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We live in a real world

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In my last column for 2009, I began reflecting on the past year, focusing in particular on the connection between events at the global and regional levels with what occurs here at home. Getting a correct grasp of such external happenings allows us to place our own local developments in a more realistic perspective and to avoid the oft-repeated mistakes of believing that all of our problems (and hence solutions) have their basis in the actions of local political leaders.{{more}} While, naturally, the policies and actions of local leaders have a significant bearing on how we are able to ride the tides of economic fluctuations, it is also true that in our very vulnerable state as a small, underdeveloped, open economy, our leaders are far less powerful as they would like to make us believe.

This interconnection between the wider world and our own society is important if we are not to be doomed to making the same mistakes over and again running from one party or leader to another, in the elusive search for a political salvation which is never realized. Even in what seems as purely localized situations, sometimes powerful external forces are at play which have significant bearing on the outcome. Take Haiti for instance. The earthquake and its impact are felt directly by the Haitian people, but there are serious external factors which can influence greatly the direction of the post-earthquake recovery.

The scale of the disaster, added to the socio-economic and political calamity which was Haiti before the earthquake, has stirred international public opinion such that, literally, countries, international institutions, and all kinds of organizations, are tripping over each other in their haste to not just provide relief assistance, but to be seen as so doing. Yet even in the midst of the tragedy, it is becoming clear that there is international power play as well. In particular, there is concern over the role of the US military in providing relief.

The decision of American President Barack Obama to order a “swift and aggressive” military campaign to provide humanitarian aid to Haiti, while welcomed globally, is causing some rethink in many, based on how it is being put in practice. The USA, because of its resource base, military capability, and proximity to Haiti, is by far in the best position to decisively influence the relief effort in Haiti. It has already obtained the permission of Haiti’s threadbare government to take over its international airport, thereby determining who and what can get in or out of Haiti.

The exercise of this prerogative, however, is the source of much controversy. Last week, for instance, the Prime Minister of Haiti’s closest CARICOM neighbour, Jamaica was prevented from landing in Port-au Prince. Other international organizations and even countries have had similar experiences. This has prompted the French Minister for International Co-operation, Alain Joyandet, to make an official protest last Saturday after US military air traffic controllers at Port au Prince airport turned back a French aid flight carrying a field hospital. French and European aid agencies have also complained of obstruction. The French minister was apparently so incensed that he reportedly demanded that the United Nations clarify the role of the US in the aid effort. “This is about helping Haiti,” he is quoted as saying, “not about occupying Haiti.”

The major international news agencies have also heavily skewed their reports around the American aid efforts. But many others, countries and organizations alike, are making valuable contributions. Very few of us know for instance that the southern African nation of Namibia, itself recovering from years of national liberation and civil wars, has donated US $1 million. How many of us know that not only are the 400-plus Cuban doctors in Haiti before the earthquake, tending to the sick and wounded but that Cuba has sent back the more than 500 Haitian medical students in Cuba to Haiti to help their brothers and sisters. The renowned international medical brigade “Doctors without Frontiers” is on the ball treating Haitians as well.

So the international dimension can play an important role in shaping local events. Thus our economic problems are fundamentally rooted in global factors – the worldwide meltdown, the latest blow against bananas etc – though the prudent management of them locally can help to mitigate the worst effects. We have to be cognizant of this as well as of what are the realistic possibilities for small countries like ours. The ideological blinkers and purblind outlook of some of our politicians are not helping our people to understand the real world in which we live.

Take our international airport, under construction, for instance. It is all well and good to call for greater transparency in the role of Cuba and Venezuela in it, but this should not lead us into blind opposition to a project which, if properly executed, can be pivotal to our own economic and social development. Chavez and Castro aside, what do we do about airport development? Who else is prepared to help us with such a massive project? The US? Canada? UK? Should we shun aid from Iran but permit our sons to go and fight in Afghanistan and Iraq? To what purpose?

If we do nothing else in the “silly-season” of election politics in our country, at least we can try to ponder on these and related matters and see if we can get a more realistic view of our place in international politics and how best we can chart our own course through such troubled waters.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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