Obama visit should reignite U.S.-Caribbean relations


History is a snapshot of moment in time; it also tells a story about one generation for the benefit of future generations.

Since Jamaica secured its independence in 1962, there has only been one sitting American president to make an official state visit to the island: President Ronald Reagan in April of 1982, during his first term. Three generations later, on April 9, President Barack Obama will make a historic state visit to the island prior to attending the Summit of the Americas with hemispheric leaders.

Today, Caribbean island nations continue to struggle with regional crime, sagging economies, endangered environments, and limited energy resources. With a vacuum of leadership in the region, this leaves substantial room for the United States to reassert its influence and bring transformational change and new opportunities to these nations.

The first presidential visit occurred during a critical crossroad at the height of the Cold War; next month’s visit will take place during what seems to be the thawing of a political iceberg — renewed diplomatic talks with the island nation of Cuba.

The late 1970s was a tense and dramatic period for both Jamaica and the United States. With a sagging global economy and delicate diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, thousands of Jamaicans concerned about the country’s cozy relations with Cuba heeded then Jamaica Prime Minister Michael Manley’s recommendation to take “the next five flights to Miami.”

Though Jamaicans had been migrating to the United States for generations, this period marked a wave that would impact the landscape of South Florida and many other communities across America.

In October 1980, Edward Seaga’s Jamaica Labor Party (JLP) swept to a convincing electoral victory. Less than a week later, Gov. Reagan trounced President Jimmy Carter. Seaga’s pro-Western stance and free market promises courted Reagan’s democracy world tour. In his visit to Jamaica, President Reagan mentioned the words “democratic” and “freedom” frequently and with diplomatic force.

Fast forward to 2015: As the 44th president of the United States (the first of African descent) prepares to visit Jamaica, he now has an opportunity not simply to protect against the influence of Russia or other geopolitical forces, but to provide more proactive leadership and inspire greater economic prosperity for nations that now have much deeper ties through the extended diasporas across America.

Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller and her CARICOM colleagues will be asking President Obama to do more despite his many distractions across the world.

Given the friendly relationship with Cuba and CARICOM nations on numerous bilateral issues, President Obama is also undoubtedly expected to reassert U.S. leadership to solidify the smooth reclamation and inclusion of Cuba into the geopolitical balance of power in the region. This stop prior to the Summit of the Americas could prove strategic as Venezuela’s economic power recedes due to the fall of oil prices and Russia’s attempts to regain its footing.

Having migrated to the United States from Jamaica in 1985, I am happy to see the United States re-energizing its partnership conversation and courtship with the Caribbean region.

Three decades removed from the last state visit, Jamaicans and other Caribbean people in states like New York, Texas, Georgia, and Florida are transforming American communities, popular culture, and the U.S. economy with their robust trade balance with the region. Unlike President Reagan, President Obama has the benefits of technology and a more interconnected region to rely upon as he shapes his administration's policies.

After the pomp and circumstance of ministerial protocol greetings and honor guard viewings, there are dire issues to discuss in earnest, such as countering transnational crime, boosting entrepreneurial innovation, or diversifying energy sources. This historic moment is one that could plant meaningful seeds and impact multiple generations.

Marlon A. Hill is a corporate attorney with the law firm of Hamilton, Miller & Birthisel, LLP.