LISA JOHNSON, the US Charge d'Affaires in Nassau, answers The Tribune's questions about her country's views of Bahamian issues, from the gender equality referendum and the continued ambassadorial vacancy to crime, government accountability and Chinese investment.
Q: An Ambassador has not been appointed for the Bahamas since Nicole Avant ended her mission in 2011. Can you speak to the vacancy and whether this is an indication of the low priority of the diplomatic relationship between the two countries?
As you know, in February 2014, President Obama nominated Cassandra Butts to be the next Ambassador to The Bahamas. She was an exemplary public servant and, sadly, passed away unexpectedly prior to having the opportunity to serve here in The Bahamas. This was a great loss for both the United States and The Bahamas.
It is quite unfortunate that The Bahamas has been without an Ambassador for some time now. I can assure you that this has nothing to do with the strength or priority of our bilateral relationship. It has been entirely a function of US domestic politics. And now, from a practical standpoint, Cassandra Butts’ untimely passing likely means that the next Ambassador will not arrive until sometime in the new US administration.
Q: When does your term end? What initiatives do you consider to be most significant during your term in the Bahamas, and what insight can you share on your experience? Are there any items on the agenda that are still outstanding?
American diplomats in The Bahamas generally serve for a period of three years, and I have already been here for two. Time really does fly. I have enjoyed my time getting to know The Bahamas and Bahamians, and look forward to meeting many new New Orleans Pelicans and Connecticut Sun fans throughout The Bahamas as a result of Buddy Hield and Jonquel Jones’ success. Congratulations to both of them!
Like every other US Embassy in the world, our highest priority in Nassau is the safety of American citizens. I would like to recognise the men and women of the Royal Bahamas Police Force (RBPF) for the job they do every day to keep Bahamians, Americans and others safe. They have a tough and dangerous job, and it seems to be getting tougher and more dangerous all the time. We don’t say it enough, but the Embassy appreciates their efforts.
Our work with Bahamian partners such as the RBPF to help make The Bahamas a safer place remains a highlight of serving in Nassau for me. The United States provides about $2 million each year in assistance to The Bahamas as part of the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative, which we use to help Bahamian officials such as the police get the training and equipment they need to do their job effectively.
In recent years, this has included four new fast interceptor boats for the RBPF, training for the RBPF SWAT team, K-9s and other methods to detect contraband at the prison, and training and equipment for the Royal Bahamas Defense Force. It also includes workshops and equipment to help the courts become more effective and efficient, as well as funding to help address the root causes of crime though youth empowerment programs and substance abuse counselling and education. There is still more work to do, but I am proud of the difference we are making.
We’ve also made progress in other areas. The Bahamas is the first country in the Caribbean region to achieve a Tier I ranking in the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, meaning that The Bahamas is assessed as fully complying with the minimum standards for preventing trafficking, prosecuting traffickers, and protecting victims. This is an enormous achievement that would not have been possible without political will from the top of the Bahamian government and the tireless efforts of the Bahamas TIP Task Force and Committee. Ministry of National Security Deputy Permanent Secretary Karen Rigby deserves special mention. She was honoured by Secretary of State Kerry on June 30 as one of nine 2016 TIP Heroes worldwide for her work in leading The Bahamas’ TIP Task Force and Committee.
The Bahamas also deserves much credit for its decision last year to declare an additional 10 per cent of its marine environment as protected areas. We’re now very interested in exploring how we can help with the problem of enforcement, particularly when it comes to illegal fishing. In this regard, we are talking to the government about signing on to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s Port State Measures Agreement, which commits parties to establish and enforce robust measures to prevent illegally-caught fish from entering national and international markets through their ports.
We’ve also invited The Bahamas to join Sea Scout, an Obama Administration initiative that Secretary Kerry launched in October, 2015, to combat illegal fishing using existing and emerging technologies, enhanced co-ordination and information sharing, and capacity building. The Port State Measures Agreement and Sea Scout both will be major deliverables at the third Our Ocean Conference that Secretary Kerry will host in September. We are hopeful that The Bahamas will agree to join both prior to the conference.
Finally, we remain very interested in energy reform and increased use of renewable sources of energy. We understand from the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers’ Confederation that the reliability and costs of energy is the single biggest impediment to investment in The Bahamas. Of course, this hinders US investment in The Bahamas, but it also harms Bahamian companies and everyone who lives here.
We will continue to advocate for forward movement on energy reform and improvements in the reliability and affordability of electricity, while recognising that Bahamas Power and Light (BPL) will need time and resources to repair or replace its infrastructure, consider new technologies or alternative fuels, and invest in the people and equipment it needs to respond to customer issues and power outages. We also are going to continue to encourage The Bahamas to make better use of renewable sources of energy, both in New Providence and the Family Islands. Renewables increasingly are the fuel of the future, and adding them to the energy generation mix of The Bahamas just makes sense economically and environmentally.
Q: Are there any concerns over the current state of crime? Do you feel as though there could be greater US partnership on crime, or is the current level sufficient?
We do have concerns about the current state of crime in The Bahamas. My colleagues and I live here, and we are responsible for the protection of the millions of Americans that visit or reside in The Bahamas annually. As I’ve said before, the crime statistics are frightening, and the issue does need to be addressed more effectively before it starts affecting the Bahamian tourism market.
This is an urgent problem, but not something that is going to be solved overnight. Law enforcement has an obvious role to play, but crime is an issue that has to be addressed using a “whole of government” approach. The Bahamas needs an effective police force and an effective judicial system, but it also needs to tackle the root causes of crime, things like the breakdown of social and family structures, poor education leading to low employability, and lack of economic opportunities, especially for young people. That will take time, but it will pay large dividends over the long run.
As I said earlier, the United States partners with The Bahamas on virtually all aspects of crime prevention. Operation Bahamas Turks and Caicos (OPBAT) is the gold standard for international law enforcement partnerships, with Bahamian and American law enforcement officials working closely together to detect and deter trafficking in narcotics and other illegal items.
We’ve also heard clearly the concerns about guns from the United States being used to commit crimes in The Bahamas. In response, the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms has created an investigative unit in Florida focused on gun trafficking to The Bahamas and other Caribbean nations. We also now have a full-time ATF Special Agent assigned to our Embassy in Nassau to co-ordinate arms trafficking investigations with Bahamian authorities. This new partnership is in its early stages, but has already taken guns off the streets in The Bahamas and led to arrests and prosecutions in both The Bahamas and in the United States. These successes will grow as our cooperation on gun trafficking continues to develop and deepen.
Q: What are some observations on the gender equality referendum and its failed outcome?
Gender equality has been, and remains, a top strategic priority for the United States, and for President Obama personally. The President’s National Security Strategy recognises that countries that respect the rights of women and girls are more prosperous, more stable, and more secure. Since taking office, President Obama has expanded paid sick days and equal pay for more families, created more opportunities for women small business owners, and passed legislation covering women’s preventative care and saying that women cannot be charged more for health insurance just because they are women. The President also recognises that while we have seen enormous progress on women’s rights in our own lifetimes, we must continue to keep fighting because there are still battles that need to be won.
Some of those battles are right here in The Bahamas. The Embassy respects the Bahamian public’s decision on June 7. However, this was a missed opportunity to put Bahamian women and men on an equal legal footing and to bring The Bahamas into compliance with its international commitments, including under the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). We are committed to continue to work with the Bahamian government, civil society, and other partners to encourage the further advancement of women in all aspects of Bahamian society.
Speaking of partners, I’d like to congratulate Ms Marion Bethel on her recent election to the CEDAW Committee. This is an accomplishment both for her personally and for The Bahamas as a whole, as she will work over her four-year term to promote equal rights for women both around the world and here at home. We wish her the best of luck and look forward to working with her in this new capacity.
Q: The government has not made any changes to strengthen public procurement and increase transparency and accountability. What is the Embassy’s position on this?
The challenges faced in The Bahamas with regards to corruption and government transparency are not unique to The Bahamas. Every country and every government in the world face similar issues, including the United States. There is a growing recognition that we all need to promote more accountability and transparency. Now more than ever, citizens in the Western Hemisphere and around the world are making it clear that corruption and a lack of transparency are not going to be tolerated. As Secretary Kerry told the Council of the Americas in May, corruption robs the future of a country by not just stealing money from citizens, but also by stealing their trust in government.
I have been heartened to see over the last several months that the conversation on transparency also has started in The Bahamas. For example, Citizens for a Better Bahamas recently became a Transparency International (TI) National Contact, which is a step towards becoming a full-fledged TI Chapter.
It is important to note that this discussion is not just being carried out by civil society. In his April State of the Nation Report, Prime Minister Christie recognised that transparency is not just about letting citizens know what their government is up to, but also about making it easier for them to get business done with the government. We understand that the forthcoming National Development Plan will address the need for greater transparency and making it easier for Bahamians to access their government.
This seems to us to be a step in the right direction, particularly since the National Development Plan is being developed under the direction of a non-partisan Steering Committee and in consultation with an expansive set of stakeholders from around the country, which we hope will ensure that it enjoys broad support and endures from one administration to the next.
I also have to say that the Embassy is pleased to see the government taking steps to move forward with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). This has been a long time coming, but is an important step forward in the public’s ability to hold their elected representatives accountable. We’ve been pleased to see the robust public discussion that has taken place on the draft legislation. We also reviewed the legislation ourselves. It’s not perfect - no bill is - but we generally found it to be inclusive and providing specific details regarding access to public records, exemptions that may apply, and a process that applicants may utilize to remedy instances of non-compliance.
Q: What is the Embassy’s position on increased Chinese investment in The Bahamas, and has the Baha Mar debacle had an impact on American investors?
The United States does not object to Chinese investment in The Bahamas or in any other country. What we want to see is a level playing field on which decisions are made based on what makes business sense. We are convinced that when that happens, US companies can compete successfully against anybody in the world.
It also goes without saying that the United States remains The Bahamas’ largest economic partner. American economic activity in The Bahamas is vast, particularly when you consider not only the US companies that do business in The Bahamas every day, but all of the partnerships, exchanges and other relationships that exist between Bahamian and American business. We expect this to continue, and even expand.
The Embassy has had no involvement in Baha Mar, which at its heart is a private development and a legal dispute. There are, of course, US companies and citizens that have been impacted by the issues involving Baha Mar over the past year. Some Americans expecting to work at Baha Mar have had to make other arrangements and some US companies are included among Baha Mar’s unsecured creditors.