No longer playing chess: it’s Chinese CHEC-ers, but Jamaicans are still pawns

Unless you’ve paid no interest in how the world has worked for many centuries, you’ll realise that power over other nations is something much sought after. Few countries have never been rulers or ruled. The roles have changed over time. Some will know, if not remember first hand, that the Romans, Greeks, Ottomans and others, we’re once the big Cox in the yard. Those who were ruled by them have many signs left behind. England, for instance, has some superb straight roads, wonderful open air baths, and lots of place names, thanks to the Romans. The world seems generally happy to live by Greek political principles of democracy and their ideas of sportsmanship. The Ottoman Empire helped spread Islam, and influenced literature, cuisine, architecture and more.

Fast forward. We are now in an age where old nations and cultures are again to the fore, as China finds new footing and ways to influence others. New powers are flexing their muscles, as the USA revels in its role as modern world ‘police’ and ‘standard bearer’. The remnants of Rome, Athens and Istanbul are now languishing, as economic plight has pushed them from the penthouse to the lower floors.

What’s worth remembering about power in the world, though, is that it has not often been about mere land and population size. India has barely been a ruler. Britain sustained an Empire for around 500 years. What passed for economic power, and military clout, ruled over others. As those ruled increased, so the economic power increased, and the potential of the military power spread.

Small nations, in terms of size and economic power, have always felt hard done to. They tend to be always dependent. For many, the choices are limited, but also important in terms of where they give their favours.

Jamaica has long been in an interesting position, both geograpically and politically. We have long been at the apex of economic power players, not least, as part of the British Empire, being a source of immense wealth and also poised to help that spread and prevent it being diminished. We punched well above our weight for centuries. Even though the vast majority of residents were not able to wield personally that power, it had some influence on how people here saw the world.

Despite our faltering modern economic displays, we had politicians who moved past that to take strong principled stances that pitted us against a major power in whose shadow we live–the USA–or against a regime that seemed to have plenty of friends who were our main economic partners–such as South Africa and the UK in our stand against Apartheid. So, we have not been afraid to be small but stand up for ourselves.

We now find ourselves faced with another friend-foe dilemma. How do we deal with China, and what it is doing for us, and what it is trying to do for itself? The two are never far apart, but we do not always see the two aspects in the same way in other relationships.

Jamaica owes much to Chinese influence. Those who do not know this do not know how our country got to where it is. We have also been lucky in that Chinese influence, from decades ago decided to keep building within Jamaica as a part of the whole nation, not as an enclave. We do not have a country overrun by Chinese restaurants, but a well-developed food industry that has seen local Chinese influence deep in its roots. We do not have lots of small Chinese grocery shops, catering mainly to a small subsection of the country, but well-established grocery chains and supermarkets that provide goods for the whole country. We do not have a Chinatown; we have Chinese people living in our towns. In that regard, we are very different from other places, such as London or New York or San Francisco.

But, apart from ‘our’ Chinese, we now have to deal with ‘new’ Chinese, both small individual entrepreneurs (in wholesaling, for instance), or the giant state-sponsored engineering company, CHEC. Whatever people may think about the latter, it has put Jamaica onto a different footing. I would say better, if pushed. In the past, China help us by building a national stadium, and more recently built a stadium complex in Trelawny and gifted us a stadium in Sligoville. These latter two may be little seen or used, maybe, but that’s our fault.

We have physical constraints that CHEC has helped us bridge, in a sense. Their helping to construct a highway to make travel easier between north and south is not trivial, in terms of possible integration of the country and the economy. Their help with physical plant when needed, as was the case with dealing with a recurrence of a fire at Riverton in 2014, is both convenient and essential. They have enormous amounts of capital that we need, both financial and physical. Let’s not pretend.

But, we need to see us for what we represent. We gain from CHEC’s interest in physical projects. But, China’s overall interest expressed that way is miniscule. China has enormous resources, and its financial involvement through projects is tiny by comparison with its financial investments. Look how the British Virgin Islands and Cayman Islands see FDI inflows far in excess of those seen in Jamaica: they get billions of US dollars, while we get millions, and their status as tax havens is more important than ours as land mass.

We need China more than it need us, so our bargaining position is not so strong. We gave some coaching scholarships to China at G.C. Foster; well, let’s hope that we can keep our sprinting edge.

We are conveniently placed in the geopolitical picture, and it would be easy to see that a good economic foothold in the Caribbean is more of a good to China, in many ways. Whether our neighbour to the north is comfortable with that is not something we can control.china-caribbean But, we are pawns in that big game. We are smaller pawns, really, because for so long we were economically feeble, and Chinese financing with less onerous conditions in terms of how we behaved was preferable to that from IFIs.  We had been naughty, and China was like the nice aunty handing us a chocolate rather than giving licks the way that grandma would.

If I were to identify a problem with CHEC’s activities in Jamaica it would be to be concerned about the constant unwillingness to be open and transparent about the arrangements which the elected government is making in the name of its electorate with another foreign government. Vague land transfer deals in exchange for road projects just smell funky. Of course, it would make sense for Chinese investors to put themselves in a position to benefit from the physical improvements they were making to the country. But, government’s unwillingness to give details is bothersome to me, because I have lived and worked long enough with government actions that are non-transparent to know that they are that way because they contain things that many of the voters would dislike. It often comes with a bitter budget pill down the road. It’s also an abuse of power.

But, generally, Jamaicans seem happy with that: as an electorate, they have been reluctant to hold politicians to account, so it’s hard to see why that would change.

Exceptional Jamaicans show they have now become extraordinary

I’m no lover of gobbledygook. (Is that an example of gobbledygook?)  President Obama’s visit to Jamaica, last week, left me uneasy with the easy way our officials absorbed the language of American military and security agencies. No one should have a real problem with a country wanting to ensure the security of any visiting dignitaries. We really want that same country to ensure the security of everyone, but we also have to recognize that not all lives matter in the same way in official eyes. However, why could we not say that we needed to clean and clear our streets? That’s easy to understand. Instead, we heard that areas needed to be ‘sanitized’.

Merriam-Webster informs us that the use of ‘sanitize’ as ‘to make more acceptable by removing unpleasant or undesired features’ is derogatory. The way that some of our areas in Kingston were made more acceptable for the visit of the US president seemed to lack due respect for the people who were affected. I did not see first-hand how homeless people or those of ‘unsound mind’ were removed and relocated. I saw on TV how the vendors at Heroes Circle had their stalls dismantled, so that they shattered. I was not there to hear all the conversations between vendors and officials. But, I know that what thought might have been given to the effect on those people’s lives was secondary to the outcome desired. When you cut off people’s means to earn a living during a busy period, it’s likely to hit them hard. It’s really obvious. You have an economy that provides precious few job opportunities, and you crush one that has been created and sustained for decades so that things would ‘look better’. I feel a Bruce Golding-Rogge moment coming.

But, forward-thinking seems to be lacking in so many ways with government.

We heard that amongst the ‘reasons’ the crab vendors needed to be removed were real concerns about health and unsanitary conditions for serving food. However, we were told, and saw, that the vendors would be allowed to resume business the day after the president left. Hang on! What about the health and sanitation issues? Move along, please!

It’s also apparent that credibility isn’t a big concern, either. Ask not what others can do for you…

We saw lack of planning, too, with the hasty outpouring of information about road closures the day before they were supposed to go into effect, and promises from the Information Minister that businesses and organizations would be informed later that day, so that they could decide what to do. I listened to radio interviews later in the day with business people, who said they had not been contacted. It turned out that by the next day many businesses were still not informed, and stayed ignorant, and they and employees and customers ended up snarled in a little traffic chaos. We heard later from businesses about the amount of business and revenue lost. People ask the government for growth strategies. You wonder if you’ll hear something that makes much sense?

You hope that amongst the post-visit briefings that officials will be having, about what worked and what did not, they would start to put in place ways communicating better. You hope.

Admittedly, more time is needed to plan for a presidential visit than Jamaica had: it’s usually about three months, and we had three weeks. However, we make matters worse because we have poor communicators and communications systems. President Obama stands, and stood, out because he seems to be superb at communicating with people. We hope lessons are learned. We hope.

I’m one of those who thought the ‘cleaning house’ that went on was over the top. As I wrote before, President Obama is no stranger to urban depravity: it sits outside his residence in Washington DC, in dirty blankets, and ragged clothes. So, even if he does not have to walk through the homeless who make that area their homes, he passes by them and many others as he wanders through Washington in his car or by any other means on a daily basis. He was also a community organizer in Chicago’s inner city. Even if he was an Ivy League college graduate and then a law professor, he knew the so-called ‘mean streets’.  

Barack Obama is no stranger to urban street life

If if he did not have ot suffer that life himself, he is well aware of the life of most black people in the USA, which is marked by poverty (and discrimination). So, against what were trying to protect him? Bad memories?

I’ve already said that it seemed that our government was struck by a bout of deep embarrassment, which drove it to make things seem better than they were. I’ve also said it seemed offensive to many people simply because that same sense of shame did not seem to drive daily routines and policies for the residents of Jamaica. Doing it for a visitor–no matter how many analogies one wants to use about what we do in our own homes–just highlights that we really don’t care enough about the need for regular maintenance and appearance, only when it may show us up.

I took a German visitor on a trip to various parts of Jamaica over the past few days. I asked her what she found the most surprising thing about Jamaica. “The contrasts…within the country,” she told me. I had taken her to Alligator Pond, Mandeville, and Ocho Rios. She’d also visited downtown Kingston on her own, taking taxis to get there and back. She wasn’t robbed, but witnessed a robbery, while downtown. The contrasts she noted were between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. Germany is not equal, but its contrasts are less stark, though recent analysis argues that its reputation for low-income inequality may reflect poor data. She told me how in her part of Germany, the authorities have created ‘adopt a pothole’ schemes. I told her that, in the same way that many of Jamaica’s problems are obvious, solutions to them can come from looking at how other countries have resolved theirs.

If you look around the Internet and social media, you’ll see that adopting potholes is an idea that’s spread to several countries: for example, in India a tyre company has offered to fix potholes that get a certain minimum amount of ‘support’. Make a contribution, have your pothole fixed and your name on it. Surely, we could do something that seems so simple? Why we don’t? Awkward silence. 

Name it, to shame it?

I’m sure that the irony of other things the government did in connection with the visit struck some others. I had to take a deep breath when I heard that JUTC buses were being used to block roads, so that unauthorized vehicles would not go into areas that were supposed to be sealed off.  

Buses blocking roads and endorse by the security forces

It happened to be an action taken just as the West Kingston Commission of Enquiry was due to resume its sessions. Thankfully, for some, the chairman was ill and the start was delayed until after the visit of President Obama. How convenient to not have the chance of those buses pictured and used as a reminder of how Jamaicans often block roads with vehicles…and burning tyres. But, more to it was the fact that Jamaicans were not trusted to be respectful of the requests and instructions about road closures. Or was it that we could not put up effective, but weaker barriers? The US authorities seem to get by with wooden ones, and not have to put vehicles in the way.

We’re really exceptional. Or is the new term ‘extraordinary’?

Things we learned from President Obama’s visit to Jamaica

Rome wasn’t built in a day, but Kingston can be rebuilt overnight.

Just one small sacrifice so that others may look good...
Just one small sacrifice so that others may look good…

Be humble. First rule of political insults: Young man, never put yourself in the position of scoffing at an opponent being ignored when you’re not in full control of events. He who stands on the tarmac waiting to meet POTUS laughs last and loudest.

Air Force One is big and shiny and some Jamaican reporters looked at it like Toad did when he first saw a motor car.

The Beast is also big and shiny and Jamaicans were delirious to just see the presidential ride, even if they only saw the decoy car.

"Seeitdeh!"
“Seeitdeh!”

Jamaicans didn’t appreciate not having a chance to meet President Obama, after all the prettying up that happened. The wreath laying visit to Heroes Circle was a mere 10 minutes. In all the planning that went into the visit, of whatever form, it was a mistake to not include more of a drive past for the many whom we know were yearning to just get a glimpse of something historic.

Barack Obama knows the common touch: “Greetings massive! Wha gwaan, Jamaica?…Big up, UWI!…It’s great to be in beautiful Jamaica…I like the vibe here.”

He needs work on pronunciation, but is a fast learner and should be fluent by his next visit. But, it was an important fact that he recognised that Jamaicans speak Patois: it’s our language, and it’s time that we owned it, fully. The rest of the world knows us by it.

POTUS never travelled through the airport, so it’s unlikely he have gotten a to-go box of Tastee patties.

Tessanne Chin impressed POTUS and the USA with her voice and her depictions of Jamaica. She was well honoured by being asked to perform for President Obama again at the young leaders town hall meeting. tessanne-chin-sasco-1

Jamar Rolando McNaughton Jr, aka Chronixx, was not impressed and called POTUS a ‘waste man’ on his various social media accounts. Why? POTUS did not pardon, immediately, Marcus Garvey. True, many Jamaicans would love to see the great man’s name unsullied, but is this the right reaction? Throwing the zinc fence at the ‘World Boss’. IDK and SMH.

Chronixx in a huff with POTUS
Chronixx in a huff with POTUS

Dutty Berry is funny, talks fast, but can’t sing 😊

PSM really loves Barack Obama. I mean, really…

We have close relations. No kidding!
We have close relations. No kidding!

POTUS can drink a cold one. Red Stripe delivered two crates of Red Stripe to Air Force One. Look to see our brew featured at his next ‘beer summit’. The White House already has its own brewery, but he may get Michelle to plant cassava and try to brew some at home. Now that is what you call getting the wheel sup 🙂obama-beer

Barack Obama has all Bob Marley’s albums.

Only Mutabaruka could have asked THE question about legalisation and decriminalisation of marijuana better than Steppa (aka Miguel Williams).

You huh ha fi like ‘im.

The visit had the perfect end. The rainbow to greet the President of the United States as he left Jamaica is the stuff that you cannot write or make up. Jamaicans know signs.

The Special One gets his own goodbye
The Special One gets his own goodbye

Proud to be Jamaican, as President Obama steps into my land? Yeah, man!

I think the emotion that an overwhelming majority of Jamaicans have today is pride. In the world of world politics, it’s no little thing for the president of the United States to agree to visit your country, no matter for how short a time.

In the days leading up to the arrival of President Barack Obama, Jamaicans had plenty of reasons to feel resentful and sidelined. The zealous cleaning of the city’s image offended many, who know that the ‘grime’ of the place was not new, but had been tolerated and left untouched for years. Like any host, however, pride would not let that grime stay when an important visitor was expected. But, the question in many minds and expressed openly by many too, was ‘Why could this not be done for Jamaicans, rather than for the arrival of an US president?’ I suspect that question will not be touched by any politician with a hand in the decision. It may yet have a cost to them: elections are due not long from now. But, I suspect that it may not have much cost because Jamaicans tend to not be demanding of accountability from their politicians.

However, for a few days, we will see the ‘clean’ Kingston, with its fresh layers of tarmac, its streets free of homeless people, its crab vendors absent from Heroes Circle. That has a sad irony.

President Obama arrived in Kingston at about 7.30pm last night. His arrival was covered by all the TV news channels, taking their feed from the official output of the Jamaica Information Service (JIS) and Public Broadcasting Corporation of Jamaica (PBCJ). Excited reporters were among the bevy awaiting the landing of Air Force One; many of them reporting live on air and via Internet social media. Twitter and Facebook and Instagram were on fire.

One endearing feature of Jamaica and small countries like Jamaica is that people are not blasé about certain things. Excitement to see the president land was genuine and harked back to days when air travel was new or limited. If it were possible, I’m sure that people would have flocked to the airport to wave at the plane as it approached, or lined the roads to and from the airport to get a glimpse of ‘The Man’. As it was, a few were near the roundabout that leads from the highway to the Palisadoes Road, while most were glued to their televisions. I was listening on the radio and had the TV on.

Ironically, my wife had a longtime German friend arrive at the airport the same evening, and had been to collect her ahead of the president’s arrival. We were sitting down to dinner just as AF1 landed. “‘im reach!” I yelled, as pictures of the plane taxiing appeared. Out came the phone and a picture was taken to capture the moment he descend the stairs to the tarmac.

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Our visitor, tired, and jet lagged, smiled as we explained what was happening. We sat outside to eat, while the TV continued to broadcast through an open patio door.

The officials awaiting the arrival also looked excited, none more than our PM, who is really a people person. She could not contain her joy, it seemed, as she hugged President Obama, like a grandmother wraps her arms around a grandson of whom she is proud.

"Come here, bwoy!"
“Come here, bwoy!”
The pride is clear in the PM's eyes
The pride is clear in the PM’s eyes

Within minutes of his arrival in Jamaica, however, Barack Obama did what a really decent visitor does: he showed how grateful he was for the invitation, by doing something kind and personal. He visited the home of Bob Marley, on his way from the airport.

"I'm really in Bob Marley's house"
“I’m really in Bob Marley’s house”

It put us in our place, ahead of him: we and what we represent was shown to be important to him. The pictures and words of the president gazing at memorabilia in the Bob Marley museum (“I still have all his albums”) will be part of the history of this iconic visit.

That showed what is part of the sad irony of the ‘sterilisation’ of Jamaica: the president wants to see and know the real Jamaica. In the same way that Jamaicans feel that he is an important part of the history of black people’s struggles, so he knows that Jamaica is part of that same history, although touching different points, and not necessarily doing so with the approval of the USA. It’s still a fact, though. Bob Marley’s role in those struggles is legendary.

The president is accompanied by two ‘daughters’ of the soil. First, Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, representing Brooklyn, New York (whose mother, former City Council member Una S. T. Clarke, hailed from St. Elizabeth–like my maternal family :-)). Though born in the USA, Congresswoman Clarke has often let it be known how proud she is of her Jamaican heritage. She was right behind the president as he descended the stairs from AF1. Second, Ambassador Susan Rice, National Security Advisor, whose grandparents came from Jamaica.

Today, the president will go about his official business, meeting Jamaican officials and politicians, and those from CARICOM, too. He will meet some representatives of young people at a forum organised at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus. He may get to meet people in other ways during his working day. Many Jamaicans would just love to see him in the flesh. Many would love to touch him (‘Mi waan shake ‘im han'” one Jamaican man said on TV). We are tactile people, and we show our love and appreciation by touching those for whom we care.

We would love to see President Obama enjoy the food Jamaica has to offer: it’s an important feature of who we are. There would be near pandemonium if he just decided to stop and pick up some jerk food, or a cup of soup, or grab a patty, or take a piece of fried fish, or if he looked awestruck with his first taste of ackee and salt fish. Something of the real Jamaica needs to leave a mark on him. Not the sterilised Jamaica.

Many have spent the last few days taking out their frustration with government officials by making light humour be their outlet. Still, some, who could not believe what had been done, went to see for themselves the transformed places, such as Heroes Park now filled with gorgeous flowers.

Many of us could not resist joking about the goings on ahead of, and during, the president’s arrival. I tweeted ‘Jamaica bruk outta brukness for We win Lotto? ‘. It struck a number of people. Little did I know that the evening Lotto draw, which is never cancelled for anything, would be that evening.

The Internet allows people to react so fast in words and pictures, and it’s hard to keep up. I’ve loved the many memes, I’ve seen, most of which have been tasteful and funny.

One of many funny memes about Obama's visit
One of many funny memes about Obama’s visit

I went to both of President Obama’s inaugurations. They were historic and I wanted to be close to those moments in history. I lived and worked in Washington DC, so could feel those moments in different ways, but also felt that differently because I was a migrant from Jamaica. My children can say they, too, were there, as we fought the bitter cold.

Now, chance brings President Obama to my country, and I am excited and proud of that, and blessed to be here when it happened. I won’t rush to see ‘The Beast’ drive past; I’ve seen it a few times pass me on Pennsylvania Avenue, or block my path on a journey somewhere else in Washington. I’m not excited to see the glimmer of AF1 or the shimmer of the Cadillac. But, I’m no ordinary Jamaican. They are extraordinary things. He is an extraordinary man. His visit makes Jamaica extraordinary. I know one company, which has that word in its ads will be glad to use it in association with the trip and beyond 🙂

We likkle but we tallawah comes up again, and you have to believe this is a special little island. Forward!

Well, well, well: Jamaican government policies now clear

Jamaicans are just so filled with the desire to complain and do nothing. They do this and fail to see what the government is doing to help them that is right in front of their very noses. Take all the movements over the past weeks. Riverton dump was set on fire again in mid-March and caused untold damage to the quality of air over the parishes of Kingston, St. Andrew, and St. Catherine. Fire tenders and their employees worked night and day to put out the fire, and medical personnel were called on to tend to the respiratory problems of hundreds of people. Estimates indicate that the fire will cost us about J$275 million. All we heard was grumbling about the government’s perennial disregard for health and safety at the dump. Hello!

The Governor General last week declared April ‘Wellness Month’, to highlight the importance of health and wellness. So, what better way to do that than to see how important those things are when they are put in grave danger. A stroke of absolute genius! I am just surprised that the government’s Information Minister didn’t take the many opportunities since mid-March to alert the nation to this. I can understand that the NSWMA management were unaware of the policies, and they were up to their necks dealing with the usual heavy piles of rubbish around them. This is stuff for big thinkers, not those forced to grub along.

The government at all levels, sadly without telling us clearly, is pursuing the principles of this period. Just days ago, the KSAC decided to clean up a few crab vending stalls by Heroes Circle. The area was being “sanitized” ahead of the visit of the US president. The stalls “were weak”, the Information Minister told us, so naturally when they were being removed they could do nothing else but fall apart. But, it was all for our good. These vendors, plying crab, corn soup, and roast corn for decades, had been doing so in unsanitary conditions and putting the health and wellness of the unsuspecting Jamaican public in danger. I was shocked to hear this. Just a few weeks ago, I had taken an American visitor there; he happens to be a doctor. He enjoyed every minute of the experience. But, imagine my utter dismay to think that I was showing off this piece of Jamaica rusticana and culture, yet putting at risk a trained health professional.

The visit by President Obama should be seen as opening our eyes to our lack of care about our health? Why? Where have you been? We hear the government saying every day that that “sanitisation” is needed ahead of the visit. How much clearer can the message be?

In addition, Michelle Obama has become the queen of healthy living. C’mon, man! Join the dots. I look forward to the announcement during the POTUS visit that Kings House, Gordon House and Vale Royal will all be turned into organic farms, and only the food grown there will be consumed by the GG, Cabinet ministers and Opposition MPs. If you look at the physical shape of most MPs, you will note that with the exception of a few svelte ministers who can sport a bikini at the drop of a hat, all are shaped more like capital O, than capital I. Margaret Thatcher talked about wanting ‘lean and mean’ government. We will get it.

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Politicians are used to taking us for a ride

We can look forward to our political leaders giving up their SUVs for bikes. That must be on the cards. We’ve nice, smooth roads in the capital now. Use them well.

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We will grow lots of oranges and plenty of greens

These are messages President Obama will be giving our PM. Sure, pass more IMF tests, but get the national BMI down and get the BMWs out. Yes, we can!

We’ve already seen the PM can wield a shovel and she has no problem getting down into the dirt. How dare you doubt that this is on the cards? She will bring the country together as one as all grow lots of oranges and plenty of greens. Kumbayyah, my lord!

image

These actions will be taken back to constituents and soon we will be hormone-free everywhere. We will cut the food import bill and stop buying those sugar-filled foods from abroad.

Let me be the first to see what the government is trying and raise my hand in applause.

What little talent we have, we misused: Thoughts on a presidential visit

Few things are as embarrassing as when all of your faults are laid bare for all to see. It’s hard to cover them up, but some still try. I have that feeling about what is going on in Kingston, ahead of the State visit of President Obama.

One part of me wonders who in the government, at any level, really believes that the POTUS is going to be fooled into thinking that Jamaica has become some sort of Caribbean Utopia by the ‘special works’ that are being undertaken? Another part says that the officials feel the need, or have been told, to at least make huge efforts to ‘make the place look pretty’.

If you check on the Internet, searching for ‘Jamaica’, you will find enough information to satisfy even the most curious, and it comes with lots of pictures. Many of these are of the beautiful coastline, mountains, and waterways, for which we are now famous. Jamaica, as paradise, an idyllic island.

Idyllic Jamaica
Idyllic Jamaica

If you refine the search just a little and add the word ‘poverty’, you will get more information and more pictures. This time, they show Jamaica’s squalid living conditions and ragged people. They show the garbage-filled gullies and channels, which most people who live in Jamaica know to be common. Many know such conditions first-hand, most know them at least second-hand.

Jamaican 'poverty'
Jamaican ‘poverty’many know, if not first-hand, often second-hand.

So, with a few clicks, anyone can see the beautiful and the beastly of Jamaica.

President Obama, however, is not just anybody. He happens to have been in office when Jamaican security forces entered Tivoli Gardens in a search for Christopher (‘Dudus’) Coke, in 2010. That ended with the loss of many civilian lives, and is now the subject of an official Enquiry–which happens to resume today. He would have had reports of this terrible event from his Ambassador to Jamaica, and from his country’s extensive intelligence sources. If he were just curious, he could again just turn to the Internet for a snapshot of the events as provided by YouTube. 

In fact, Presidents (and other political leaders) gets such varied information about countries all the time. So, what is going on in Jamaica and what the place and its people are like, especially in the context of things that concern the USA, is not new to President Obama. If politics and espionage have been what they were for decades, he will know much more, based on ‘eavesdropping’ and ‘inside information’. So, when he lands in Kingston, whether he’s moved from the airport by helicopter then road, or road all the way, he will see a country that he knows is not the one that is there most of the time. In other words, the quick lick of paint and spreading of asphalt, and wrecking of vendors’ stalls, or clearing of vagrants, or removal of windscreen washer boys, will have not much impact on his impression of Jamaica. It may help cement his impression of the politicians here, however.

Squalid living conditions in Jamaica
Squalid living conditions in Jamaica

So the ‘beautification’ of Kingston for his visit is largely a farce–a comic dramatic work using buffoonery and horseplay and typically including crude characterization and ludicrously improbable situations. So, what does it show?

It shows embarrassment that comes from neglect at many levels. The inability to house your nation, decently, especially its poor, is a classic failure of both private sector and government. The inability to deal with decaying infrastructure is another failure of government. In countries that suffer various forms of natural hazards or disasters, prevention is often better than a cure. Regular drought or rain or hurricanes pose particular problems, but they are never solved if they are only ever patched over, if I can use that phrase. Nature will expose the folly of that in a heartbeat. Jamaicans know this all too well, as year after year roads are patched with thin covering that is washed away within months, only for the process to start again. We have not invested in repair and replacement of pipes and dams, so each year we have a water ‘crisis’. We have not dealt with the obvious problem of inadequate waste disposal and every year we have another ‘crisis’ with fires at dumps or epidemics that are caused by breeding grounds for diseases being left untouched.

If your home is generally untidy, when visitors come unexpectedly, you rush to say “Excuse the mess.” If they are invited, then you do what you can to make the place look presentable, and if that’s only one room, then you keep them right there.

A government doesn’t need to be neglectful; in fact, it’s set up to be careful. It has routines and schedules that produce orderliness. One of these is annual budgets. That’s how you set priorities for the year ahead, at least, or a few years ahead, if you can. But, if you budget badly–and that is not just about the balancing of finances, but about the decisions on what to do and what to leave undone–then your life becomes Hell. Welcome to Jamaica!

What we see now, with the hurried planting of flowers is just the result of years of bad budgeting. Keeping roads in good shape was not a priority. Cleaning gutters and keeping the streets free of weeds was not a priority. Improving living conditions was not a priority. Building an economy to offer people options other than selling on the roadside was not a priority. We can see what were priorities, and it’s things that largely benefit a few, not most.

Theologians may disagree, but I often see Jamaica as part of the ‘parable of the talents’. We are ‘rich’ in natural resources, but small, so we’re like the man who received one talent.

We had little and we turned it into little more
We had little and we turned it into little more

We’ve chosen, through accepting limited political visions, to bury our talents. We end up, therefore, with little more than we started–which is essentially that we are a country naturally well-endowed.

We did not invest in education to the extent that our students could command jobs almost anywhere in the world. We did not invest in turning our artisans and crafts people into producers of high quality items: wooden carvings and honey in old rum bottles on the road side are quaint…just quaint. We did not invest in developing our agriculture so that our products would be demanded anywhere in the world (our coffee is an exception, and GraceKennedy show that it’s possible with manufactured foods). We did not invest in transforming natural resources into things of higher value (we needed much help from other countries to make that work and there are ways to make that happen, which we did not take). We did not make our workers and population in general understand that quality and consistency count more than anything: you cannot succeed if that comes from the random outcome of meeting the right person, you need training so that everyone can provide the ‘right’ or ‘best’ service or goods.

Our love of “It just so” has been our downfall. It’s apathy, but it’s been fuelled by years of letting people believe that by accepting that doing nothing to change things for the better is a viable route. It’s utter rubbish! Letting people squat on land they do not own and building property on it without proper sanitation is rampant apathy. Letting people believe that by voting for a particular party they would be free from normal obligations such as paying for services provided by government is rampant apathy. Who in their right mind would pay for something that can be obtained free and without penalty? As I’ve said before, Jamaicans are not stupid, but they have lived in a world that is full or unreality. They’ve been led to believe that many things that are expensive to provide can be obtained for free, or in exchange for votes.

Our suddenly acquiring gleaming new ‘roads’, sidewalks without long-time vendors, and streets without ‘undesirables’ are just another chapter in the story book of living in unreality. We never had to get there, and it would have been so much better to have not embarked on projects like that while gullies are rammed with trash and people live in hovels.

Will President Obama be Jamaica’s little train: I hope he can

Hope springs eternal, goes the adage. President Barack Obama first won a mandate from the American electorate on a platform that had many key phrases to give new life to the aspirations of many who felt left on the outside of society’s progress. One of them was the simple word, hope. 

Just one word

I won’t go into what the first black American president has meant to his voters, his nation, or his race. We know that he is not loved by many Americans, some politicians, many ordinary citizens. The ‘birthers’ and those who want to pile doubt on President Obama’s legitimacy seem silly or offensive to many black people, in particular, and many people, in general.

I won’t talk about the hard-to-understand movements in world politics and economics. Even experts in those fields struggle to explain. Why join them?

Most people don’t understand why some groups feel pressed to massacre others for different religious beliefs. In a country like Jamaica, which has so many different religions, even though most are Christian-based, we’ve learned to be accepting of most differences.

We’re a country that has never been at war with any other nation. Ironically, though, we are a country at war with itself: our crime statistics tell that story, as crimes against persons seem to soar–murders, rapes, and child molestation, in particular. Easy to see why some say our moral compass is broken.

We are a country gravely in need of hope. It’s fitting, then, that President Obama will visit the island this week. People are excited. That’s easy to understand in a nation that has so many black people, and one that has a shared history of slavery with its northern neighbour.

However, each day people in Jamaica, strong and determined though many of them are, struggle to find hope. One doesn’t have to go far back in living memory to see a time when hopefulness was the norm. Now, it’s been replaced by hopelessness. Few have the luxury of living their lives full of hope. What is disappointing about this is how the normal routes to the city of Hope now often lead to the towns of Hopelessness and Desperation. A good education is not a key to a future of stable and well-paid employment. We all know young people who have finished high school, college, or university, with excellent results, yet sit among the unemployed. Many have jobs that barely use the skills and knowledge they have spent years developing.

Jamaicans have not grasped onto another Obama maxim, and need to let “Yes, we can!” be part of our socioeconomic DNA, in a collective way. Too many Jamaicans see that phrase as giving them free rein to exploit their fellows, with a dog eat dog fervour. We can see it at the root of almost all of our problems. Perennial crabs in a barrel.

Emigration and remittances have been important safety valves for our society. But, countries like the USA have less tolerance for migrants who seem to add little by way of skills and are suspected of drawing resources out of the system. Jamaicans easily fall into that category, if only because we get featured when about to be deported for crimes. How we help build other countries is easily lost in a negative newsflash.

However, successive governments have done a grave disservice to the Jamaican population, by presiding over decades of economic decline. We’ve become perennial beggars by using other people’s money and not showing much for it. We can’t pay them back and want to get to Easy Street in the process.

However, our political system has engendered something to worsen that. We have partisans ready and willing to be unfair to those who are not their followers. Listen to comments last week by the outgoing chairman of the NSWMA, who stated that ‘a comrade’ would get a post over an equally qualified candidate who was not in the fold. That’s both arrogant and disrespectful. That’s the hope you hold up for the country? Looking for problems to solve? Look no further.

Astute political leaders are also not afraid to criticise their peers. Don’t be surprised if you hear that he has words to say about what he sees in a land known to be poor and struggling, with schools and hospitals in dire needs, but some pristine roads.

I pin no hopes on President Obama, but maybe he can catalyze more people to believe in themselves and their country again. He is an excellent example to many. I hope he can.

Grandma puts on lipstick but her petticoat is showing: Jamaica dresses up for a visit

President Obama is scheduled to visit Jamaica in a few days. Like a household expecting the vicar to come for tea, the government is busily trying to tidy up and make the place look presentable. The most noticeable evidence is a seemingly rushed and yet timely repairing of roads in areas where the presidential motorcade is likely to travel. However, as happens when you’ve had a history of not being frank and honest, the government’s comments about why these repairs are happening now are taken as being pure eyewash. (Maybe, many people don’t know about eye wash products like Optrex.) In typical fashion, too, the person having to face the music of public discord is a relative minion, a director from the National Works Agency, who make the repairs, not a ‘heavyweight’ like a Cabinet minister, who could justify a policy decision. The poor man looks like an about-to-be-slaughtered lamb. True, the ‘special works program’ might well have been underway already, and may just coincide with the State visit, but give the people some credit for doubting that.  

Coincidential special road repairs?

Of course, the government can’t stand up and take credit for wanting to show off the country because, so often, that pride of place is woefully absent. We can’t link everything to the Riverton Fire, but remember the place generally looks like a pig sty because we’ve underfunded our national garbage service and put no priority on environmental care and cleanliness. The debris in Kingston Harbour is not so visible from the air, otherwise, we might have seen more ‘special works’ there. But, the cruddy state of many roadsides is obvious to all but the blind, and surprise, we see a wave of clean-up in Kingston being hastily done in the past days. 

Naturally, we were due to badly embarrassed. But, better maybe, to spray some Breeze over everything rather than have to replace all the furniture on which the cat has peed. If the care people expect had been shown consistently this faffing around at the last minute wouldn’t be necessary. 

President Obama, like most dignitaries, know full well that his visit will generate sprucing up. He and American government agencies do the same. He’s normally a smart cookie so will be able to see the obvious ‘whitewash’ that lines his routes. We can just hope and pray that JPS are on the same page and don’t allow any outages to occur that will show the darker side of life Jamaican. The hotels that have been booked out for the visit all have generators, so should be able to work seamlesslessly, if JPS sneezes.

Sadly, the maintenance of good living conditions hasn’t been evident for most people for a long time. So, the white wash will soon turn yellow as we continue to deal with inadequate schools, poor medical facilities, disgusting environmental degradation, waste of public resources that don’t disappear because Marescaux Road looks spic and span. 

State visits don’t just emerge out of nowhere. Though we don’t know precisely what’s on President Obama’s mind, we can guess that matters to do with Jamaica’s role and policies relating to international drug trade, regional security issues, economic progress, and relationships with Cuba may be on the agenda. Looking back at recent comments by U.S. officials, one can see some possible ‘trial balloons’ sent up

The apparent claim by a senior military official that Jamaicans were among ISIS recruits sounds like a warning bell about concerns for weak oversight of possible terrorism breeding grounds. The quick rebuttal by security minister Bunting and his stressing how well we cooperate on security issues was significant. 

The IMF has its own agenda, though never forget who is the major shareholder. But, the way that Jamaica has put a gleam in its eyes is not trivial. The June 2014 visit to Jamaica by the IMF MD put icing on a cake that had been well baked. Jamaica’s continued passing of IMF tests is also putting it in a very good place as at last being credible as a potential economic pillar in the region. 

Comments were made in January by a US drug enforcement official about concerns for international rules when it was clear that Jamaica was headed toward loosening policy on marihuana use. We should know US concerns that we are an important conduit for illegal drug movements

Also, you don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to wonder about the incident last week with an ‘white man with an American accent’ creating a security scare at the U.S. Embassy in Kingston. We soon learned from CVMTV that he’d found his ideal nest with some of Kingston’s worst-heeled citizens. No hanging out on the beaches of Negril? You can’t make this stuff up. Or can you? 

The US worries about any country on its periphery that can be seen as a weak link in the region and thus a potential crack in the wall of regional stability. It should be no secret that we’ve been seen by the U.S. as too vulnerable on many fronts

Will the State visit give the U.S. the assurances it seeks? Probably. What will we get as a result of that, other than a pat on the head? That’s the other side of the equation. We have a long ‘shopping list’ of needs. We could do with more resources to help us fix roads, for sure. Investments? Sure, but where and in what? Those who feel uncomfortable with the growing footprint of Chinese involvement in the economy would probably welcome greater U.S. economic involvement. For their part, our American friends would probably think hard about raising such involvement without signs that accountability and transparency will feature more in Jamaican public affairs. Which brings us back to where we started. Tell us, honestly, why are these roads being repaired now. 

Anyway, as a one-time resident of Washington DC, I’m looking forward to seeing POTUS locked in combat with a handful of jerk chicken, with added pepper sauce, and ready to pass out as he takes his first bite of that and some festival. Pass the man a Red Stripe!

Blessings in disguise. Or, don’t let others define your happiness

Hamlet is my favourite play by Shakespeare. It has some excellent passages that have become memorable quotes. One came to mind today: 

 But man, proud man,
Dressed in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As makes the angels weep. 

It’s context is when Queen Gertrude is pleading with her husband for her brother’s life. 

I was in no such dramatic situation this morning, but my fate was in someone else’s hands, as it often is, whether we’re aware it or not. Anyway, I made a short plea and it fell on deaf ears. I turned then to making a virtue out of necessity and had a nice walk and took some interesting pictures instead of playing a round of golf.
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I ended up happy with my few hours strolling, as it helped me still meet my daily goals. I took time out in the early afternoon to chill in a nearby hotel lobby, where someone plied me with a fruit punch. It had gotten hot and the breeze was only slight. 

I gained the chance to rest, after playing the day before, and planning to play four days in a row, which I know is idiotic. So, instead, I got a rest day and will play a round at the challenging course at White Witch, and spend Easter Sunday with friends, a day earlier than planned. I’ll take with me a special Easter Bun I bought from another friend whose husband runs a food chain that produced it. 

I’m filled with the notion that charity needs to flow more freely.