By Alexander Britell
GRENADA- The seventh UK-Caribbean Forum that met in Grenada this weekend looked at a range of areas of cooperation as the Caribbean and the UK open up a “new and more modern relationship” going forward. At the forum, Caribbean Journal took the opportunity to speak with Jamaican Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade Sen. AJ Nicholson, about cooperation with the UK, Jamaica’s relationship with the United States and the major issues for the country in 2012, including Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller’s announcement that Jamaica would seek to become a republic.
What were the main issues you discussed at this forum?
The question of security in the region is without doubt either at the top or near the top of the agenda. And any assistance that any country by itself or CARICOM together can receive from the United Kingdom and the EU is welcome. Of course, you know that the Caribbean we the UK have been partners for a very, very long time – our cultural roots are deep. And they have been extremely helpful in the area of security. What this meeting has done is it has sought to cement and expand the kind of relationship that we would wish to have. Already, we were on a [British] ship last night, where they took us over there to see what was happening — that ship is not just passing though the Caribbean — it is working along with officers of the United States of America as part of the entire security system here in the region. The issues that were discussed here in this meeting, we appreciate and acknowledge that they are positive and forward-looking.
What are some of the major priorities for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2012?
One of the areas we intend to concentrate on in my ministry is what happens within CARICOM. We don’t think that the CARICOM agenda and arrangement has been moving at pace – we can do far better than what we have been doing. One of the issues is to make sure that, for example, the area of free movement is expanded, that we can come to understandings of how we can move that agenda. There are far too many wrinkles in that regard and I believe that we have the capacity to deal with it. Sure, we have the arrangements in the treaty, and other instruments and protocols. Sure, we have that. But I believe what we have not done is put our collective heads together at all levels to make sure that, certainly, free movement within CARICOM is accomplished. That is one of the areas that we will be working on in my ministry.
Prime Minister Simpson Miller said soon after taking office that the government intended to withdraw from the Crown and become a republic. Was that part of the discussions with the UK at the forum?
No, we did not discuss it at this meeting because, in truth, it is not really an issue for this meeting. To move from the monarchical system to becoming a republic is really Jamaica’s issue, just like how Trinidad and Tobago did it very early on. What I’d like to project is that that issue really doesn’t mean we are moving away from the Commonwealth – certainly not! The Commonwealth nations are our brothers and sisters. What we are saying is if we have our own indigenous head of state, that is something that we can galvanize our forces around in this 50th year of our independence. Since we have traveled a certain route in the past 50 years, we want to try something new. And it’s kind of awkward to have a head of state in a country in which you need a visa to go to that country! So it’s a bit awkward. But these are subsidiary reasons. The real reason is that you need issues in this 50th year of our independence to galvanize around moving forward.
In 2010, during the Extradition Crisis, there seemed to be some tension with the United States. How is your government looking to engage with the US?
I think we have started already. Fortuitously, not a few days after the Prime Minister came into office, the President of the United States [Barack Obama] telephoned her to congratulate her and wish her good luck, and to say that they would meet in May in Colombia. We believe that is a good step forward – it is not that we attempted to initiate anything, it was the Americans – the United States that did it. We realize of course, and I do, that our image in the international arena, including the United States, is not as it should be. We acknowledge that — and one of the things I will be working on specifically is to improve and attempt to burnish that image internationally. Without that, I don’t think we could hold up our heads high with the international arena. We will be moving on that score.
We spoke with Minister McNeill recently, and with his predecessor Minister Bartlett, about how the tourism sector is looking toward Latin America. Is engaging with that region something you are looking at generally?
Well we in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade are facilitators in that respect. In fact, we are to have an embassy in Brazil very soon. The Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom, William Hague, pronounced here in this meeting that Brazil, in this area south of the United States , the most important link in the developmental tools that they are trying to create in the United Kingdom. We see Brazil – along with the adjoining countries — as one of the countries that is moving so far up the social and economic ladder that we cannot afford to be outside of the loop. So that within Latin American and the Caribbean, it’s not only tourism — trade areas, cultural ties are there. And we intend to attempt to strengthen those relationships.