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Trinidad and Tobago

Trinidad hosts CHOGM: Pride or prejudice

Rita Payne  Nov 26, 2009

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago (eTN) - This week the tiny Caribbean state of Trinidad and Tobago is going to be at the center of the world stage. As host of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), its prime minister, Patrick Manning, will be mingling with the top international leaders. Among them will be the British Queen and Head of the Commonwealth, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India, other Commonwealth leaders and special guests, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and the UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon.

This is the second summit being held in Trinidad this year. In July, it played host to the Summit of the Americas with US President Barack Obama proving to be the star attraction.

One would have thought this would be a matter of great pride to Trinidadians, but to my surprise this is far from the case. Everyone I came across was scathing about the Prime Minister Manning and what they considered to be his vanity and profligate spending. They say these high-profile events are designed to boost his personal image and do nothing for the country.

“All fizz and no beer,” is how one outspoken Trinidadian socialite described the prime minister. “The country gets nothing,” she said, “ it’s all for show. He’s spending millions on grand buildings and showpiece projects, while the poor get nothing. The education and medical services are in a mess. Children are running wild because there aren’t enough teachers to supervise them; the poor don’t have access to doctors or medicine and the crime rate is a scandal. It’s a disgrace.”

Taxi drivers, who one would have thought, would have welcomed the extra business, shared the same view. The prevailing opinion seems to be that the government, drawing on its rich oil and gas reserves, is spending like there’s no tomorrow, but many ask what will happen when supplies run out. Besides, some say, little attention is paid to the environmental consequences.

One of the reasons CHOGM is attracting extra attention this year is because it’s seen as the last chance for world leaders to prepare the ground for what’s regarded as the make or break climate change summit in Copenhagen in December. Patrick Manning’s critics argue that he doesn’t give a toss about the environment; setting up power plants, factories and other expensive industrial complexes in totally inappropriate places. One newspaper ran a report about deer, rare monkeys and other wildlife fleeing with nowhere to go as a forest was cleared for yet another lucrative power project.

Another point that’s been made is that the government is not interested in promoting tourism in Trinidad; this is being focused on the island of Tobago. Nevertheless, the capital, Port of Spain, with its picturesque hills, scenic views of the sea and historic colonial buildings, has much to offer the tourist.

I stumbled across a charming guesthouse run by a big-hearted and energetic 79-year-old lady who went to school with the sister of V S Naipaul, the internationally acclaimed author who grew up in Trinidad. Naipaul apparently spent a couple of weeks at our guesthouse that is located in an exclusive area of the capital with a river flowing at the bottom of the lush garden. Maria was an interior designer and with her good taste, sharp eye for detail and design she’s created a house and garden which serves as a perfect base for a writer or any other visitor wishing to learn about the country and its people.

Maria has a rich fund of stories about her Portuguese background and life in Trinidad and Tobago. She is a hostess extraordinaire and keeps an open house catering for a non-stop flow of friends and guests with superb food and wine. She organized a lavish lunch for more than twenty of her friends and invited us to join them. Each of the guests had fascinating stories about their backgrounds, a mixture of Portuguese, African, East Indian, Lebanese, Scottish, English, Irish, and Chinese. They shared a common pride and delight in the way these diverse backgrounds had influenced food, music and culture on their islands.

The prime minister’s critics who condemn his love of the limelight and are skeptical about his motives for hosting prestigious international gatherings could well be missing the bigger picture. There is little doubt that Trinidad and Tobago, as the most developed and prosperous states in the Caribbean despite a population of just under one-and-a-half million, is emerging as a strong voice in the region; the prime minister has clear ambitions to make a mark in the international arena. It’s too early to know what the long-term benefits are likely to be. There is, however, little doubt that ordinary Trinidadians have pride in their heritage and a deep love for their country which will survive long after the world’s leaders have left with their trappings of power and patronage.

Rita Payne is the chair of Commonwealth Journalists Association (UK).

Trinidad hosts CHOGM: Pride or prejudice
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