President Obama Makes Surprise, Unannounced Visit to Jamaica; Seeks to Reassert U.S. Leadership in Caribbean

U.S. President Barack Obama (2nd R) is greeted by Jamaica's Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller (C) as he arrives aboard Air Force One at Norman Manley International Airport in Kingston, Jamaica April 8, 2015. REUTERS/JONATHAN ERNST
U.S. President Barack Obama (2nd R) is greeted by Jamaica’s Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller (C) as he arrives aboard Air Force One at Norman Manley International Airport in Kingston, Jamaica April 8, 2015.

President Barack Obama arrived in Jamaica on Wednesday to attend a Caribbean summit seeking to reassert U.S. leadership in the region at time when oil-producing Venezuela’s economic clout may be receding.

As the first U.S. president to visit Kingston since Ronald Reagan in 1982, Obama faces the challenge of convincing Caribbean island leaders that Washington is genuinely re-engaging after a long period of perceived neglect of its smaller, poorer neighbors.

Obama arrived in the middle of Jamaica’s Carnival week but will have little time to take in the revelry during a 24-hour visit expected to be dominated by discussions on energy, security and trade with the 15-member Caribbean Community, or Caricom.

Some analysts say a key reason why Washington is suddenly paying attention to the Caribbean Basin is that it wants to wean the islands off dependence on cut-rate Venezuelan oil that Caracas has long used to wield influence in the region.

Most Caricom members participate in Venezuela’s discounted Petrocaribe oil program, but Caracas now finds itself in growing economic distress due to low oil prices.

“As Petrocaribe is unraveling, the U.S. is taking advantage,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington. “The Caribbean islands have to look elsewhere for energy.”

The Obama administration launched the Caribbean Security Energy Initiative last year, and in January Vice President Joe Biden hosted Caribbean leaders in Washington to discuss alternative energy sources such as wind and solar.

From Jamaica, Obama travels to Panama to attend a Western Hemisphere summit, where Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has made clear he will confront Obama over new U.S. sanctions.

Obama will also cross paths at the Summit of the Americas with Cuban President Raul Castro for the first time since the two announced a historic opening between their countries in December.

Communist-ruled Cuba will also be on the agenda in Kingston, with leaders largely supportive of U.S. détente with the region’s most populous island nation.

In Thursday’s talks, Obama will try to show that even though he remains preoccupied with crises elsewhere in the world, he is determined to focus on the Caribbean.

“We absolutely feel that the Caricom region does deserve greater attention and engagement from the United States,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, told reporters. “At times people feel like the United States has not engaged these countries significantly as we should.”

Rhodes said the talks would yield “concrete outcomes” but he declined to provide details on any new regional initiatives.

With Caribbean countries saddled with high unemployment, many are eager for a re-energized U.S. partnership. “We have no jobs here. Jamaican people just want jobs,” said Marie Sherood, 32, a craft vendor on the beach in Kingston.

The night before getting down to work with Caribbean leaders, Obama paid a visit to the Bob Marley Museum in Kingston.

On a tour of the house where the reggae legend lived until his death in 1981, Obama, in shirtsleeves, was shown a trophy room where Marley’s Grammys and platinum records were on display. Meanwhile, Marley’s hit song “One Love” played over the loudspeaker.

“What a wonderful tour,” Obama said as he wrapped up the visit.

(Additional reporting by Aileen Torres-Bennett in Kingston and David Adams in Miami; Editing by Mohammad Zargham, Sandra Maler and Ken Wills)



The Caribbean region collectively cheered when President Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. Calypso and reggae songs were written in his honor, the French Caribbean island of Martinique named a road after him, and Antigua’s highest mountain officially became “Mount Obama” as the small country saluted him as a symbol of black achievement.

This week, Obama will try to rekindle an enthusiasm that has waned amid a perceived lack of attention from the American president.

But more than just an effort in rebuilding popularity, Obama’s meetings Thursday with Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller and with other leaders in the 15-member Caribbean Community are weighted with self-interest.

China has steadily expanded its economic alliances in the Caribbean, and the region is seeking to reduce its dependence on subsidized oil from an economically struggling Venezuela. China is providing much of the financing for new roads, bridges and other infrastructure projects.

“China is running away with the gold in the view of many region watchers. Its footprint is visible and obvious through its ‘checkbook diplomacy’ in the Caribbean,” said Anthony Bryan, an international relations professor at Trinidad’s campus of the University of the West Indies, a public university system serving 18 English-speaking countries and territories.

Energy needs

“We, in looking at the region, saw that a number of the [Caribbean] countries had significant energy needs,” said Benjamin Rhodes, a White House deputy national security adviser. “At the same time, the United States has significant resources, not just in terms of our own energy production, but also in our energy infrastructure, in our ability to work with countries that have formed cooperative solutions to promote energy security.”

There are growing signs that the is stepping up its focus on the Caribbean to help fill a potential void left by Venezuela’s scaled-back oil diplomacy.

Earlier this year, Vice President Joe Biden hosted prime ministers and other top officials from all Caribbean countries except Cuba at the first Caribbean Energy Security Summit in Washington. The focus was on exploring ways to help Caribbean nations obtain financing from international institutions to convert diesel-powered energy plants to natural gas and increase alternative energy sources.

“As the economic crisis in Venezuela escalates, countries reliant on Petrocaribe, the dubious Venezuela-led oil alliance, will need alternative energy sources sooner rather than later. Look for Caribbean leaders to articulate that urgency,” said Jason Marczak, deputy director of the Latin America Center at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, a nonpartisan foreign policy think tank.

Obama’s visit to Jamaica is the first one by a U.S. president since Ronald Reagan went there in 1982. He was last in the Caribbean region in 2009 when he attended the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad.

This time, Obama’s stop in Kingston comes ahead of his attendance at this year’s summit of the Western Hemisphere’s heads of government Friday and Saturday in Panama.

“Heap of problems”

While Obama T-shirts and bumper stickers can still be seen on Caribbean islands where many people have racially-mixed family trees similar to that of the president, the fact that the American leader is partly of African heritage is no longer heralded as marking an era of tolerance and possibility.

“I think some people around here hoped Obama could make the world’s problems go away, but this world has a whole heap of problems that are never going away. But Caribbean people will always like Obama because we can see ourselves in Obama,” Jamaican furniture upholsterer Llewellyn Clarke said as he waited for a bus near the U.S. Embassy in the island’s capital of Kingston.

The U.S., long the dominant influence in much of the Caribbean, remains the top trading partner of many countries in the region and their largest market for tourism. Yet for years there has been a chorus of complaints that other than anti-drug efforts, Washington no longer pays much attention to the region once described by Reagan as America’s “fourth border.”

“Any interest that the American government shows in the Caribbean is an improvement, because we have been ignored completely throughout the two terms of the Bush presidency and most of the two terms of this one,” said Damien King, a prominent economist in Jamaica who is co-executive director of the Caribbean Policy Research Institute.

Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser at the White House, did not dispute the perception that the United States “has not engaged these countries as significantly as we should.” But he said creating partnerships and investing in the region would help address those doubts.


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