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Trinidad & Tobago

Country ratings

  • Income distribution
  • Life expectancy
  • Position of women
  • Freedom
  • Literacy
  • Sexual minorities
  • NI Assessment (Politics)

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Pietro Cenini/ PANOS

The build-up to the Caribbean’s biggest Carnival in the twin-island Republic of Trinidad and Tobago (T&T), which takes place in February or March, starts well before Christmas. Costumes are chosen, money is saved, huge steel bands practise daily, and old-time calypsonians rehearse their lines for a witty, lyrical competition. In this most rainbow of nations, blacks, Indians, whites and others pull together as one people at Carnival.

Flag of Trinidad & Tobago

The tradition of Carnival satire goes back a long way. In the 19th century, huge bands of people masquerading as sailors paraded through the streets of the capital, Port of Spain, to ridicule the British navy and the wider colonial social fabric. At the 2009 event the title of Calypso Monarch was awarded to old-time teacher, historian and lyricist ‘Chalkdust’, whose hard-hitting satirical sketch of the fraught relationship between Prime Minister Patrick Manning and housing and trade minister Keith Rowley situated them in a hospital emergency room.

T&T is an anomaly among Caribbean states. Trinidad lies just eight kilometres from Venezuela and shares far more in common ecologically with its powerful neighbour than with Tobago – including having access to the vast wells of oil and gas that lie off the South American mainland. While Tobago was fought over by the Europeans for centuries as a highly productive sugar producer, Trinidad was an unwanted colony of the Spanish, who were far more interested in gold exploration on the mainland. Both slavery and full colonialism came to Trinidad relatively late, when French planters fleeing other Caribbean islands were granted land rights; Britain took colonial control in 1802, with Tobago following in 1814. From the 1840s onwards, the influx of indentured labourers from India (following the abolition of slavery) irrevocably changed the face of the island.

With a stunning natural environment, small population, high economic growth and low unemployment – secured by a government focused on the export of oil and gas – T&T is in theory well placed to realize its vision of gaining developed country status by 2020. There are, nonetheless, serious issues around crime and instability, associated with a large wealth gap and the country’s geographic position as a perfect point for transhipment of cocaine. The death penalty was reintroduced in 1999 in order to hang an important drug lord, but since then both murder rate and drug use have shot up and security across the country has rapidly deteriorated.

In contrast to Carnival, politics is distinctly racialized. Manning’s predominantly black Peoples’ National Party (PNP) won a categorical victory in 2007, but with a low turnout and the opposition vote split by a new, protesting, third party. The main opposition, the United National Congress, could not capitalize on the Government’s unpopularity due to their ageing and unelectable leadership and the perception by black voters that they only defend Indian interests.

Secure in power, members of the Manning Government have been accused of corruption related to their personal involvement in the energy industry – many ministers are geologists (including Manning himself) or engineers by profession. While the country has so far weathered the economic crisis through plans to expand gas exports, a major casualty has been Caribbean-wide insurance giant CLICO (formerly Colonial Life) – this was bailed out by the Government, but not before finance minister Karen Nunez-Tesheira allegedly withdrew her personal funds.

Hosting both the Fifth Summit of the Americas and the Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings in 2009 is a major coup for Manning, not least so he can be seen alongside Barack Obama, who is immeasurably popular across the region. That said, much of the population, plagued by food prices and crime, will see the high-profile posing as further evidence of a government bent on public relations and far removed from the issues that matter.

Rob Coates

Map of Trinidad & Tobago

Fact file

Leader Prime Minister Patrick Manning (since 2001, and also 1991-95).
Economy GNI per capita $14,100 (Venezuela $7,320, US $46,040).
Monetary unit T&T dollar.
Main exports oil and gas represent 80% of exports and 40% of GDP, primarily to the US. Also rice, sugar, cocoa, coffee, fish and transhipment of illicit drugs. National income is also generated by tourism (primarily on Tobago), offshore finance and remittances from the overseas diaspora.
People 1.3 million (Tobago 55,000). Annual population growth rate 0.5%. People per square kilometre 260 (UK 250). 
Health Infant mortality 31 per 1,000 live births (Venezuela 17, US 7). HIV prevalence rate 1.5%. Lifetime risk of maternal death 1 in 1,400 (Ireland 1 in 47,600).
Environment CO2 emissions per capita have almost doubled since 1990, in 2007 reaching 24.9 tonnes (Venezuela 6.6, US 20.6). Deals with Alcoa and other companies to build aluminium smelters in sensitive areas have led to much anti-government criticism. Tourism development in Tobago has left 50% of coral reefs all but dead.
Culture Broadly half-black (descended from African slaves) and half Indian, but with significant mixed-race, white/Syrian and Chinese minorities. There is a refreshing lack of religious élitism across T&T, with an appetite for celebrating all faiths’ holidays.
Religion Christian 55% – Catholic, Evangelical Protestant and Presbyterian. Hindu 25%, Muslim 6%, African spiritualist 5%.
Language English; some older people of Indian descent speak Hindi; small groups speak French Creole (patois), and Spanish, the latter boosted by Venezuelan expatriates.
*Human Development Index*: 1990 0.784; 2005 0.814 (Venezuela 0.792, US 0.951).

Country ratings in detail

Income distribution Though regionally average in statistical terms, T&T has more to go around, with energy dollars failing to reach the ghettos. Low-income areas have much higher rates of murder and violent crime, and a two-tier culture has developed with fear and exclusion of the black urban poor. 1998 ★★★
Literacy At 98.4% T&T has a high literacy rate and a strong literary culture in the home. The school system is, however, failing poor Afro-Caribbean boys. 1998 ★★★★★
Life expectancy 70 years (Venezuela 74, US 78). Given T&T’s high GNI there is no excuse for a regionally low figure. 1998 ★★★★★
Freedom Peaceful protest is respected, newspapers represent the full range of opinion, numerous religions coexist. Occasional accusations by Indo-Trinidadians of government favouritism of blacks. 1998 ★★★★
Position of women Women hold management positions and achieve in education. Domestic violence is prevalent, though, and the state has failed to deal with the trafficking of women from Venezuela and Colombia. 1998 ★★★★
Sexual minorities Homosexuality is still illegal though the law is rarely enforced. The situation has improved dramatically in recent years: gays live open lives; gay bars and clubs operate without problems; and foreign gay performers are welcomed – things not tolerated elsewhere in the region.
New Internationalist assessment Trinidad and Tobago’s vibrant culture draws on a phenomenal range of traditions, and new-found middle-class wealth is fuelling a cultural boom. It has come at a cost, however, with the environment a clear loser as Trinidad has built refineries, chemical plants, and most recently an aluminium smelter in sensitive areas. CO2 emissions are at an unacceptable level as a one-track economic development policy is pursued. The Government is failing to live up to its promise to reduce crime and inequality and has become unaccountable.

New Internationalist issue 423 magazine cover This article is from the June 2009 issue of New Internationalist.
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