To attend or not to attend? Editorial
Stabroek News
January 16, 2004

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In a column published in Monday's Guyana Chronicle entitled "To be in Mexico or not to be in India? a shameful question & dilemma," Pro-Chancellor of the University of Guyana, Dr Prem Misir, accused this newspaper of coming "pretty close to the line of inciting racial hatred." He was referring to an editorial published in last Friday's Stabroek News which argued that given the clash of dates, President Jagdeo should have elected to attend the Summit of the Americas in Monterrey, rather than the Indian Diaspora Conference in New Delhi. This position, said the Pro-Chancellor, smacked of "racial and ethnic prejudice," and was intended to construct a false view of reality in order to "thrust some politicians into political power."

Exactly how Dr Misir made the logical leap that a criticism of President Jagdeo's decision to miss the Summit of the Americas was really an attempt to "thrust some politicians into political power," is not easily apprehended. Similarly, it is difficult to divine how a serious debate about which meeting a head of state should attend can constitute something bordering on "racial incitement."

The only conclusion one can come to is that because the conference competing with the summit was an Indian one, the Government felt on the defensive. As a consequence, the Pro-Chancellor, displaying considerably more imagination than the situation warranted, decided to jump into the fray in order to defend that of which this newspaper had never accused Mr Jagdeo either directly or by implication - namely, that he was concerned only about the interests of his own ethnic group, and had put these above the interest of the nation as a whole.

For the record, we consider the President has made a misjudgement as a consequence of a lack of foreign affairs savvy - for once Dr Misir was being over generous to us when he said we implied this; in fact, we said it directly. In other words, what we accused the President of was an inability to discern what took precedence in foreign policy matters. It should be added at this point, that had it been some other conference of a private nature, involving some other players in some other place, the principle would still have applied, and Mr Jagdeo should similarly have treated the Mexico summit as a priority.

For the record too, as we made clear in last week's editorial, our objection was not to the head-of-state's attendance at the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas per se; under normal circumstances no one would have had any cause to comment on that. Our objection was only that in a situation of clashing dates, Mr Jagdeo should have been in Monterrey, not New Delhi and Rajasthan.

And now to some of Dr Misir's other statements. He cites our argument in favour of the President attending what he erroneously calls the "Special Summit of the Free Trade Area of the Americas" - it was not an FTAA summit - as being that "circumstances are not normal in Guyana today." At no point was anything remotely like that said or suggested in the editorial. Far from mentioning local circumstances, the editorial referred to our geopolitical situation and our geostrategic interests.

There was some elaboration on the subject of certain hemispheric tensions which could impinge on us in last Sunday's editorial, the idea being to suggest that in times of uncertainty all around us, a President more than ever needs to have personal contacts with his continental counterparts. We are, after all, a very small player in the hemispheric game and it is necessary for our survival for our government to be sensitive to possible trends. In addition, it might be observed that we have neighbours on the continent who have claims against us and who have done us enormous economic damage, and we appear not to have developed any strategies to address those problems in the long term. And now, when an opportunity arises for our President to deal with theirs informally on a one-on-one basis out of the public eye, we pass up the opportunity.

Dr Misir expressed the view that Foreign Minister Insanally could adequately represent us at the summit. This is no reflection on Mr Insanally, but in the diplomatic hierarchy, foreign ministers cannot easily mix with presidents outside the formal sessions - and what goes on at the sidelines on such occasions, is usually what is important. And how can we ever expect to be taken seriously if, when all the heavyweight heads were at the summit - including Presidents Bush, 'Lula,' Martin, Kirchner, Chavez, etc - our head of state does not put in an appearance?

In terms of the technicalities of the conflict in the President's schedule, the Pro-Chancellor said that "the President's state visit to India was a long-confirmed engagement, and... the Indian Diaspora schedule was settled long before the Special Summit calendar was determined." Well, not quite. Canada requested the summit last year, and when the Summit Implementation Review Group met in July 2003, it was proposing the end of that year for the gathering of heads. However, by August 22, the month of January 2004 had been decided on instead, giving ample warning of the time zone within which heads of state should have been planning their schedules.

The Government has never revealed exactly when President Jagdeo was invited to address the New Delhi conference; however, up until a week or so before his departure when the visit was upgraded, this was a private visit, and the date of the Americas summit had been set a considerable time before. It was not even a clash, therefore, between a state visit and a summit; it was a clash between a private visit and a summit, and under such circumstances even if the Diaspora arrangements antedated those of the summit the former should have been aborted once the dates for Monterrey became fixed.

Dr Misir was high in praise of India's help to Guyana. No quarrel there. In fact, India's help to this country in one form or another goes back decades. But that is not the point. The Indians have one of the most sophisticated foreign services in the world, and would well understand the exigencies that a summit in one's own hemisphere impose. For its part, the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas has now become an annual event, so even if the President had cancelled his visit to India, presumably there would have been opportunites to attend in future years.

Will the Government please note that the next Summit of the Americas will be held in 2005 in Argentina.