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Engaging the future

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24.APR.09

Was the Fifth Summit of the Americas, which concluded in Port of Spain last Sunday, a resounding success? Did the Caribbean gain anything substantial from its participation in that gathering? Was Trinidad and Tobago justified in hosting this high-level meeting, given its cost and the context of the global economic crisis?{{more}}

It is in these terms that many pundits and ordinary people alike are trying to assess the recent Summit, the first of its kind to be held in these parts. That is the level of much of the discussion whether face-to-face, in social groups, in the media or online. It is not necessarily the most appropriate way to approach the matter, however. For one, big meetings like these tend to raise expectations, but much of what comes out of a Summit is worked out in preliminary discussions before the leaders even meet. This one was no exception. However, the sheer scale of the global financial crisis, the pre-Obama approach to issues and the solidity of hemispheric opposition to the outmoded US embargo against Cuba meant that predetermined positions in the Final Declaration could not get unanimous approval. As a result, there was no formal signing of a Final Declaration.

Does that mean that the Summit was a failure? Far from it, if one takes an objective look at the accomplishments. In the first place, where the Caribbean is concerned, the Summit confirmed that the Caribbean is in sync with the rest of hemispheric opinion. There are those who, cowed by the hostility and reactionary nature of the previous US administration, were trying to make out that CARICOM as a whole and particular countries within it were running afoul of hemispheric harmony. That view has been proven to be an erroneous one. The single most important feature of the Summit was that it ushered in a new era in US/Western hemisphere relations. It was a Summit, in the words of US President Obama, “not bound by the past” but clearly looking to the future.

Those who had speculated about possible “conflict” and “disagreement” witnessed instead “dialogue” and “engagement”. The Caribbean played no small part in bringing this about and in building bridges. Such links were in dire need of restoration after the disastrous period of neglect and cold-shouldering, occasioned by principled disagreement with some of the most strident policies of the previous US administration. The new US president can also take much credit for this. Even on Cuba, not only a sticking point in US foreign policy, but a contentious domestic issue as well, it was clear that Obama was prepared to listen. Not to lecture, threaten or cajole, but to “listen”. Thus, he was able to hear how the Caribbean views hemispheric relations, not just in terms of a compelled cooperation in the fight against drugs (remember the Shiprider Agreement?), but in development terms. It was in this context that the US president could say that he found out how much Latin American and Caribbean countries value Cuba’s selfless medical assistance. From this, he was able to conclude that the US needs to review developmental assistance to the region. If that is not a big plus for us, then something is wrong.

That does not mean that overnight everything has changed in our favour or that a great deal of follow-up work on the diplomatic side is not necessary. President Obama has his own limitations and his powers are not boundless. But even hearing from the three US Congressmen who visited St. Vincent and the Grenadines after the Summit, one could sense that ears are open now to Caribbean concerns-about financial services, criminal deportees, partnerships in development. According to President Obama, the USA “will have to rethink its foreign policy”. Viewed in this light, given Obama’s actions: the closing of Guantanamo, loosening of restrictions on Cuban-Americans, renewing relations with Venezuela, and his expressed desire for further dialogue with the Caribbean, one can only conclude that this augurs well for the future of hemispheric relations. That, we all desire.

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