Caribbean tourism leaders are hoping that travel issues in the region will be on the table when President Obama and 33 other government leaders sit down later this week at the Fifth Summit of the Americas.
But the host of the gathering, tiny Trinidad, faces giant issues of its own just trying to accommodate an outsized event that will heavily tax its infrastructure, lodging and human resources.
Preparations have reached a fevered pitch as workers scurry to apply fresh paint to building facades, complete three new hangars at Piarco Airport, repave key roads in and around the capital and complete the promenade and fountains at the new Port of Spain International Waterfront.
Obama, the first U.S. president to attend the gathering, and his wife Michelle will lead a 1,000-member U.S. delegation, headed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. They will arrive on 25 aircraft.
One of the three new hangars will be used exclusively for Air Force One, a three-deck Boeing VC-25 that will carry a 26-member crew and 76 passengers. It will be the largest of the 30-plus planes transporting 34 national leaders and 5,000 delegates attending the summit from April 17 to 19 in Port of Spain.
Tucked into the belly of one of the U.S. aircraft will be "the Beast," Obama’s official, military-grade, armor-plated, tinted-glass limousine.
The president’s personal physician and medical team will travel with him, bringing along a supply of Obama’s blood in case he should need emergency treatment.
The $9.9 million upgrade at Piarco Airport includes improvements at the south terminal, where the arrival ceremonies will occur; the resurfacing of roads surrounding the airport; and new lighting and landscaping.
Traffic jams and protests expected
Despite the tight security presence at the airport, the Airports Authority insists that commercial traffic will not be disrupted during the summit. Passenger check-ins, arrivals and departures will take place at the older north terminal.
However, the island’s 1.3 million residents have been put on alert that life in the capital city and outlying areas visited by high-level officials will grind to a halt during the summit. Traffic jams and checkpoints will be the norm, especially in the immediate area of the Hyatt Regency, site of most of the formal summit meetings.
Security forces numbering in the thousands will include law enforcement personnel recruited from many Caribbean countries, including a contingent from the Royal Grenada Police Force and Special Services Unit, visiting CARICOM (Caribbean Community) troops from Barbados and St. Kitts, 30 security officers and 94 soldiers from Jamaica, and 60 officers from the Bahamas Police Force, as well as a massive presence from the U.S.
Numerous no-go and restricted zones will prohibit car and foot traffic on many streets in the capital.
Several dress rehearsals simulating arrival ceremonies for the heads of state already have inconvenienced locals by blocking access to roads. Several pastors complained that restricted areas would prevent worshipers from attending church services, and a few bar owners already have sought compensation for business losses incurred in the lead-up to the summit.
Summit organizers anticipate demonstrations before and during the conference, according to the Trinidad Newsday newspaper.
Several groups have warned that they will stage demonstrations to protest Trinidad’s high rate of crime, low wages, high food costs, layoffs and the fiscal crisis.
Protests also are expected to focus on the price tag for the summit, which is expected to total more than $82 million, including a $3.6 million tab for 64 new Ford SUVs for use by attendees. By comparison, the recently concluded G-20 summit, which featured 20 international leaders and their delegations, came in at an estimated $33 million, according to Trinidad Newsday.
Several forums will precede the meeting of political leaders, including a two-day session on April 15 and 16 involving national tourist office heads, teachers, faith-based groups and trade unions, among others.
"Space has been created for these groups to discuss their problems and gripes with foreign ministers’ representatives before the summit opens," said Hector Morales, U.S. permanent representative to the Organization of American States. "The government in Trinidad has done all it can to set up conditions conducive to a smooth summit process, but I am sure there will be demonstrations."
Will Cuba dominate the headlines?
Although the top issues at the summit will be the current economic crises and access to increased credit and lending, Caribbean tourism leaders are hoping that issues facing tourism in the region will be on the table.
Formal discussions of U.S.-Cuba policies are not on the conference agenda, despite current widespread interest in Cuba and increased pressures to lift the U.S. economic embargo.
However, if the issue is raised, "I think the president will say that we are engaged in a continual evaluation of our policy and how that policy could help result in a change in Cuba that would bring about a democratic society there," said Jeffrey Davidow, White House adviser to the summit.
Cuba will not be represented at the summit; its membership in the OAS was suspended in 1962.
Davidow stressed the administration’s hope that the U.S. policy on Cuba would not dominate the gathering. "There are a lot of very important issues that warrant discussion, whether it’s economic issues, social inclusion, the environment or public safety," he said.
The White House would not confirm speculation that the summit would serve as a convenient venue for a one-on-one meeting between Obama and Venezuela President Hugo Chavez. But if such a meeting were to occur, Cuba would almost certainly be a key issue.
Obama plans to hold three separate group meetings in addition to the official closed-door session between all participating heads of government.
The group meetings are likely to be with Caribbean leaders, Central American leaders and a third group composed of heads of state of South America and Mexico, including Chavez.
The Obamas are expected to stay two nights in Trinidad, arriving on April 17 in time for the opening ceremony at 5 p.m. The president plans to stop in Mexico on his way to the summit and spend one night.
Accommodations for the presidential couple have not been officially confirmed, but speculation has them either at the private residence of Prime Minister Patrick Manning or in a large suite at the 380-room Hilton. Clinton will be staying at the 428-room Hyatt Regency Trinidad, the headquarters hotel for the summit.
Russell George, general manager of the Hyatt Regency, which opened in December 2007, said the hotel had been sold out "for months, just like all of Port of Spain’s major hotels, inns and guesthouses."
The Trinidad government leased the Caribbean Princess and the Carnival Victory, and will use the ships to house government delegations and media attending the conference.