March-April 2022 Articles

Sun, Sea and Sand

A conversation with H.E. Audrey Patrice Marks Ambassador of Jamaica to the United States

Jamaica is an island where multitudes of international people travel for rest and relaxation. It is a hugely popular destination of choice for those seeking a peaceful respite or, for the more adventurous, a vigorous holiday full of activity. Although Jamaica is a great deal more than a place to vacation, it’s an island country, and Ambassador Marks took the time to speak with Diplomatic Connections highlighting intricate topics that make Jamaica remarkably significant within the Caribbean.

CARICOM, the Caribbean region’s free trade zone, includes the Spanish-speaking Dominican Republic, and French-speaking Haiti. The other 14 member states are former British colonies, and five associate members are still British territories. So the most pervasive culture is the Anglophone.
These countries have more in common than just speaking the same language. The British post-colonial legacy has generally included democratic systems, political stability, and developed economies. And thanks to their tropical climate, the CARICOM states are major tourist venues: in fact, tourism is the mainstay of their economies.

On the downside, they face the seasonal threat of increasingly destructive hurricanes. To Caribbean countries, the climate crisis translates into a longer, more catastrophic hurricane season. In 2017, Hurricane Irma completely destroyed the island of Barbuda, where reconstruction is still ongoing. Then in 2019, an equally violent Hurricane Dorian battered the northern Bahamas.

CARICOM countries are mostly independent of the UK, but remain members of the (British) Commonwealth, with Queen Elizabeth II as their head of state. However, they have strong economic ties to their US neighbor, their number one trading partner; most of the Caribbean diaspora is in the United States, and on average, American visitors account for a third or more of their tourist trade. For example, of the 4.2 million tourists who flocked to Jamaica in 2018, 1.6 million were from the United States. Recent years have seen a pickup in US government involvement in the Caribbean, after a very long season of what Caribbean ambassadors in interviews described as a growing neglect.

Even so, US aid-flow, to be shared among the many countries of the region, a key indicator of American interest, is still 1.1 percent of its entire aid budget worldwide. As elsewhere in the Hemisphere, China has stepped into the gap with aid and low-interest loans for infrastructure projects ranging from highways to sports stadiums.

Jamaica’s Ambassador to the United States, H.E. Audrey Marks, took over as Jamaica’s thirteenth ambassador to Washington in September 2016. But she had previously been Jamaica’s eleventh ambassador to Washington — for two years from 2010 to 2012. For an ambassador to be appointed to the same post twice is rare — doubly so for someone who is not a career diplomat.

Ambassador Marks told Diplomatic Connections that, clearly, the powers-that-be were sufficiently impressed with her earlier efforts in advancing the interests of her country in the United States so much so that they sent her back “to finish the job.” That job primarily involves attracting US investors to Jamaica, and mobilizing the million or so Jamaican-Americans to support that effort and strengthen relations between their country of origin and their adopted one.

When Audrey Marks talks business, she is doing so from experience as an entrepreneur with a string of successful companies to her name, including a 100-acre banana exporting firm and an on-line paymaster system, which she conceptualized and launched in 1997. But Marks sees her appointment as ambassador as the result of the time she spent as the first female president of the American Chamber of Commerce of Jamaica.

In her two Washington appointments, she seems almost to have represented two different Jamaicas: The Jamaica of 2010 was a debt-ridden country in the throes of draconian austerity measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund in return for a succession of loans and bailouts over decades of poor economic performance. But by 2019, the Jamaican narrative had changed to one in which a nation’s fiscal discipline and determination has turned the economy around. It was no wonder that Christine Lagarde, former IMF managing director, called Jamaica the bank’s “poster child.”

Diplomatic Connections:  You have the distinction of serving two terms as Jamaica’s ambassador to Washington, separated by four years. How did that come about?

Ambassador Marks: I’m not a career diplomat, but as a business person, a large part of my interest was promoting trade between the United States and Jamaica, and as such, I was the first female president of the American Chamber of Commerce. As a result, I had good relations in the United States, including in Washington. I suppose on my first tour, the government thought I had done a fair job in terms of pushing in that direction and wanted to see me complete that objective of bringing more investment to Jamaica. With the focus on economic growth, investments, someone with a business background became more of a focus to fill the post of ambassador.
Jamaica, for many years, experienced no growth and was sometimes referred to as the basket case of the Caribbean because of its lack of fiscal discipline and its economic problems. Over the last several years, Jamaica has achieved what some call an economic miracle. We have moved our debt to GDP from nearly 150 percent to 90 percent. We have lowered inflation, stabilized our currency into a floating exchange rate, we have increased employment to the point where we now have the lowest unemployment in 50 years (8 percent).

Diplomatic Connections:  What about growth?

Ambassador Marks:  The growth rate is still not where we want it to be; it’s just over 1 percent. So we’re pushing to get up to 2 percent, aiming to get to 5 percent with big projects that are in the pipeline: big infrastructure developments are going on.

Diplomatic Connections:  What will you do after your term has come to a conclusion? Will you go back to business?

Ambassador Marks:  Yes. There are so many aspects of business in this post that I feel I’m doing the business of diplomacy for Jamaica. I created a three-year business plan of what I’d like to see achieved in the bi-lateral relationship from this term: the work that needs to be done by the Jamaica diaspora of more than a million Jamaican Americans here, investment, and engagement with business in the US. Those are the three pillars of this job.

Diplomatic Connections:  Have you found a change in Washington in the intervening years?

Ambassador Marks:  When I was here the first time, the president was President Obama, and the leadership of the White House had a different direction. It’s been interesting since, there has been some shift in areas of focus, and it is clearly much more dynamic in terms of things that are happening on a regular basis. But the fundamental institutions don’t really change that much, which is one of the country’s greatest strengths.

Diplomatic Connections:  In terms of bi-lateral relations, what are the Americans not doing that you would like them to do?

Ambassador Marks:  In the past, for at least two decades, Americans were not paying that much attention to the Americas, including the Caribbean. We felt ignored for many years, and I’m pleased to see that is changing. It started under President Obama with the bi-partisan US-Caribbean Strategic Engagement Act in 2016. With the subsequent administrations that has continued, and now you have America Cresci, a big US program, which is looking at areas of co-operation between America and the countries in that region. Jamaica is already in the program. So what I would have complained about before, I’ve seen addressed here in this program, which covers the six major pillars of trade, security, energy, education, health, and diplomacy.

Diplomatic Connections:  What do you see as your mission here?

Ambassador Marks:  My number one objective is to make sure that we have a strong bi-lateral relationship at a government-to-government level. We don’t want any misunderstandings that will cause the US government to take action against Jamaica that will have a negative impact. We see ourselves as a growing economy along with a lot of opportunities for business, so my number two objective is trade. The third area is the engagement of the diaspora to become a source of intellectual capital for the development of Jamaica, the same as happens with other countries like Ireland and India. I would like to see us get to the point where we have more emigration rather than migration, with Jamaicans returning home having gone to school and gotten technical skills that we need. For the last 40 years, Jamaica has gone through a bit of a brain drain, with Jamaicans leaving [Jamaica], coming here, going to school and staying here. But with the improved economy Jamaicans can be lured back.

Diplomatic Connections:  How are current shifts in US immigration policy and attitude affecting Jamaican immigrants?

Ambassador Marks:  Jamaicans tend to come to America when there’s a recruitment drive. Since the 1920s, the US had major programs of recruiting from Jamaica. Jamaicans were recruited to build the Panama Canal; during the World War II years, thousands came to work in the farming sector; later, thousands came as teachers and nurses. As a result of US policies encouraging migration for certain areas, there are now more than a million Jamaicans in the US. There’s a continuing program in which Jamaicans come to this country to work for anywhere between three months and three years and then go back home. People actually like that because they get the best of both worlds.

Diplomatic Connections:  How badly did the 2008 global crisis impact Jamaica?

Ambassador Marks:  Actually, Jamaica rebounded from the 2008 recession by 2010. That was when we started to feel the uptick, and it has continued to rebound. I think the US immigration problem is not so much a US problem but a problem at the source countries. If we can give these people the opportunity to remain in their country, they wouldn’t come here. Once people have the opportunity to live in peace, and comfortably economically at home, this immigration problem will be solved.

Diplomatic Connections:  Was tourism a factor?

Ambassador Marks:  Just before the official announcement of the pandemic in 2020, our tourism was about 4 million a year, which was a big increase from where we were two years previously.

Diplomatic Connections:  You talk about harnessing the diaspora as an economic resource. Can you explain that?

Ambassador Marks:  There are 20 states in the US with a sizeable Jamaican population, and I try to visit all of them and also look for diaspora organizations that we can work with. I’m now working with a group to form a network organization, the Jamaica Diaspora Task Force Network, specifically looking at areas where Jamaica needs development — education, health, infrastructure, information technology, and agriculture. The embassy gives them support and helps them to become more organized. We want them to be the source of intellectual capital and other ways or the development of Jamaica.

Diplomatic Connections:  So the conclusion here is that Jamaica’s economy is in a state of recovery.

Ambassador Marks:  Yes. In various speeches, both the incoming and outgoing directors of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have spoken of Jamaica as their “poster child.”

Diplomatic Connections:  This after a long period of austerity imposed by the IMF as a condition for a bailout.

Ambassador Marks:  Well, in collaboration with the IMF.

Diplomatic Connections:  To what do you attribute Jamaica’s recovery?

Ambassador Marks:  The most important reason is the decision of so many sectors in the economy to collaborate, so you had the government and the opposition working together. When you introduce austere measures, the opposition is likely to push back and organize protests. In this case, they bought into the idea that the country must maintain fiscal discipline to turn itself around. The civil servants decided to take a wage freeze; the civil society was involved, and so was the private sector. Jamaica formed an economic program oversight committee chaired by independent persons from the public and private sectors, and civil society to make sure that the government kept to the program. It took six years, through two different administrations. Jamaica came out of the worst part of the economic crisis a few years ago, but the program continued until November 2019. [Like all countries in 2020, Covid-19 impacted the Jamaican economy; however, currently, it is rebounding back to pre-pandemic levels.]

Diplomatic Connections:  On balance, though, has the region suffered or gained from the development of the global economy?

Ambassador Marks:  The Caribbean benefitted from the development of the global economy in a number of ways. Bigger markets, more opportunities for your people to go and work, and there are more tourists coming in. What countries are learning to do is to identify their areas of competitive competence in this new global economy and move in that direction to help their growth. The greatest threat to the Caribbean is not the development of the global economy but really climate change, because you do have some economies that look like they’re doing well, and then, one major hurricane can wipe out your GDP for a year or two.

Diplomatic Connections:  You’re not talking about environmental change; after all, the hurricanes have always been there.

Ambassador Marks:  When I say climate change I should say natural disasters, but in the context of climate change we are seeing hurricanes of a magnitude not seen before, and our thinking is that maybe the science is right and these hurricanes are bigger than usual compared to the past because of climate change. The frequency of bigger hurricanes is where I think climate concerns come in. But natural disasters, including earthquakes, volcano eruptions and hurricanes, are certainly things that can derail an economy much more than competitive market forces.

Diplomatic Connections:  How would you diversify your economy to be less dependent on tourism?

Ambassador Marks:  Jamaica’s number one industry is tourism, and for years it was sand, sun, and sea. But the key is to diversify the tourism product so that we can look at cultural tourism, eco-tourism, and sports tourism because we’re known for those things. That’s what we’re doing now. So, for example, apart from our massive expansion in hotels, Jamaica is also one of the fastest-growing Air B&B destinations. We have an area in Jamaica called Trench Town, where Bob Marley grew up, and the bed and breakfast locations in that community — which is still a depressed community — are always sold out, mainly to the Japanese. There’s a big Japanese following of reggae music.

Diplomatic Connections:  Who is Jamaica’s number one trading partner?

Ambassador Marks:  The US is our largest trading partner in goods and services and in tourist visits to the country. It is so easy for Americans. The flight from Dulles International Airport) to Jamaica is two-and-half hours, the same as to Florida.

Diplomatic Connections:  How much collaboration is there among Caribbean region countries?

Ambassador Marks:  As a community, we collaborate in CARICOM, which is the 13 English-speaking countries plus Haiti — admitted just a few years ago — and collaborative relationships with Cuba and the Dominican Republic. In Washington, we work together on CARICOM-US bi-lateral issues, such as security, trade in the region, banking, and finance. We’ve also been increasing our relationship where we can trade with each other without customs duties, and CARICOM citizens can work anywhere in any member country, without having to have labor permits. Where we differ from each other is in maintaining different political systems.

Diplomatic Connections:   Thank you, Ambassador Marks. The conversation has been enlightening and very informative.

FREE Digital Edition
See and read Diplomatic Connections Magazine
View Archived Digital Editions