Port of Spain rises to the summit

Gail Alexander reports on how Trinidad and Tobago’s capital is preparing for the next Summit of the Americas and a US President Barack Obama

President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle stand outside the White House on November 10, 2008. Photograph by TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty ImagesTrinidad and Tobago`s Prime Minister Patrick Manning. Photograph by IossjrVenezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Photograph by IossjrWaterfront view of the Hyatt Regency hotel, Trinidad, where two major international conferences are scheduled to be held. Photograph by Edison Boodoosingh

Three months into his new job, in April, American President Barack Obama will not only have an opportunity to meet his Western Hemisphere counterparts, but he’ll also learn how stewed chicken tastes and see a regional model for racial harmony and economic stability in action.

Obama will find it all happening in Trinidad and Tobago, when the country rolls out the red carpet for hemispheric leaders attending the Fifth Summit of the Americas. The meeting, being held in T&T’s capital Port of Spain from April 17 – 19, has the distinction of being among the first big international engagements for the new US President. Apart from his wife Michelle, additional star power on the US team is expected in the person of new US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

It is the first of two significant international conferences to be held in T&T this year, marking a special historic period for the country. Seven months after leaders of the Americas caucus, leaders of the Commonwealth will also hold their 2009 summit there from November 27 – 29. Both summits will be staged at the country’s flagship conference centre, the Hyatt Regency (Trinidad), a new luxury 22-floor structure perched at the western seafront of the capital city. The two events bring together some of the world’s A-List leaders, from the youngest and newest of them to the oldest and most seasoned, from both the Third World and the First World.

The Summit of the Americas brings together the 34 democratically elected heads of state and government in the Western Hemisphere who are members of the Organisation of American States. Summits take place every three to four years to exchange ideas and opinions on political, economic, social and security challenges confronting the region.
This year’s conference theme, “Securing Our Citizens’ Future by Promoting Human Prosperity, Energy Security and Environmental Sustainability”, has been formulated at a particularly decisive moment in international history. Developing and recent full-blown challenges have positioned the three-day session to set a new course in global transitions. Regional territories, hit last year by the global financial and economic crisis had already listed food provision and price problems and deepening climate-change concerns as priority issues, along with poverty eradication, In November, summit co-ordinators also factored into the largely “green” agenda discussions on finances.

Viewed as a pivotal new moment in inter-American relations, the summit will therefore be faced with trying new challenges, but also many important opportunities. The conference holds the potential to influence the depth and tone of US and Latin American/Caribbean relations for the years ahead.

Obama, newest of the leaders of the Americas, is one of 20 new heads out of the visiting 34. It will be the first time that the leaders will meet him and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose territories held elections last year.

US Secretary of State Clinton may find the conference particularly interesting, since her husband, former President Bill Clinton, launched the concept of the summits in 1994. Female regional leaders will also hold the spotlight. Argentina’s President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who took over from her husband in 2007, will be alongside Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, Latin America’s first female head of state, and well known leaders such as Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega and Evo Morales of Bolivia.

Obama should not be completely unfamiliar with the Caribbean. His Attorney General Eric Holder has roots in Barbados, and his supporters in last year’s US presidential election included many Caribbean-born US residents. Trinidad and Tobago’s government is particularly looking forward to the arrival of Obama, whose statements on labour have been compared to the government’s social-compact thrust.

The event creates history for the Caribbean, presenting an ideal opportunity for the region to strengthen its role in the hemispheric bloc. And it’s a particularly significant event for Trinidad and Tobago, which holds the honour of being the first Caribbean Small Island Developing State to be summit host. Previous summit locations have included South America, Mexico, Canada and the US. The country is expected to enjoy a public holiday on the summit’s first day.
The southernmost of the Carib-bean islands, Trinidad and Tobago, whose capital now boasts a skyline similar to certain Florida cities, has been undergoing a transformation in recent years, commensurate with the country’s burgeoning business sector. Cushioned by energy revenues, business and tourism, a stable economic and political environment has made it a growing centre for investment, in the last decade particularly.

Its government, led by Prime Minister Patrick Manning, a 38-year political veteran, hopes to ensure that the summit’s focus remains on the people of the Americas and that discussions can elicit tangible and meaningful benefits for them.

Previous summits in Quebec, Canada, in 2001 and Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 2005 saw violence erupt at large protest demonstrations at both events. The Quebec summit was beset by anti-globalisation protests, while the Argentine demonstrations targeted the presence of then-US President George W Bush.

The widespread popularity of President Obama will hopefully have the opposite effect at this year’s summit. In any case, the country’s history of demonstrations has never come anywhere near the extremes seen at the Quebec and Argentina summits. While some local environmentalists and other activist groups are opposed to the government’s plan to build an aluminium smelter, how much of a showing they may make at the summit remains to be seen.

The government last March acknowledged that the mega-event – the first of its scope being held in T&T – is no small undertaking. Summit security plans include sharing and co-ordinated analysis and application of technical information relating to security, operations and logistics planning. Various agencies have established mechanisms, processes and procedures for accessing regional and international support. Equal emphasis is being placed on anti-terrorism systems, zoning of high crime areas and cyber-security. Security architecture is being shaped to deal effectively with threat levels associated with participating countries and their respective leaders. There is also a focus on threat assessments at regional as well as national level, plus air and sea security. All this is aimed to ensure the country makes a positive mark in summit history and reinforces the legitimacy of the event.

Rolling out the red carpet

In the last year, the US$100 million summit preparations have included leasing two cruise ships to accommodate guests and purchasing 200 luxury cars to transport delegates. The cruise ships will house the foreign press corps, estimated to comprise 1,200 out of the expected 5,000 visitors. An international media centre has been sited opposite the summit venue. However, the White House press corps, expected in large numbers, will probably stick closely to their new president.

In between discussions, leaders will enjoy the five-star facilities of the Hyatt Regency hotel, the centre of summit activities overlooking the Gulf of Paria.

As Trinidad’s premier conference centre, the Hyatt’s striking design includes a grand ballroom and presidential and diplomatic suites among its 428 rooms. Hyatt culinary experts are planning a range of culinary delights for leaders including traditional European fare alongside typical T&T tidbits.

Certain delegations, including that from the US, are expected to stay at the Hilton Trinidad, another five-star facility. Spouses of leaders will also enjoy a programme which will acquaint them with the country’s scenic beauty spots.

Piarco International Airport also has a plan in place to accommodate the flow of executive air traffic – including the US delegation’s Airforce One – bringing leaders to the country.

A “green” agenda

The summit’s Draft Declaration of Commitment mandates:

    Increased public awareness on energy and environmental issues
    Ensuring that the peoples of the Americas have access to information on energy, environmental and climate-change issues
    Ensuring the eventual stabilisation of greenhouse-gas concentrations in the atmosphere at safe levels
    Support for further dialogue, co-operation under the UNFCC and work towards global agreement at a further meeting in Copenhagen
    Directing ministers and relevant authorities in conjunction with the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank to review potential impacts of climate change on the Americas by 2011 and formulate national action plans for management and mitigation
    Discussing the global financial/economic crisis
    Reducing crime and insecurity
    Bilateral talks

OAS member states:

Antigua & Barbuda
Argentina
Bahamas
Barbados
Belize
Bolivia
Brazil
Canada
Chile
Colombia
Costa Rica
Dominica
Dominican Republic
Ecuador
El Salvador
Grenada
Guatemala
Guyana
Haiti
Honduras
Jamaica
Mexico
Nicaragua
Panama 
Paraguay
Peru
St Kitts and Nevis
St Lucia
St Vincent and Grenadines
Suriname
Trinidad and Tobago
United States
Uruguay
Venezuela