By Carlton Joseph
Trinidad and Tobago celebrated 58 years of Independence on August 31 last without fanfare or the usual parades as the COVID-19 pandemic caused the government to shelve all celebrations, including plans for fireworks display and festivities. Instead, Prime Minister Keith Rowley announced that from Monday last it would be illegal for citizens to step into public places without a mask, emphasizing that the government has distributed a large number of masks and many businesses were also selling them and so masks will become “part of your clothing now.”
Dr. Rowley made this decision because the country recorded 1,773 cases and 25 deaths related to Covid-19. The recent general election must be precipitated this increase, since the Opposition United National Congress (UNC) encouraged its followers to attend political rallies without wearing masks, and told them that sunshine will kill the virus. I am amazed that after many years of spending money on educating our people, including free tertiary education, that we are still so dumb.
Yes, I said dumb, because we seem to have forgotten or just want to ignore our history. Fifty-eight years of Independence and citizens are allowing politicians to incite racial hatred and divide our people so one of them can become Prime Minister and distribute the nation’s patrimony. Forming the government is the goal, because when the party takes control, most of the financial and economic decisions are dictated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), multinational corporations or by the United States and/or the United Kingdom. Both major political parties ignore their bases and extreme poverty persists in the African and Indian communities.
I opened the newspapers on Independence Day and was shocked at the major news headlines. They said racism is the real problem in Trinidad and Tobago. All major speeches, from the President of the country to the ordinary citizen, addressed this man-made, politically inspired, pandemic.
In her message, President
pointed out that she was careful in deciding both content and timing of her statements in order to avoid provoking more heat than light. And that she was disgusted and dismayed by the appalling social media interactions between supporters of the two major parties. I quote: “Because we supported one party, we cursed, insulted and demonized supporters of other parties, often people we never met, tarring them with the same all-purpose brush; notwithstanding that we all know, and have interacted with, individuals who do not conform to our offensive racist stereotypes.”
Prime Minister Rowley, in his address to the nation, said he believe we have achieved, in many aspects and some measure, the vision of Dr. Eric Williams, the country’s first prime minister. He went on to say that “we done reasonably well as a nation. We have maintained our sovereignty, and, in turn, respected the unfettered rights of other states to determine their own destiny. However, there is much, much more to do, many journeys to make and many pitfalls to avoid.”
And he added: “This is a time for coming together, a time for defending ourselves from visible and invisible threats, a time for being responsible, a time for being a contributor rather than an extractor, a time for being brothers and sisters and being our brother’s keeper, in short, this is a time for love.”
Opposition leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar also called for a coming together in her address to the nation. She called on citizens to “let us use this Independence Day to ignite a spirit of unity.”She noted that ” a difference in political opinion, a difference in religious beliefs, a difference in ethnicity, none of these is reason enough to abandon the words of our national anthem ‘here every creed and race find an equal place’ to live together in unity.”
High Court judge Justice Frank Seepersad called for a “Road Map” to treat with race relations and legislation on hate speech. He said that on an individual level; people should hang their heads in shame because too many of us have engaged in race bashing and discrimination: “In the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic, we, in this Republic have experienced a regrettable deterioration in our race relations with the build-up and conclusion of our general elections.” he pointed out.
Unfortunately, this is the state of our Republic on its 58 Independence Anniversary. When I arrived in the US in 1965 and began to understand racism and its detrimental effects on the country and its citizens, I imagined that Trinbago could be a cosmopolitan model to the world for achieving economic and racial harmony and justice. Today, it seems that the “caste system” of India has seeped into our country. In this system, it seems that Afro Trinbagonians are deemed the “untouchables.” Let me be emphatic, the caste system is not viable in Trinbago.
It is time that politicians deal with issues rather than race. The British, and other European countries, balkanized and colonized Africa, and enslaved Africans. The British ruled over India, then divided the country along religious lines, Hindu and Muslim, and used the system of indentured labor to exploit Indian labor. Both races were dehumanized and abused, but we are now “educated.” The British system of divide and rule must not be allowed to flourish in our country. People must not allow themselves to be used as pawns by those seeking power through tribal politics.
The World Bank recognized Trinidad and Tobago as a high-income economy, It has a sophisticated economy and its citizens should be enjoying the same level of prosperity as countries in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), but inefficient government bureaucracy, racism and corruption have hampered economic progress. Social issues include an ageing population, low labor participation rate, insufficient job creation, difficulty opening business, and 20 per cent of the population living below the poverty line, inequality and high crime rates. These are the issues that must be addressed now.
The nation is at a critical juncture. Political leaders of the two main parties must show respect for each other, accept responsibility for where we are, and make a serious effort to address the issue of racism. Radio personalities must stop using the narrative of the lazy Afro-Trinidadian at the bottom of the economic pile that had been failed by the PNM government. And calypsonians must reclaim their role as “messengers of the people” and stop being loyal to any political party.
I fully endorse President Weeks’ call to action when she said: “Our only hope of treating with this scourge once and for all is to attack it at the root, recognizing that it is the result of our histories, our origin, our arrival, our incorporation into the society and our politics. A practical and sustainable programme under the umbrella of a national framework must be developed with all urgency. Our penchant for procrastinating, vacillating and eventually shelving the ubiquitous report cannot be countenanced.”
Finally, this is my unsolicited advice to the nation. Let us get to work and build a nation based on the watchwords given to us by Dr. Eric Williams: Discipline, Production and Tolerance. However, we must be aware of the word “Tolerance.” We must not tolerate racism, incompetence and injustice.