Tivoli Gardens residents protest

Relations between the United States and Jamaica have been quite tense lately.  At the center of the storm is an extradition request from the United States to the Jamaican government for Christopher “Dudus” Coke, wanted for trial in the United States on major drugs and weapon-running charges.

Dudus, in fact, is considered by the U.S. Department of Justice to be one of the world’s most dangerous drug kingpins.  “Dudus” is also Jamaica’s most powerful “don”.  In many inner-city areas where the Jamaican government has, for the past thirty or so years, essentially abdicated its governing responsibilities, “dons” are responsible for just about every major aspect of life – enforcing their own laws and providing employment and economic opportunities, usually tied to illegal activities.  No politician can win an election in these areas without the active support and endorsement, often through the use of force, of the ruling don.  “Dudus” is the most notorious of Jamaican dons in the most notorious of such fiefdoms, Tivoli Gardens.  Tivoli Gardens is located within the constituency of Mr. Bruce Golding, Jamaica’s current Prime Minister.

Apart from the political implication of this reality, there is also the fact that the residents of Tivoli are unlikely to take peaceably any attempt to arrest and extradite their local hero.  The pictures at the top of this article and the following link are from a story in a Jamaican newspaper which describes the response of the area’s residents to the long-awaited decision by Mr. Golding to issue a warrant for Dudus’ arrest.  As this article is being written, media reports are that the area’s residents have barricaded the area and are preparing to forcibly oppose any attempt to arrest their don.  

 http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/news/Human-shields-in-Tivoli_7630361  (Jamaica Observer, Thursday, May 20, 2010)

So, certainly, the U.S. extradition request raised politically-charged and national security concerns for Jamaica.  The real problem, however, has been the government’s extremely poor handling of this unenviable situation.  The stand-off arose because the Jamaican government has delayed action on the request since August, 2009 relying on its claims that the evidence presented by the Americans was gathered in breach of Jamaican law.  No one, least of all Jamaicans, has bought this subterfuge.  Finally, in response to ever-louder criticisms from Jamaican citizens and at U.S. insistence, Mr. Golding this week announced that he would turn the issue over to the Jamaican legal system, where it belonged in the first place.

Though absent from the pages of the regional press, the situation is certainly being closely watched by other Caribbean governments.  The statement by the Prime Minister of St. Kitts and Nevis, Dr. Denzil Douglas, supporting the government’s decision to hand the matter over to the courts attests to this.  Why?  Rightly or wrongly, this stand-off has generated a lot of nervousness among Jamaicans, and others in the region, about the implications for relations with the United States.  U.S. denial of visas to Jamaican artistes to perform in the United States have been attributed, by Jamaicans, to the stand-off and the rumor is that there has been an overall decline in the number of US visas being issued.  The U.S. Embassy in Kingston has denied this linkage, but one never knows, does one?  The rumors and belief persist.  With the U.S. market being a primary target for goods and services from the region, the granting of U.S. visas are a tangible symbol of the state of trade flows between the U.S. and the Caribbean.

All of this speaks urgently to the need to have in place a mechanism for regular and ongoing dialogue between the United States and the Caribbean.  One such vehicle already exists in theory — the U.S.-Caribbean Trade and Investment Council (TIC).  Regular meetings of the TIC accomplish not only the formal agenda of improving trade and investment relationships between the two, but also open proper lines of communication that can be used to address an issue as sensitive as this has apparently been for the Jamaican government.  And make no mistake — whether it’s more extradition requests; deportees, gun-smuggling, and drugs and their role in destabilizing the region’s investment climate; handling of Caribbean citizens arrested in the U.S.; or off-shore financial services — these matters will continue to plague U.S.-Caribbean relations with periodic flare-ups and crises, until they are addressed and resolved through consistent, ongoing, and meaningful dialogue.