Trinidad and Tobago’s Independence experience


By Trevor Sudama
By Trevor Sudama

Trinidad and Tobago observed the 54th anniversary of its Independence on Wednesday  August 31.

In this article, Trevor Sudama, a former Trinidad and Tobago Member of Parliament and Government Minister, discusses political and economic developments in the two-island state.

During the 54 years of its independence from British rule, Trinidad and Tobago has had a mixed experience. It continued to operate, with some success, the institutions of a democratic system with elections to Parliament held at the stipulated intervals, a two-chamber Parliament – one elected and the other appointed, an independent judiciary and a public service, protective service and electoral commission ostensibly insulated from political influence. The conduct of elections has been deemed to be generally free and fair and the results have been accepted by the losing parties.

Thus political peace and stability have been maintained and the country can lay a claim to being, in large measure, a functional democracy when compared to the experience of many other post-colonial states in the past half century. On two occasions when duly established political authority and the integrity of the state were challenged – the Black Power Riots and revolt of a sector of the armed services in 1970 and the armed invasion of Parliament by a fringe group and the attempted overthrow of the Government in 1990 – the political directorate and security services were able to prevail supported by general popular sentiment. The authority of the state and its institutions, remained intact.

However, criticism has been levelled against the system of government in operation over the years on a number of counts and there has been little serious attempt at political and constitutional reform. It was felt that the Constitution adopted at Independence in 1962 was flawed in the sense that it sanctioned “the winner-take-all” outcome in which the victorious party formed Government and controlled all the levers of power and patronage and the losing party formed the Opposition and was impotent.

The situation was exacerbated by the fact that two major political parties were each supported by the two major races. Hence the out group felt powerless and alienated. Moreso, the Constitution permitted power to be primarily concentrated in the office of the Prime Minister without making provision for effective checks and balances. Because of its composition and enforcement of strict party allegiance Parliament has not been able to effectively perform its function of oversight, accountability and sanction. As a result of this failing and the absence of other institutions, there is a deficit in governance and a lack of transparency and accountability which has fostered the environment for maladministration, waste, nepotism and corruption.

Over the period of Independence, the country has remained a vulnerable, open economy largely dependent on the production of oil and natural gas and the associated international prices for the bulk of government revenues and foreign exchange earnings. Thus we have had over the last four decades periods of boom and bust depending on the vagaries of world oil and natural gas prices. The ebb and flow of Government expenditure was a critical outcome in these cycles. In order to influence economic direction, the state has become increasing involved in the economy as an investor and job creator.

Some development has taken place based on the utilization of natural gas as a feedstock for downstream petrochemical industries as well as the liquefaction of it for export. As a result, the population of Trinidad and Tobago, by and large, have enjoyed a fair standard of living. Nevertheless, a notable degree of poverty and underemployment continues to exist. More significantly, the economy remains undiversified and lacking resilience being restricted to a narrow base of resource exploitation and productive activity.

Underlying the overall weakness in the economy is the lack of productivity, innovation, skills development, critical investment and appropriate Government policy initiatives. Viable economic interaction with the rest of the world remains a mammoth challenge for promoting sustainable development and greater well-being for the population.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the country since Independence has been the maintenance of relative social peace and avoidance of inter-racial conflict given the plural nature and ethnic diversity of the society. This is remarkable compared to the conflicts experienced by other multi-ethnic countries of the world. With political contestation between the two major races such peace becomes strained and threatened at election times but, to date, has remained largely intact.

The reason for such a relatively peaceful state of racial and ethnic relationships may be due to many factors – cultural, political and economic. The tolerance displayed by the average Trinbagonian for ethnic differences has been noteworthy. Despite a few instances of excess, the political leadership has maintained restraint and refrained from recklessly fomenting ethnic strife, and permitted economic and professional space in which minority groups and those opposed to the ruling regime have been able to establish a substantial footing. However, as we look to the future, maintaining social peace, political stability and economic viability remain a challenge for leaders and citizens as well as the institutions of the country.

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