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Raffique Shah


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Caring too much about image

By Raffique Shah
April 26, 2009

Prime Minister Patrick Manning seems surprised that so many people are angry over this country hosting the Fifth Summit of the Americas. I wrote a few weeks ago that having committed the country to the summit when he did, he no doubt thought that we could afford that $500 million or whatever the real cost was.

He must have felt, too, that just having all hemispheric Heads of Government here would boost his image as a the premier Caribbean leader. I do not dispute his reasoning that the country would benefit from world recognition, only because it was billed as the battleground between Presidents Obama and Chavez.

But the comparatively limited resources spent on our world-class athletes at events like the Olympic Games, the football World Cup final and other events that attract billions of sports fans via media coverage, yield far more on a per-dollar basis than the summit did. So while these young, talented Trinis earn their places centre-stage, and promote the country by wearing and waving the national colours, the PM probably feels personally cheated.

Still, the summit did not thrust him onto the global stage. I don't recall the PM being interviewed on the world's most popular television stations or in the most widely read newspapers and magazines. If anything, internet "bloggers" were hard at work lampooning him. But global image aside, in what way did the country benefit from the summit? Did we strike some lucrative bi-lateral or multi-lateral trade deals that would open new markets for our goods and services? Were we able to source cheaper food from the big producing countries in Central and South America?

The PM may argue that the Declaration of Port of Spain contains many such possibilities. He would point "summit detractors" to items like: "We therefore renew our commitment to all the peoples of the Americas to improve the quality of their lives by strengthening inter-American cooperation..." Or this: "...deep inequalities continue to exist in our countries and in our region... we will continue to develop and implement social protection and inclusion policies and programmes that give priority to those living in conditions of poverty and vulnerability in our societies... we will continue to promote access to education, health, nutrition, energy, basic social services and to opportunities for dignified and decent work".

Haven't we seen similar declarations many times before that invariably yielded nothing for the people their leaders seem so concerned about?

Most Trinis are angry over the way the Government was eager to splurge on the summit, but remains stingy when it comes to dealing with our everyday problems. Outside of the various "zones" from which the natives were debarred, and even inside them, problems that can be easily dealt with are ignored by the PM and his ministers. In my district, for example, there are a few pot-holed parts of the Southern Main Road that can be restored in a few hours. Instead, they are allowed to further deteriorate, and compound commuters' and motorists' woes.

Crime continues to stalk us in just about every part of the country. Now the PM has appointed a Canadian brigadier who, he assures the nation, will devise a new anti-crime plan! Instead of adding 2,000 or more policemen to the woefully under-staffed Service, we pay yet another foreigner to tell us what? Growing old in this country seems to be a sin: pensioners literally starve, no doubt praying to die in order to escape their horrible winter years. These are the people who helped build their country, but who will never see the PM's Waterfront Wonderland from the outside, far less enjoy the inside.

While the Waterfront glitters, many schools are in shameful condition, hospitals deteriorate, vagrancy persists: I can go on and on, but to what end? Instead of addressing these problems that will cost less than the summit did-well, maybe more-the PM and his colleagues seem to care more about their images than the plight of their people. That is why so many people are angry and disappointed and have given up on seeing this country evolve into the paradise for which it has the potential.

I am not suggesting that the Manning Government has done nothing to uplift the country, as opposition parties and perennial naysayers would want us believe. I often wonder if these people did not benefit from education opportunities opened up by the PNM under Dr Williams, which successive governments have expanded and improved upon. While some districts remain mired in conditions that are primitive, others have grown in size and aesthetically. Water for all remains for many a pipe dream-but at least we have good quality water where and when it flows.

The main problem with the Manning government is it refuses to listen to voices of reason when it comes to prioritising development. Patriots are deemed enemies of the State because they speak out. It is in that context the summit was seen, sans legitimate protests, and with many citizens denied certain basic rights by Government-fiat. That was unacceptable, even illegal. Our people must never be cast aside as second-class to visitors, matters not who the latter are.

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