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Category: Reflections 26 Apr 09


I walked along Wrightson Road trying to get out of the red zone and home that Friday, April 17. The street was deserted. Ahead tiny lights created an outline of the Brian Lara Promenade, putting the darkness into relief. The only footsteps I heard were mine. In the shadows, lurked uniformed men and big guns. A soldier put his hand on his gun as I walked by. The last time I felt this mixture of adrenalin was in 1990 - walking in the midday sun just nearby here, on a deserted street, making my way to Radio 610 during the curfew with half a dozen soldiers pointing a gun my direction.

This time I felt weirdly safe walking downtown at night towards my car, which was parked outside the red zone. I had just been at the Hyatt entrance jostling with hundreds of journalists waiting for the Great New Hope of the World—US President Barack Obama—and 33 leaders of the Americas. With every car, every convoy that rolled up, body guards jumped out, there was a media surge, cameras clashing, reporters doing stand-ups, beaming to every corner of the world.

Police state
We were told there were up to 1,500 accredited journalists milling about. Many, from CNN to CNC3 had offices in the media centre—in one of the tall buildings adjacent to the Hyatt impressively equipped to take the event around the world. An amused diplomat watching my desperation (hopping about for a glimpse of Chavez, blocked by big lenses and tall journalists) asked if I wanted to get in the lobby. That was the first test of security. I smiled gratefully. I walked in as his consort and nobody noticed, rewarded him with a peck on the cheek for which my husband has forgiven me.

I milled around the lobby for a good half-an-hour with guests—seeing leaders go up the stairs, discovered that Mr Obama and Hilary Clinton had been sneaked through the back, even contemplating ordering a cocktail—before I was finally, spotted by security, who noticed my pass was yellow and not blue. They weren’t looking at faces on our passes, just the colours. Three of them cornered me. I was mortified, but grateful that they asked quietly if I could leave and showed me the way out through the back. Later that evening my colleague Renee Cummings and I both tried to charm our way in. Once again we were thrown out, gently. We smiled and congratulated security on a job well done.

Once outside I made my way back out to the media centre where you could fill out a form for the pooled events, which included the “banquet,” press conferences and photo calls. I wasn’t going to apply for this lottery for pooled media events where only about 20 out of 1,500 get in. Fate intervened. The woman behind the media counter spoke to me in Spanish thinking I was from her country. I shut my mouth. (She didn’t notice) She made me fill out a form, which she photocopied 12 times for every media “event.” I whispered “gratzie” to her, which I realised later was Italian. I slept that night with the cellphone by my bed, dreaming of the dress I would wear when I danced with Mr Obama. (He said “yes we can”) Saturday came and I got no call. I felt miserable that I wouldn’t see him.

While I willed myself to sleep, images filtered in. Among them people standing on the wall of shame, the citizens living the functional illiteracy figures (as high as 40 per cent) and poverty (at least 20 per cent of our population lives below the poverty line). They were waiting for a glimpse of Obama’s Beast, his bullet-proof car, and three decoys; his three-storey plane; his warships; his thousand-strong entourage and a glimpse of hope. It made me think that even the most powerful proponents of democracy somehow ends up resembling a monarchy. A friend who had driven to work to Couva that morning said she drove up and down the highway with guns pointed straight at her and all the other commuters.

At one point armed police stopped her at a green traffic light because he could, his gun still pointing at her car, for a full three minutes. This is what a police state feels like. Thousands were virtually under house arrest as they weren’t able to get around. It didn’t feel like a meeting of democratic leaders, but a meeting of kings. The call came on Saturday night. I was to report to the media centre for the photo opportunity at the diplomatic centre at the Hyatt at 6 am. A bus would take us to the diplomatic centre.

I would get to see the meeting of the monarchy after all. Hugo Chavez in army green and red and Evo Morales in a cool indigenous jacket. The women presidents of Chile and Argentina in pink and hot pink. Obama’s bullet-proof beast smoothly drew up on the right while we were looking left. A scramble, the secret service team appear and disappear. With the speed of lightening Obama was out and flew up the stairs, did a 30-second zillion wattage smile and disappeared into the diplomatic centre.

American orders
We were ushered to an empty small media room on the grounds. The Whitehouse staff sat in the adjacent room and decided we were a security risk. After discussion with the PM’s people, an officious intern told me firmly to tell my colleagues that brunch is served on the other side of the grounds. The Latinos, the Brit and I ignored her and carried on sending photos and chatting. We weren’t taking American orders. I tried to talk to Obama’s staff, but could have been talking to the cadre of elders in the Kremlin 50 years back rather than the staff of the leader of the democratic world.

“What’s Obama like to travel with?” “I can’t say” said the Whitehouse cameraman with a tight smile. “Is he a good boss?” “I’m really sawrry” drawled the blonde, who worked with him during the campaign. “I can’t tell you.” “What’s his plane like?” I asked, knowing full well that there was a description on the Whitehouse Web site. “I can’t reveal that information,” she said officiously. The next time we saw President Obama was when the leaders came out to take their place for the “family” photo. They stood about uncertainly looking for their name tags on the stairs and then there was a blur of chaos, a sense of discord and dispersal, of saying too much, of covering up.

Morales left, Chavez was nowhere to be found, the heads looking as if they were caught with their pants down. Obama appeared. He was shaking Manning’s hand. On the ground with us, the Whitehouse press people were saying “we gorra go we gorra go now.”As Obama turned his back on his colleagues to fly off, Mr Manning looked embarrassed for his remaining guests. The Whitehouse people left to cover the press conference for the American media at the Hilton. Mr Obama vanished in his Beast. He could have stayed on just a minute for the group photo. He didn’t attend the lone “signing” by PM Manning or press conference with the Canadian, Mexican or Panamanian and host Trinidadian leaders in the spectacular diplomatic centre.

Instead, he could be seen via satellite from his temporary Hilton fortress in press conference saying, “It’s time to go home.” It wasn’t what I would have expected of any guest, especially of him. Now that the dénouement continues we can say we had a police state for three days, we can say money was wasted, we can agree that the final photo exploded by ego, that actually there are senior and junior partners, that leaders leave people out of politics, behind walls of shame. But as I looked at the Prime Minister after it was over I couldn’t help but want to agree with him that this was a huge event. It may not have gone the way he (or we) wanted, but he pulled it off, revealed the reality behind the gloss and slid a tiny twin-island somewhere onto the world stage if only for while.

 

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur