Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International’s section in Canada, is in Trinidad
Much has been said by the Trinidadian government during the run-up to this Summit about the great benefit it will bring to Trinidadians. Trinidadian Prime Minister Patrick Manning has no doubt been aware that many people here are dubious, doubting that the enormous cost and disruption of hosting this major gathering are worth it.
He has repeatedly assured Trinidadians that the exposure and prestige of welcoming 34 leaders and more than one thousand journalists would bring needed attention to the country, boosting trade, tourism and political clout. Whether or not his strategy of giving the Americas a chance to get to know Trinidad will pay off remains to be seen. But what is clear is that the Trinidadian government has done very little to allow Trinidadians to engage, in a meaningful way with the Americas.
A theme throughout our week here has been the multitude of ways in which the efforts of ordinary Trinidadians to connect with the Summit process and share their ideas and concerns with the 34 governments the country is hosting have been stifled.
Months back, social movements in the country, led by labour organizations, began making plans to hold an alternative peoples summit. Such gatherings have become a well-established fixture on the margins of major international meetings. They offer a venue in which people from the local community and visitors from other countries can connect with the issues on the official agenda and, most importantly, propose and discuss alternative ideas and visions for government policy and action.
Often, there is an opportunity for recommendations coming out of such gatherings to be shared in some way with high-level participants in the official meetings. And there is almost always an animated, vibrant street presence, usually a march or rally, in which music, art and protest come together as a means of sharing those alternative messages with the general public and hopefully some of the delegates to the official meeting.
Here in Trinidad, that effort has been thwarted at almost every turn. Nevertheless, the Peoples Summit did go ahead, held on the campus of the University of the West Indies, quite some distance out of Port of Spain.
Hundreds of people took part over the course of three days, including representatives from Cuba (excluded of course from the official Summit). The proceedings were lively, energetic and determined. Amnesty was able to put on a workshop here, focusing on our upcoming Demand Dignity Campaign.
But the Trinidadian government was determined to keep all of that energy confined to the university. They were unwavering in their determination to curtail popular protest on the streets of Port of Spain.
It began with the refusal of the government to allow a popular march to go ahead. Organizers proposed several possible routes for a march, none of which would have come all that close to the official site of the Summit. All were refused.
On Thursday night, an environmental activist was arrested while posting leaflets advertising a drumming event – Drummit 2 Summit – that was to be held at a local venue on Saturday afternoon. He was held in jail overnight and released the following day on a bail of $100,000 (Trinidadian), which is about US$17,000.
On Saturday, a small group of local activists defied the ban on marching and held a rally at a location in the centre of the city. They were surrounded by riot police who did allow the rally to continue but reportedly kept out others who wanted to join in.
And finally on Saturday afternoon, the Drummit 2 Summit event went ahead. But, no sooner had it begun when police arrived and broke it up. One of the organizers was taken to a police station and held for a short period. Word about the police action spread quickly by text messages and phone calls and more and more activists arrived.
In the end, the police did back down and allowed the event to go ahead. Whether or not Prime Minister Manning’s dream that the Summit will be good for Trinidad bears fruit it is clear that these last few days of hosting the Summit have not been good for important rights of freedom of expression and assembly in this country.