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Secret Service scandal, coffee and tourism

Published:Sunday | April 29, 2012 | 12:00 AM

Wilberne Persaud, Guest COLUMNIST

A reader who wrote to comment on last week's piece on China's increasing presence in the Caribbean shared an interesting and widely held perspective on the experience of United States presence in the Caribbean.

He remarked on the Secret Service scandal in Colombia. Allegedly, at least one member of the advance detail protective bubble around President Obama engaged the services of a prostitute, subsequently refusing to pay the agreed fee.

In the hope my editors will allow it in an adult newspaper that, perchance, may yet be read by impressionable underage youth, here's what it said on the subject of exploitation: "I was amused that another commentator - in a blog - on a related topic summarised the Secret Service scandal in the following statement: Is this not the historically characteristic behaviour of America in Latin America? F—k them and refuse to pay!"

The aggrieved woman objects to being called a prostitute.

The New York Times reports that there was a "language gap between the woman, 24, who declined to give her full name, and the American man who sat beside her at the bar and eventually invited her to his room. She agreed, stopped on the way to buy condoms, but told him he would have to give her a gift. He asked how much. Not knowing he worked for Mr Obama but figuring he was a well-heeled foreigner, she said, she told him US$800."

The woman insisted her price alone, defined her as an escort and not a prostitute. She is clear.

"You have higher rank ... an escort is someone who a man can take out to dinner. She can dress nicely, wear nice make-up, speak and act like a lady. That's me. It's the same, but it's different ... . It's like when you buy a fine rum or a BlackBerry or an iPhone. They have a different price."

Problem is the agent only had the equivalent of US$30. So much for an advance security detail.

isolated incident

The implications of this incident could have been horrendous but for the fact that it appears to have been isolated and non-coordinated.

As it stands, the Pentagon is now investigating 21 Secret Service and military personnel, including explosives experts and dog handlers. And the woman? She's scared, having nervous attacks and crying "all the time".

So Columbia has a tourist industry with escort service as part of the non-advertised attraction. This brings me to two issues Jamaican tourism needs to consider. No, not the matter of escorts but rather that of coffee and our botanical gardens.

Have we thought of coffee as more than a beverage we might export and encourage our visitors to drink, particularly the high-end stuff?

The areas in the Blue Mountains where coffee is to be found can be attractive. They tend to reflect nature's peace, variety and tranquility. They would be beautiful areas to which visitors might be attracted.

dispute shrouded in mystery

Right now, however, we seem to be having a dispute, the true facts of which are shrouded in mystery.

The Financial Gleaner reports that "Jamaica Coffee Growers' Association (JCGA) said it has put in a bid for Wallenford and is also charging that the sale of the coffee asset is not as transparent as procurement rules dictate." The agriculture ministry, however, "says there is no record of the group putting in a bid" even though Derrick Simon, president of JCGA, suggested they did and that "the group feels at a disadvantage in relation to more influential bidders".

Two things stand out in the report. Simon claims that the Wallenford brand was facilitated, if one takes the weak interpretation, or paid for - the strong interpretation - by the cess coffee growers contributed to The Coffee Industry Board (CIB) on each box of its produce. Should that be so, then growers have been placed at a disadvantage.

And Mr Simon suggests the playing field for this bid/sale transaction was anything but level. But the former chairman of the CIB, Howard Mitchell, disputes his claims. Indeed he uses strong words to describe the intervention. The "defamatory and slanderous nature of Mr Simons' utterances, unfounded in any factual context" compels him to "record the truth surrounding the issues raised by him."

The truth Mr Mitchell says, is that Mr Simon knows that his essay and comments suggest details and conclusions that are incorrect since he "had previously sat for years on the CIB as the apparently unelected president of the All-Island Coffee Growers' Association [and therefore] is well aware of the collapse of the industry caused some two years ago by the withdrawal of the advance payment regime by the Japanese and the reduction, by 50 per cent, of their offtake of the coffee crop."

For what is meant to be an entrepreneurial grouping of growers assisted by agencies of the State in a critically important Jamaican product, this is an impasse or dispute in need of an urgent fix.

Such squabbles undermine if not make impossible, initiatives that rely on synergies across sectors for the better exploitation of the resources we do possess. Imagine a botanical gardens that shows off indigenous Jamaican plants, 'weeds' and their colourful, historically intriguing use as 'bush remedies' alongside relevant scientific studies; tours that would encompass the Blue Mountains including coffee growing districts suitably enhanced for such purposes.

Surely, some in our industry have visited London's centuries old Kew Gardens, coming away suitably impressed by what a caring, motivated group perpetually does to showcase 'ordinary' and extraordinary plants from all across the world.

For us, the beautiful thing is, we don't need to go all across the world to collect specimens. We have a pretty big array right here at home for an impressive start, perhaps to be correct, I should say restart.

Our tourism interests should take note. There are profits to be made here. Peripherally, even if not the primary objective, there are also, lives to be enhanced.

Wilberne Persaud is author of 'Jamaica Meltdown: Indigenous Financial Sector Crash 1996'.