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Vasciannie says meeting Obama a high point of his stint so far

BY HG HELPS Editor-at-Large helpsh@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, October 14, 2012    

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STEPHEN Vasciannie lists his meeting with President Barack Obama as one of the most significant moments in the first three months of his tour of duty as Jamaica's ambassador to the United States.

Vasciannie, who assumed the role as Jamaica's new envoy to the United States and the Organisation of American States on July 16 this year, returned home last week to attend the graduation ceremony of the Norman Manley Law School, which he headed before his diplomatic appointment.

"That was one of the highlights of my stint so far. That was the single most memorable occasion of my stint so far, but the work in the OAS has been perhaps as important," Vasciannie told the Jamaica Observer in an exclusive interview.

"The meeting with Obama was one of a number of meetings that he had on that day. He met my family and me. Significantly, his birthday is August 4, and Jamaica's Independence is August 6, and so he pointed out that Jamaica and himself share birth month, but he is one year older than Independent Jamaica, at age 51.

"We exchanged information about various Government initiatives on either side, with Jamaica reaffirming the strong bonds of friendship between Jamaica and the USA and with Jamaica pointing out some of the areas of co-operation that we have had — economic development, security, health services, the presence of so many Jamaicans living in the US and the US reciprocating," said Vasciannie.

"He was well briefed on Jamaican issues and indicated that. This was a time when he was sending a team led by Colin Powell to participate in Jamaica's Independence activities. It was an honour to meet the US president, and we had a good, pleasant exchange, with relatively little nervousness on either side. He greeted the children warmly and my wife as well," Vasciannie said.

A lawyer by profession and a Kingston College old boy, Vasciannie said that his meeting with Obama reinforced prior impressions he had of the US commander-in-chief — "scholarly, thoughtful, steeped in public policy issues and determined".

"He also showed a breadth of knowledge about Jamaican issues and seemed keenly interested in the Olympics and the 100 and 200 metres which were coming up," said Vasciannie.

"Shortly after that meeting, I noticed that he made a statement in which he said 'I am no Usain Bolt, I can't run to the tape and look around calmly at others, I have to keep going'."

The ambassador said he believes that Obama has high regard for Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller "and he did send special greetings to the prime minister of Jamaica in our meeting".

Added Vasciannie: "I believe he is conscious of the contribution that Jamaicans have made within the United States, and conscious of the important relationship and the value that we attach to that relationship."

The new ambassador lives in Chevy Chase, about an hour's journey by car from the Maryland capital of Baltimore.

His wife Lisa, and sons Sean and Dominique have also settled in nicely, he said.

"Winter is to come, but so far it has been a rewarding experience. The children are quite happy and are enjoying their new school. They miss their friends in Jamaica, in particular friends from Sts Peter & Paul and friends from their home community as well, but they are picking up on the new environment, the new culture and seem to be adjusting.

"My wife is making sure that the boys are properly adjusted and she is doing work in setting up home and family. In my first week in Washington, I knew much more about Paraguayan politics than the way home, because I just had to jump in there in dealing with the matter at the OAS. I had to figure out how to get home, but was assisted by staff at the mission," he said.

Vasciannie described the support that he has had from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, as well as Jamaican Embassy staff in Washington as, "tremendous".

He has been making the rounds in the USA in his quest to establish good relations with Jamaicans in the diaspora who, he said, long for greater contact with Jamaica and information about home. This has prompted him to become involved in various presentations about Jamaica, including a town hall meeting in Atlanta, an Independence presentation also in Atlanta, presentations in Richmond, Virginia, in Washington, DC, and one to come later this week in New Jersey.

"I have been trying to make these links, but interesting enough, everywhere I go I have come upon people I have known from high school or primary school days. In Atlanta, I came upon a friend who lived beside me in Meadowbrook when I was five years old, so there are Jamaicans, as is well known, all over the States, and they very much value a link between the Jamaican Embassy in the United States and themselves," he said.

"There is also a network of honorary consuls in different US cities and they provide a link, not just through consular services, but... a focal point for the Jamaican community. They have had various Jamaica50 activities and I have been involved in some of them. It's a matter of record that various Jamaican non-governmental organisations in the States, concentrating mainly on education and health, make a big difference to the lives of people in Jamaica, and so I intend to continue to encourage that activity," he said.

Vasciannie also spoke of Simpson Miller's address to the United Nations last month, saying that it was received with enthusiasm. "In fact, there was a reception line following the presentation and the prime minister's reception line was longer than the reception line of the other leaders that I saw," he said.

"There were not only people from the diplomatic community, but Jamaicans overseas took the opportunity to come to the UN to hear her and greet her and it was an impressive performance — it was an impressive speech," Vasciannie stated.

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