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Conference Focuses on Uniquely Caribbean Issues

By Marie Y. Thibault
EDITOR IN CHIEF

As Patrick Manning, the prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, strode into La Sala de Puerto Rico the morning of Oct. 7, the audience rose to its feet and whispers of “Where is he?” and “Have you seen him?” quieted.

The crowd showed its gratitude for his presence by interrupting his almost hour-long speech with frequent patters of applause. After all, Manning had pushed up the presentation of Trinidad and Tobago’s national budget an entire day in order to be at MIT last Saturday for the first MIT Caribbean Students’ Conference.

A deeply religious man, Manning started his speech with Christopher Columbus’ (it was, of course, Columbus Day weekend) naming of Trinidad in “honor of Almighty God.” He quickly moved on to discussion of Trinidad and Tobago today, more than 500 years after Columbus. Today, he said, there is “a government that understands technology,” and that government is important to the island country’s new direction.

The entire conference, entitled “Technology and Society in the Caribbean,” was concerned with new directions and part of its purpose was “to encourage an active thinking process among emergent Caribbean leaders and empower them to think and act with a sense of stewardship and personal responsibility for the fate of the region.” Conference workshops, entirely student-run, were created to enable discussion and deliberation on key issues facing the Caribbean.

Christopher A. Chapman ’08, conference chair and president of the MIT Caribbean Club, said that the conference is needed because “the Caribbean is portrayed as paradise, but it is also a third world region.” Workshops with titles like “The Caribbean ‘Euro’” and “The Legacy of Race” covered crime, health, and economic issues. Planning for the conference started six months ago, though Chapman said that 11 months should be allotted for the process of picking a theme, choosing a keynote speaker, and finding sponsorship. Since this year was the kickoff conference, a more general theme was chosen and troubles were taken to find a speaker who deals directly with society but also has a background in science or technology. Manning was a perfect fit and with the help of a “well-written” and “compelling” letter, was persuaded to speak, Chapman said.

Manning’s keynote speech was very upbeat as he described Trinidad and Tobago’s “forward looking policy.” This policy seemed also to include high hopes and expectations, since Manning had no qualms about announcing his government’s goal of making Port of Spain, the country’s capital, an international financial center that rivals New York City. He admitted that this sounds ambitious, but added, “watch and see.”

His speech caused a stir in the audience that was one of admiration, yet disagreement. At lunch, the air was filled with the buzz of conversation and the aroma of plantains as conference participants expressed their approval of the prime minister’s commitment to raising the standard of living for his country’s citizens, what he described as “the one reason for government.” Trinidad and Tobago is one of the richest Caribbean countries and is the world’s largest exporter and producer of methanol, according to Manning. There are plans to make high speed broadband Internet available in any part of the country by March 2008. It is easy to see why Manning refers to the country as having a world-class status.

But immediately following his speech, Manning fielded questions from some participants who were willing to challenge this optimistic view. Their concerns mostly centered around Trinidad and Tobago’s plans for alternative energy and sustainable development. Manning said that he believed, “We will have oil and gas past my time and yours” after citing a century-old letter that had expressed similar concerns about depleted reserves. In response to a question about Trinidad and Tobago’s ecological footprint as it continues its development, he declared that “we have to be cautious about environmentalists getting the upper hand … I think we are striking a good balance right now.”

This comment drew responses later in the day during the small, conversational workshops. A participant in the “Solar Power in the Caribbeans” said, “I think in the Caribbean we’ve been more about keeping energy prices low.” People in the Caribbean “don’t want environment to stand in the way of the economy.” The workshop also presented data from Energy Caribbean from Eric Williams, Trinidad and Tobago’s former energy minister, that without more discovery, “natural gas reserves [in Trinidad and Tobago] can continue for another 11.6 years (proven reserves) plus maybe 7.57 years (probable reserves).”

Notes taken on each of the workshops will later be compiled into “a written report on the conference which will be sent to the Heads of Government of all countries represented and to International Organizations with vested interests in the issues covered,” according to the conference handbook.

Chapman said that he has received a great deal of positive feedback on the conference, including faculty members who are interested in working with the club on some of the issues presented. “People are taking us seriously now,” he said.