Jamaica’s Simpson Miller sidelines nationals in Miami visit

The first time Portia Simpson Miller visited South Florida as prime minister, Jamaicans couldn’t get enough of the trailblazing politician as she shuttled from a reception to a dinner at a popular Jamaican restaurant, and then to a crowded town hall where she passionately pitched “brand Jamaica.”

But local Jamaicans shouldn’t expect the same reception this go-round as Simpson Miller makes her first public visit since returning to power in 2012. Few Jamaicans were even aware that the prime minister, who arrived in Miami on Friday for a three-day stay, would be the featured speaker at Union Institute & University’s commencement and anniversary celebration.

The fact that her long-awaited arrival doesn’t include a public meeting with nationals — a common practice among leaders visiting South Florida’s burgeoning Caribbean enclave — is highly unusual, community leaders say.

But Jamaica watchers say it’s typical of the very different style of leadership Simpson Miller has exhibited since her election. She has allowed her ministers to take the lead on everything from marijuana legalization and cultivation to pushing tough economic reforms to lift Jamaica from under a mountain of debt.

“Frankly, she has taken a sort of ceremonial approach to leadership,” said Delano Seiveright, a political commentator and Simpson Miller critic who last year took to Twitter to chide her elusiveness. “There is a growing sense that the island has gone adrift with the economy and social ills getting worse by the day.”

Criticism of Simpson Miller comes as the Washington-based International Monetary Fund forces the country to implement a wide-ranging economic plan to stabilize its sputtering economy. The impact of those reforms and the country’s economic future are as much a concern in Jamaica as in South Florida, often dubbed Kingston 21 after the country’s capital, which has 20 postal codes.

Franz Hall, who heads the Miami consul general’s office, said the community has a long-standing request with Simpson Miller’s office for a meeting. A visit remains a work in progress, he said.

“Since I have been here, I would say there has been a longing to see her,” said Hall, who arrived last fall. “Persons remember the last time she was here officially, and they would like to see the prime minister at a community-type event.”

Pamella Watson, a South Florida certified public accountant, said she doesn’t mind waiting and has no problem with Simpson Miller’s management style.

“One of the trademarks of effective leadership is the ability to delegate tasks and functions. That's what her management style is. That is something we should applaud,” she said. “To run a country is a major undertaking; one has to feel comfortable with the people you surround yourself with.

“She has surrounded herself with people who can get the job done,” Watson said. “That is a credit to her delegation skills.”

But Winston Barnes, a Miramar City Commissioner and radio host on WAVS 1170 AM Radio in Fort Lauderdale, said South Floridians shouldn’t be surprised by the lack of face-time with the charismatic leader.

“This has been her practice since she returned to office and has attracted a lot of criticism especially in media circles in Jamaica,” Barnes said. “This is apparently an unarticulated decision to restrict free access to her as against previous patterns.”

That lack of access has led to spats between Simpson Miller’s entourage and the media. In November, her security detail was accused of shoving a Television Jamaica reporter as he asked a question. Simpson Miller repeatedly dodges reporters, and last year she accused journalists of disrespecting her.

Her office did not respond to a Miami Herald request for an interview.

“She has to be the only elected leader in the free world who has never had a one-on-one with her country’s press since being elected,” said Mark Wignall, a popular columnist with the Jamaica Observer newspaper. “One could always argue that if she wanted to prove her detractors wrong, all she had to do was break away from her handlers and face the press one-on-one.”

Wignall said instead of actively governing, the woman affectionately dubbed “Sister P” and “Mama P” by supporters, is simply “reigning.”

“Finance Minister Peter Phillips and others, like Transport and Works Minister Omar Davies, are pretty much at the helm,” Wignall said. “It certainly doesn’t surprise me that she is coming to Florida with a packaged speech only to fly out immediately after. As prime ministers [go], she is the weakest on the intellectual measuring stick that we have ever had.”

So far, however, her handlers’ strategy appears to be working, even as one supporter admits that “her hands are on the wheel but she may not be the person changing gears.”

This is in sharp contrast to what Jamaicans are used to: Leaders have constantly been in the media, frequently voicing the positions of their government. Even a media-shy P.J. Patterson, who had a conciliatory style, often put his stamp on government policies.

Simpson Miller’s constant focus on the poor and recent positive reviews from the IMF are sustaining her People’s National Party government, said Brian Meeks, a political scientist at the University of the West Indies Mona Campus.

“She is not a policy wonk. She is not an economic genius by any stretch of the imagination, but she has a sense of what people will take,” Meeks said. “But more importantly, she has the trust of our working majority of our population and I think that has kept her afloat. Without that element of trust, you would see people in the streets, and strikes.”

Still, her domestic support is waning — even as her popularity grows outside of Jamaica. In May, she gave the commencement address at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania and was awarded an honorary degree.

On Saturday, she will keynote a reception at the Hilton Miami Airport for Union Institute & University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in 1997. She will return Sunday to give the commencement address.

“She will be an inspiration to these graduates, and personifies what Union has been about, which is to help people accomplish their educational dream,” said University President Roger Sublett. “I found her to be a remarkable leader, very approachable and somebody who cares for people. She not only talks about it, but she exudes that enthusiasm for the citizens of her country and others.”