What the president presented to Jamaica and how it was just a nice trip

It’s not possible to confuse Jamaica with the USA. For one, the USA is a huge land mass that spans three time zones; Jamaica is an island you can cross in an hour north-south. The USA has 300 million people, we have 3 million. IMF data ranks the USA 9th in terms of GDP per head, at US$55,000; Jamaica rolls in 97th, with US$5,000. They are a boulder and we are a grain of sand.

Part of their history is like ours, linked with trans-Atlantic slavery, and its legacy of white oppression. However, unlike us, they were left with a legacy of black people as a minority. Many US laws sought to keep black people in lower social and economic and political positions. Although we were ruled by European colonisers for centuries, Independence was granted to us in the early-1960s. We have been led by ‘black people’ ever since (and I’m not going to get into nuanced discussion about which of our leaders was ‘truly’ black, given that they were all shades of brown, anyway :-)). So, to see a black man leading their country was an amazing novelty for Americans, while it has been a reality for us for the past half century.

The American economy has been amongst the strongest in the world for decades, and with that economic strength has come a lot of political clout. The USA also boasts a mighty army. With that force has come even more political clout. When the USA votes in the IMF or World Bank measures go through or fail. When Jamaica votes, the needle doesn’t move. They are Goliath and we seem like David. But, our slingshot fires grape nut.

Jamaica is renowned for having a weak economy, and no military might to speak of. Oddly, though, we have a good amount of political clout for our size and given our other weakness, and that has been built on our willingness to stand against bigger powers on matters of racial, political, and economic principles.

However, despite, or because of, the evident differences between the two countries, many Jamaicans use what Americans and America do as a yardstick. The USA has long represented a place where many hopes and dreams went to become reality. “Bring me your tired and hungry masses…” Migrants rushed there from Jamaica, and our students rushed there and many stayed. People living there with Jamaican roots became part of the Jamaican lifeline, offering money and goods sent in barrels, and sending stories of success to those who were still living on the Rock. The desire of many to flee to join others already in the USA is best seen by the ever-present lines outside the US Embassy searching for visas to travel to the USA.

When President Obama visited Jamaica last week, it gave many living here the chance to compare things between the two countries. First, US economic and military prowess were shown off a little: ‘The Beast’ and Air Force One are the big and brash statements many associate with America. All you could need seemed to be included in these two custom-built vehicles. They oozed influence and power.

Already smitten by the fact that Americans has not only voted for a minority as their president, but a black man (something many Americans openly fear), most Jamaicans possible saw President Obama as close to some sort of messianic figure. That’s not my view and I don’t need to be told “He’s not Jesus!” But, many think that a special light shines from Barack Obama. It must do. Look at what he’s done.

He has grabbed attention for many things: his intellect, his ability to appear calm, has taking firm positions, his withstanding of abuse, his willingness to smile, and his ability to seem like a regular guy when set in groups of people; his having a Muslim name in a country in wars against Islamic states. Without any hint of disrespect, those are features that are not common on the Jamaican landscape. Our political leaders have and have had brains, but few could be thought of as stellar thinkers and writers and speakers. His other attributes would make him as odd as a blond, blue-eyed transvestite taking the oath of office at Kings House.

When the US president engaged Jamaicans, either politicians, or the students in a town hall forum, he showed, for example, how a politician can engage an audience with a seeming openness. In front of the students, he showed little discomfort when faced with awkward questions, and was quick to diffuse things with a smile and a joke. He was not heckled. But even if he had been, he’d shown many times in the past that he’s not wont to ‘throw his frock up in the air’ and stamp his feet.

He seemed completely convincing in his arguments. He has that quality. But, it’s not a feature that comes from nowhere. Although, his country has its share of political shenanigans and corruption, it also has well-established checks and balances against the abuse of political power, which tend to kick in, and these processes are often open to the public. The presidential system means the need to find compromise often. Our winner-take-all system allows government to bludgeon things through. American courts see politicians having to defend themselves against charges of corruption. Our courts….

This open engagement and checking and balancing are things that are unfamiliar to many Jamaican residents. No wonder that trust in ‘the system’ is low. It’s not something lacking just in Jamaica. My experience of English Caribbean countries tells me that politicians in our region are more comfortable being closed than open, and we do not have checks and balances that hold politicians to account very well. Blame the British? They ruled the Americans, too, once. How’d we get so different? Blame it on ethnicity and race? I don’t know.

One thing apparent about President Obama is his comfort with informality. He quickly reverts to being a community worker and university teacher he one was: he drops his jacket and tie and walks around a room. He is cool in a way that is island-style.  While he seems at ease that way, it’s also something that he cultivates because it’s effective. We saw it at the Bob Marley Museum and at UWI. We’ve seen it many times before.

He finds ways to break the ice. Seeing pictures of him with his feet up on his Oval Office desk don’t seem odd. Seeing him with his feet up on his desk in the Oval Office does not seem odd. That’s him working.

Ironically, our PM, for all that she is a girl of the islands, often seems more at ease with the trappings of formality. We’ve seen her get loose, but that’s often not in front of audiences, but when she’s ‘outdoors’ and really on a photo-shoot. I may be mistaken, but that’s what I see. Maybe, she feels that being a female politician forces her to observe certain protocols. ‘Letting down her guard’ is not how she rolls, most times. But, different strokes, for different folks. I don’t think the PM would let a photographer take her picture with her feet up on her desk, even if she is “working, working, working”. 

PM Simpson-Miller ‘loosening up’?

While President Obama often seems cool under fire, Jamaica’s PM seems ready to fire back at the sight or sound of opposing views. If the military talks about tracer bullets, then our PM has her own form of tracing. Our image as “Everyt’ing Irie. No problem, man…” often goes out of the window if our leader is in front of those who are not with her.

That tendency to react aggressively to opposition may come, in part, from the tribalist nature of our politics. But, it can only be a weak explanation: we see such tribalism in many countries, but it brings forward other responses. It may be to do with the combative nature of Jamaicans: “Dis woman come here with the blood of Nanny of the Maroons…and this woman not afraid of no man, anywhere…” was how the PM put it stridently, recently, when faced with a group of gay activists. As one would expect, the Parliamentary Opposition, have tried to use this kind of firebrand side of the PM to their advantage.

But, judging by the landslide victory that the PNP gained at the last election, Jamaicans like this style.

So, while it may appear to some that if Barack Obama were to get Jamaican citizenship and enter politics, he would be a shoe-in as a leader, history suggests that it wouldn’t happen.

His smoothness fits the USA, and looks good on the road when speaking to audiences abroad. But, Jamaica seems to want a ‘hard’ figure.

He often shows clearly that he ‘owns’ his political agenda and policies, by speaking to the issues often without notes. Our PM is often faltering if called on to express views and details on a range of government positions. That may raise questions about whether heart and mind are truly with the causes.

He may talk about working against corruption and seeking more transparency, but so too has our PM. He would argue that he’s done much to honour that. Could the same be said on this island?

President Obama offered Jamaica both food for thought and contrasts in style. He’s not alone in many of his ways. The current JLP leader shows some similar tendencies, like his shirt sleeves over jacket and tie. Often liking to walk a room with a mike. Often appearing to speak off-the-cuff with ease. But, he’s also a Jamaica firebrand man. Maybe, its part of the youth movement, that makes him and the US president seem alike. On substance, they are far apart, however. Barack Obama was a professor in constitutional law. It’s hard to see him making the kind of constitutional mistakes that Mr. Holness made, recently.

Maybe, we just have to accept that the water and air in Jamaica produce different kinds of politicians. No point hankering for something different. And yet…

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