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Without real leadership, T&T will not navigate rough xenophobia seas

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.

Photo: Women look for refuge in Dominica during Hurricane Maria’s pounding.
(Copyright Times of Oman)

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.

Photo: Former Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar (right) and former Jamaica Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller greet each other at a Caribbean Community (CARICOM) leaders meeting at the University of the West Indies on 9 April 2015 in Kingston.
(Copyright AFP 2016/Mandel Ngan)

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.

Photo: Finance Minister Colm Imbert responds to questions in Parliament.
(Copyright WEFM)

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.

Photo: Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley (right) and his wife Sharon during 2017 Independence Day celebrations.
(Copyright Office of the Prime Minister)

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.

Photo: An All Trinidad General Workers Trade Union protest.
(Courtesy ATGWTU)

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.

AboutKeston K Perry

Keston K Perry
Keston is a PhD candidate in Development Studies at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). He has 10 years' combined experience in the private, government and non-governmental sectors and international organisations.

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49 comments

  1. Hannibal Najjar

    On the lighter side, what is that a scarf around our PM’s neck! I believe that I first saw such on RTK and asked the same question!

  2. I am not convinced that the reaction to Dr Rowley’s request to take in the Dominicans come from a racist position. Yes there has been an unfortunate display of racist statements in social media and that is in itself a worrying situation. From my perusal of these responses I gather that it is just a handful of persons charging and counter charging at each other with often vile and malicious statements. The average Trinidadian of all races are quiet and where they respond it comes from a level of frustration. Trinidadian are suffering from the decisions being made by successive governments including the current one and are trying to come to terms with their lot in any way they know how. There is little money to go around because it is being given/spent by the 1%. Food prices are going up by leaps and bounds and everyone seem to be catching ‘dey nen -nen’ to maintain a normal lifestyle. The population needs to feel that their needs, opinion, and future are as important to governing bodies as it is to them. In the absence of this people start lashing out against each other. Charging a man for statements made on social media directed at the prime minister, did not help. It drove people to start attacking each other. The politics of Trinidad and Tobago has been based on race from as long as I can remember and there is no indication that it is going to end anytime soon. It is unfortunate that there is the perception that a person’s political position is determined by his surname. With a surname such as mine ‘she bong to be a Kamla supporter’ and I will be treated as such.
    I feel sorry for my people ( all citizens of my country) and pray that good sense will prevail in this their battle for survival. The government is not supposed to be the enemy, but they will have a hard time convincing the population of this. I do pray that all our people would get beyond this politics of race, bigotry and helplessness and work towards healing the wounds that they have inflicted on themselves and each other.

    • That 1%, Basdai, is now a strong 5%. The middle class is being squeezed & the poor man is growing poorer. Truth be told, plenty politicians & their cronies have a chunk of that wealth.There are unbelievable mansions in this place, (with elevators & winding staircases like ‘Gone with the Wind’…pun intended) foreign cars stuffed like channa in a doubles into garages, & champagne flowing where ever their children party. Its not hidden from us really because boasting is part of their personality, however, they shut up about their homes & money abroad. While I do not visit these homes I know they exist, and frankly the people I do know, the housekeepers & contractors talk. A TV room for your dog? Small ting.

    • I did not realise that the figure has grown to 5 %. It does not surprise me. What surprises me is that they are still amassing their ill gotten gains while the population at large are content to fight among themselves for a lil 10 days. The nouveau riche have always flaunted their ill gotten gains while treating the rest of the people with contempt and disdain. They want to live large and live the way they believe the upper classes live. Poor fools!! The tide turns and as the old people say ‘ one day, one day, congotay ‘. Panama will not be able to help them then.

  3. K perry, making dumb comments since 1999

  4. I think alot of people do not read the full article but just comment based on the headlines or soundbites!

  5. That was well documented….so true..

  6. Wired868. . .u need to chop it up in smaller pieces for a normal person to understand. Too much big language.

  7. Mr Perry’s article is a familiar one that has been beaten for years as researchers error: mistaking association for causation. Sadly we are reducing the local Caribbean situation to economic determinism which then and still inadequately captures the class dynamics as posited by MG Smiths Plural Society where fissured mistrust between ethnic groups mix in markets but do not combine as has been the response to this call.
    To ignore the ethnic politico divides more pronounced between African and Indo Trinidadian/ Guyanese/ Surinam is to never address the elephant in the room. The attack on the current PM is ‘racial’. Social media discussion has become an avenue of vitriol and disrespect merely awaiting the data mining of scientific evidence to draw the logical conclusion. One blogger was recently charged for this same attack on the PM. But sadly we have seen other rallying calls: boycott the Lara stadium, tell Tendulkar do not come, do not attend National events etc. Today’s article by Sat Maraj openly expresses as leader a firm guidance to followers, advice couched in distracting terms but ethnic in intentions. We have heard to the obscene that the invitation is to buffer voting outcomes. Until we embrace the reality of the problem head on we will be just misdiagnosing the illness and reproducing the status quo.
    We have a nation to build NOT for us but to hand to the next generation. Can we be proud of what we have built?

  8. Maybe I am missing something. I understood the PM’s invitation was extended to those who had a place to come to, a relative or friend. In that case, the person would be going to a specific place for a determined length of time. This invitation is unlike that of Guyana, where they are invited to acquire land a establish permanent residence.
    I think most Trinidadians did not analyze the invitation carefully and on apolitical and racist basis, made a decision. We ate too petty. I dare say if they were coming from the east India region instead of the west India region, they would be more welcoming.
    I pray Lord that we do not find ourselves in similar situations

    • Exactly… even though I have not connection.. I am still offering a place.. a friend of a friend.. family of family… we are all one weather we choose to believe.. while we may need BETTER schools here they have no schools.. yes we need BETTER hospitals here they have NONE. We have more than enough to extend a helping hand..

    • I don’t think so to. To much ignorant and selfish people.

    • It is only because of who will be coming that there is all this uproar ..one day for you ..one day for me…God forbid…we never find ourselves in a situation like that..it then may be a horse of different colour…the shoe will then be on the other foot…

  9. The way people behaved you might have thought Rowley left Trinidad’s front door open and unattended.

  10. What a nice couple,,,,, wahaaaaaait

  11. Mr Perry. You should do your research re the ‘recalcitrant minority.’ That aside, this country has a responsibility to assist a Caribbean neighbour and I’m sure you’re aware of the source of that point. The government could move mountains to enlighten the populace on our declining income status. However, we know that adjustment has not taken pride if place in the minds of most citizens and they are seeing this announcement as less for themselves versus doing the right thing by our brothers and sisters in the Caribbean.

  12. I really feel people did not listen to what the PM said.
    He said if you are living here and can accommodate any Dominicans then Trinidad and Tobago will waive immigration restrictions on Dominicans for six months while they rebuild their country.
    That means that Dominicans can only come if there is somebody prepared to sponsor their stay here. So no, they will not be staying in hotels etc. they will be staying with people who have volunteered to cover their expenses for the six month period. After which time normal immigration restrictions apply.
    As for paying people to go help rebuild Dominica… the PM was very clear that we have no financial resources to help hence the offer of refuge in the first place. So if there’s no money how is anybody getting paid to go across there to do anything? The best possible help was offered based on the realities of the country.
    People need to read/listen and comprehend.

  13. Given the level of disaffection in TT, and the persistent divisions around race, it becomes easy and lazy to immediate ascribe race and prejudice to every problem. I’ve not seen that in people’s response. I personally think that it’s a humanitarian gesture. The left brained side of me says it wasn’t well thought out because if we are going to offer them a safe place, what do we do to properly and healthily accommodate them. Will they simply stay at hotels, will they beg a lodging with friends and friendly strangers.

    The best response I’ve heard came from one of my EDR brethren this morning. He said ” B it have about ah thousand people like me with skills who cyar find steady work. Why the prime minister didn’t pay we a salary for six months and put we on a boat to go and rebuild Dominica?” A very thoughtful reaction.

    I support the humanitarian gesture but I also believe that there could be better thought through solutions. I don’t know how 400 or 4000 Dominicans look. I don’t know how it helps in rebuilding Dominica. We need to be open to more and broader perspectives rather than the lazy narrow and singular perspective of race

  14. One cannot “casually observe” then make an assessment such as the one made here.

  15. Dr Rowley never suggested to open our country for all Dominicans.

    For the life of me, what’s so wrong in helping our neighbour any which way we can??? Even if it means giving them food and shelter???

  16. As I said elsewhere…
    If the winds ever blow a different way, I hope we’re all prepared to find comfort in the rubble.

  17. The article may have some valid points as to our situation, I don’t however accept the excuse for the insensitivity of many of our citizens towards the Dominicans.

  18. This has nothing to do with precarious economic situation. People just don’t want to be honest with themselves.
    We have long held deep scorn for citizens of the English speaking Caribbean.
    People have nowhere to sleep and we can look for excuses to leave them on the street.

    • Earl Best

      You are soooooooo right!

      “Why dem Barbajan living in dis land? Sparrow begging the Immigration to do the best they can.”

      Don’t have the exact date, Chabeth, but I’m certain that song dates from no later than the early 60’s.

      And there’s another that is probably of even earlier vintage. I don’t remember the singer or the whole of the opening line but here is what I remember of it: “If yuh see how deh (fulling the ??) and dem, man, yuh bound to bawl; some ah them could read and spell but deh cyar pronounce at all. De policeman telling dem: “Say ‘box,’ yuh stupid man.” And as dey say ‘bax,’ is inside the police van.”

    • We are not citizens of the English speaking Caribbean?

  19. Valid points..however, this torrential backlash from segments of the population (race, class, religion) about allowing the Dominicans in was unexpected…here is a country that was totally decimated by a cat 5 hurricane..
    And surviving minute by minute..

  20. Hmmm….this raises some solid points here, there is clearly deep dissatisfaction within the society, a sense of the nation floundering and a feeling that current leadership is failing, one can see how these factors form a backdrop for that ugly response ….

    • Yeah. I agree. Sun Tzu said moral authority is necessary for a leader although I don’t think there are many good examples of that anywhere.
      Without moral authority, skepticism and distrust runs rampant. And Rowley shot himself in the foot there.

    • His intentions may have been honorable, but the statement to take in Dominican nationals in our homes was irresponsible , there are many other ways the prime minister could have mobilized the population, which includes big buisnesses, NGOS amongst others before going that route.

    • He seems to be doing a lot of that lately, Lasana..that A&V phone call admission was astounding

    • Most of our leaders , past and present have that kind of irresponsible attitude towards the citizens and the country , they dont take into consideration the long term effects on the people , on the economy on our future , and it gose back to Trinidad and Tobago involvement in the Carribean free markets and economy, to the suspenssion of vesa restrictions to citizens of Asia and the Carribean without thinking about the long term effects , some negatives , on the society and country .