Conversations With America: U.S.-Jamaica Relations

Cheryl Benton
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Public Affairs
Ambassador Pamela Bridgewater, U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica; Ambassador Curtis Ward, president, Caribbean Research and Policy Center
Washington, DC
March 16, 2012

MS. BENTON: Hello, and welcome to the U.S. Department of State and to the Foreign Press Center. This is Conversations with America, a discussion between top State Department officials and NGO leaders, where you can watch and participate in the exchange of ideas. I’m Cheryl Benton, Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Public Affairs.

Today’s topic of discussion is U.S.-Jamaica Relations. We’ve received questions and comments on today’s topics from all around the world through our blog, DipNote, and have selected several for this broadcast.

Now let’s meet our guests. We are privileged to have Ambassador Pamela Bridgewater, U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica, join us for this discussion. She is in Washington for the State Department’s Chief of Missions Conference. Thank you for taking the time out of your very busy schedule to participate in this program.

Ambassador Curtis Ward is a former Ambassador of Jamaica to the United Nations and is currently president of the Caribbean Research & Policy Center, a Caribbean-focused think tank based in Washington, D.C. Thank you for making time to join us for this discussion. This is a real treat to have two ambassadors here with us today.

Ambassador Bridgewater, I think I’ll ask you my first question. How will you describe the relationship between the U.S. and Jamaica? I know it’s broad-based, but just to give our viewers a capsule of that.

AMBASSADOR BRIDGEWATER: Well, Cheryl, the relationship between the United States and Jamaica is a sound and a very positive one. We value very much the relationship with Jamaica. President Obama phoned Prime Minister Simpson Miller early to congratulate her. Secretary Clinton has phoned the prime minister as well as the minister of foreign affairs to talk about areas of priority that we could assist even further the government and the people of Jamaica. So in a word, we have excellent relations.

MS. BENTON: Very good. In what ways are the governments of the U.S. and Jamaica working together? I would ask – I want to go back to you, Ambassador, and then if you would just chime in.

MR. WARD: Sure.

AMBASSADOR BRIDGEWATER: Well, we cooperate on a plethora of activities. And of course, the linchpin activities are through our Caribbean Basin Security Initiative, which is President Obama’s plan for engaging in a regional way in the Caribbean. We cooperate with the Jamaica Constabulary. We cooperate with the Jamaica Defense Force. And we work really to support the courts, the magistrates. We engage in cultural activities. So it’s broad-based, it’s robust, and it’s very positive.

MS. BENTON: Ambassador, from your perch, how do you see that relationship?

MR. WARD: Well, I’m glad that you mentioned the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative, because this is a very broad-based initiative which we believe can be of great benefit not just to Jamaica but the entire Caribbean region. One of the concerns we have had with this is whether it is fully resourced. And we know the constraints that exist and so on.

But I would like to dovetail a little bit into the delegation which we sent. It was led by Deputy Assistant Secretary Julissa Reynoso to Jamaica. And as you are very much aware, Ambassador, the crime situation has been a quite difficult problem to resolve in Jamaica and elsewhere, and we were very pleased in the diaspora to see that this kind of engagement was taking place. And perhaps maybe you could give me some indications and our audience, I am sure, there are many members of the diaspora who will be watching this program and who have a strong interest in seeing exactly how U.S.-Jamaica relations work in terms of saying that delegation and what can be expected.

AMBASSADOR BRIDGEWATER: Well, I’m happy that you raise that, because we were very pleased that Secretary Clinton wanted very early on in the administration of the prime minister to find ways that we could further enhance in terms of technical assistance in areas of priority. And certainly, citizen security and safety are high. They are also very high, as you know, the CBSI. So one of the things we engaged in were discussions with the minister of national security. We looked at areas that we could assist the courts in terms of bringing criminal elements to justice. We found that that was one area of logjam. So we think that we’ll be able to assist with additional personnel that will work in tandem in Jamaica and working with the areas that Jamaica has helped to identify as important. We are very pleased about that, and we will be working vigorously to put these things into fruition.

MR. WARD: Can I follow up a little bit on that?

MS. BENTON: Absolutely.

MR. WARD: I noticed the delegation had within it representatives from State, the Justice Department, Treasury, and USAID. I assume the USAID was more with the judiciary and building rule of law section. I noticed absent from that delegation, however, was a representative of the ATF, the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearm. I don’t know if this was left out by the press or this was, in fact, so.

My reason for raising that is, as you know, Ambassador, one of the major concerns that we have back in Jamaica and in the Caribbean is the illicit trafficking of arms to the Caribbean, many of which are coming from the United States. And considering that President Obama had promised that there would be equal emphasis on the illicit arms trafficking as there is on the drug interdiction, so I was just wondering if this is a gap or is it something that is going on.

AMBASSADOR BRIDGEWATER: No, it was not a gap. In fact, we had the regional representative from ATF in Jamaica prior to that visit, so we did not need to include that individual on this visit. But I’m happy you raised it because we know that it is a priority, and as such we have been engaged with a program called eTrace for tracing the source of firearms. And we do understand that many are traced from the United States, so we’ve gotten the commitment from the constabulary. In fact, I personally met with the head of the constabulary, Commissioner Ellington, to get his assurance that following the training that we’re providing on the eTrace that we’ll be able to use those individuals that have been trained specifically to keep them in the loop and not to have them back into the regular force, because we need to have a concentrated effort that is sustained because we need to work both ways on that. So we are very actively engaged. Thank you for asking that.

MR. WARD: Very pleased to hear that. And the other thing that figures in that whole scenario is the training is, of course, a necessity, but as was Ms. Reynoso mentioned also that we are talking about complex crimes. We’re talking about illicit trafficking in arms, drug trafficking, human trafficking, money laundering – all linked together. And it takes a lot more than just training. It also takes sophisticated equipment. And I’m glad you mentioned the conversation you had with Commissioner Ellington because it’s important that the cadre of trained people be established as a unit to continue this work. But they also will need more sophisticated equipment, and does the United States have any plan to help in that regard?

AMBASSADOR BRIDGEWATER: Well, again, very happy that you mentioned that because several weeks ago I was very pleased through our Narcotics Affairs Section to present to the police forensic department two very sophisticated macroscopes which are quite expensive. But we’ve not only provided those macroscopes, we provided the training and the maintenance information because that is so key in tracking ballistics, because all of these things help take a bite out of crime, a serious bite out of crime. So indeed we have any number of material that we are providing to the police and to various entities that will help with these complex criminal activities.

MS. BENTON: Oh, great. So let me just follow that up, Ambassador Bridgewater. Are there other matters that you see the need for greater U.S. and Jamaica involvement? And I will follow up and ask you to comment on that as well.

AMBASSADOR BRIDGEWATER: Well, I think one of the great challenges that Jamaica faces and many other areas of the Caribbean is the cost of energy. Energy, I think, is very, very challenging in Jamaica. The cost per kilowatt-hour and the fact that Jamaica has been based on using the fuels, on oil, and the need to diversify is very, very important. Interestingly, this week during our Chiefs of Mission Conference, I met with a U.S. business person involved in solar energy, and I think solar and wind energy – these are very good options for a nation like Jamaica that has an abundance of these. So I’ve gotten a commitment from this U.S. business to come to Jamaica on our return to meet with the energy officials to look at possible ways that we can move forward in a program for Jamaica.

MR. WARD: I think this is an absolute track that has to be followed. The price of kilowatt in Jamaica is something like 40 U.S. cents. The average in most places is like 18 cents or less. And so manufacturing cannot prosper in Jamaica, cannot compete because of the high cost of energy. And you’re absolutely right; Jamaica is blessed with a lot of sunshine and we do have wind in certain areas that are – and there are some experiments. We’ve had – I call them experiments because they are not yet at the level that they are making a significant impact on the energy supply. So I’m very pleased to hear that, and this is something you can rest assured the Jamaican and Caribbean diaspora would be fully behind those kinds of initiatives.

I also noticed that you used the term “citizen security.” I like to use the term “human security” for the reason that when we speak of human security, we are taking it a little broader in terms of social and economic security and so on. And as you are aware, Jamaica, like most countries, have been suffering considerably from the global recession and, of course, Jamaica has an extremely high debt rate which compounds the problem.

Jamaica is also currently negotiating the IMF. Now, most Jamaicans are following this process as best they can with trepidation, thinking that the IMF will impose certain conditionalities which will degrade significantly the human security of the people in society who can less afford to be degraded. Now, we also know the U.S. is very influential in the international institutions and its governance and decision making. Is there any plans for the United States Government to assist Jamaica in not just navigating those conditionalities but in terms of assisting Jamaica in creating a safety net, through maybe inputs from the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank here in Washington?

AMBASSADOR BRIDGEWATER: Well, Ambassador, certainly the United States is always in dialogue with IB, with the IMF. We met with the minister of finance and we have regular meetings with the minister of finance and dialogue. And we are aware that the – many of the decisions that have to be taken will perhaps be very, very difficult, and we understand that there needs to be safety nets for the population. Of course, we cannot dictate what the financial institutions determine that they do, but we can assure you that we will work and we will continue to work on education programs, on youth empowerment programs, that will perhaps help mitigate any of the tough medicine that would have to take place as these new agreements are being hammered out. And I want to say that there is a recognition on the part of the Jamaican Government that some tough decisions will have to be made and have to be taken.

MS. BENTON: Very good. I wanted to go ahead and bring our viewers in. And we’ve received many DipNote questions on today’s topic. Barbara from Jamaica writes: Can the U.S. Government consider putting programs in place that extend funding to the Caribbean’s creative individual and industries?

AMBASSADOR BRIDGEWATER: Well, let me just say that we have a very rich exchange in terms of the creative arts, in terms of Jamaicans who travel and visit the United States to perform, in terms of U.S. citizens who come in. We’ve had for the last 20 years the Blues on the Green with a wonderful variety of artists that is such a popular activity for Jamaica. And we have our educational exchanges through Fulbright. Jamaica, we’re happy to say, boasts the largest number of Fulbright alumni in the Caribbean, so we’re very proud of that. And we also have worked closely, in terms of creativity – our Patent and Trademarks Office works with the Jamaica Intellectual Property Office to help make sure that the Jamaica brand and all are protected. Now, though there are some laws in Jamaica on the books regarding intellectual property, sometimes the enforcement is a little bit lax. So we need Jamaica to step up to the plate to help all of us a little more on that creativity.

MR. WARD: I appreciate that point very much, Ambassador, because this is mutual. It’s not just one side doing what. We’re talking about doing things that are of mutual benefit and interest to both countries. And in this particular case, Jamaica stands to benefit significantly from its proprietary interest in its Jamaica brand.

You mentioned the education, I think. You raised that. And just last year – well, a year ago, actually; it was in March of last year that President Obama launched the 100,000 Strong program. How is this manifesting itself in U.S.-Jamaica relations?

AMBASSADOR BRIDGEWATER: Well, in fact, at our Chiefs of Mission Conference, we had a discussion on the 100,000 Strong. And we will be working with colleges and universities in the United States, we’ll be working with various groups, to try to get funding for this program. And we will be also working with our consular offices around the region to make sure that people understand – the offices understand the importance of this and to really go the extra level to look at these student applicants who would be interested. So we’re very excited about the possibilities, and now we’re looking for making sure that we have enough funds to support Jamaicans who may be interested in continuing their studies in the United States.

MS. BENTON: The value of public-private partnerships comes into play here.

We have another question in from Richard, who hails from the state of Maryland: The bulk of U.S. assistance to the Jamaican education sector has been in the country’s kindergarten through 12th grade system. Are there plans to assist the country in the much-needed rationalization of the higher education level?

AMBASSADOR BRIDGEWATER: Well, frankly, at this point, our funding, which is basically through the U.S. Agency for International Development, is at the lower levels, because we have learned that the literacy rate has been less than it should be. So that’s where we’re putting our concentration at the moment. We do not have plans at this time for the tertiary level education.

MR. WARD: How about making it easier for Jamaicans to obtain student visas to study at the tertiary level here in the United States?

AMBASSADOR BRIDGEWATER: Well, as I mentioned earlier, Ambassador, our consular officers are sometimes challenged because we do have instances where there are people who are less honest in what they’re going to be doing in terms of their statements. Even their grade point averages sometimes, there are challenges there in terms of their authenticity. But we – I can assure you we have an extraordinarily good consul general in Jamaica, and he makes sure that our offices do go the extra mile to ensure that students who are going for legitimate training will get those visas.

MR. WARD: Ambassador, on a personal note, I must say this. When I qualified for a student visa over 40 years ago, what I had to qualify with, I wouldn’t even be allowed into the door of the U.S. Embassy in Kingston today because the rules and regulations have changed significantly. Many of our professionals and politicians back in Jamaica came to the United States on student visas and studied here, and went back and are contributing to the development of the country. Many of these students, I can assure you, could not have qualified for student visas today based on the new criteria. And this is something that gradually gets more difficult. And this is one of the things that we are really concerned about in terms of U.S.-Jamaica relations and how that can be improved.

AMBASSADOR BRIDGEWATER: Well, Ambassador, your concerns are certainly legitimate. I think we all know that our world today is vastly different than when you and I were growing up. We know that, for example, the costs of going to school simply are greatly increased today than they were before. And so therefore, I think the consular officers rightly need to be sure that they take that extra look because we want the students who come to the United States to succeed. We want them to have the resources that they need, and the support, so that they will succeed in their studies and bring those talents and skills.

MS. BENTON: Michael from California writes: How is the U.S. prodding the Kingston Government to investigate and prosecute bias-motivated crimes? And will the upcoming annual Human Rights Report mention an improvement or setback for our LGBT concerns in Jamaica?

AMBASSADOR BRIDGEWATER: Well, as the individual stated, our human rights report is being vetted right now, so I will not comment on what it states because it has not been released. But I will say that our Embassies has engaged very, very aggressively with Jamaica, with Jamaicans, on a plethora of human rights issues – women’s issues, the rights of vulnerable populations, children, trafficking in persons, LGBT. I have worked personally on these issues and will continue to do so, so I can assure the questioner that we are involved very vigorously on these areas.

MR. WARD: If I may add to that, Ambassador, you may recall that during our – during the last election campaign in Jamaica, the now current prime minister had made a statement which, in effect, was a deliberate shift from what had been the perception at least, if not the practice, that she would not be discriminating against any individuals who were gay, that they could serve in her cabinet, that they could be appointed to high positions. So this is a big step in the right direction for Jamaica.

And I think the question that was asked by the – just now, I think should understand that there are steps being taken for greater tolerance. And societies like Jamaica will never shift overnight from one position to another. That’s a very gradual process, and I think we are on the right – going in the right direction.

AMBASSADOR BRIDGEWATER: And we certainly commend that, and we are certainly looking forward to other opportunities to expand human rights in Jamaica.

MR. WARD: Sure.

MS. BENTON: Well, we’ve now come to the part that I dislike the most. It’s time to conclude this session of Conversations with America. Ambassador Bridgewater, will you share your final thoughts with us?

AMBASSADOR BRIDGEWATER: Well, thank you very much, Cheryl. It’s been an honor being with Ambassador Ward and you today, and it is an honor to serve President Obama in Jamaica. Jamaica is a country that we value very much. There are a million Jamaicans living in the United States of America. And the ties that we have with Jamaica are extraordinary, and they’re longstanding. We’re so pleased that we have 50 years of unbroken relations with Jamaica as Jamaica approaches its 50th anniversary of independence. We have had the theme for our mission, Celebrating the Ties that Bind: 50 Years of Friendship. And our programming is all around that theme.

So we’re delighted that we’ve had, over the course of these 50 years, 3,800 Peace Corps footprints in Jamaica, and continue to have Peace Corps presence there. Our Agency for International Development continues to make important strides. Our work and our contributions in the narcotics affairs realm is strong and vigorous, and our cultural and human-to-human engagements are strong. So we look forward with excitement to the next activities in Jamaica, challenges that there may be, but these challenges are opportunities that I believe, and I am confident, that the Jamaican people will rise to meet.

MS. BENTON: Perfect. Ambassador Ward, could you give us your final thoughts?

MR. WARD: Well, first of all, I want to say I think Jamaica is quite fortunate to have someone of Ambassador Bridgewater representing the United States there. I think we’ve had good ambassadors in the past, don’t get me wrong, but I think Ambassador Bridgewater is really – and I’m not just saying this because I’m in your presence, Ambassador; I’m saying this because I’m quite pleased with what I’ve seen since you’ve taken up your position just over a year ago.

The relationship between the United States and Jamaica goes way beyond our 50 years of independence. Jamaicans, as well as other of my fellow Caribbean citizens, have played tremendous roles throughout the history of the United States, from the very beginning until now. And the members of the Jamaican diaspora are strong advocates for continued strengthening of the relations between Jamaica and the United States. And this is why we become very particular about different things as we see them occurring, and so on. We have great concern about the deportation issue, which we never discussed, but not just because of the impact it has on the local society but also the impact here in the diaspora on the citizen children and spouses of deportees.

So these are some of the things that we believe that some more work can be done on this. And I’m sure, Ambassador, you will take this forward as you have been doing so far, and we look forward to this next few years of your stay in Jamaica.


MS. BENTON: There are – like, Ambassador, you just said, there were so many issues we could have addressed, but, of course, our time is limited. And this will conclude this session of Conversations with America. I’d like to thank Ambassador Bridgewater and Ambassador Ward for sharing their work and knowledge with us.

I’d also like to thank each of you for joining us today. We hope that Conversations with America will continue to inform citizens about the Administration’s efforts to address the challenges of the 21st century. We look forward to engaging with you again soon. Thank you.