For many people, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley’s announcement that this country will welcome Dominicans to these shores after Hurricane Maria pummelled that island meant adding salt to an open wound.
The reaction on social media was swift and merciless, with many Trinidad and Tobago nationals decrying the proposal and taking issue with Dominicans coming here for free and without hindrance, opening the borders as it were.
While this response should be condemned by leaders with any sense of moral judgment as, given the circumstances, it seems to lack empathy and consideration—especially for our neighbours who may have lost everything—the response may speak to a deeper sense of disenfranchisement that some Trinbagonians may be feeling at the moment.
Similar reactions were seen from people who voted for Brexit and Trump in the United Kingdom and United States respectively, as many felt their circumstances had worsened after the global financial crisis and even over the past 30 years.
Indeed, although the social and economic circumstances of people in the Caribbean, in particular T&T, are distinct from those in metropolitan centres of the world, the reactionary xenophobia appears to share common strands—perhaps from a feeling of loss of power and control over their material, political and economic circumstances.
It is a recognition that, ironically, was made by Mario Sabga-Aboud when he referred to the ‘buffer’ class of people which, in his view, had dwindled in number, resulting in the social ills facing the country. But like the PNM leader, Sabga-Aboud seemed completely innocent of his group’s complicity in giving rise to this growing inequality between the haves and the have-nots.
The negative response in this instance is not entirely new, given past sentiments expressed by none other than current Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar who, as the newly elected prime minister several years ago, noted that this country was no longer to be seen as an ATM for fellow CARICOM nations.
The same sentiments are at play when Trinidadians refer to Guyanese nationals in demeaning terms or to those hailing from the Leewards and Eastern Caribbean as “small-islanders,” as though we occupy a special place in the universe immune from natural hazards.
But while the latter might have been expressed in ‘polite company,” this time the angst seemed to be more intense and widespread.
Casual observation also suggests that it did not come exclusively from certain ethnic groups or from a ‘recalcitrant minority’—to use Eric Williams’ unfortunate almost 60-year-old reference to Trinbagonians of East Indian descent—but from a cross-section of people of various ethnic backgrounds. So although some see ethnicity as having a part to play here, I am not convinced that it is solely ethnically driven.
There is at present an undercurrent that is affecting Trinbagonians, especially members of the working class, who are suffering the brunt and carrying the burden of the current economic crisis with its increased food prices and living costs, retrenchments, precarious work conditions, loss of opportunity for the poorest because of changes to GATE, and increasing uncertainty about the future in this two-island nation.
In times of political scandals such as the recent ferry debacle, the people who suffer the most are the ones without the means. Perhaps the increased attention given to this matter by enlisting the services of a prominent business guru as sole investigator is a reflection of the power wielded by business groups and the effect the fiasco has had on them.
While the rhetoric from government ministers has been that the burden of adjustment is being evenly distributed, for many regular citizens and families who have to hustle to survive, that is simply not the case. It is, therefore, possible that the irrational and xenophobic reactions to the PM’s invitation to fellow CARICOM nationals may well be other attitudes in disguise.
The regrettable insensitivity towards Dominicans has to be seen in the wider context of heightened economic insecurity, an instinct by some for self-preservation or the expression of the little power that access to social media affords the have-nots.
Indeed, as one social media commentator interestingly pointed out, the angry responses may well be indirectly targeted at the government for the unpopular and harsh measures being taken against the majority of citizens.
There may be no relief in the upcoming budget; measures therein may increase hardship on many, especially the unemployed, as energy prices show no signs of recovering to pre-2014 times and government spending continues to prop up the economy.
It is why, in the absence of appropriate leadership, empty rhetoric or ignoring deeper concerns in the political environment will not paper over the current fissures in our society.
Leadership is certainly manifested by showing some compassion to and solidarity with our Dominican brothers and sisters, by offering them some respite and hospitality even for a short period of time. In the wider scheme of things, however, leadership must also take cognisance of the fact that the current economic policy agenda—which favours business interests—has not, even in the best of circumstances, really served the people of this two-island nation.
Coming to the realisation that God is not a Trini and that the current spate of natural disasters will have indirect effects on our society—if not affect us directly when we least expect it—certainly does requires a depth of insight.
We need to set out a vision that addresses the needs of the majority of citizens; we need to set out both an agenda for the economy and for the wider society, one that takes climate change, fossil fuel dependence, and inequality seriously.
Over the last 30 years, the economic agenda has been one which sees the majority of material gains going to the business and financial interests which support the political party in office. It has secondarily tried to paper over poverty levels, without bringing about widespread prosperity or meaningful social change.
A private sector-focused agenda, albeit masked as ‘people first’ or ‘people-centred development,’ does not serve the wider interest and will not resolve the perennial problems of diversification and employment generation or create conditions where we can help those most in need, including our Caribbean neighbours.