Home Archives Sections Business Directory ForumContact Us 

Contributor: Victor Amokeodo, James Ogunleye
"A warm welcome awaits returnees"

BP: As Jamaica celebrates 34 years of political independence, many would like to know why the Queen is still your Head of State and what plans, if any, has Jamaica of moving towards republicanism?

DH: The government of Jamaica has set up what is known as the Constitutional Reform Committee which has just concluded its report. The report was compiled after a series of meetings all over the country, with input from Jamaicans both at home and abroad and several other groupings, including input from parliament. The report has now been returned to parliament for study and it is not just looking at the question of who is the Head of State, it is based on a whole series of constitutional issues which are being analysed very carefully before recommendations are made to parliament. One hopes very soon for some parliamentary debate and some decisions taken.

BP: Given your understanding of the mood of the country, what do you think would be the most likely outcome of this?

DH: I don?t want to pre- empt the parliament of my country. I want to make sure that I await the report itself to see what has happened. What I know is that the report has been compiled after very intense input from a wide cross section of people. As to what will come out of it, I am not in a position to judge at this time.

BP: And can you tell us how soon we should expect this report?

DH: I think it will be very soon because it is already before parliament.

BP: Recently, the streets of Spanish town witnessed serious political violence in which three people were killed and thousands of dollars worth of goods destroyed. Why is Jamaican politics still fraught with violence after so many years?

DH: Politics in Jamaica had tended to - in the past - become a little tribalised based on the nature of politics. What I would say with conviction is that all Jamaicans have learned lessons from the past and incidents of this nature are becoming less and less. There are still pockets of it as was demonstrated in the case of Spanish town, but you will find out that there is definitely a downward trend in this sort of activity and in fact Jamaicans are no longer prepared to tolerate that kind of activity from anybody.

BP: On a similar topic, some observers argue that your government is losing the battle against crime. This argument gained weight recently when the Jamaican Police Commissioner was involved in a gun attack. How can you convince your people, the investors and the tourists that you are up to the task of containing crime in the country?

DH: The Police Commissioner was not involved in an attempted shoot- out as far as I know. I would say that like every other country in the world, Jamaica has problems with criminal activity. What is significant about the nature of the criminal activity in Jamaica, though, is that there are 18 police divisions across the country and only three of these are responsible for about 75% of our criminal activity. I am saying this to emphasize that the type of criminal activity that causes very great concern is centred in a very small geographic area of Jamaica. The crime figures for most of the country compare favourably with anywhere else in the world. Now what happens is that when there is a problem in a particular part of Jamaica, it is usually projected in a way that tends to show that Jamaica is under siege. This is not true. But there is cause for concern at the criminal activity that takes place, particularly in these inner city areas. A large percentage of violent crime is in those areas, and is either drug- related or domestic. It is not fair to suggest that it is getting out of control, although it is still higher than we would wish to see. A number of very positive steps are being taken to bring it under control. It is not going to be easy. It is not something that will disappear overnight because, additionally, one has to look at the social problems that create this sort of activity. But the country is anxious, at all levels, for a solution and we are working assiduously to try and find one.

BP: We would like to ask you a question regarding returnees which I think our readers will be very much interested in...

DH: Right -

BP:... A very large number of those who have returned to Jamaica since 1993, have been from the UK. Can you tell any potential returnee what benefits will accrue to them if they return and how you intend to reintegrate them into the society?

DH: First of all, I want to make it clear that my job here is not to recruit people to go home. Having taken that decision themselves - which is really a big, personal decision - our country will do everything to welcome them home and my office will do whatever it can to help to make the process easier to facilitate the return. And so the government has set up what is known as the Returning Residents Facilitation Unit which is part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and has branches in London - in our High Commission - in New York, in Miami and in Toronto. This unit is designed to provide information which will make the return much easier. There are some things, however, that can only be done by the returnees themselves and so also, they have to ensure that they are prepared to return. Why should they return? What are the advantages? Not least is the fact that, for example people on pensions - their pension cheques when spent in Jamaica, at the current rate of exchange sometimes allow for a higher standard of living than it does here. Our climate - much more hospitable, particularly on the days when you want some sun. And our whole system in Jamaica makes these people who are returning home feel more at home. The fact is that - and the statistics bear this out - most people, the vast majority of people who are returning home, have settled in very well and are very happy. There are some instances where people have problems and sometimes it is with people who have not done enough to prepare themselves for return. Some people who have been away for many years are out of touch and their perception of the area they left is totally out of date because life has changed. Also they have changed and sometimes have not made that emotional and psychological readjustment that is needed to go back to Jamaica. But the programme has been an outstanding success and most people who have gone home have no regrets.

BP: You mentioned this Returning Residents Facilitation Unit. How easy will it be for anyone who wants to return home to have access to it? Can they just walk in and ask for information?

DH: Access is extremely easy. They can walk in, they can call in for information and there is an officer, full time, assigned to provide information.

BP: You mentioned some of the activities of the returnees when they go back home. It is a fact that most of them tend to invest in the property market at a time when Jamaica needs more investment in the manufacturing and productive sector of the economy. Is the government doing anything to encourage them to invest in this area?

DH: This is an area that requires - I think - more intense activity on the part of the state to try to sell the idea to Jamaicans here and Jamaicans all over the world, that there are very good opportunities for investing in areas besides real estate. There is a branch - operating here in the High Commission - of the Jamaica Promotions that is designed to facilitate that sort of thing. So advice on how to set up a business, what sort of incentives are available, what forms to fill out, areas that are being targeted for opportunities are available and you can make enquiries and get this type of information. But going into business requires a certain level of commitment and it is a learning process. The fact that somebody may have money to invest doesn?t mean that they are ready to go into business and so the advice that they need in this area is available. There are a number of investment opportunities now in Jamaica and the climate for business has never been better.

BP: Last September, Jamaica terminated its borrowing relationship with the IMF but some economic observers argue that in the absence of an IMF agreement the government would be hard- put to generate confidence in its economic policies. Is this a correct assessment?

DH: I don?t think it is a correct assessment and I can explain to you what ending the agreement means and why it was brought about. Let me explain. The IMF was set up to give foreign exchange support and in 1977 when it was needed, we applied to them and received support and we have been a borrowing member since then. Part of the reason why this continued for such a long time was the state of our net international reserves which was negative for about 18 years. The government took a very far- reaching and bold decision, in 1991, to abolish all foreign exchange controls and it has had a dramatic effect. Along with other measures, it has resulted in the country, as of last month, having a positive net international reserve of almost 700 million US dollars. By having a positive net international reserve, we no longer need foreign exchange support and we were able to terminate the agreement. This has a number of implications: The IMF will no longer set quarterly targets based on conditionalities which severely impact on the government?s capacity to prioritise on areas of the economy which it thinks should receive attention. Over the years, areas like security, health, education and infrastructure have suffered as a consequence of us not being in a position to focus attention where we think we should. What is also of importance is that a number of very positive things have happened. We in Jamaica now have a surplus on our fiscal accounts unlike many other countries and inflation is significantly reducing. Contrary to the question you have asked, the international community is now much more confident in beginning to look at Jamaica as a place which has now been showing these positive developments. We have privatised most of our ownership of the means of production and the ownership of a number of businesses. We have in fact embarked on a program of liberalising the economy. We are now using market forces to determine what happens in the economy rather than legislation. So a number of positive things have happened. Inflation is still a little too high but it is changing in the right direction and so more interest is being shown in us by investors.

BP: You mentioned the positive impact of ending the relationship, and so far you spoke about inflation but interestingly, Malcolm Johnston, chairman of Nova Scotia recently expressed the concern of the organised private sector about the government?s inability to bring down inflation, which he said is hurting the economy through lack of investment and saving. So in a way there is a credibility problem here and the government seems to be slipping back.

DH: The government is not slipping and I do not agree that this represents the views of the private sector. It may be the view of somebody who wants some publicity for what they think, but that is not the private sector?s view. The president of the bankers? association was here recently. We had a meeting and he had something totally different to say. Unfortunately, it is the negative which people tend to report. And the facts, the figures speak for themselves. Inflation in June was .4%. Inflation in July was .7%

BP: And the annualised inflation?

DH: Annualised inflation target this year was set at 15% and there is no doubt, so far, that they can be met. But nobody is looking at this. People are tending to look at doom and there are these hard, cold facts staring them in the face. Nobody is prepared to look at it.

BP: But these are the leaders of the private sector in Jamaica...

DH: No, I do not believe that the leaders of the private sector are saying those things.

BP: Jamaica Expo 96 was described as a success but its critics say that the exposition is very limited in scope and is not the kind of event that will attract the much needed investment for the productive sector of the economy.

DH: I don?t know that the expo is designed to do that. I don?t know that the aims and objectives of the Expo by itself is what is going to attract foreign investment. Let me explain the exposition to you. The Exposition was designed to, first of all, expose the public here to goods and services that are available from Jamaica. Secondly, there are seminars that go along with the exposition on various things - ?investment in Jamaica? to ?returning to Jamaica? - all those seminars, which are very well attended, are designed to provide information for people in this regard. The Expo is not going to be the sole avenue for attracting foreign investment to Jamaica. That is not the purpose of the Expo. The purposes of the Expo were fully met.

BP: So what steps are the govt taking to attract foreign investment?

DH: The prime minister is coming here in November and he is going to be speaking to investors to bring them up to date with the situation in Jamaica. We have a permanent office here which is designed to supply information required by people who want to invest in Jamaica. Additionally, we have here officers here whose job is to go out and try to motivate and stimulate the investment sector all over Jamaica. The Expo is not the only avenue for attracting investment into Jamaica. Indeed it is not seen as its primary purpose to attract investment. The Expo is two years old. The 1st year we had about 6,000 people. The second year we had close to 20,000 people. Next year, based on what we have learnt, we are going to expand the scope of the Exposition to build on the areas you spoke about. So it is new, it is in its embryonic stage, it has received overwhelming support. There have been some sharp comments and it is the objective of the organisers of the Expo to learn from some of them to ensure that next year is even bigger and more successful.

BP: The United States is vigorously fighting the banana agreement between the EU and the CARICOM countries and indications are that it will take the dispute to the World Trade Organisation. Do you think the CARICOM states are fighting a losing battle in this dispute?

DH: I hope not. One does not know what exactly the WTO is going to decide but it will be unfortunate if we came out on the losing side. The banana trade means so much to us in the Caribbean and the percentage of the market here that our bananas are able to capture is very small. The fact is that it is very difficult for countries like us who are told constantly to use comparative advantage and any attempt to capitalise on comparative advantage is blocked. We do not conduct world trade on a level playing field but, worse, countries like ours often have to contend with a moving goal post. We have a signed document that was supposed to allow free access of our bananas up to the year 2002 and we find to our horror that in the middle of all this there is an attempt to say that the document no longer holds. What has happened with bananas is a classic case of we in the developing world being made to conclude that there are two sets of rules. I think that the banana case is one that will leave a sour taste in the mouths of many countries if the ruling goes against us.

BP: The US is saying that the Caribbean countries have not been able to convince them that this whole business of restriction on US and Latin American products should not be removed ...

DH: It is very important, very important to understand that the US hasn?t got bananas. That is a significant point because it demonstrates the nature of the complaints and who are the people really causing this problem. The United States does not produce bananas. Certain Central American countries do. I do not believe that the Central American countries by themselves, left to themselves would have taken this issue to the WTO. I do not believe that.

BP: But do you see any hidden agenda here?

DH: Well it is known that there are American multinationals operating in central America which have a problem with the issue and I find it very difficult to appreciate why any country would pass the Helmsburgen bill. It violates every single tenet of WTO... To be telling me that I cannot sell my bananas here and there because of the WTO... it is difficult to understand, I must say that.

BP: Some people argue that the Caribbean countries rely too much on banana. What efforts are you making to move from agriculture economies to value- added, manufacturing- based economies?

DH: There are some countries in the region - 3 countries - whose GNP rely significantly on bananas. Jamaica is not one of them. Jamaica?s largest earner of foreign exchange is tourism. We in Jamaica are making significant efforts at diversifying our economy. Diversification is not something that happens overnight. It is a gradual process and we are involved in that process and we have been successful in that process. 23,000 people still rely on the growing of bananas for their employment and you can?t simply take 23,000 out of the banana field and put them in front of a computer. Some people tend to use this issue of diversification very loosely without understanding its implications. The fact of the matter is that the process of diversification is taking place. Bananas has moved from the number 2 position to way down in terms of its contribution as an export earner. And even its reliance for labour. But it is still a significant labour- intensive crop and, besides, it is rural and regionally rural and so its demise would cause serious dislocation in rural Jamaica where there is difficulty in providing jobs. So one has to see it in that context. It is not an unwillingness on the part of Jamaica to see the need for diversification. We are trying to diversify. We are trying to put ourselves on a footing where we are less dependent on a few products but if you are going to pull the rug from under our feet whilst we are in that process, it would make our task very difficult.

BP: Actually we understand that the position of banana is not that high in the Jamaican economy. We are not asking specifically about Jamaica. We are actually asking you to look at it on a regional level.

DH: I do not wish to speak on behalf of other countries. What I can say is that banana is an important commodity for a number of Islands in the region. What we are doing is taking serious steps to diversify. I am not in a position to comment on what the other countries are doing.

BP: The reason why we ask that is that Jamaica is a leading country in the region and it speaks - presumably - for the CARICOM countries sometimes. That is why we want to hear your view. You made progress in Jamaica by moving banana away from being the number 2 export. On an Island like St Lucia...........

DH: I would suggest that you speak to their High Commissioner about their progress. I cannot speak on their behalf.

BP: Nevis has threatened to break away from St. Kitts. Do you think that such a move would be detrimental to the Caribbean community as a whole and, if so, what efforts is CARICOM making to resolve the conflict between both parties?

DH: CARICOM called a summit a few weeks ago and set up a committee under the chairmanship of the chairman of CARICOM to mediate in the matter and quite frankly I don?t know what progress has been made so far but what I can say is that CARICOM has an interest in the matter and is seeking to offer itself as a mediator to try and find a satisfactory solution.

BP: And are you confident that a satisfactory solution will be reached?

DH: I don?t know. I honestly don?t know. I would be guessing, but I hope that a satisfactory solution is arrived at.

Interview: Victor Amokeodo and James Ogunleye
This interview was conducted shortly before the November 1996 visit of Prime Minister Patterson to the UK. Events affecting certain issues raised in this interview may have preceded this publication.
© 2004. All Rights Reserved