In mid-June HE Ambassador Therese Baptiste-Cornelis, Permanent Representative of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago to the United Nations Offices at Geneva, delivered a speech to the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy at the International Conference Centre of Geneva. Ordinarily that would not be news I would care about, but the speech was drawn to my attention on my Facebook wall on Saturday because a YouTube video of the speech was reposted by no fewer than 24 of my friends, and by literally hundreds of their friends in turn. By 11.40 pm Saturday there were 224 comments on the YouTube video; precisely three of them were supportive of HE’s speech. The rest of comments expressed varying degrees of horror, disgust and shame at HE’s presentation. The topic of the speech was “Cultural diversity as the fourth policy area of sustainable development.” At least that was supposed to be the topic. In actuality, it was mostly about HE’s Internet courtship with the man to whom she has been married for 15 years, her rocky relationship with politics in T&T, her mother, the status of women in Qatar, and other random ideas unrelated to either cultural diversity or sustainable development. It was 36 minutes of shame for T&T for more reasons than her appalling diction (she says “jen-aire” for genre, and mangles other words, including “ethnicity” and “phenomenon,” and seems a stranger to the “th” digraph), and her mispronunciation of Nicki Minaj’s name (“Minjai”). No, what made many commentators cringe was her absolute lack of diplomacy.
For example, in explaining how she was selected for her position as minister of health, she said the PM was her former student and personally asked her to take the portfolio. HE admitted she did not want the job, but “you’re working for the government as a lecturer at a university, you kept thinking—right away it flashed: be a politician or be unemployed.” Later on, saying that she was always pro-change when it came to voting, she added, “Am I going to break my tradition of voting out the government? It’s hard. I will have to make that decision in 2015.” Many others were horrified at her ignorance. For instance, in attempting to introduce the idea of cultural diversity in T&T, HE said, “As kids we were made to learn the words of our national anthem… and we always ended with, ‘Together we aspire, together we achieve;’ that was our national anthem.” A child knows these words are not in our anthem; in fact, this is our national motto. After alleging the current government is committed to supporting agriculture, she attempted to explain the population’s apparent lack of interest in growing our fine cocoa by saying, “The history of the cocoa farms being more for slavery, we all wanted to move away from it.” In fact, the Trinidad cocoa boom occurred in the late 1800s and early 1900s, well after the end of African enslavement in this island.
HE admitted early in the speech that she had rewritten the speech crafted by her technical officers. Perhaps this was a mistake. As HE said in the very speech, “I say weird things.” Words from a woman who prides herself on her lack of diplomacy and her truth-telling—which, of course, she talked about in the speech, too. In response to the naysayers who disparaged HE’s diction, inappropriate ramblings and lack of tact, one commentator said, “the speech is about knowing the difference btw cultural diversity and social integration and how best to foster that in the developing and developed world using T&T as an example since we are very multi-cultural and make an attempt to promote diversity in all respects esp religion and cultural activities. “The example of women’s rights was to show how we tend to belittle other cultures and think of them as backward when it is really us that may be backward” [sic]. I tend to think that might have been the intent of the extensive asides HE made in the speech. However, there’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip. In this case, many, many, many a slip. A few months ago at a dinner, I heard the T&T ambassador to the US and Mexico, Dr Neil Parsan, speak. I know nothing of the man, his family, or how he got the considerably important job he now holds. What I do know is that he can give a fine, coherent, articulate speech that sticks to the topic he’s supposed to address. Would that I could say the same about HE Therese Baptiste-Cornelis.