Audacity to the world: Lessons from Obama

President Obama and Usain Bolt
By Debbie Ransome
The magic touch that had brought Barack Obama to the White House was on full dazzling display in Jamaica and the Caribbean.
You could see it in the eyes of the young man who asked for his copy of Audacity of Hope to be signed before asking the US president a question.
You could see it in the humility expressed by Usain Bolt, who had a front row seat and met the president behind the scenes afterwards.
And all this happened on the sidelines of Mr Obama’s trip, away from the focus of the global media.
The mainstream news outlets concentrated on the big sessions: the Caricom-US Summit, held earlier in the day with Caricom leaders, as well as the following day’s Americas Summit and the much-anticipated Cuba-US presidents’ bilateral meeting in Panama.
But the essence of Obama was clear to see at the town hall meeting he held with Jamaica youth leaders on 9 April at the University of the West Indies (UWI), in between his more formal duties.
It was there that the lessons could be spotted as Barack Obama did what he clearly does best – engage young people on their own terms and make them feel that they carry the recipe for a modern 21st Century society.
Following the round of official meetings – his bilateral session with host Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller and a short Caricom-US Summit – it was a relaxed, but animated Barack Obama who arrived at the UWI venue.
The audience had already been warmed up with a performance by Tessanne Chin, while sprint stars Bolt and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce were among the honoured guests.
The US president walked on stage to a rock star welcome from a 350-strong audience, drawn from areas including sport, entrepreneurship, politics and religion.
And the youngsters held their own too.
While asking for autographs and filming every moment on their mobiles and iPads, they asked President Obama some of the shortest and sharpest questions during his day in Jamaica.
His answers, in turn, reminded anyone watching of how he became America’s first black president, how he won over US voters and why “Yes, we can” had worked in the first place.
Although much of the world media coverage centred on his official news conference, President Obama’s answers to his youthful audience probably indicated more about his foreign policy background thinking, his post-presidential aspirations and even his recommendations for Caribbean leaders than any of his other official appearances during this trip.
On Caribbean-Washington relations, which have lapsed in recent times, here was a US President outlining a new relationship – based not on the begging bowl, but on neighbours helping one another out.
“This isn’t charity from us,” he said in announcing a new US$68m Caribbean and Central American training and mentorship programme.
“This is an investment in our future.”
He outlined that future as being one “where any kid from Kingston can explore horizons” with hard work and hope.
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It was at this town hall session that President Obama delivered the thinking behind his rapprochement with Cuba, ahead of his meeting with Raul Castro in Panama.
Taking his jacket off after making his short introductory speech, he lost no time in fielding the first question from the audience, on the subject of Cuba.
The president launched into what was an obviously well-thought out delivery of his background thinking on relations with Havana.
“The Cuban people are extraordinary,” he told his audience.
Stating that it was important to be able to speak honestly with Cuba about human rights, President Obama said: “There are still constraints on the ability of the Cuban people to express themselves.”
He said he did not expect Cuba to follow the United States, which also had its flaws, but that there were certain principles which were universal, including freedom of expression and dignity.
He pointed out that while Havana and Washington had their differences, there were some commonalities they could not ignore, adding that the impact of climate change on a Florida shore was the same as the impact on a Cuban shore.
On the possibility that Caricom could bring Cuba fully into the regional grouping, President Obama said: “Caricom should make its own decision and we’ll respect it.”
In his opening remarks to the UWI audience, he outlined the views that he would later reiterate after his historic meeting with Raul Castro.
“When something hasn’t worked for 50 years, you gotta stop doing it,” he told the youth leaders’ meeting, referring to the US embargo on trade with Cuba.
He added that the new thinking would benefit the next generation and create a “new chapter of relations with Cuba”.
The differences with Cuba would continue, he said, but it was time for a new beginning.
In response to a question from a student from the Turk & Caicos Islands about a future for young people beyond working in the tourism industry, President Obama gave the example of Singapore which, he said, on paper had no major assets.
He pointed out that Singapore had invested in its people to create a skilled workforce, adding that governments needed to set up transparent rules so that investors beyond the tourism industry would want to “set up in your country”.
Emphasising that conflict, corruption and a lack of skills and infrastructure would not attract investment, President Obama spoke of giving “people constant opportunities to upgrade their skills”.
That, he said, was the recipe for a 21st Century society.
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On China’s growing investment in the region, President Obama was frank on China’s achievements in lifting many of its people out of poverty, which he referred to as “remarkable”.
Rather than being in competition with Beijing, the US leader said that Washington would be more fearful of a poor China.
“We want them to be doing well,” he said.
He did, however, sound the warnings that many commentators have issued over the type of investment coming from Beijing.
Speaking about its treatment of its neighbours, the president said that there was a concern that China did not abide by international rules and used “sheer size and muscle” to get what it wanted.
China invested heavily in Africa, but the question was whether these investments helped Africa.
“We welcome that,” he said. “The only thing is, you gotta look at what strings are attached.”
He gave the example of a road leading to a mine. If Chinese workers built the road and extracted the mineral for China, then would that project serve that African country in the long term, he asked.
Keen not to seem holier-than-thou, President Obama added: “I’d say the same thing for the United States.”
He added that Americans making a profit, but not leaving behind an industrial base, did not make sense.
He told his mainly Jamaican audience: “You should negotiate a better deal.”
Advising Caribbean governments to be transparent in the deals they strike, the US president delivered what sounded like a blueprint for future Caribbean investment-seeking.
“There must be a sense of how is this benefiting us,” he said.
Pointing to US support for institutions such as the World Bank, he made the case that not all American aid came directly from Washington in a single package.
He pointed out that when Haiti had been “decimated”, the US had been there to help.
“We’re looking pretty good... and we will continue to do that,” he said.
He added that he expected others “to step up and do their fair share” – clearly encouraging the Caribbean to continue talking investment with China while checking on the fine print.
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Even on difficult questions, such as immigration, President Obama frankly told his audience that he was trying to “fix what is right now a broken immigration system”.
He said he believed he still had the opportunity to fix things before the end of his term if the Republicans would “put aside the politics” and help.
Faced with another expected, but tricky question of legalising marijuana, President Obama hardly flinched.
He pointed out that incarceration of people for drug possession had been “counterproductive” and that it had created young, jailed, unemployable young people who learnt more about crime behind bars.
He said that the experiments with decriminalisation in Colorado and Washington would be the spur for a national debate on marijuana in America.
“We will see how that experiment works its way through the process,” President Obama said.
However, the American leader was careful not to sound as if he was agreeing with his young Rastafarian questioner on legalisation, which he said was “not a silver bullet”.
At that stage, he returned to the age-old Washington line to the Caribbean about the need for Americans to decrease demand while working with the region to “shrink the power” of the transnational drug traffickers.
He also sounded a note of caution on legalisation, warning that if drugs were legalised, big countries would seek to come in and enjoy the profits to be made.
Being a good guest, when asked about debt write-off, he praised Jamaica’s current handling of its IMF programme and said that the current government was wise to abide by the IMF programme.
However, he pointed out that, under an IMF programme, a government needed to “spur growth” and “not just put the squeeze on folks”.
President Obama had spent more than an hour with the audience, but lingered to provide a textbook example of how to work a room, albeit surrounded by twitchy secret service minders. To be fair, theirs was a tough task: to assess the president’s need to shake everybody’s hands and be part of the must-have selfies, as against their need to protect the Commander-in-Chief.
Away from the formalities of the Caricom meetings, the Summit of the Americas meetings and the all-important Cuba-US bilateral session, the real Barack Obama did appear to come to the fore for that short time at the University of the West Indies.
Once he had taken off his jacket and relaxed with the young Caribbean audience, you couldn’t help feeling that you were seeing the man Obama will become when he is no longer living in the White House.
Like Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter before him, he seemed to be carving out a role as a “wise man”, a benign adviser who would be available to tell the Caribbean a few home truths.
There has been much comment about President Obama doing the “To the World” pose with Usain Bolt behind the scenes after that town hall meeting.
Surely, we can allow those who can share so many lessons in statesmanship a little sojourn into the world of cliché.
Debbie Ransome is the Editor of Caribbean Intelligence.
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