MONROVIA, Liberia -- While steering us through the melee of downtown traffic yesterday, a Liberian friend who runs a local NGO casually remarked that if the United States were to relax its visa restrictions, everyone in Liberia would pack their bags and head Stateside. I think he was only half-kidding.
While there have been some positive signs of development -- newly paved roads, more businesses and that most potent sign of economic empowerment, sushi bars -- the situation for most Liberians seems pretty precarious.
Last Thursday, Ellen Margarethe Løj, the U.N. special representative for Liberia, painted a pretty cautionary picture for anyone thinking that Liberia was fully on the road to recovery. Løj did characterize the current security situation as "relatively stable." But she pointed to the possible consequences an economic downturn will have on the seemingly intractable problem of unemployed youth, who she believes may be easy prey for criminal gangs or coup-plotters.
Løj also pointed out the instability within all three of Liberia's neighbors: Guinea, Ivory Coast, and now Sierra Leone as a consequence of last week's political rioting in Freetown. It is impossible to isolate Liberia from its neighbors, but thankfully the U.N. seems to be committed to maintaining its sizable peacekeeping presence here at least through the next elections in 2011.
On the other hand, the news for the sizable Liberian community in the U.S. is decidedly more upbeat. Yesterday, President Barack Obama signed an executive order extending the stay of some 3500 Liberians who were set for deportation when their Temporary Protected Status was set to run out on March 31. There are tens of thousands of Liberians living in the United States legally, and thousands more who are flying under the radar. In any case, those under the TPS statute, which was previously renewed by former President Bush, can breathe easier for at least another year.
For their fellow countrymen back home, who met yesterday's news either with indifference or a slight sigh of envy, the breathing is not getting any easier: Too many of them are standing under storm clouds without an umbrella.
(First published in World Politics Review March 23, 2009)