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Trinidad & Tobago

Trinidad and Tobago

Country profile
Trinidad & Tobago

Where are Trinidad & Tobago?

The road out of central Port of Spain towards Tunapuna is more Bombay or Calcutta than typical Caribbean. The stores display brightly coloured saris and the latest ‘Bollywood’ videos, while Indian music blares out alongside soca from passing buses. The sprawling eastern suburbs of Trinidad’s capital are one of the island’s Indian heartlands, but the sub-continent has also been transplanted into the countryside. Hindu prayer flags stand among clumps of banana or coconut trees.

Indo-Trinidadians make up about 40 per cent of the island’s population. They are descended from the 140,000 indentured labourers who crossed the ‘black waters’ from India between 1845 and 1917 to work on the sugar plantations. From the start, they encountered hostility from the black population, who blamed the ‘coolies’ for driving down agricultural wages. Suspicion and a cultural divide persisted into modern times. In the years following independence, the primarily black People’s National Movement (PNM) dominated Trinidad’s politics, monopolizing public-sector jobs for its supporters.

In November 1995, Indo-Trinidad took a significant step forward when the United National Congress (UNC) won elections, putting Basdeo Panday into power as the country’s first Indian-descended Prime Minister. There are hopeful signs that the ethnic tensions may be on the wane. Parties are now less rigidly divided along racial lines, and Panday has been careful to nominate multi-ethnic cabinets. More symbolically, recent carnivals, long the preserve of Afro-Trinidadian steelbands and calypso singers, have witnessed the growing popularity of Indian-influenced music such as ‘chutney’.

Unlike the smaller, quieter sister island of Tobago, Trinidad is primarily urban and industrial. Its most famous author, VS Naipaul, lamented in the 1960s that Port of Spain was ‘the noisiest city in the world’, but this was before the oil boom of the mid-1970s which fuelled urban growth and lavish consumer spending. Oil had been exported from Trinidad since the beginning of the century, but the island had never experienced a bonanza to match 1973-80. As Government revenue quadrupled and average income skyrocketed, Trinidad’s rich enjoyed a seven-year ‘fete’ of imported cars and whisky. The PNM Government invested a fortune in heavy industry, but much was also squandered or pilfered.

By 1981 the party was over, and an extended recession brought Trinidad back to earth. Extensive foreign debt and low oil prices meant that 1994 was the first year of real economic growth since the good days of the boom. Yet the island still remains critically dependent on crude and refined petroleum exports and vulnerable to world price fluctuations.

Natural gas, extracted from offshore fields, is becoming increasingly important, and the government-built plants of the late 1970s produce iron and steel, petrochemicals and electronic parts.

This industrial base makes Trinidad the exception among the mostly agricultural islands of the Eastern Caribbean. Living standards are still higher and infrastructure – when not clogged by spectacular traffic jams – more developed. But farming has suffered, and Trinidad – less so Tobago – imports much of its food.

Whether the country’s relative prosperity remains intact is largely in the hands of commodity markets. Few, however, expect a return to the 1970s, when calypsonian Mighty Sparrow sang that; ‘in Trinidad we see capitalism gone mad’.

James Ferguson


Picture by GUY MANSFIELD / PANOS PICTURES Leader: Prime Minister Basdeo Panday.

Economy: GNP per capita $3,986 (UK $18,080).
Monetary unit: Trinidad and Tobago dollar TT$5.88 = $1.00
Main exports: Petroleum, gas, petro- chemicals.
Main imports: Foodstuffs, capital goods, consumer goods. Tourism is important to Tobago and is being encouraged in Trinidad.

People: 1.3 million

Health: Infant mortality 15 per 1,000 live births (Canada 6 per 1,000). Trinidad boasts one of the Caribbean’s state-of-the-art hospitals, but health facilities are poor outside the major towns.

Culture: A Spanish, then British, colony, Trinidad imported African slaves and workers from Madeira and Portugal as well as Indian labourers. Census returns show 41% African-descended, 40% Indian-descended and significant communities of Europeans, Chinese and Middle Eastern migrants.
Language: English (official), Hindi, Urdu, French, Spanish.
: 60% Christian (majority Roman Catholic); 25% Hindu; 6% Muslim.

Sources: Human Development Report 1997, UNDP, Caribbean Insight, Economist Intelligence Unit, Inter-American Development Bank, The State of the World’s Children 1998, UNICEF.

Previously profiled May 1990


[image, unknown] INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
The beneficiaries of the boom were the rich. Stark inequalities persist between urban slums and leafy suburbs, town and village. Unemployment is around 20%.
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[image, unknown] LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Official literacy rate is 97.9%, the result of steady Government investment.
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[image, unknown] SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Despite dependence on oil Trinidad has built up a diversified industrial base. Food security remains a problem.
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[image, unknown] FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
A lively press and long tradition of outspoken political commentary exist, but there are some concerns about corruption and inefficiency in the judicial and prison systems.
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[image, unknown] POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Opportunities are fairly distributed, although the oil industry and politics are still male-dominated.
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[image, unknown] LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
72 years and rising due to improving health care facilities.
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[image, unknown] NI ASSESSMENT [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Recent changes in government have yet to confirm the demise of racialized politics, but Trinidad’s democracy has successfully weathered two abortive coup attempts in the last 30 years. Relations with Tobago, however, are traditionally tense and the threat of secession emerges at regular intervals.

NI star rating

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New Internationalist issue 305 magazine cover This article is from the September 1998 issue of New Internationalist.
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