Christmas 2009: End of a troubled year and a nameless decade

The word ‘merry’ fits in with Christmas as horse goes with carriage. For all but the most ascetic among Christians, its religious significance is celebratory and material, rather than religious, demonstrating the depth of God’s love for mankind, a manifestation of redemption and adoption, in which God gave his son to save mankind from their sins. Ian McDonald often reminds us how, as we grow older, one year seems rapidly to morph into another, pausing only for the special significance and memories which each Christmas leaves with us, as it flies past into the New Year. As we watch our children grow into adulthood, we inevitably reflect, often through deceptively tinted lenses, how Christmas was better in our childhood days. How conveniently we forget that Christmas for most of us was special because toys and ‘ice apples’ and grapes and black cake and new clothes were reserved for Christmas. We forget too that in between, life was challenging, as we shared with our siblings and country cousins not rooms but the floor; indoor plumbing and telephones were for the residents of the few big houses occupied by the village elite, their children sent to high schools on their way to studying abroad; and that in those days a job in the public sector meant something – whether as a pupil teacher, a trainee nurse, a policeman or a class two civil servant. In those days a bank job was reserved for persons with colour and connections, except for the messengers and cleaners. Few holders of such jobs now have the means to change the curtains, to buy new clothes and exchange gifts.

We forget too that in those days, infant mortality was common, that the funerals our parents attended were for persons who would now be considered young, that life expectancy was much lower then than now. We had the excitement of a nation-in-the-making and now are justified in regretting that our freedom fighters and founding fathers wasted some wonderful opportunities to forge our country into a modern state; that for us development meant migration and that for many today a full family Christmas means bringing at least some of the siblings or their children into the sitting room, thanks to the technological revolution that allows Skype to provide low cost telephone and video contact with those in North America and Europe.

The Danish Santa
So what was Christmas 2009 like? This was a Christmas when we were led to believe that our itinerant President would return to Guyana on the Danish Santa’s sleigh, overloaded with LCDS and REDD and REDD + money from the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference. We were led to believe by no less than a major international management consulting outfit that forgoing exploitation of our forests would contribute vastly to the world’s economy and that the rich countries were conservatively indebted to us to the tune of more than half a billion United States dollars annually. How, we wondered, could the world not accept such a gift accompanied by the transport over 80% of the country which our President was personally offering to convey to them, spending the better part of his final term in office and several millions of Guyana taxpayers’ dollars to do so. Success at Copenhagen could have been a fillip for the third term advocates, justification that if Obama could get a Nobel, then why not Jagdeo?

Instead the conference flopped and the Danish Santa never arrived. The President returned home with no fanfare and carefully avoided the siren sounds of the motorcade from Timehri to the unclean and uncleaned capital city, instead quietly slipping into the Ogle aerodrome, a multi-million dollar government gift to a select few in the private sector. Obviously disappointed, the President then used the first press conference after his unheralded return to criticise, not too subtly, one of his ministers whose own Christmas gift was the short memory of Guyanese, and to blame his Danish hosts and its President for the “chaos and mismanagement” of the conference.

Donor of the month
Identified too for President Jagdeo’s tongue-lashing was the United States of America which was represented in the closing stages of the conference by President Obama. According to President Jagdeo, the US bore the brunt of the responsibility for Copenha-gen’s failure, that its inflexibility doomed the conference and that instead it should have partnered with the China, the world’s worst emitter, but our donor of the month. Our President seems unconcerned too about China’s human rights record, or that it has no qualms about executing persons convicted of rioting. Those who are aware that it was Obama, along with the Chinese President Hu Jintao and the leaders of South Africa, India, Russia and Brazil who drafted the final agreement coming out of Copenhagen immediately recognise President Jagdeo’s exoneration of China as cynicism and opportunism in rewarding China for its Guyana $1 billion grant to this country one day earlier. Since Santa has never publicly proclaimed any identity with Christianity and the Chinese yuan, which like its government is atheistic, President Jagdeo had no objection to a Chinese Santa instead of a Danish one.

Four men
So how then do we look back on Christmas 2009 which brought the curtain down on a decade described by Professor Timothy Garton Ash of Oxford University as the “nameless decade”? In last week’s column we recounted that the country and the world’s economy started the year with the possibility of dire consequences, consequences from which the world was fortuitously spared. In such an eventful year it is inevitable that there would have been some who stood out, who contributed to the events that shaped the world, whether for the better or worse.

It is a year when four men of African ancestry – all but one American – made the news and captured the emotions and imagination of the world. The Nobel Committee awarded its Peace Prize to US President Barack Obama, a surprising decision that drew more attention to the donor than the recipient. On January 20 President Obama became the first African American to occupy the White House and carried the honour and the responsibility of being the President of the world’s largest economy and most powerful, if waning country. Young, articulate, intellectual and energetic, Obama’s effectiveness so was circumscribed by America’s domestic politics that he was unable to live up to his international rock star image and to bring his prestige to solve global problems.

The next was legend Michael Jackson, musician, dancer and entertainer in a career spanning forty years. During that time, he had earned for himself the accolade of greatest entertainer ever, but had drawn wide, negative media publicity for redesigning his face, nose and skin colour and for allegations of child sexual abuse from which he was exonerated by the courts. It took his shocking, sudden and still mysterious death in June to regain the public adulation he had enjoyed for about half of his public life, his live memorial service attracting an audience of up to one billion people. Immediately he replaced the iconic Elvis Presley as the most successful dead entertainer.

The Tiger slows, Usain bolts
The third was Tiger Woods, arguably the world’s most talented golfer ever, history’s highest earning and richest sports personality and the Associated Press Athlete of the Decade. A whistle-clean career carefully cultivated over fifteen years came crashing down in less than fifteen days following a minor vehicular accident that led to revelations of domestic problems and later multiple cases of infidelity in which numerous women came out of the woodwork to claim dalliance with him. The golfer has now taken indefinite leave from golf to work on his marriage, hopefully with his wife having no access to his golf clubs!

The Jamaican sprint sensation Usain Bolt at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing China became the first man to set world records in all three sprinting events at a single Olympics and during 2009 became the first man to hold the 100 and 200 m world and Olympic titles at the same time. The sprinter has given his country and our region publicity that for a change, it could consider as being positive and useful. Usain’s achievement is one of which all Caribbean people can truly be proud and offers hope and pride for us all. Ironically the major beneficiary of Usain’s exploits was the sports goods manufacturer Puma, rather than any business from the region.

Heroes and villains
But what about the heroes and villains of the financial world – those who got the world into the mess and those who helped to save it? The popular middle-America weekly Time magazine has named Ben Shalom Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman as its Personality of the Year for his “monumental influence on the world’s most important economy” and because “his creative leadership helped ensure that 2009 was a period of weak recovery rather than catastrophic depression…” Coincidentally, Bernanke was a scholar of the Great Depression and not only recognised the depression that appeared on the horizon in mid-2008 but put all his energies and reputation into preventing it from happening. Another candidate for the title was the sprinter Usain Bolt while it was also clear that two European leaders – Gordon Brown of the UK and Nicholas Sarkozy of France had done much to build a reputation as the David that kept the Depression Goliath at bay.

Corporate fraudsters
The world in 2009 also saw its fair share of corporate fraudsters and the drum roll immediately announces Bernard Madoff of the US, B. Ramalinga Raju of Satyam Computer Ltd of India and ‘Sir’ Allen Stanford of Texas, US and Antigua and Barbuda. Bernard Madoff, a star of Wall Street, former chairman of the Nasdaq Stock Market and founder of Bernard L Madoff Investment Securities LLC, was sentenced to 150 years behind bars on conviction of the biggest financial swindle in history, a Ponzi scheme that robbed trust and pension funds of an estimated US$50 billion.

Stanford, seen as the saviour of West Indian cricket with the introduction of the hugely popular 20/20 format, became one of the most recognised faces in the Caribbean. His fall from grace matching his meteoric rise, Stanford is now behind bars in the US, awaiting trial for selling investors high-yielding certificates of deposit on the basis they were safe and liquid investments.

Stanford had his impact on Guyana with the Hand-in-Hand Trust coming up short of millions of its own and others’ pension funds. Making the news too was the collapse of the insurance giant, Clico, a victim and perpetrator of abuse of fiduciary obligations that is costing policyholders and pension schemes, including the National Insurance Scheme, several billion dollars.

At year end there is still uncertainty when some of the money which was recovered through the generosity or guilt of a regional country would be paid. For these, there have been no investigations or enquiries.

It seems that some drug barons and corporate fraudsters enjoy immunity not only from prosecution but investigations as well.

Next week, we look forward to 2010.

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