Sat | Jul 20, 2019

Editorial | When Mr Holness meets the President

Published:Friday | March 22, 2019 | 12:16 AM

It may be a coincidence that the announcement of Jamaica’s intention to close its embassy in Caracas came on the eve of Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ departure for Florida for a summit of five Caribbean leaders and the American president, Donald Trump.

Cynics, however, will be inclined to believe the timing of the declaration, if not the substance of the action, was aimed at an audience of one – President Trump. Indeed, they will likely see the similarities, if not a clear nexus, between this development and timing of Jamaica’s January 10 vote at the Organization of America States (OAS), in favour of a United States-sponsored resolution not to recognise the legitimacy of the Venezuelan president, Nicolas Maduro. That happened two days after the Holness administration announced that it would unilaterally take back Venezuela’s 49 per cent stake in the Petrojam oil refinery, on which agreement had stalled over price.

It is notable, too, that the leaders – Mr Holness, Haiti’s Jovenel Moise, The Bahamas’ Hubert Minnis, the Dominican Republic’s Danilo Medina and St Lucia’s Allen Chastanet, who Mr Trump has invited to his Mar-a-Lago resort – are from countries that voted with the US at the Organization of American States in January not to recognise the legitimacy of Venezuela’s president, Nicolas Maduro.

The singling out of Jamaica, The Bahamas, Haiti and St Lucia for this summit is in contrast to the norm of recent years of US presidents, or their secretaries of state, meeting leaders of the 15-member Caribbean Community – of which these four countries are members – as a group, to discuss US-Caribbean relations. Indeed, the only Caribbean absentee from Mar-a-Lago that voted with the US at OAS is Guyana, which is busy preparing for a general election after its government fell in a no-confidence motion.

Against this backdrop, Mr Holness’ conduct at today’s summit will be important if he is to balance Jamaica’s national interest while preventing a deepening of the cleavages in CARICOM, in the face of likely pressures of a mercurial leader of the world’s most powerful nation, who, up to now, has displayed little appreciation for the art of diplomacy, or the relevance of the existing global architecture.

In Mr Trump’s vision of the world, America stands first and in need of transactional alliances, rather than deep partnerships. In that sense, the Trump doctrine is of an assertion of power – economic and military.

Mr Holness, whose country is generally recognised as the political leader of CARICOM, has, therefore, to bear in mind that while good relations with the United States is important, the ultimate protection for small, vulnerable states like Jamaica, and our partners in CARICOM, is the multilateral system, as represented by the United Nations and related institutions. The existing arrangements may be in need of reform, but not wrecking, as advocated by Mr Trump.

In other words, Mr Holness has to avoid being sucked into an insular vision of the world, crafted by either Mike Pompeo or John Bolton and/or articulated by Mr Trump.

POLITE BUT FIRM

The PM must politely, but firmly, and with clarity, insist that Jamaica’s relationship with China, developed over a half a century of principled diplomacy, which has brought benefits to the island, is non-negotiable and not in need of America’s imprimatur. If Beijing seeks to become “predatory” in its economic practices, it is within Jamaica’s competence to appropriately respond to that conduct.

Although Jamaica might have forfeited its ability to be a stand-alone interlocutor in Venezuela’s political crisis, with its decision on Mr Maduro, its action with regard to Petrojam and now with its embassy, CARICOM, as a group, has salvaged some of what has been lost. The community, with international partners, promoted a dialogue with Mr Maduro and his opponents, while underlining non-intervention in the country’s affairs. Mr Holness should reassert this to Mr Trump.

He must be warm to any offer of economic and security support and to reciprocate on matters of friendship – once he is assured these fall within the framework of Jamaica’s multilateralist vision of the world – while keeping in the back of his mind Mr Trump’s characterisation of nations like ours as “sh*&hole countries”.