Taking our honorary consuls for granted
The loss of Jamaica's former honorary consul to Atlanta and prominent attorney Mr Vin Martin, who died on July 23 after a long illness, has prompted us to recall the long and distinguished service of our honorary consuls all over the world. These patriotic individuals need to be given more recognition.
Mr Martin, who served as honorary consul for 16 years, from 1997 until 2013 when ill health forced his retirement, might be considered the exception. His invaluable service was recognised by the award of the Order of Distinction (OD), the Governor General's Achievement Award for Contribution to the Diaspora and the Prime Minister's Medal of Appreciation.
Honorary consuls are invaluable for small, poor countries like Jamaica because they provide diplomatic presence in key countries where the Government cannot afford to have an embassy with a staff of full-time diplomats. They are either accredited to a country with no Jamaican embassy, eg the Dominican Republic, or to regions in big countries with a Jamaican embassy but where a daily ongoing presence is required, such as Los Angeles in the US or Birmingham in England.
The honorary consul can be a Jamaican or a citizen of the foreign country, usually the descendant of a Jamaican parent or a prominent and well-connected citizen. These posts are much sought after because they come with some diplomatic privileges and provide access to the diplomatic corps and all-important civic events.
The other side of the deal is that honorary consuls are not paid, therefore they have to bear the cost of an office where they can be seen, a dedicated telephone, e-mail and fax. They bear all the costs of communicating with the various agencies of the Government of Jamaica in Kingston and the embassy of Jamaica to which they report. They have to cover the expense of attending functions, meeting dignitaries at the airport and hosting dinners and receptions. They are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week and have to respond to crises from desperate deportees to destitute students. Many honorary consuls have served for as long as 20 years.
Unfortunately, the foreign ministry and its coterie of career diplomats tend to regard these highly qualified honorary consuls as inferior and indeed as second-class representatives, despite their sacrifice of time and money to help Jamaica. The exceptions, our records show, are High Commissioner Derick Heaven in the United Kingdom and Ambassador Dr Richard Bernal in the United States.
Mr Heaven regularly organised for the honorary consuls in the UK to visit Jamaica as a group and Dr Bernal held a two-day seminar every two years with attendance from across the US, Canada and Cayman. At these seminars, training and briefs were provided by the Jamaica Tourist Board, Jampro, Air Jamaica, the passport and immigration office, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, embassy staff and the Jamaica Constabulary Force. He also added new honorary consuls in Seattle, Richmond, Philadelphia, Dallas, Hartford and Houston.
The demands for Jamaica to serve its economic and political interests globally and service its worldwide diaspora are beyond our human and financial means, especially at this time. The answer to this dilemma is to carefully but quickly expand the system of honorary consuls. The first step to an expanded system must be to regularise and reorganise the system by putting the honorary consuls on three-year contracts, training them and keeping them better informed.