Why President Obama is coming to JamaicaSunday, March 29, 2015
THE highly anticipated visit of United States President Barack Obama to Jamaica has raised the question as to why he chose this island.
While Jamaica has an advantage in location, which makes it the ideal place to meet Caribbean leaders, this cannot be the whole story. Air Force One can certainly make it from Washington, DC to Panama without stopping and without overflying Cuba and Jamaica.
In our view, Mr Obama's visit has both multilateral and regional dimensions. At the global level, the US has been preoccupied with terrorism, the Middle East (Syria, Israel and Palestine) and with extricating its armed forces from Iraq and Afghanistan. There have also been domestic political distractions due to the fundamentalist Republican majority in Congress. The result is that, for a time, US attention has been one of quiet complacency.
Now, the global pandemic of terrorist acts means that the Caribbean, which the US regards as its "Fourth Border", is actually one of the most vulnerable spots for US interests. Millions of American tourists visit the Caribbean each year, and those on cruise ships and American-owned airlines are very exposed because of the limited Caribbean security capacity and the need for more US security assets and personnel in the region.
At the regional level, the Caribbean is the region most severely affected by the global economic crisis following 2008. The mono-export economies are sinking in a sea of debt, partly of their own making. The perceived unwillingness to undertake the necessary and difficult economic adjustment is compounded by the ineligibility for most concessional development assistance facilities due to their high per capita incomes.
In the midst of the regional economic crisis, the US has been quietly observing, with a benign attitude, the increased presence of China and the influence which accompanied the dependence of many Caribbean countries on Venezuela's PetroCaribe.
In this context, Mr Obama's visit signals two developments. First, the US is reasserting itself in the region. It is putting pressure on the Maduro Government in Venezuela, anticipating its implosion. President Obama correctly and courageously is pressing ahead with the process of normalisation of relations with Cuba.
The US has also decided to help Caricom. While there is no reduction or huge US aid in the offering, the US will be pushing the IMF, World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank to do more to complement Chinese financing in preparation for less aid from Venezuela.
America now sees a market for its energy in the Caribbean and, apart from any economic gains, it would strengthen US influence.
Second, Mr Obama, like the IMF's Christine Lagrade, is signalling to the Caribbean and other indebted countries that the way Jamaica is pursuing an extremely difficult IMF programme is the way to go and is a prerequisite for future financial assistance. It is also an international endorsement of Jamaica, which is being held up as a model to the rest of the Caribbean.
In geo-political terms, Mr Obama is meeting the Caribbean for the first time since the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad, and is conscious of the visits since then of the president of China and the prime minister of Japan. Finally, he is paving the way for a cordial reappearance of Cuba into the Inter-American system.