One heck of a week in the Caribbean

The eyes of the world were on Trinidad and Tobago this past weekend and with good reason, as this little country in the southern Caribbean hosted the Fifth Summit of the Americas.

And it went off without any major incidents or distractions.

Prior to the Summit, there was concern over whether the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba would dominate – or even derail – the talks. There has been a growing resentment, especially among Latin American countries, over the exclusion of Cuba. The communist country has been more or less shut out of regional groupings since it was suspended from the Organization of American States (OAS) in 1962 at the behest of the Americans.

The fact that during the week before the talks began, a group of Latin American leaders, led by Venezuela’s President, Hugo Chávez, met to plan a united front at the Summit did not help to quell the speculation.

So, what happened? Why did the Summit go off so well?

Most are crediting the political savvy of U.S. President, Barack Obama.

Obama began the week by announcing the lifting of restrictions on money transfers and travel by American citizens to Cuba. Cuban-Americans, for the most part, hailed the move. It was the first major easing of U.S. restrictions since the embargo was placed some 47 years ago.

Then, when the leaders gathered at the Port-of-Spain venue for the talks, Obama calmly strolled over to where Chávez was standing and greeted him with a firm handshake. It must have taken everyone by surprise, especially the Venezuelan leader, who has had an ongoing war of words with the U.S. He has famously called former U.S. president, George W. Bush, “the devil”.

The photo of the two leaders grasping each other’s hand and smiling broadly was probably the most widely seen image coming out of the Summit and spoke to a new direction in the relationship between the different countries more than any declaration would have done.

Later, at a plenary session, Chávez presented Obama with a book on Latin America by Uruguayan writer, Eduardo Galeano, “Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent” and told the U.S. President: “I want to be your friend.”

As the Summit came to a close, the various leaders, including Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, were crediting Obama with helping to create an atmosphere of civility and co-operation. And that is as it should be.

The government and people of Trinidad and Tobago – and, especially, Prime Minister Patrick Manning – also deserve a lot of credit for a job very well done.

Of course, there might have been some things that didn’t go as planned but, with a gathering of this size and with so many different delegations to cater for, including security, it has been an amazing achievement for the country.

Harper was also busy during the Summit, trying to impress the various leaders on the need for, and value of, a free trade agreement with Canada. And he seemed to have thoroughly enjoyed the trip. We have never seen him smile as much.

Following the Summit, he flew to Jamaica for talks with Prime Minister Bruce Golding and also addressed a joint session of that country’s parliament.

It was interesting that he landed in Jamaica just hours before a troubled young man hijacked a Canadian aircraft and held its passengers and crew hostage. It might have helped those on board the aircraft to know that their Prime Minister was at the scene. Harper’s timing couldn’t be better.

He seemed to have really appreciated the Jamaican government’s response to the incident and the successful efforts of the security services to bring the incident to a safe conclusion.

All in all, it was one heck of a week in the Caribbean.

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