The Washington Diplomat / August 2010
By Larry Luxner
Barely six hours after Jamaica’s new envoy, Audrey Marks, sat down with us to describe her government’s efforts to bring law and order to the troubled Caribbean island, police finally arrested reputed drug lord Christopher “Dudus” Coke in a Kingston slum — ending one of Jamaica’s worst outbursts of violence in recent memory.
The June 22 arrest, and our exclusive interview, took place just days into Marks’s new job. One week later, President Obama accepted her credentials as Jamaica’s first female ambassador in Washington.
From the beginning, it was anything but smooth sailing.
“The day I arrived in the United States, the extradition request the U.S. had been negotiating was signed,” she said. Almost immediately, “Jamaican authorities had to take on a sort of insurgency from criminal organizations protecting the subject of the extradition.”
Yet Marks insisted that “there was no connection” between the Coke case and her appointment as ambassador — the timing of which seemed to imply she’d been brought in as a sort of diplomatic crisis control manager.
“My being here is more a function of the government wanting a different approach to diplomacy,” Marks told The Washington Diplomat over steaming cups of Jamaica’s famous Blue Mountain gourmet coffee. “We wanted to have someone here with a strong business background, because a major focus of the Jamaican government is to increase foreign direct investment and expand trade with the United States. And part of my background as president of AmCham Jamaica [the American Chamber of Commerce of Jamaica] for three years had me interacting with influential U.S. politicians and business executives.”
An elegant, well-coiffed woman who loves reggae, plays golf and steers clear of political jargon, Marks represents a glamorous break from the embassy’s male-dominated past. As the Jamaica Observer opined shortly after her appointment by Prime Minister Bruce Golding, “there is a sense everywhere that Jamaicans want to see Audrey Marks do well as she becomes the face and voice of Jamaica in the land of Barack Obama.”
But the newspaper also cautioned: “Marks is going to have to hit the ground running at full speed because of the nature and character of the times in which she is going to Washington, D.C. It will be a testing baptism for a neophyte to international relations given the current extradition impasse, the lack of a counterpart U.S. ambassador to Jamaica, the absence of outstanding Jamaican ally Congressman Charlie Rangel and not much of a baton from her predecessor.”
In fact, in mid-July the White House announced its intention to nominate Pamela E. Bridgewater as ambassador to the Caribbean island — a post that had been left hanging since January 2009.
Both countries denied that the delay in filling the vacancy was due to strained bilateral ties in the wake of Washington’s demand to bring Coke to justice — and Golding’s nine-month delay in acting on those demands.
Initially, Golding claimed that evidence cited in the U.S. indictment relied on wiretaps illegally obtained under Jamaican law. But he changed his mind amidst a flurry of embarrassing news stories revealing deep ties between Coke’s “Shower Posse” and Golding’s ruling Jamaica Labour Party (JLP).
In fact, Jamaica’s politicians and gang leaders have a long history of cozy, mutually beneficial relationships, with gangs pushing voters to the polls at election time in return for government favors and protection. Coke — whose own father enjoyed considerable influence in the JLP — received significant government backing for his various business interests after Golding came to power in 2007. Coke’s gang also maintains a tight grip over Tivoli Gardens, one of Kingston’s most notorious slums and a key base of support for the prime minister’s governing party.
After narrowly surviving a no-confidence vote over his connections to the Coke case, Golding relented and ordered police to close in on the alleged drug baron. The ensuing gun battles and violence left 76 dead in Tivoli Gardens, whose district is represented by Golding in parliament.
Marks defended the prime minister’s initial refusal as well as his eventual decision to extradite Coke — whom the Obama administration called “one of the world’s most dangerous narcotics kingpins” — so that he could stand trial in New York on gun-running and drug-smuggling charges.
“Tivoli Gardens is very loyal to the JLP. Therefore, it was a major political risk to Golding’s ability to get re-elected to make a decision that could be unpopular if it wasn’t clear that he had thoroughly examined the issue and was doing the right thing,” explained Marks. “But it was also important for the prime minister to convince [the people of Jamaica] that it wasn’t like throwing an innocent man to the wolves. Golding went through a process and came to the conclusion that he did.”
But Golding took quite a while coming to that conclusion, in the process hiring a U.S. law firm to reportedly lobby against the extradition request. Controversy raged around the relationship between the prime minister and the Los Angeles-based firm of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP, which was hired to represent the Jamaican government on unspecified “treaty issues” starting in August 2009 — the same month Washington began extradition proceedings against Coke. The engagement was terminated this past February, with Manatt receiving only $49,000 of the original $400,000 contract.
At first, Golding denied knowing anything about Manatt’s role — a claim from which he later backtracked.
Asked about the Manatt deal, Marks said “there’s nothing wrong with engaging a lobbying firm. Clearly it was just a misunderstanding that has been resolved. The prime minister came out and explained the relationship. Manatt was hired by the party, not by the government.”
The 42-year-old Coke, now awaiting trial in New York, faces the possibility of life behind bars for his activities — he’s allegedly one of the biggest marijuana, cocaine and heroin suppliers the eastern United States has ever seen. Nevertheless, Coke remains enormously popular among some Jamaicans, thanks to his generous handouts of food and cash to the impoverished residents of the western Kingston shantytown he calls home.
“It’s a typical Robin Hood story. Coke was regarded as a bandit, but also seen as a hero by the people he cared for,” Marks explained. “The truth is, in many developing societies — and especially in Latin America and the Caribbean — people outside the state become local leaders and provide protection and social services, but the source is usually from some form of illegal activity. Our government is determined to break the nexus between criminal networks that are usually associated with garrisons that are part of the political infrastructure.”
Marks passionately describes Coke’s extradition and the police crackdown required to enforce it as a “turning point” in the modern history of Jamaica, which achieved independence from Great Britain in 1962 but suffers one of the Western Hemisphere’s highest homicide rates.
“We must not only look at the suppression of crime in order to ensure stability and prosperity, but also socio-economic intervention in these communities,” she declared. “It’s going to happen this time, because this is the first time any political leader in Jamaica has taken this sort of action against his own political future. This is unprecedented. It’s the first time I’ve seen people break out of their fear and indifference, to say ‘no more.’ I’m talking about the masses of the people, the church, the media and the private sector.”
Eloquent and forceful, Marks was born and raised in St. Mary, along Jamaica’s northern coast not far from the well-known resort of Ocho Rios. After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of the West Indies, she launched several businesses, including a real estate company, a 100-acre banana farm and a transportation firm. The ambitious young entrepreneur made local headlines in 1997 with the establishment of Paymaster Jamaica Ltd., which quickly became the island’s leader in third-party payment systems.
Along the way, the future ambassador won Florida International University’s “Business Leader of the Year” award and became the first woman ever to head the island’s American Chamber of Commerce.
That background, says Marks, makes her uniquely qualified to be ambassador at such a difficult time in U.S.-Jamaica relations. “My mandate is three-fold: to enhance our political and economic relationship with the U.S. government, to expand business and investment opportunities in Jamaica, and to help develop the Jamaican Diaspora and its economic resources,” she said.
“Traditionally, this position usually goes to highly qualified persons, but more with a slant toward experience in the public sector,” Marks told The Diplomat. “My background as an entrepreneur means that you build business based on relationships entirely from scratch. Many times you have to create solutions out of very difficult situations. So in many ways, I feel as if all my life experiences have come into play now, for the benefit of my country.”
As a businesswoman, Marks said she’s proud of Jamaica’s economic achievements under Golding’s tenure.
“Not long ago, Jamaica had one of the highest debt burdens in the world, and people were worried about rising food and fuel prices. But this government has been able — for the first time in my life — to change the macroeconomic landscape to one where we can look to growth in the future,” she said. “For the first time in 20 years, Jamaica has a single-digit interest rate and our currency is actually appreciating.”
Another bright spot is tourism. In the last three years, foreign investors — led by Spanish resort chains Riu and Meliá — have added 5,000 hotel rooms to Jamaica’s inventory as the island competes against rivals Cuba, Dominican Republic and the Mexican resort of Cancun for lucrative tourism dollars. The smallest of four Riu properties in Jamaica has 400 rooms, while Bahia Principe contains 850 rooms in its first phase alone, and the Iberostar boasts more than 900.
While more Americans still visit Jamaica than any other nationality (about 62 percent of the total last year), Canada has become the country’s fastest-growing market for tourism. In 2009, according to government figures, some 300,000 Canadians visited — a 28 percent increase over 2008 figures.
“Even though we’ve clearly had to deal with an image of violence, our tourism figures remain stable, despite the worst of the economic downturn in 2009,” said Marks. “The fact is that the area of unrest in western Kingston is a four-hour drive from Montego Bay, Ocho Rios and other major tourist resorts. And violence against tourists in Jamaica is very rare.”
In addition, Jamaica’s legislature recently legalized controlled casino gambling over the objections of church leaders who for years blocked casinos on religious and moral grounds. Yet Marks — a mother of two daughters and a devoutly Christian woman who led Bible study sessions in her home every Friday night for years — says she’s behind the new law 100 percent.
“This government is very business-focused, and our position is that the benefits of controlled gaming as part of our tourism product far outweigh any of the negative consequences,” she said. The ambassador also pointed out that it’s much better to have carefully monitored casinos in five-star hotels than illegal, unregulated gaming on street corners, which is now the case.
Only three casino licenses will be given out, in very specific tourist zones. One of those three has already been committed to Florida-based Tavistock Group, which is investing $1 billion in a golf resort east of Montego Bay that will include hotels, private homes, three golf courses and a marina.
“This is probably going to be one of the biggest investments Jamaica has ever seen,” Marks said proudly. “We used to be a very up-market destination, and we want to get back there.”
Jamaica’s cruise-ship sector, meanwhile, will get a boost from the construction of a new cruise-ship terminal in Falmouth, east of Montego Bay. The terminal — representing a $135 million investment by the Jamaica Port Authority — will be the first along Jamaica’s north coast to accommodate the world’s largest cruise ships, including Royal Caribbean Cruise Line’s 6,000-passenger Oasis of the Seas.
“At the end of the day,” Marks says, “it’s going to come down to the rule of law and order. How is the economy doing? Do people have jobs?”
With that objective in mind, Marks let The Diplomat in on a little secret: Prime Minister Golding wants to follow the example of outgoing Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, widely viewed as a hero in his country for crushing the drug cartels, dramatically reducing Colombia’s kidnapping and homicide rates, and attracting foreign investment and tourists back to Colombian shores.
Plan Colombia, signed into law 10 years ago by President Clinton, allowed that country to triple its military budget and nearly double the size of its security forces — helping Colombia largely stamp out the FARC and ELN guerrilla groups that had long terrorized its people. In 2009, the country recorded only 213 kidnappings and 15,817 homicides, down from 2,882 kidnappings and 28,837 murders in 2002.
Yet since its enactment, the massive aid program has cost U.S. taxpayers $7.3 billion, making Colombia the world’s largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid outside the Middle East. And it’s raised disturbing questions about extrajudicial killings and various human rights abuses committed in the name of combating terrorism.
“In fact, we have been studying Plan Colombia,” Marks revealed. “What we really want — more than just military support — is to advance socio-economic intervention. The original Plan Colombia as envisioned by Uribe had that right alongside military action. But for the first few years, most resources went into suppression. We’re putting a focus on both happening at the same time.”
Marks added: “Jamaica might be a microcosm [of Colombia], but we have a state battling narco-criminals, even if on a much smaller level. If we don’t break the back of it now, clearly it will get worse.”
One indication of how deeply the violence has permeated this Caribbean island: The morning of our interview, Marks was elated that Jamaica — for the first time in many years — had actually survived 48 hours without a single murder.
“Normally there are up to five homicides a day. But it has dramatically fallen [since the raid on Tivoli Gardens], to the point where we had no homicides for two whole days,” said the ambassador. “But if Jamaica fails in taking on the narco-traffickers, the entire southeastern seaboard of the United States is in danger. This is a $38 billion-a-year industry. It’s not that easy to dismantle. So it’s in the U.S. national interest that we succeed.”