New Internationalist

Trinidad And Tobago

Issue 207

new internationalist
issue 207 - May 1990

COUNTRY PROFILE

Trinidad and Tobago

Map of Trinidad and Tobago. Lying just seven miles off the coast of Venezuela, Trinidad is a crossroads for shipping from North America and Europe bound for the Caribbean islands and South America. Offshore oil deposits provide the mainspring of wealth. Tobago lies one hundred miles away, with tourist beaches.

The carnivals are legendary but the celebrations are now more a welcome respite from unremitting austerity than a simple expression of exuberance. For the collapse of oil prices has cost the country dear: oil products account for over 80 per cent of exports. Worse was the closure of much of the country's refining industry as the oil giants switched to new US offshore facilities.

For some years the Government swept the problem under the carpet by spending its once huge reserves. The 'Trinis' carried on being the Caribbean's largest consumers. But in 1984 came a devaluation of the local dollar - followed by another in 1988. Unemployment went up and social expenditure was pared to the bone. Today, car assembly lines are silent and the docks half empty. The trade unions, their membership decimated, can only protest impotently. Much of this bitter medicine was prescribed by the International Monetary Fund as a condition for aid and support for debt rescheduling.

Not that all this was entirely unwelcome. The consumer boom put immense strains on the infrastructure: after all, didn't the Prime Minister himself declare that 'money is no problem'? Corruption was a way of life. The bloated civil service became a byword for inefficiency. All pretence at planning disappeared. Property values soared, as did the numbers of homeless people.

High expectations for a return to the consumer cornucopia underlay the end of 30 years of rule by the People's National Movement in the 1986 election. The incoming Alliance for National Reconstruction was a multi-ethnic 'rainbow' alliance reflecting the country's racial mix. Trinidadians are divided between the 'Afros', descendants of the slaves, and the Indians and Chinese whose forebears were indentured labourers. But by 1988 the rainbow had evaporated as the large Indian grouping moved into its own political compound.

Yet all is far from lost. Local food is far more plentiful than before, new industries are springing up and exports growing. Foreign investment, once banned, is also on the move. And growing numbers of people have realized that true development cannot be measured by the imports of consumer goods. Like its own calypso music, Trinidad has a vivacious spirit and the ability to bounce back. Optimism is in the air again.

Tony Thorndike

Leader Prime Minister A N R Robinson

Economy GNP per capita $4,210 (US$18,530) Monetary unit: Trinidad and Tobago dollar.
Trade dependent on oil exports; other exports are fertilizers, sugar and chemicals. Main imports are consumer products, food and capital goods. Agriculture is overshadowed by oil industry, employs less than 10 per cent of workforce. Cash-crop production of sugar, coffee, cocoa and fruits has slumped, and 60 per cent of food requirements are imported. Other activities are fishing, hardwoods, rum distilling, paper processing, textiles and vehicle assembly.

People 1.2 million

Health Infant mortality 20 per 1,000 live births (US 10 per 1,000)

Culture Independent from Britain in 1962, Trinidad has descendants of African slaves (Creoles) and Chinese and Indian indentured labourers as well as offspring of French settlers expelled from Haiti in 1798; Lebanese, Syrians and Jews. Tobago is mostly Creole.
Religion: Many religions, including Hinduism and Islam, reflecting the mix of groups.
Languages: English and Creole.

Sources: State of the World's Children 1990; Encyclopaedia of Developing Nations

Last profiled in December 1980

 

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Narrowing gap between rich and poor but rising unemployment
1980: **

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End of oil boom has forced greater food production
1980: ***

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Encouraging generally; less good in traditional Indian households
1980: ***

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Multi-party system promoting privatization
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97% Free and compulsary primary education; secondary school also free
1980: ****

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No political prisoners; freedom of expression and assembly
1980: ****

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65 years
(US 75 years)
Some decline due to cuts in health spending
1980:*****

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