Jamaica’s diaspora has a powerful voice, but harnessing it is another matter

Jamaica Prime Minister Andrew Holness traveled to South Florida on Saturday, Nov. 18, to give the keynote address at the Jamaican-American Bar Association’s 10th annual scholarships and awards gala.
Jamaica Prime Minister Andrew Holness traveled to South Florida on Saturday, Nov. 18, to give the keynote address at the Jamaican-American Bar Association’s 10th annual scholarships and awards gala.

For the past 21 months, Jamaica Prime Minister Andrew Holness has been steward of a country with a spiraling murder rate, a bloated public sector, and a cycle of high debt and low growth that has almost become a way of life.

But Holness, 45, has also been a steward over progress. Hotels are opening. Some 60,000 jobs have been created. Affordable housing is coming. And confidence is returning to the private sector and public as Jamaica’s ease of doing business moves up in world rankings. The country’s economy — while nowhere near the ambitious 5 percent growth goal he has set — continues to project positive growth after years of stagnation.

“There have been challenges, no question about it. Government is never easy,” Holness told the Miami Herald on Sunday. He was wrapping up an overnight visit to South Florida, where he had his first engagement with the Jamaican diaspora since leading his Jamaica Labor Party to victory over the then-ruling People’s National Party in the February 2016 general elections.

“We have approached governance with a clear vision, strategic focus and most importantly, we have been disciplined in managing the economy,” he added. “We have been disciplined in maintaining policies that are in line with our vision.”

Those policies have earned Holness supporters as well as critics, who in recent weeks have waged a petition campaign to rescind a National Identification Card legislation that the government has introduced as part of its anti-corruption efforts. Other critics have led unrelenting protests over bad roads in St. Thomas parish while demanding that their government representatives be fired for the poorly managed infrastructure.

Brutalized by Hurricane Maria, the eastern Caribbean island of Dominica wants to become the world’s first climate-resilient nation.

Holness was invited to South Florida by the Jamaican-American Bar Association, where he gave the keynote address at its 10th annual scholarships and awards gala on Saturday in Fort Lauderdale. He opened his 45-minute “conversation” with the Jamaica diaspora by asking, “What does it mean to be Jamaican?”

To be Jamaican, he said, was less about where one was born but more “a state of being.” The island-nation of 2.9 million had transcended its borders and had almost as many citizens abroad as it had at home. He estimated at least 350,000 live in the southeast United States.

“There is a powerful tool we have not utilized as much,” Holness told the sold-out crowd of 300-plus who had come to hear him speak about the challenges and progress of his administration. “That tool is the diaspora.”

The diaspora can play a powerful role, he emphasized, as he waded through a number of global issues facing the country and the Caribbean. Among the issues: the financial headache created by the withdrawal of U.S. correspondent banks, and the impact of climate change.

“The issues surrounding climate change are real — and we small islands, we can’t afford to be trampled by big guys who are trying to determine whether or not this thing is real, yes or no,” said Holness. His South Florida trip came on the heels of a recent United Nations climate-change gathering during which U.S. business leaders pledged support for the Paris climate agreement despite President Donald Trump’s promise in June to withdraw.

“We are being affected by these astronomical weather events,” Holness said, referring to recent hurricanes Irma and Maria that spared Jamaica but battered more than a dozen Caribbean islands. “Last week in Jamaica, we had three weeks of rain damage or destroy many of our roads. Now, can you imagine the impact on our budget to repair what has been damaged? There has to be global action.”

Before his South Florida visit, Holness hosted the International Monetary Fund in Kingston, where it held a high-level Caribbean forum.

In her opening remarks, IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde told attendees, “We must come together to address the challenge posed by climate change, and help those most affected by it.” She also later warned, during a visit to the University of the West Indies’ Mona campus, that Jamaica was spending too much on its public sector, which was negatively affecting growth.

Holness, in the Herald interview, said public-sector reform remains one of several challenges he faces.

“There are many institutions that should not exist. It’s one thing to pay people, but if you’re not producing something that brings value to the table than you are in a deficit. How are you paying them?..You’re borrowing,” he said. “We have been borrowing to pay for much consumption, which in itself is not creating value — which is why we ended up at a point where we had massive debt.”

The next challenge was crime and violence, he said. More than 1,400 people have been killed in Jamaica this year, which is a 25 percent increase over last year’s 1,350 murders.

“That creates a boundary for us as to the level of investments that you can get,” he said about crime and violence. “The country is still viewed as a country affected by high levels of crime. Someone who would want to consider Jamaica for investments who doesn’t really know or understand Jamaica might just dismiss Jamaica as an option.”

And that is where the diaspora can play its role, he told the crowd on Saturday night.

“You are a powerful voice,” Holness said, conceding that “we have not found the right mechanism to leverage that voice.”

The night’s biggest applause came when Holness said he favors changing Jamaica’s constitution to allow people living in the U.S. and elsewhere to vote or run for office: “I think that would be a very progressive step in terms of Jamaica’s own development.”

In welcoming Holness to South Florida, Jamaican-American Bar Association President Don James said, “If we can truly harness the power of our expatriate community, the global reach of our people will be felt everywhere.”