the country, even without direct British recriminations. There was a roaring trade between the North American colonies and the Jamaican colony. Flour and salted fish, staples of the slave diet, were imported from North America, as well as timber, horses and a whole range of other products. Domestic agriculture, relentlessly devoted to sugar cultivation, never could feed the slave population of some 200,000 to just under 13,000 whites in 1775, the year of the opening skirmishes of The American War of Independence. Jamaica exported rum and molasses, among other products, to the New England colonies. A 1730 report said there were nearly 50 distilling houses in the Boston area.

As was expected Britain, after the war, tried to shut down the trade between the now-independent United States and her West Indian colonies, including Jamaica. A 1788 Act of Parliament stated that "no goods or commodities whatever shall be imported or brought from any of the territories belonging to the United States of America, into any of his Majesty's West India islands under the penalty of the forfeiture thereof, and also of the ship or vessel in which the same shall be imported or brought". But immediately, in the hypocritical fashion of trans-national trade with which we are ever so familiar today, there followed a long list of over 20 exempt items with the provision that these items could only be conveyed by British subjects in British ships.

The 18th century might of the British navy could not prevent a lively contraband trade between the United States and Jamaica and the rest of the West Indies. The contraband today are drugs from us to them and guns and ammunition from them to us - a deadly trade.

The Americans returned the compliments of independence support 186 years later when Vice-President Lyndon Johnson led a large delegation to our Independence celebrations in 1962.

Captain Lorenzo Baker launched the export banana industry in 1870 when he ran fruit from Jamaica to the United States at spectacular profit, although there were others before him. Baker's Boston Fruit Company morphed with others into the United Fruit Company (UFC), which has had a significant role in Jamaica's history and that of the whole Latin American Caribbean region.

United fruit company

The UFC in Jamaica was the principal financier of Jamaica Welfare Limited founded by Norman Manley, in 1937. In the 1920s and early '30s, Jamaica was the world's leading banana exporter. Yes! Most of our exports going to the United States, then, not the United Kingdom.

The UFC further morphed into Chiquita. And, on behalf of this company, the US government has expended a great deal of effort to have the World Trade Organisation (WTO) remove preferential access for Jamaican/Caribbean bananas into the EU market. Between hurricanes and the loss of preferential access to the EU market, the export of bananas from Jamaica has been declared dead.

Jamaica provided the bulk of the West Indian labour on the Panama Canal, a project which was supposed to have brought enormous shipping benefits to Jamaica. The 1910 edition of the Handbook of Jamaica declared that "when the ship canal uniting the Atlantic and Pacific is completed, Jamaica will undoubtedly be of great strategic importance upon the new trade route". A full century later, in 2010, Minister of Investment, Industry and Commerce, Karl Samuda, speaks of converting Jamaica into the trans-shipment hub of the Caribbean.

United States private enterprise, with Canadian, led the development of our bauxite industry, beginning in the 1940s. Just over a decade into mining, Jamaica by the mid-1950s had become the largest producer of bauxite in the world. In the 1970s, we quarrelled about the imposition of a bauxite levy. There were even more substantial disagreements in that turbulent decade. The Michael Manley Government expelled the American ambassador, Vincent de Roulet, declared persona non grata. Charges were rife that the Central Intelligence Agency was providing covert support to the Opposition Jamaica Labour Party to unseat the Democratic Socialist Manley regime. The abiding friendship between the two states survived the turbulence intact.

Americans have been the biggest consumers of the Jamaican tourism product since its beginnings with the Great Exhibition of 1891. The Handbook of Jamaica, 1891-92, proposed the construction of hotels in light of the future prospect of Jamaica being a "resort for winter travellers from the North". Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett says by this weekend, the winter tourist season, one of the best and in the midst of a recession, should have delivered half-a-million visitors, most of them Americans.

There has been a robust movement of people from here to there, mostly with good results. One of the founders of this newspaper in 1834, Jacob deCordova, subsequently migrated to the United States where he became a real

estate developer on the Texas frontier. There has been a significant
flow of Jamaican professional talent and some business money into the US
from Jamaica. Some 80 per cent of those obtaining tertiary education
migrate, most to the United States. In the mid-1960s, the US outstripped
Britain as the main destination for Jamaican migrants. Yardie gangsters
are now a concern for both states and a source of some of the present
stresses and strains in the historically robust relationship.

Minister Edward Seaga was the first head of government received by
President Ronald Reagan, only eight days after Reagan's inauguration.
And their tight collaboration for the Grenada invasion after the
overthrow of the Maurice Bishop socialist regime there is now the stuff
of both legend and historical record. Mr Seaga has recently published
his version of the story. The Reagan administration offered the region
the Caribbean Basin Initiative, a trade and aid benefits package which
did not live up to expectations but was magnanimous in its intentions.


The Jamaican/British Government provided the United
States an airbase in Jamaica at Vernamfield, Clarendon, during the
Second World War. The base injected considerable inputs into the
Jamaican war economy, providing business for many, from farmers to
prostitutes. Minister of Transport and Works Michael Henry, in whose
constituency Vernamfield lies, is now advancing his life project of
establishing a mid-island air facility on the site.

Jamaica has
not only been one of the biggest beneficiaries of American monetary aid
on a per capita basis, but has been a major beneficiary from Peace Corps
postings. Having Peace Corps teachers was one of the defining features
of my own high school education. And the volunteers are still coming
across a variety of sectors.

US debt forgiveness has created and
supported the Environmental Foundation of Jamaica, devoted to
environmental conservation and the welfare of children.

The United
States has generally recognised Jamaica as a strong and faithful
partner in the fight against the inflow of drugs into the US. We have
successfully hammered out, and ironed out, a Ship Rider Agreement, and
share a robustly functional Extradition Treaty. The Jamaican Government,
I believe, can advocate for more, and can get more, from the drug
fight, if, as happened in Columbia, support is sought for creating
economic alternatives to producing and trading drugs. Last week I was
involved in discussions about how some of that support could be
specifically for local research and development to be fed into the
economy and society.

The Americans were quick to offer assistance
from their base at Guantanamo Bay in neighbouring Cuba after the 1907
earthquake which devastated Kingston, as they have been in subsequent
disasters. The mishandling of the American presence with a landing of
armed marines cost Sir James Swettenham the governorship. American pride
ruffled by British protocol led to the relief ships under Admiral C. H.
Davis sailing away with the supplies brought. A ship bearing a personal
gift of 2,000 tons of beef and other foodstuff from President Theodore
Roosevelt to the people of Kingston was also diverted to Cuba. American
marines are not likely to come tumbling out of Black Hawks and Chinooks,
or submarines, into West Kingston any time soon!


In the long view of history, Jamaica-US relations have
been and remain robust, respectful and productive, despite the
relatively minor ups and downs of past and present. We have disagreed
over Cuba, Haiti, Venezuela, South Africa and the liberation struggles
in southern Africa in the 1970s, and more. And now we are disagreeing
over a single extradition case.

President Barak Obama, unlike many
of his advisors and leadership colleagues, has a keen sense of history,
and wants to appear to have put down the big stick. Building on their
long history of robust, respectful and productive relations, the two
states will resolve their current difficulties and move on together.

Martin Henry is a communications consultant who may be contacted at
medhen@gmail.com or columns@gleanerjm.com.