Remittances shield Jamaica from economic destabilisation and social upheavalThursday, July 22, 2021
Social unrest in Cuba, reported widely in the media, should be a warning to Jamaica and other Caribbean countries that people of any nation will not hesitate to cast off past benefits of any social and economic order when current conditions spiral out of control. When the suffering of the people reaches a tipping point, it is easy for many to look outside and see the disparities prevailing within. Encouragement from outside sources to revolt often find fertile ground in such situations.
Western media has highlighted the social and economic pressures brought on by the novel coronavirus pandemic and the slow pace of life-saving vaccines for the people of Cuba and, more than any other issue, demand for democratic freedoms as reasons for the anti-Government demonstrations. I do not underestimate these factors contributing to the social unrest. Absent from the reports, so far, is reference to the social and economic hardships on the people during the pandemic as being related directly to, and a result of the policy of former President Donald Trump reversing former President Barack Obama's policy towards Cuba.
President Obama eased sanctions restricting the transfer of funds by Cuban Americans to their beleaguered family members in Cuba. Trump reversed President Obama's waiver of these restrictive sanctions, thus exacerbating the economic hardships on the people of Cuba. No doubt, family remittances to Cuba could have helped temper the economic impact of the pandemic on the Cuban people. By reimposing these financial sanctions, the Trump Administration hoped to foment unrest in Cuba. It is now a reality.
Jamaica is quite fortunate to have benefited from the uninterrupted more than US$2 billion annually in Diaspora remittances, which kept the Jamaican economy afloat during the worst period of economic impact and social disruptions caused by the pandemic. With the tourism sector decimated during the height of the pandemic, Diaspora remittances were the lifeblood of not only the direct recipients, but the source of foreign exchange for the Bank of Jamaica to maintain stability and confidence in the net international reserves (NIR). The Bank of Jamaica had enough foreign exchange to provide commercial banks with funds they needed to meet the demands of importers of capital and consumer goods and services, including the funding of a massive food import bill and import of raw materials for manufacturing; keep the exchange rate from deteriorating out of control; be used by Government to service foreign debt; maintain foreign missions and other support of foreign service personnel.
In other words, Diaspora remittances, unabated during the pandemic, were the lifeblood of the Jamaican economy. Remittances shielded Jamaica from economic destabilisation and social upheaval.
Jamaican Government leaders and media commentators, as well as private sector representatives, particularly major retailers, manufacturers, exporters, and financial services providers must do more to remove the misunderstandings and end the negative narrative downplaying the value of the Jamaican Diaspora to the country. Some government leaders contribute to this narrative, and the silence of the prime minister and other government leaders is sometimes deafening and, at the least, disingenuous when referring to engaging the Jamaican Diaspora. A few recent positive comments across some sectors, while welcomed, are not clear and unequivocal enough.
The Government continues to fall short on efforts to engage with the Diaspora and fails to find ways to promote meaningful engagement of the Diaspora in services to and the governance of the country. When juxtaposed against government expenditure on tourism promotion and the accrued benefits, the expenditure on Diaspora engagement pales in comparison. Diaspora engagement expenditure is infinitesimal.
Members of the Jamaican Diaspora, driven by their patriotic zeal for the country of their birth and heritage without fealty to either political party, want to become further engaged. They want to contribute not just their money, but their expertise to the development of Jamaica. They often run into bureaucratic hurdles which suggest they are unwelcome. When they offer their expertise, they are soundly rejected. Participation in the governance of the country is summarily dismissed.
Former Prime Minister P J Patterson's launch of the Diaspora initiative in 2004 raised hopes and expectations that the Government was committed to meaningful engagement. Important steps were initiated at the beginning. However, that hope of meaningful engagement waned over the years. At the same time, the frustration of the Diaspora grew exponentially with the failure of successive governments. Hope for meaningful engagement is at an all-time low.
Some are moved to anger that the current Government seems to be disrespectful of Diaspora expertise contributing to nation-building. There is growing demand for the prime minister to articulate a clear policy on the Diaspora, including one that lays out a plan of action to follow. Anything less will be unacceptable.
Perhaps the impact of remittances on the economic and social stabilisation of Jamaica during the pandemic will serve as a wake-up call to the Government, the Opposition, the private sector, academia, and the media for meaningful engagement. Have we reached a tipping point for members of the Diaspora to give up on Jamaica? I hope not. The time for action is now.
Ambassador Curtis A Ward is a former Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative of Jamaica to the United Nations with Special Responsibility for Security Council Affairs (1999-2002) serving on the UN Security Council for two years. He served three years as Expert Adviser to the UN Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee.
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