By Courtney Preston-McLain, Beth Dalton, and Michelle Mason
With pristine white sand beaches, lush waterfalls, and misty, vegetation-covered mountains, the island of Jamaica’s natural beauty captivates the eye and attracts adventure-loving and luxury-seeking visitors from around the globe. Jamaica has its share of world-renowned tangible (and tasty) wonders: from its jerk spice and its liquid-gold rum produced using local sugar cane to its remarkably smooth and sweet Blue Mountain coffee. It is also home to the UNESCO-designated intangible cultural heritage of reggae music. This music, made a household name by one of Jamaica’s most famous sons, Bob Marley, is a mix of styles that is instantly recognizable and encapsulates the island vibe. Other famous sons and daughters followed, including children of Jamaican immigrants former-Secretary of State Colin Powell (the namesake of Mission Jamaica’s primary residential building in Kingston) and Vice President Kamala Harris, as well as the very first Jamaican-born Ambassador of the United States to Jamaica N. Nick Perry.
The U.S. Mission to Jamaica was established in August 1962, soon after Jamaica declared its independence. This year, the mission celebrates not only 60 years on the island but a triple diamond jubilee—marking 60 years of Peace Corps service, and the 60th anniversary of USAID in Jamaica. Celebratory events are ongoing throughout this year in honor of this diamond jubilee.
“Diamonds can only be polished by another diamond into full brilliance, and for the U.S. Mission to Jamaica, we have three such diamonds working in harmony to achieve the best results for Jamaica, her people, and for the people of the United States,” said Chargé d’Affaires John McIntyre. “The U.S. has shared the bonds of friendship with Jamaica since independence, and our triple diamond jubilee is a celebration of that friendship since 1962.” The Mission is housed on a 9-acre compound with several buildings, a co-located Marine Security Guard quarters, large mango trees, and a central courtyard with flowering bushes and trees. The embassy, comprising 95 U.S. direct hire employees with more than 120 eligible family members, hosts the full complement of Department of State sections as well as a Foreign Service officer-led PEPFAR Coordination Office, and a very busy Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement team. The Mission also hosts a large interagency presence composed of Peace Corps; USAID; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); Departments of Defense, Treasury, Agriculture, and Homeland Security; and several key law enforcement organizations such as the Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Postal Inspection Service (the only embassy in the world to have a postal inspector), U.S. Marshal Service, Federal Bureau of Investigations, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. This confluence of organizations and agencies allows for dynamic coordination and strengthens the Mission’s ability to address key issues central to the safety and security of the United States.
Jamaica was first settled by South American Arawak or Taino Indian populations some 2,500 years ago; a population left relatively alone until “discovery” by European explorers in the 1490s. When the Spanish came to Xaymaca (land of wood and water), their arrival decimated the local population with violence, disease, and mistreatment. The Spanish did not develop a lasting presence, using the island rather as a base to repair and restock vessels. The British annexed the island in the 1650s, and the Spanish quickly ceded, freeing their slaves—who escaped into the mountains and became the foundation of the Maroons, a group that would become instrumental in the fight against slavery.
As the British began to settle Jamaica, sugarcane cultivation increased dramatically. Enslaved Africans were forcibly relocated to the island to augment enslaved locals in producing sugar, molasses, and rum, made from the local cane. Smaller uprisings by enslaved workers—led by locals like Sam Sharpe and Queen Nanny—and major events like the Maroon Wars drove the fight for freedom. After several bloody uprisings, Jamaica emerged as part of the British Crown Colony system. This led to improvements in infrastructure, education, health services, social structure, and finally a fully realized self-government. Jamaica formed its own constitution and declared independence, Aug. 6, 1962.
Jamaica is largely a success story, with a robust civil society, a history of generally free democratic elections and stable transfers of power, a relatively educated population, fertile agricultural land, and a first-rate tourism sector. The nation continues its positive trajectory, focusing increasingly on technology and the environment. The embassy is assisting Jamaica to transition to a digital economy by partnering with Arizona State University to drive technology sector workforce development, supporting U.S. investment in a national broadband network, and guiding the development of Jamaica’s 5G network. Additionally, Jamaica has committed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 25.4% and generate half of its electricity from renewables by 2030. The embassy facilitated Jamaica’s signing of the Greening Government Initiative and Global Methane Pledge.
Despite these successes, Jamaican society suffers from lack of job opportunities and struggles with high crime rates, drug and firearm trafficking, gang violence, corruption, and a longstanding lottery scam that directly targets American citizens. The embassy’s large law enforcement team has developed close partnerships with Jamaican law enforcement to help stem the tide of violence. Elsewhere, USAID focuses its efforts using the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative to help prevent youth crime and violence, strengthening family and community capacity, and building ties between the public and law enforcement. The Mission remains focused on engagement with Jamaica to develop a long-term, coordinated, and sustainable strategy to improve citizen security, education, development, and health. The promotion of LGBTQI+ rights and gender equality/equity play a key role in the U.S.-Jamaican bilateral relationship. Additionally, PEPFAR funding supports a Violence Against Children and Youth Survey in collaboration with CDC, the Planning Institute of Jamaica, and other partners.
The embassy’s involvement in health and wellness in Jamaica targets a variety of sectors including drug rehabilitation, rural health care, and HIV education and prevention. Mission activities focus on enhancing capacity, strengthening health systems, and supporting the sustainable response to public health priorities throughout the Caribbean region. Since 2008, PEPFAR has partnered with the Jamaican government and other stakeholders to advance the national response to the HIV epidemic. While the focus is helping Jamaicans better understand their HIV status and ensuring they have access to treatment, care, and testing, USAID also encouraged partnership with private sector health care providers, thus dramatically expanding care networks and accessibility to the public.
Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. government through multiple government agencies has provided more than $14 million to support Jamaica’s response. This has included helping set up an emergency operations center, providing life-saving commodities like intensive care unit beds, strengthening laboratory work and case tracking, improving prevention and treatment, facilitating vaccine delivery, amplifying risk communications, providing social assistance to the country’s most vulnerable populations, and donating field hospitals to increase the capacity of Jamaica’s health systems.
Centrally located amidst the Caribbean isles, Jamaica is home to the largest English-speaking population in the Caribbean and has deep familial ties to millions of Americans. These connections provide economic sustenance in the form of remittances, which exceeded $3.3 billion in 2021. In revealing the figures at the Global Diaspora Summit in Dublin, Ireland, recently, Minister of State in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade Leslie Campbell said that the increase in remittances during the pandemic was a “strong testament of commitment” of the diaspora community. Many U.S. companies are similarly entwined with Jamaican life. In fact, U.S. trade surplus with Jamaica exceeds $2 billion annually. Jamaica’s development, security, and economic ties to the United States are strong; but the current Jamaican government maintains friendly relations with Cuba and China as well. Chinese ties include historical migration, with a significant immigrant population in Jamaica, as well as multiple infrastructure and other investments and Chinese government loans throughout the island.
Jamaica and the United States share populations tied by more than economics, trade, and language—they share history and ties of blood. Jamaicans are the largest nationality of U.S. immigrants from English-speaking Caribbean islands. In fact, after the U.K. and Canada, the U.S. is blessed with the largest numbers of Jamaican immigrants worldwide, which drives a very busy consular section, one of the top 10 busiest worldwide. Many first, second, and even third generation Jamaican families in the United States have deep roots, mainly in New York and South Florida. In fact, Miami is known colloquially as “Kingston 22,” while part of Brooklyn is referred to as “Little Jamaica.”
As a main player in the U.S. Mission in Jamaica, the American Citizen Services unit assists not only Americans with Jamaican heritage, but also visiting tourists who come to enjoy the amazing flora, fauna, food, and fun Jamaica has to offer. Concurrently, post’s nonimmigrant and immigrant visa units process the tens of thousands of Jamaican applicants hoping to live, work, visit family, and travel in the United States. The Cayman Islands and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are part of the embassy’s consular district and are serviced by a combination of Consular agents and direct visits by embassy personnel.
Jamaica’s diverse population is well described by the national motto “Out of Many, One People” adopted in 1962, which rings familiar to Americans, whose own Latin motto (e pluribus unum) means the same. Most Jamaicans can claim African ancestry, and at least a quarter are of mixed ethnicity, including Chinese, European, East Indian, and even Lebanese descendants. Intermarriage among races is common and is seen in the multitude of hues, features, and forms of Jamaicans today. Jamaicans often speak patois in addition to English, and while the majority practice Christianity, some also practice Rastafarianism and other religions.
Athletic ability abounds in this island nation. Just like the famous Jamaican bobsled team from the 1988 Winter Olympics, and featured in Disney’s “Cool Runnings,” there is still an active Jamaican bobsled team. They competed in the 2022 Winter Olympics, after not qualifying since 1998. Jamaicans’ dominance of global track and field competitions is well established: some of the fastest people on earth, including Usain Bolt, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Elaine Thompson-Herah are from Jamaica. The island boasts competitive national teams in men’s and women’s soccer, rugby, cricket, and netball.
Mission personnel also find ways to stay active including: birdwatching in the lush green mountains, exploring waterfalls, golfing, playing tennis, hiking, snorkeling, and SCUBA diving. Opportunities for adventure abound. A tourist corridor stretches along the north and northwest coasts and includes the cruise ship port of Ocho Rios, dive sites sprinkled along Montego Bay, and the white sands and shallow bays of Negril. There are also countless opportunities to explore and experience “authentic” Jamaica; personnel have even been able to release sea turtles as part of the protection efforts of a local non-profit organization.
“Our Mission is a tight-knit community that draws its strength from the diversity of our embassy team,” said McIntyre. “Mission Kingston is a wonderful place to live and serve and we are fortunate to call Jamaica our home.”
Courtney Preston-McLain and Beth Dalton are vice consuls at Embassy Kingston. Michelle Mason is management counselor and acting deputy chief of mission.