Guest Commentary by Kirkland Turner
THERE is a humorous catchphrase about diplomacy – it’s the “art of telling someone to go to hell and having them look forward to the journey”. In a nutshell, diplomacy is not about who carries the biggest stick, who shouts the loudest or who proves to be the rudest in international exchanges. The international landscape is not a school yard where poorly behaved boys scrimmage to prove “who’s the man”.
The dictionary describes diplomacy as the art and practice of conducting negotiations between representatives of groups or nations. Successful diplomacy is polite, well-mannered, respectful and gracious even when it requires the delivery of difficult messages and positions.
With reference to international diplomacy, it describes the conduct of relations between two or more countries through the mediation or negotiation of professional diplomats with regard to issues of peace-making, culture, economics, and trade. International agreements are typically negotiated by professional diplomats prior to endorsement by national politicians.
The Bahamas-US Relationship is the singularly most important relationship for our country. So, our self-interest dictates that this relationship is tendered by seasoned, experienced individuals with a good understanding of the myriad issues that make-up our relationship. Regrettably, today, it appears that those now in charge of Bahamian diplomacy, particularly as regards our relationship with the United States, have not got a clue.
The Consequences of Cowboy Diplomacy
One important area of discussion between The Bahamas and the United States of America, and on a larger plain with the international human rights establishment, has been the treatment of undocumented persons detected, arrested and detained by Bahamian authorities.
The brisk, rude utterances by Fred Mitchell, Minister of Foreign Affairs, on the recent allegations of abuse of Cuban nationals detained in The Bahamas suggests that he does not have or is ignoring the advice on the matter from professional diplomats.
This begs the question of who is advising the Minister. It seems that this Christie-led administration has removed or sidelined its professional diplomatic corps in favour of a cadre of political friends and associates to the detriment of the interests of our country.
For more than a year, we were alone in the Caribbean having no resident Ambassador in the US capital, Washington, DC. Today, 20th August, on the eve of Mr Christie’s 70th birthday and following months of agitation for comment on the matter from the Opposition, the Government sheepishly announced what has long been rumoured – that the Bahamian Permanent Representative to the United Nations (UN), septuagenarian Dr Eugene Newry, is to switch positions with Elliston Rahming, becoming the Bahamian Ambassador E&P to Washington. The terse announcement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed that Mr Rahming will continue to serve as Permanent Representative to the Organization of American States (OAS) in Washington, DC, and assume the Permanent Representative Post at the UN in New York. This compromise is an expensive undertaking. If Mr Rahming is to properly fulfil his obligations before both the United Nations and the OAS, it will require weekly travel between the two cities and often enough require overnight stays.
The Bahamas also continues to be alone in the English-speaking Caribbean in having no American Ambassador resident in Nassau.
This state of affairs cannot be good for our relationship.
Recently, Obie Wilchcombe, the Minister of Tourism, and not the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Fred Mitchell, met with US Government representatives in Florida to discuss the most recent allegations about the treatment of Cuban nationals in The Bahamas.
More recently still, we have had the most startlingly irresponsible verbal insults thrown at US Congressional Representatives by the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Mr Mitchell has opined that US Congressional Representatives do not reflect the views or opinions of the US Administration. In his view, presumably what these individuals had to say on US-Bahamas relations is irrelevant. Mr Mitchell is American-educated; he either knows better or ought to know better. If he is not listening to the concerns of Senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio and US Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, he should know that the US Administration – the same Obama-led Administration that refused to recognise Mr Elliston Rahming as Bahamas Ambassador to the US and who has not bothered to appoint a US Ambassador to The Bahamas – listens to the views and opinions of American Senators and Congressmen! And, Mrs Ros-Lehtinen is the Chairperson of the powerful US House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Mr Mitchell has similarly been rudely dismissive of overtures from the Government of Panama regarding the possible interests of that country to offer residence to certain Cuban nationals detained in New Providence. While the Panamanian offer may not be practical given agreements in place between The Bahamas and the Republic of Cuba, there is no reason for the boorish behaviour of the Minister in discussing a proposal commented upon by the Panamanian Honorary Consul in The Bahamas, Mr David McGrath. Mr McGrath is a long time resident of The Bahamas and the McGrath family has long been considered “true friends” of The Bahamas.
That said, The Bahamas has been challenged by the inflow of undocumented persons or illegal immigrants for more than half a century. While people of many nationalities have been arrested, detained and repatriated from The Bahamas over many decades, people from Haiti and Cuba have posed the most difficult to deal with.
Challenges Presented by Undocumented Economic Migrants
Until the first FNM Government came to office in 1992, illegal immigrants found in The Bahamas were detained at Her Majesty’s Prison at Fox Hill together with persons detained for numerous other offences, some violent. This ran contrary to all international agreements and treaties concerned with the treatment of refugees or undocumented persons. Notwithstanding that only a small number of persons entering The Bahamas illegally actually meet the standard of an internationally recognised “political refugee”, the first FNM Government of The Bahamas took early steps to remove immigration violators from the prison and relocated them to more humane accommodation at an Immigration Detention Centre it created at Carmichael Road.
The Detention Centre has had a difficult history not least of all because of the added financial burden its creation, staffing, maintenance and upkeep have created for The Bahamas.
Most Cuban nationals ending up in The Bahamas have come because their intended travel to the United States has been interrupted – by bad weather, shoddy sailing vessels, etc. During the early 1990s, most of those with relatives in the United States were quickly able to arrange a transfer to Florida which kept their numbers in The Bahamas down.
However, with the adoption of the “US wet foot, dry foot” policy during the Clinton Administration, Cuban nationals leaving their home island and being stranded in The Bahamas discovered that they were no longer welcomed in the United States.
The new US policy admitted that most Cubans seeking to depart their home country were economic and not political refugees. The US also agreed that it would accept such Cuban economic immigrants who were successful in landing on US territory; eg “dry foot”. Those immigrants detained at sea “wet foot” would be returned to Cuba. The US Government also agreed to cooperate with The Bahamas in intercepting “refugee-laden vessels” – whether from Haiti or Cuba – when detected in international waters or in Bahamian waters so that the immigrants could be expeditiously and safely returned to their countries of origin.
Reluctant to return to their home island, Cuban nationals successfully landing In The Bahamas and aware of the new US policy which would not permit their easy transfer to that country have sought refugee status in The Bahamas. Most among this group continue to harbour hopes of eventually relocating to the United States.
Enter the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
The small Bahamian economy cannot absorb large numbers of economic immigrants. Moreover, were we to agree to extend economic refugee status to Cuban migrants, we would be forced to adopt a similar position toward requests from large numbers of economic refugees from many other countries, notably Haiti and other near-neighbour Caribbean countries.
Faced with the dilemma, The Bahamas, during the 1990s, engaged the assistance of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees in dealing with the growing numbers of undocumented persons arriving in The Bahamas and seeking to remain here. With the assistance of the UNHCR, The Bahamas was able to develop a protocol for interviewing new arrivals, separating out political from economic migrants and arranging for the timely, humane repatriation of economic migrants to their country of origin.
The success of this programme of repatriation has been dependent on The Bahamas also reaching agreement with the Governments of the Republic of Haiti and the Republic of Cuba, to accept their undocumented nationals being repatriated from The Bahamas. It should be recognised that having entered into such agreements with Cuba and Haiti The Bahamas cannot arbitrarily renege on the terms of the agreements and approve select number of economic migrants who may arbitrarily be facilitated in relocating to a third country if and when such offers might materialise. This would not augur well for orderly relations between The Bahamas and the governments of Haiti or Cuba.
Arrests, detention and repatriation exercises of primarily Haitian and Cuban nationals have been continuous over the past 15 to 20 years. They have been costly for The Bahamas, a small developing country with limited financial resources. No foreign country and no international agency, that we are aware of, has ever made financial assistance available to The Bahamas Government to defray these costs. Further, no country has ever agreed to offer undocumented economic migrants arriving in The Bahamas safe passage and residence in their country.
The costs of detaining, housing and repatriating undocumented nationals have been aggravated by the sometimes violent protests against confinement by immigration detainees. Apart from damage to furniture and supplies, these protests have resulted in serious damage to portions of the Detention Centre, including destruction of a dormitory by fire.
Protesting Cuban Detainees
Protests at the Carmichael Road Detention Centre have been almost exclusively carried out by Cuban nationals, sometimes with the vociferous support and financial backing of some Cuban nationals’ resident in either The Bahamas or in the United States of America.
In the most recent staged protest against their confinement in The Bahamas, Cuban nationals have released a staged video in which it is alleged that Cuban detainees at the Carmichael Detention Centre are subject to abuse by their Bahamian minders. The video is universally believed to be a fake by Bahamians of all political persuasions. However, there is a growing unease among some Bahamians that notwithstanding the bogus video, some allegations of abuse made against some Bahamian Immigration or Defence Force Officers posted at the Carmichael Road Immigration Detention Centre may have elements of truth.
After vehemently denying the authenticity of the staged video, the Government maintained a period of silence on any allegation of abuse at the Detention Centre. As leaks of reports of Cuban nationals being treated at the Princess Margaret Hospital for wounds possibly sustained during a break-out from the Detention Centre, the Minister of Foreign Affairs confirmed that investigations of allegations of abuse or use of excessive force in the recapture of escapees from the Detention Centre were underway.
Bahamian human rights activists have long campaigned against allegations of abuse against police and prison officers. And reports of human rights abuse have long been attached to tactics employed by immigration officers conducting immigration raids at the residences or in neighbourhoods frequented by undocumented migrants. It is not too far-fetched then for some to believe that some Immigration Officers might, in their exercise of their duties, exceed acceptable and sanctioned “use of force” when dealing with escaping immigration detainees.
Minister Mitchell has said that it is not Bahamian Government policy to abuse detainees. Of course, he is correct on that score. But that does not mean that abuse does not happen. Allegations of abuse must be investigated, vigorously and expeditiously. It is not good enough to say that allegations are being looked into and then carry on with “business as usual”.
The Minister has also engaged in juvenile bully diplomacy suggesting that Bahamian nationals adopt a “my country right or wrong” attitude in the face of allegations of abuse from Cuban Americans and threaten a Bahamian boycott of South Florida businesses.
Mr Mitchell’s suggestion of a Bahamian boycott is so immature and childish as to provoke laughter. Mr Mitchell must have some new secret market for Bahamian tourism and a more convenient source for the importation of so many of the essentials to life in The Bahamas now obtained from and through South Florida.
Certainly, the Minister has forgotten that tourism is the mainstay of our economy; that 90 plus per cent of our tourists come from the United States and that fully half of those originate from or transit South Florida on their way to our shores! Mr Mitchell has clearly forgotten that the money which Bahamians spend in South Florida is money made from American investments and American visitors to our country.
This is not child’s play. It is now urgent for the Minister of Foreign Affairs who also holds responsibility for Immigration, to bring the investigation into the alleged abuse of Cuban nationals to a speedy conclusion.
The results of that investigation should be made public and if it is determined that any officers or group of officers inflicted unnecessary harm on escaping detainees, they should be disciplined up to and including having criminal charges laid where warranted.
A casual attitude toward physical violence in law enforcement circles cannot be tolerated by a democratic government which maintains its respect for the human rights of all individuals living or resident in our country and which, as a member of the United Nations, has affirmed its commitment to respect and observe the international human rights conventions.
And, The Bahamas Government must do the necessary to restore Bahamian-US Relations to the warm and mutually advantageous footing. This can only bode well for the progress of both our peoples. That requires Prime Minister Christie placing responsibility for the conduct of the foreign affairs of our country in the hands of a new foreign minister, one capable of making appropriate recommendations for senior diplomatic and consular posts that would not cause embarrassment to the country, one not given to wasting scarce dollars pretending to open a Consulate General in Washington, DC, where a full Bahamas Embassy exists, one who will not needlessly rent extravagant accommodation for the high commissioner in London and one who will not undertake at public expense questionable travel around the globe unaccompanied by professional officers.