Trinidad is abuzz with talk of the upcoming 5th Summit of the Americas.  Port of Spain’s public transportation schedule has been changed to accommodate the influx of visitors, two giant cruise ships (the summit venues) sit docked in the harbor, and radio hosts take public calls to determine how Trinidad will benefit in the long run.

The 5th Summit represents Obama’s first opportunity to dialogue with Latin American and Caribbean presidents about issues facing the hemisphere.  With Trinidadians already wearing “I -heart- Obama” t-shirts, hopes are high that his visit will chart a new U.S. policy towards the region.

According to Jeffrey Davidow, Obama’s coordinator for the summit, the U.S. will “focus more on dialogue and collaboration, be pragmatic, and look for concrete results, social inclusion and look to reduce extreme poverty.”

But delegates of the Assembly of Caribbean Youth posed an important question this morning:  collaboration and pragmatism according to whom?  For centuries the Caribbean has been at the whim of foreigners, some of the islands changing hands a dozen times or more.  Anticipating the soon to be consequences of the current economic crises–one that did not originate from within the Caribbean–today’s delegates, representing youth organizations from Trinidad, Barbados, Bahamas, Grenada, St. Vincent, Jamaica and Suriname, emphasized the importance of focusing on self-development and sustainability, both as countries and as a region, before entering into agreements with external markets.

Akins Vidale, President of the Trinidad Youth Council, emphasized four main points for regaining and maintaining economic strength within the Caribbean:

  1. Agrarian Reform and Food Sovereignty – many of the islands don’t produce their own food.
  2. Basic Infrastructure for a Single Caribbean Market – while Suriname may have the capacity to produce food for its neighbors, it hasn’t the efficient means to ship it there.
  3. Independent Economic Strength – local cooperatives and credit unions provide an accountable alternative to predatory loans from international banks.
  4. Integrated Methods for Moving Forward – you cannot judge present by the present.  Solutions needs to demonstrate that they are sustainable and do not compromise the future.  We must be careful of what we rationalize in the name of economic progress.

These young people are all engaged with their national governments towards the development of these community-based solutions, but they need the support and respect of the hemisphere’s heavy weights–the number one actor being the U.S.

It is absolutely critical that in addition to mastering the economic theories and recommended “best practices” for development, we listen to our peers in the Caribbean (and elsewhere) and encourage our government to consider their perspectives when determining policy.  As a friend from Oxfam America said recently, we don’t do development, people develop themselves.  Sometimes they just need our help in clearing the way.

According to Tom Loudon, co-director of the Quixote Center in Washington, DC, the Obama administration, which recently affirmed its intent to move quickly on the Panama FTA, has yet to truly reconsider the model which has increased inequality in the region.  Loudon predicts that “President Obama will likely be surprised by what he encounters in Port of Spain.” Much has changed in the hemisphere in the past few years, and more and more people are beginning to catch on.  Formulas from the past will continue to fail.  We need a fresh perspective.

Open-minded, passionate youth, are starting that process here in the Caribbean.  Where are we?