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Trinidad & Tobago

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

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