Streets have received a new coat of black top and sidewalk vendors were forced to relocate in a major makeover to welcome President Barack Obama, who flew into Jamaica late Wednesday for a historic visit.
Air Force One touched down at 7:30 local time (8:30 p.m. EDT), and Obama took off 14 minutes later in a helicopter for a Kingston hotel to meet with U.S. Embassy employees.
“I am overjoyed,” said Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, who gave Obama a brief hug.
What Jamaicans and Caribbean leaders can expect from Obama, the first sitting U.S. president to visit Jamaica in three decades, is a matter of considerable debate. Obama planned to overnighton the island before meeting regional leaders then heading Thursday to the weekend Summit of the Americas in Panama, where Venezuela and Cuba are to be featured prominently.
The president landed in Jamaica amid a report that the State Department has recommended that Cuba be taken of the list of countries that sponsor terrorism. CNN reported late Wednesday that the administration was expected to made an announcement at anytime, perhaps as early as Thursday. Obama has long said that he favored removing Cuba from the list.
In Jamaica, a close neighbor to Cuba, residents had mixed reviews about the Obama visit.
“We feeling good, good,” said Elvar Barnaby, 57, a worker at National Heroes Park where employees spent Tuesday painting the rocks and trimming the grass while U.S. Secret Service agents made last minute checks. “We can’t stop talking about him even though we are not going to get to see him.”
Indeed, most of this nation of nearly three million will be lucky if they catch a glimpse of Obama, whose 2008 election was celebrated throughout the Caribbean but whose two terms as president have been marked by disappointment. Like others in the region, Caribbean nations have felt neglected by their largest security and trading partner as U.S. foreign policy focuses more on Iran, Ukraine and Islamic State militants.
Still, the visit carries enormous symbolism, taking place on the 33rd anniversary of the first visit by a sitting U.S. president — Ronald Reagan. It also comes five years after relations between Jamaica and the United States soured over the U.S.-sought extradition of influential drug don and Jamaica Labor Party supporter Christopher “Dudus” Coke.
“The Obama visit to Jamaica is largely, and I am not being cynical, a feel-good visit,” said Rupert Lewis, a retired University of the West Indies professor. “I don’t expect any grand announcements. We are a small region that if you don’t include Haiti, it’s 6 million people in the English-speaking Caribbean. This is why I don’t expect anything. But I am glad that he remembers there is this little island and some other little islands in the region.”
What Obama will find in Jamaica is a nation continuing to dig itself out of financial debt with the help of the International Monetary Fund. He will also find a Caribbean region that has strengthened relations with China and Venezuela while having no shortage of issues of its own to tackle. They include the need for development, financing and competitiveness, crime and energy woes, and the impact of changes in Venezuela and Cuba.
The themes of the meeting with Obama “reflect the major concerns of the Community as many of the member states seek to emerge from the lingering effects of the global economic and financial crisis,” the 15-member Caribbean Community, also known as Caricom, said in a statement. “With economic growth as a main goal of the Community, discussions related to competitiveness with the Region’s main trading partner is a significant element of the meeting.”
Obama will begin his day on Thursday with a bilateral meeting with Simpson Miller. He then will participate in a summit with other Caricom leaders. Later, he will host a town hall at the University of the West Indies with young leaders from around the Caribbean.
“This is similar to the types of events you’ve seen him do in Southeast Asia and Africa, where he will be able to focus on our commitment to partnering with the youth of the region on behalf of their aspirations and our shared interests,” said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.
Caricom Chairman Perry Christie, the prime minister of the Bahamas, said that he hopes Obama will gain from the meeting “an understanding that the Caricom region is of significance to America and should receive even more attention than it is getting now.”
Although he greeted Obama at the airport, no meeting has been scheduled so far with opposition leader and former Prime Minister Andrew Holness, which has stirred rumblings and anger among Jamaica Labor Party supporters, as has the last-minute street cleaning in some parts of Kingston.
Former West Kingston Mayor Desmond McKenzie, who represents the area in parliament as a member of the opposition Jamaica Labor Party, accused the government of using Obama's visit for “cheap political mileage.”
“We have seen where things that the government claimed they were not in a position to do, because of the strictness of the IMF guidelines, all of a sudden now we are seeing our roads being repaired, drains being cleaned, things that the government claimed they have to cut back on because they are sticking to a strict discipline program,” McKenzie told the Miami Herald.
Obama will conclude the visit by laying a wreath at a war memorial at National Heroes Park. The botanical garden pays tribute to Jamaicans who died in World War I and II, and national heroes such as Marcus Garvey, whose 1923 U.S. conviction for mail fraud has been the source of an exoneration campaign.
Obama isn’t expected to visit the Garvey memorial, but Simpson Miller has said that she plans to raise the exoneration issue.
Though this is the third time Obama will meet with Caricom, observers believe that the administration’s interests in the region have been reawakened by the crisis in oil-producing Venezuela, which has fallen on turbulent economic and political times.
A dozen Caricom nations participate in Venezuela’s discounted Petrocaribe oil program, which was launched in 2005 to counter U.S. influence in the region. Through the program, nations pay only a small portion of the costs up front for oil and refined products. They finance the rest under generous long-term debt agreements and use the savings for social programs and infrastructure investments.
But with world oil prices plummeting, countries are losing the advantages, and analysts are questioning how long Petrocaribe will last.
Last summer, as Venezuela experienced record-high inflation and food shortages, the Obama administration launched the Caribbean Security Energy Initiative. In January, Vice President Joe Biden hosted Caribbean leaders and private sector investors at the State Department to discuss how the United States could help them cut their addiction to Venezuelan oil in favor of alternative energy sources.
“The President of the United States — President Obama — has made it absolutely clear that both the Caribbean and Central America energy and security are, in fact, primary issues for us,” Biden said at the energy summit.
Carl Meacham, director of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that he believes the U.S. efforts have to do with the collateral effects and damage that could occur as a result of a Venezuelan crash, economically and politically.
“The attention the administration is giving with energy has the potential to serve as a building block for the relationship to evolve into something else,” Meacham said.
“There is an obvious change going on in Venezuela that is going to impact the Caribbean one way or another,” said Council of the Americas Vice President Eric Farnsworth.
But the thawing of relations with Cuba is also another area of concern that could well come up, Farnswoth said.
“If I were a Caribbean leader, I would be very interested to know what the U.S. president’s plans are in reference to Cuba because of my economic well-being,” Farnsworth said. “Once Cuba does open up, the potential for U.S. investors to go to Cuba and overlook other parts of the Caribbean is significant.”
Farnsworth said that while Caribbean leaders’ impression that the United States has been focused elsewhere has merit, he would challenge the notion that the U.S. has cast the region adrift.
“The level of day-to-day engagement between the United States and the Caribbean is quite high in terms of security activities with the Treasury Department or banking regulators, Coast Guard officials, drug enforcement agent types. There is constant engagement at the working levels,” he said. “What hasn’t occurred is the high-level political engagement with the Caribbean.”