Her Excellency the President spoke a little over a week ago at the re-opening of the Red House, the seat of our parliament. As a self-described emissary of the people, she brought a message to the parliament to the effect that whatever the politicians are doing within the Red House is not working for the people.
It is important to record again what she represented as some of the citizens’ criticisms. For example that ‘existing laws do not address their serious concerns and that some laws appear to benefit narrow sectarian interests rather than the interests of all’.
She also brought the message that ‘while parliament and other leaders in the country are dabbling in semantics about whether we are a failed state or in a crime crisis, our citizens are being murdered at an alarming rate, they lack opportunities for employment or are losing their jobs, food prices are spiralling beyond the reach of many, and more and more of our children are falling into the ‘at risk’ category’.
These are grave comments, not flattering to the politicians. As one who has written about denial of the murder problem for more than two decades, it was pleasing to me that the president referenced the alarming murder rate.
Presumably, unlike many of those who make comments of a character similar to the president’s message, the president will not be described as unpatriotic, mischievous, raising disaffection or disloyal and ungrateful to the current party in government, which proposed her for election.
It is difficult also to see how her statement could be described as ‘race baiting’.
Every citizen, other than the partisan political zealots, well know that the president’s message about the state of the country is true and accurate.
Although addressing the parliament in its legislative home, the political executive—namely the cabinet—fell within the president’s remarks because the cabinet constitutionally comprises only members of parliament.
Moreover, I noted that she included ‘other leaders’ in the criticism of the semantic games. All ‘the powers that be’ should therefore take stock. None of those wielding awesome wealth and power have a garden into which the president’s remarks do not fall.
The president’s remarks were made in a heritage building, the renovation and extension of which reportedly cost in the vicinity of 440 million dollars.
True to our trite and semantic selves, some ‘dignitaries’ babbled on about pride in the restoration—tone deaf to the economic pain of the people of which the president spoke. Other assorted opportunists touted ‘people before buildings’.
What is really required is a debate that acknowledges that there is a place for built heritage in our culture, but addresses its priority, what is a reasonable and proportionate cost to maintain it and how it is to be used. Its value is diminished if it is not regularly open to the citizens and visitors, at a reasonable cost, with access to knowledgeable guides at stated times—and not by lottery or contact.
Interestingly, in Jamaica, I have experienced two prices for a visit to a waterfall site, one for residents and one for visitors.
Built heritage has prime value as part of a tourism policy related more to cities like New Orleans, which combine history (some of it as oppressive colonial rule), performing arts and indigenous cuisine—and not related to beach bodies and boardwalks so beloved by our stunted thinkers, but unsuitable for tourism to potholed Trinidad.
Overarching all of the above, the chronic lack of new thinking reflects the barrenness of our leadership pinpointed by the president. Outside the parliament, the vibrancy of the under-recognised performing arts sector stands in stark contrast.
Two days after the president’s remarks, the Junior Panorama exhibited the musical brilliance of our youth. Our leaders are blind to the obvious ways to remake our socio-economic structure by harnessing this energy and discipline and to facilitate the arts and entertainment sector becoming a key component in the mainstream of a diversified economy.
Without our leaders having the capability to move forward differently from the current barrenness, the renovated Red House will simply be an expensive red box out of which the leaders cannot think.