April 17, 2009
Trinidad hosts Hemisphere


Vincentian Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves is among 35 Heads of State and Government attending the Fifth Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain this weekend. This event, the largest gathering of the political leadership of American nations, is being hosted by a Caribbean nation for the first time, on only its fifth occasion. It is a recognition of the relative importance of the comparatively tiny Caribbean nations, dwarfed in size, population and economic clout by giants of the hemisphere such as the USA, Brazil, Canada, Argentina, Venezuela, and Mexico.{{more}} For Trinidad and Tobago, which hosts the Secretariat of the Association of Caribbean States, and which sought to be the capital of the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTA), it will be the first of two major Summits to be hosted this year. In November, leaders of the 50-strong Commonwealth of nations will also be welcomed in Port of Spain at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).

Although the Manning government in Port of Spain will be basking in the glory of being chosen to host such a gathering, the Summit brings with it many concerns. One of these will be security, especially in the context of international terrorism which knows no boundaries. In addition to the high-profile US President, there will be leaders of countries such as Colombia, Mexico and Peru, all of whom are familiar with armed conflict on their soil. Port of Spain will be faced with a lockdown, which is sure to create inconveniences for its citizens, particularly in terms of freedom of movement. This will no doubt be a political issue as are the wider concerns about the astronomical cost of staging both Summits, estimated at around $500 million.

Counterbalancing this will be the prestige of staging such an important event and, especially, being able to welcome the first black President of the United States of America. Though most Trinidadians will not be able to see this tremendously popular leader in the flesh, it will hardly diminish their joy at being host to him and welcoming him on Caribbean soil. President Obama and his charming wife have already won the hearts of millions on his first visits abroad, stealing the limelight at the recent G20 Summit for instance.

The Summit is much more than about Obama and any feel good factor, however. The hemispheric Heads meet in the context where the entire region is hurting from the fallout of the economic crisis racking the global economy. Poverty and hunger are still critical issues in our Americas and the “Human Prosperity” section of the Summit, one of three major focus areas, will be expected to reveal just what hemispheric strategies will be agreed upon to combat these evils. In times past, there would be all eyes turned to the powerful USA for solutions, but that country is itself badly hurt by the crisis and desperately trying to claw its way out of recession. There will be a limit to what an increasingly inward-looking US is prepared to do to help in these circumstances.

Yet, the United States cannot escape responsibility for the crisis. Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva put it bluntly when he said recently: “This crisis was fostered and boosted by the irrational behavior of some people that are white, blue-eyed. Before the crisis, they looked like they knew everything about economics, and they have demonstrated that they know nothing about economics.” Countries like ours cannot be blamed for the crisis, as in Lula’s opinion… “I do not know a single black banker”.

It is a sentiment widely shared in the hemisphere and of which President Obama will have to take stock as the Summit unfurls. There are also the critical issues of the environment, the effects of global warming, in particular, regional security and the fight against illegal drugs and all the criminal activities which go with it. Additionally, for Caribbean and several Central American countries, the recent position of the G20 nations to crack down on offshore financial centres will be a major issue at the Summit.

Finally, there is the issue of Cuba and the overwhelming call throughout the hemisphere, for the US to emerge from the confrontational Cold War politics and embark, like the rest of its neighbours on a new path of peace and friendship.