Trinidad and Tobago: A PR disaster for the US
Early this month, the US repaid Trinidad and Tobago’s hospitality by acutely embarrassing the Caribbean nation in the presence of regional leaders. But, as Norman Girvan reports, it was America’s image that suffered the most.
Stupid, petty, vindictive, short sighted, counter-productive, a huge diplomatic faux pas. These are some of the words that could be used to describe the US decision not to issue a special license to allow the Trinidad Hilton hotel to host the Cuba-CARICOM Summit in Port of Spain on 8 December.
This was a meeting of 15 heads of state; 14 of who lead countries with which the United States has friendly relations. Cooperation extends across a wide range of subjects, especially security. Diplomatically speaking, the US government gave each of these leaders a slap in the face.
The host country, Trinidad and Tobago, is one of Washington’s best friends in the region. It is a principal supplier of natural gas to the United States and a close ally in the ‘war on terror’. It is the only Caribbean Community (CARICOM) country to have been visited by President Obama, when it hosted the Summit of the Americas in 2009. Just two months ago there was a visit from US Attorney General Eric Holder, who held cordial discussions with Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar.
The Prime Minister’s — and Trinidad and Tobago’s – hospitality have now been repaid by being acutely embarrassed in the presence of other CARICOM leaders and their Cuban guest.
The official US explanation — that the request for a special licence came too late to be properly processed — beggars belief. How far up the chain of command did this matter go? Did it reach Secretary of State Hillary Clinton? To President Obama? Was Attorney General Holder consulted? Was Ambassador Beatrice Welters in Port of Spain brought into the picture, and if so, did she offer counsel to her superiors on the possible political fallout?
Was this, as many believe, a deliberate political act meant to signal Washington’s displeasure with the cordial relations that exist between CARICOM nations and Cuba, or even to sabotage the summit? The US decision was communicated on the very eve of the meeting, forcing alternative arrangements to be hurriedly set in place.
If that was Washington’s intention, it certainly backfired. In a separate statement, the assembled leaders jointly declared themselves ‘affronted by the intrusion of the United States against the sovereignty of Trinidad and Tobago’; going on to note that the action ‘could have impacted on the success of the Summit, but thanks to the commitment and solidarity of the Member States of the Caribbean Community we can celebrate an outcome which reinforces the strong fraternal bonds between CARICOM and Cuba.’
The US action actually succeeded in educating and galvanising public opinion against the obnoxious extra-territorial reach of the Helms-Burton law, as well as US embargo itself. Media coverage of the action has been extensive; and uniformly negative. The Cubans on their own could hardly have accomplished such a public relations feat.
The pretentiousness of the US action may be illustrated by the following example. Suppose a Trinidad and Tobago-based company were to have a contract to manage an American company based in Washington, D.C. The American company not only transacts business with the US government, it is actually owned by the US government. It enters into a particular transaction with the US government, which the Trinidad and Tobago government then seeks to nullify on the grounds that this particular transaction contravenes Trinidad and Tobago law.
The very idea is laughable! The Trinidadians would be packing their bags the next day.
Even if we accept the official US explanation, this raises other questions. Are we to believe that US officials were simply unaware of the potential embarrassment for themselves, and for a friendly government, that was brewing right under their noses? Was the US envoy in Port of Spain asleep on the watch? And what steps did the Trinidad and Tobago government take to bring the matter urgently to the attention of the US ambassador, the State Department and the White House?
This is not a matter of ‘respect for international law’. Helms-Burton is US domestic law, and has been repeatedly condemned by the United Nations General Assembly.
Nor is it an issue of the exercise of ‘US sovereignty’, which does not — or ought not to — extend to Trinidad and Tobago.
There are several diplomatic tools available to a government that has been so slighted, to show its displeasure and to salvage its dignity.
A separate, firmly worded statement can be issued. A strong diplomatic note can be sent. Port of Spain’s ambassador in Washington can be recalled for ‘consultations’. The foreign minister can suddenly become unavailable for meetings with the US ambassador. Diplomatic receptions by the US embassy can be diplomatically avoided. The Hilton management contract can be reviewed.
If an apology was called for, it should have been from the US government to the 14 CARICOM leaders; and a separate one to the host government. A personal phone call to the Prime Minister from President Obama or Secretary Clinton, blaming bureaucratic foul-ups, would not have been inappropriate. This is what one expects in a world of mutual respect among nations having friendly relations with one another.
Can we expect this to happen? Sure. And one day, pigs will fly.
Norman Girvan is professor emeritus at the University of the West Indies. He is a former secretary general of the Association of Caribbean States.