Open Arms

Since retaking control of the government in early 2016, the Labour Party's young and energetic cabinet has strengthened the country's ties with global powers new and old, whether in South America, Africa, or Asia.

Despite turbulent weather and somewhat tempered economic growth, 2017 was the year in which the government of Prime Minister Andrew Holness finally came into its own in the world. Elected in February 2016 to govern for the country’s Labour Party, Holness quickly set about gathering a young team of highly qualified ministers and diplomats to ensure the Caribbean nation’s diplomacy would do more to reflect the island’s uniquely appealing brand and world-famous swagger than its lackluster employment figures might otherwise suggest. Bolstering ties not only with regional giants such as the US, Brazil, and Mexico, but also with former powers like Britain and future ones such as China, it was a busy year for Jamaica’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, Kamina Johnson Smith.

Visiting 13 countries and holding more than 200 meetings with foreign heads of state, ambassadors, ministers, senior officials, and heads of international organizations in her first 10 months alone, Johnson Smith’s tenure since the spring of 2016 has scarcely given her a moment’s pause. Since 2017 marked the 55th anniversary of Jamaican independence from Britain, celebrations were held across Asia, Africa, and Latin America to commemorate the anniversary of their countries’ establishment of diplomatic ties with the Caribbean’s largest, richest, and most important English-speaking country.
Among the most prominent of these was China’s recognition of Jamaica’s firm commitment to Beijing’s One-China Policy and for being the first Caribbean nation to recognize “New China,” as the Chinese ambassador to Kingston Niu Qingbao put it. In return for going along with Beijing’s Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, which is byword for non-interference—whether militarily or morally—Jamaica has been gifted more than USD75 million in aid projects, an 11-story office building to house the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and USD967 million in loans. The proceeds of the latter have funded the construction of the Palisadoes Airport Road, the South Coast Highway improvement, and the Montego Bay Convention Centre, making Jamaica the largest recipient of Chinese aid in the entire Caribbean.

But the relationship doesn’t stop with the public sector. Construction firm China Harbor also recently completed the country’s North-South Highway in March 2016 with an investment of USD730 million, the largest such infrastructural investment on the island, according to the Chinese ambassador. Meanwhile, on the broader cultural and commercial fronts, the University of the West Indies (UWI) and the Global Institute of Software Technology in Jiangsu, China, launched the China Software Engineering College, a joint project to train Jamaican students in the ICT sector. Whatever these achievements, the most tickling moment for the Chinese embassy came with news that the Chinese language had become so popular that the Confucius Institute at UWI had to double its staff in 2017.

China, of course, is far from the only country with which Jamaica has recently bumped things up a notch. Traveling to Marrakesh in November 2016 to attend the 22nd Session of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, foreign minister Johnson Smith came home with a Framework Agreement on Cooperation with Morocco that will strengthen the countries’ educational and agricultural ties and award up to 100 scholarships for Jamaican children studying agricultural technology.

Closer to home, Johnson Smith also bolstered Jamaica-Mexico ties during the VIII Bi-National Commission held in Mexico City in May 2016. Signing a two-year Plan of Action, the countries agreed to conduct joint training sessions in the preservation of cultural heritage, support one another in sharing security information systems, and provide better training for craft vendors to increase their skills and competence. The agreement also included a lasting partnership between the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and UWI’s Mona campus to conduct joint research and development in the social sciences, biotechnology, and gender studies. As Minister Johnson Smith said, Mexico can teach Jamaica “that cultural heritage can be used not only to support your tourism sector but to support your own national pride and sense of self identity.” The icing on the cake came with the establishment of a Mexican Chair at UWI.

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of Jamaican-Mexican ties with her counterpart Claudia Ruiz Massieu, the two countries also signed an Agreement on the Avoidance of Double Taxation and the Prevention of Fiscal Evasion with respect to income tax, and promised to further both countries’ economic integration, already strong given Mexican investments in Jamaica’s manufacturing, airport, and hotel sectors.

Visiting the grand opening of the Panama Canal expansion in June 2016, Johnson Smith also managed to arrange Jamaica’s first-ever Bi-National Commission with Panama to deepen the two countries’ ties in trade, logistics, and youth development exchanges. Much closer to home, the minister kept up the frantic pace of activity with a trip to the Dominican Republic in November 2017 accompanied by Prime Minister Andrew Holness to meet with Dominican president Danilo Medina Sánchez and Foreign Minister Miguel Vargas. The two parties signed an MoU to combine forces and promote multi-destination tourism through, among other things, a new air services agreement and a join commission to generate further interest across sport, education, and culture.

However optimistic, the meeting was also marred by the looming dint of climactic destruction hanging over much of the region’s head. Despite persistent upticks in tourism-related revenues and a near-perpetual sense of regional peace inter pares, the real threats facing the region—chronic poverty and climate change-related natural disasters—can only be faced by consistent pan-Caribbean solidarity in which information, natural and human resources, and knowledge are shared in a sustainable and equitable fashion, the ministers stressed.
Building upon this sentiment, both countries’ respective leaders and chief diplomats traveled immediate to Montego Bay to attend the United Nations World Tourism Organization’s (UNWTO) three-day annual conference with some 1,300 other delegates. Hosted by the UNTWO, the government of Jamaica, the World Bank, and the Inter-American Development Bank, the conference’s theme was “Jobs and Inclusive Growth: Partnerships for Sustainable Tourism.”

Speaking to participants, Jamaica’s Tourism Minister, Edmund Bartlett, stressed how important it is to reconceptualize the meaning of tourism. Rather than a one-way road to pleasurable anomie, he stressed, people must understand “once and for all, that this is a development activity… and that we concentrate on what is important in life, which is inclusive growth, job creation and all the issues relating to social and economic development.” The late November conference concluded with the Montego Bay Declaration on Sustainable Development of Tourism and Job Creation.

At the end of the day, however, Jamaica’s two closest partners continued to be the Anglo-American imperial twins. Britain in particular is looking to enhance its bilateral ties with former colonies, especially somewhere as beautiful and resource-rich as Jamaica, stressing in November’s “Jamaica Going Global: UK Partners and You” conference organized by the British High Commissioner that the two countries’ trade and cultural ties have only grown all the more since Brexit, while celebrating that Jamaica need no longer pay any mind to the EU’s 27 other members when striking new trade deals with its former colonial patron. That being said, Jamaica’s strongest partner remains Washington. Not merely far and away its largest trading partner, 1 million American tourists, USD100 million in USG aid, and billions in Jamaican-American remittances still flow to Jamaica each year from El Imperio, while 80% of Jamaican exports reach the Yankee market duty free.

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