The 600 million dollar man


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Category: Profiles 12 Apr 09

“Not Obama,” said an editor at the UK Guardian on a sunny morning last week as we sipped herbal tea. “Write about something else. Journalists are lining up the street and around the corner to write about Obama.” The earth had moved since I last did a freelance stint at Guardian/Observer in its offices seven years back when the premise was that rich old white established men ran the world and that journalists had to do their bit to redress the balance.

That hunch was correct because that closed old-boys group triggered a world recession with their greed. Now the world revolved around an African American president and his wife Michelle, who was drawing comparisons with Lady Diana for her empathy and compassion and Jackie O for her style. This Guardian Observer group kept pace with the times, having moved from its slightly industrial look in Farringdon Road to new swanky offices in Kings Cross. Back then the computers were old fashioned and it took me ages to figure out the spell-check.

You could still see some old hacks then, smoke spiralling from their offices, mugs rimmed with remnants of stale coffee, refilled, unwashed over countless deadlines. Now, in the waiting room smartly dressed assistants affix you with a typed name tag. There are brightly upholstered modern chairs, views of the river, flat screens with current news, simultaneously running digital podcasts, blogs, online columns and streaming video online. The cubicles where no one has ever smoked, is more an Ocean 11 scene than the legendary Fleet Street. Obamas belong with new technology.

New template

I couldn’t picture President Obama with the old hacks. It’s no coincidence that he raised most of his campaign funds online, or that he’s hooked to his Blackberry.

The man who makes the status quo, the old boys clubs, squirm with difficult questions, on behalf of the small man. A man who inspires the ordinary working people of the world like the taxi driver in London (who was chuckling over Obama’s decision to slap an 80 per cent tax on enormous corporate bonuses) is in the process of creating a new template. We in the Caribbean and Latin America have been largely left out of this change. Our leaders remain removed from the people—our politics partisan; politicians patronising rather than inclusive. But the foundations are shifting with the times.

Felipe Noguera, media co-ordinator for the Fifth Summit of the Americas, which takes place in Port-of-Spain this week, tells me a thousand journalists from around the world are coming here to cover Obama’s participation in the conference. They want to report a new world order. Noguera believes that “for the lofty aims of the summit, our region’s leadership has to become more accountable with politics with principle, science with humanity, education with character, business with morality.
“So far we have had the opposite, which is why there is poverty, global warming and conflict.”

It took ten negotiating sessions to get the 34 countries of the Western Hemisphere with Ambassador Rodriquez, national acting co-ordinator of the Secretariat, to arrive at consensus on a 97-paragraph document, which Noguera acknowledges as an Herculean achievement. “Many of the 34 participating countries have very divergent official positions. Yet for example Venezuela and the US are bringing huge contingents.” He says, “from Venezuela to Texas we have all recognised that we can’t solve the problem of poverty and social decay on our own. “The youth, the private sector, the minorities, the indigenous people all need to participate towards a collective solution that affects the lives of ordinary people in the hemisphere.”

Expensive lesson

Our country is getting ready—let’s not fool ourselves—mostly in the hope that Obama will make this conference different from the other talk shops.
Capacity at the hangars at Piarco has been increased by 50 per cent for the presidential planes; roads have been paved; walls have been built to sanitise the view; there was even an attempt to round up the vagrants who miraculously disappeared; Brian MacFarlane is readying himself for the greatest show on earth and there is paint everywhere.

President Obama will arrive with his contingent of 1,000—his security detail, medical team, jets, armoured cars, staff and delegates. Noguera has put the price tag of the Summit between $500 and $600 million. The question now is will Obama be our 600 million-dollar man? Will it be worth it for us? The Economist is dismissive saying, “For Trinidad, the summit is a chance to promote itself as a Caribbean hub. But it is a small one: with hotels swamped, many summiteers are staying in specially chartered cruise ships.” For those who say the price tag is too high, the returns uncertain, the pressing concerns of unemployment, literacy and health and an impending recession are greater; it’s too late.

We are now hosts. Noguera wants our people to do us proud, be gracious, informed, not to put pressure on our security forces to participate in the Peoples Space on April 15 and 16, engage with our four thousand visitors saying “the impression they receive will stay with them.” It can be an opportunity for Obama to bring politics for the people to our country. He can persuade our leaders to recognise that it was always about the people behind the wall. The first lady Michelle can remind us again that its about self-reliance, and not easy money. And President Obama, the Economist reports, is coming here to “focus on social inclusion and equity.” That lesson may be worth $600 million.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur