It is a pleasure for me to respond to your invitation to address the state of Bahamas/United States relations. The substantive Minister is out of the country as Head of Delegation for The Bahamas in Jamaica at the First China-Caribbean Economic and Trade Cooperation Forum, which will last from 2nd to 5th February.
Today, I shall attempt to highlight the good nature of our relations between the United States and The Bahamas. The relationship continues to grow from strength to strength as we cooperate on both a political and economic matters. There is no question that culturally we continue to be close, and the contact of our people on all levels with the people of the United Sates grows every year.
Last year five million tourists visited The Bahamas, of those some 90 per cent are U.S. visitors. In the main, they enjoyed their stay here, and they have good memories of The Bahamas. You can test it yourself when you go to the United States and mention the name of the country, The Bahamas gets a positive response.
I think it is important to point this out particularly against he background of the exposes by the Miami Herald over the last week. The newspaper painted an unflattering and unbalanced portrait of the true Bahamas. Its last editorial commentary ď Paradise LostĒ is a misnomer. The Government believes that the community in South Florida led by the Miami Herald should have no stock in unflattering portraits of The Bahamas since both of us share a commonality of interests. It is in our interest to ensure that the two communities work together on common problems, interests and themes. A more formal response to those articles will be coming from the Government.
Last week, you had the honour of hearing from the new United States Ambassador to The Bahamas John Rood. The Ambassador represents his country well, and we work together closely on a range of issues. The Ambassador and the Foreign Minister are expected to travel to Washington in a joint effort to meet with the Florida Congressional delegation on 2nd March to discuss the developing relations between the two countries. There is likely to be a major military exercise in April in The Bahamas should all the various agreements be settled in time. That should pump significant monies into our economy. We expect to make joint efforts at speaking to various groups in the Florida community about The Bahamas and its relations with the United States. On both a personal level and on a country-to-country basis, things are going well.
I think it is important to keep saying this because we have a certain section of the press in this country that keeps inventing stories about the relations between the two countries. The most recent vintage was that secret service protection was withdrawn for all ministers of the Government save a category of four persons in the Government. That is simply not true. In the first place, secret service protection is not available for any Bahamian official traveling to the United States or any country unless there is a threat to that personís security while traveling in that other country. That does not apply to any minister of the Government of the Bahamas and none is requested for ministerial travel to the United States. Secondly, when the Head of Government of this country, the Prime Minister is traveling to another country, including the United States, that state usually provides a security detail unless that head decides to waive the need for a security detail. So there has been no withdrawal of secret service privileges for anyone traveling to the United States.
You will not be surprised if I do not describe this as mischief of the most insidious kind.
What I would add, however, is that in any relationship there will be issues over which we disagree but friends always work these things out. With this government, we are dedicated to working with our friend the United States to solve common issues. Chief amongst these issues will be in the future as they have been in the past, the anti drug effort, the Haitian issue, and economic trade and investment.
It is important for us to concentrate on the positive in our relationship. The Prime Minister himself described the state of our relations with U.S. President George Bush when he said that as friends we can speak frankly to one another and protect one anotherís interest no matter what the forum is. There is a level of trust between The Bahamas and the United States that undergirds the relationship.
Our Ambassador to Haiti Dr. Eugene Newry just recently returned from Port au Prince where he spent seven days speaking with the Haitian Government. He has returned and reported that the security situation appears to be improving. You will have noticed today that elections are to be called in October and November of this year. The Bahamas feels that this is a key development. We are urging our Caricom partners to fully engage in the organizing and conduct of those elections. We hope to be in a position to help with them as well.
Haitiís stability is important for the stability of The Bahamas.
I mentioned that the Foreign Minister and the Ambassador will travel to Washington for talks with Florida congressional delegation. Those talks will include an effort to save funding for the OPBAT initiative. That is the major drug-fighting arm of the US/Bahamas relations. OPBAT is a remarkable success story, and it should be continued and properly funded. This trip is an effort to reaffirm the governmentís commitment to the fight against drugs, and to ensure that the Florida delegation sees that the two countries and Florida in particular have a stake in the continuance of OPBAT.
In the future, you can expect to see greater cooperation in maritime matters as the Comprehensive Maritime Agreement that was signed last year between the two countries becomes more fully operational. The environment is important to us in The Bahamas, as we believe that this agreement will help in that effort.
The government is pledged to review the Royal Bahamas Defence Force and its integration into the fight against drugs and migrant smuggling. The joint efforts between the US Coastguard and the RBDF on anti smuggling patrols, anti drugs, search and rescue are good examples of cooperation. As a result of the recent Commission of Inquiry, the Government is pledged to look at reform of the RBDF in all of its aspects including the leadership of the force and its command and operational structures.
The Bahamas certainly appreciates the sizeable and immediate assistance given by the United States whenever hurricanes or natural disasters strike our country. Hurricanes Jeanne and Francis struck the islands last year but the help of the U.S. immediately began to alleviate some of the suffering from the hurricane. That country continues to help. The Ambassador is helping in a personal way by contributing some $90,000 of his personal funds to contract a new dwelling house for bonefish Foley in West End, Grand Bahama.
Today then, I have tried to concentrate on the positive. I am sure if any one searches they will find some differences of view. They are there but the US/Bahamian relationship is the closest of all of our international relationships. It is one of mutual respect and admiration for what we both have. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Minister both pledge to work toward a continuance of the good relationship.
I thank you very much indeed.