Saturday, April 11, 2015

National Affairs: Jamaica Farewell, my perspective on the Presidential visit

Leonard Thomas photo
Leonard Thomas photo
It was not the largest public turnout, nor even the most robust; greater crowds greeted the then newly freed Nelson Madela when he and (then) wife Winnie made Jamaica one of their first post-Apartheid stops. Jamaica's own Usain Bolt, returning after smashing his own world records in Berlin, had to crawl through molasses-thick crowds that amassed at the international airport in Kingston and stayed with his mini-motorcade all the way to New Kingston's Pegasus Hotel.

Yet there was a discernibly different energy to this visit, a sense of history that set it apart from the two foregoing examples. It was more than the interval - 33 years - between the the previous Presidential visit and this one, more even than the fact that this was a Black president coming to a predominantly Black country, and the country which offered to the world the greatest Black nationalist/Pan-Africanist yet seen, in the person of Marcus Garvey (more on him later)

Much of what made the Obama visit unforgettable can be encapsulated in two moments, one
NY HeraldRecorder/AP
"unscheduled" and the other organized almost to the minute. As hard as it is to believe that none of the Jamaican co-ordinators even suggested it, the visit to the Bob Marley Museum was the kind of communications and social masterstroke n which Obama built his two successful election campaigns and even his administration as a whole. Eschewing the kind of formal gathering in Government halls or ritzy hotel ball rooms, the President made a point of paying public homage to the man billed as the "first Third World superstar" Leaving himself, ostensibly in the hands of the tour guide, Obama seemed genuinely awed and gratified to be in the 'House that Bob Built". It was, by any measure, magic and the international media picked up on this aspect of the visit as if the coming deliberations with Jamaican PM Simpson-Miller and the visiting CARICOM heads was all hogwash and hot air.

"Beast Mode" the Obama vehicle makes its way up Hope Road
His next triumph came the next day, further up the long dual carriageway (and minutes above the US Embassy complex. On the campus of the University of the West Indies, the President held court with arguably his natural and most sympathetic audience: students and young adults. Before enduring all manner of questions (from the inane to the inspired), Obama gave a typically polished yet relaxed preamble and announced two significant initiatives: the Young Leaders of America project -a regional initiative aimed at offering young social entrepreneurs and others opportunities to intern with companies in the US among other activities, and an energy fund to support clean energy initiatives. The latter is interesting as the President's visit put him just outside the worst effects of the  disgusting  and calamitous fire at the Riverton landfill, the latest - but largest - in a long series of mishaps at the city's major refuse dump.

The visit yielded the expected communiques and joint statements of the kind that the general public absorb next to nothing from even as they observed in rapt attention from bars, banks and supermarkets. It also served up controversy, none initiated by Obama himself, but one episode which continues to simmer even as the President enjoys the Panamanian hospitality (hard to ignore the irony that Jamaicans, as detailed by Olive Senior in her book "Dying to Better Themselves" were an integral part of the labour force that built the Panama Canal, now being expanded).

In preparation for the visit, the Jamaican Government embarked on the kind of infrastructural "sprucing up" - road-repair and other urban beautification - that typically attends the impending arrival of important foreign visitors. It seems to be the Jamaican way, never mind that aid roads had lain unattended and threatening the life, limb and undercarriage of many Jamaican motorists. But in this case, an extra step of "sanitization" was taken. Crab vendors at the southern end of the broad ring around the National Heroes park (itself formerly a horse racing park, still known to older residents as "Race Course") were high-handedly and unceremoniously removed, their livelihoods disrupted, and their dignities assailed in public view.

A large, but sadly not well-sustained outcry ensued, with some quarters countering that the vendors - some established for over 40 years and counting local politicians among their customers - were there without formal permit and without the kind of sanitary conveniences and inputs that might make the granting of such permits moot. The latest on that situation is that Kingston Mayor Angella Brown-Burke has publicly informed the vendors that they may, in the wake of the President's jet trailed departure, they may return to their "Race Course" roost.

Another controversy still emitting some heat concerns the remarks from "New Reggae Revolutionary" Chronixx. In an Instagram post, the already revered singjay led with a reminder of the ongoing issue of a full pardon for the aforementioned Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey who was found guilty of mail fraud and deported from the United States at the height of the global growth of his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Against an image of Garvey in his famous regalia, Chronixx opined "this man still have a criminal in the United States, and we glorifying some waste man!"       The term is roughly equivalent to "punk" or even to "scoundrel" or "wastrel".

This time a resounding chorus of disagreement across social media and a public rebuke from Jamaican Minister of Youth and Culture Lisa Hanna, with whom Chronixx has previously exchanged some not too pleasant words. Though the singer, as he pointed out, never referred to anyone directly in his "waste man" remark, the timing the background and the general flow of sentiment made a strong case for the inference, and many expressed disappointment with the artiste, viewed as part of the new revolutionary yet progressive element that had been sorely missing from the island's globally-adored popular music.

Like the Riverton fire, the President escaped personal presence in this last firestorm (a former Jamaican Senator has, suprisingly, sprung to Chronixx' defence), but no doubt he will have been apprised by his aides, and no doubt the US Embassy will be taking a new, harder look at future visa applications from the singer and his Zinc Fence Redemption band. this is not meant to be mean-spirited, it is merely the truth informed by experience.

But for all these factors, President Obama's visit to Jamaica remains a watershed, a brief but deeply affecting experience for both visitor and host. with the end of his term just a little more than a year away, there are certainly moments from this trip that he will ponder long into private life, and likewise, the populace is universally agreed that even if the interval between this and future Presidential visits is shorter (there is already much private anticipation of the expected candidacy - historic if it proves successful - of Hilary Clinton), we shall not again see the like of Barack Obama on our shores, at least not as leader of the free world

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