Monday, September 29, 2008

US Ambassador Brenda LaGrange Johnson bats for Jamaica

In her activities and associations, Ambassador La Grange Johnson believes in putting people ahead of politics - no wonder her friends call her "every Democrat's favourite Republican".

by Jean Lowrie-Chin - Jamaica Observer - Mon 29 Sept 08

"The first thing Barbara Walters said to me when she heard I was US Ambassador to Jamaica was, 'Congratulations on Bolt'," relates Brenda LaGrange Johnson. She was seated at the same table with the media veteran for the Tennis Hall of Fame Dinner in New York City earlier this month. "Usain Bolt is a superstar," Mrs La Grange Johnson enthused. "My eight-year-old grandson has been begging me to get him to visit his school."

She feels very blessed to be on assignment in Jamaica for this dynamic phase of our country's history: "Imagine, Jamaica has had eight prime ministers and I have worked with three." She also oversaw the completion of and smooth transition to the new US Embassy buildings in Liguanea, St Andrew, started by her predecessor the legendary Ambassador Sue Cobb.

Braving the initial controversy over the location, Mrs LaGrange Johnson and her predecessor can be proud of this 107,000-square foot complex that is the most impressive modern building in Jamaica. It combines structural strength with environmental aesthetics that have silenced even the most vocal critics. Indeed, the acoustics in the Embassy Atrium have made it a favourite of Jamaica's singers and musicians.

It helps to have a sense of humour. "Here I am, a Republican," says the charming ambassador, "serving in a country and working in a State Department where many are pro-Democrat." She has had 20 years to get used to it: her partner Merle in their New York-based business BrenMer, was a staunch Democrat, yet they continue to be the best of friends.

Admiring her philanthropic spirit as she served causes for the arts, social development and health, Mrs LaGrange Johnson's friends had long known that she would make a fine ambassador. However, various circumstances kept her from applying until 2005, and she relates amazingly that the very day she went to the White House to make her formal application was the day Ambassador Cobb advised of her impending retirement. When offered the post she immediately accepted, recalling fond memories of her honeymoon trip to Jamaica with her husband Howard in 1968. (They have four children and six grandchildren.)

Not only does Mrs LaGrange Johnson know Senator John McCain, he was actually the person, along with Senator Susan Collins, who had introduced her to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The chairman of that committee happens to be Democratic senator and Barack Obama's running mate, Joe Biden, who she recalls was very gracious at the hearing. McCain gave Mrs LaGrange Johnson such a glowing introduction that her son joked to his siblings, "He couldn't be talking about our mother!"

Although she has never met Obama or Palin, the ambassador admires the four candidates. "They are all sacrificing their privacy, putting their lives on the line for their country," she remarks. "I say thank you to these public servants and indeed to those here in Jamaica. I don't think I could do it - I am too sensitive to weather the harsh criticisms directed at political candidates."

Mrs LaGrange Johnson has been enthusiastically working with local inner-city upliftment and education programmes. The USAID-funded Centre for Excellence in Teacher Training (CETT) has been making strides and as a former teacher in her native New York, the ambassador is dedicated to its mission. She has been collaborating with the Prince's Trust on the Rose Town project and at a dinner with Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace this year, assured him that she would continue to participate even after her tour of duty ends.

The US ambassador has also represented Jamaica strongly and positively on the world stage. Last year, just a month after Jamaica was reeling from the blows of Hurricane Dean and a hectic general election, she batted for us in New York City at the prestigious 500 Club annual event.

She assured investors that Jamaica was open for business, quoting from the Doing Business Report that "Jamaica ranked 11 out of 178 nations in ease of starting a business". She cited the examples of "our friend Chris Blackwell who has never stopped investing", Digicel and Joe Lewis of the Tavistock Group who are bullish on Jamaica.

"There is a lot of money to be made in Jamaica," the ambassador told the audience. "You can make a lot of money in Jamaica. A prime sector for big returns is high-end, niche tourism, in specialty areas like retirement, health care and attractions. Wouldn't it be great to re-create the world famous town of Port Royal into a premier cruise destination? Real estate development, financial services, and telecoms are other areas of real promise. The time to invest is now... The early entrants will not only make the biggest difference, but also take home the most profit."

The ambassador told them that Prime Minister Bruce Golding was "the reformist, whom I refer to as the Sarkozy of the Caribbean. He has emphasised an inclusive Jamaican government, in support of the rule of law and checks and balances."

She is impressed by "his amazing ability as a speaker" recalling his address at last year's Caribbean HIV-AIDS conference just a few weeks after he had been sworn in, where he used few notes and "had every statistic".

Mrs LaGrange Johnson dearly wants to see a reduction in crime and expressed respect for National Security Minister Colonel Trevor MacMillan and Commissioner of Police Rear Admiral Hardley Lewin. National security programmes of successive administrations have received substantial support from her government.

She is entranced by the country's natural beauty, especially the north coast, our mountains and, just a stone's throw from the embassy, Hope Gardens. The Ambassador and her supportive husband are continually "selling" Jamaica. They have chosen north coast hotels for a large reunion while their daughter will be hosting over 100 guests here for her birthday party.

In her activities and associations, Ambassador La Grange Johnson believes in putting people ahead of politics - no wonder her friends call her "every Democrat's favourite Republican".

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