An Address to the Trinidad & Tobago Association of Washington, D.C., October 2, 2022 by Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
I am pleased that your president, Nigel Scott, has invited me to address you on the 46th Anniversary of our Republic even though I prefer to see the evolution of our political independent life beginning in 1962. In this context, I would also like to pay my respects to H. E. Brigadier General Anthony W. J. Phillips-Spence, Ambassador Extraordinaire and Plenipotentiary, Embassy of Trinidad and Tobago in Washington, D.C. What I am sure that your president did not tell you is that in 1962 both of us were invited by Dr. Eric Williams, Premier of Trinidad and Tobago, to attend a three-day meeting at Queen’s Hall, Port of Spain, to discuss a draft of the first Independence constitution. The meeting took place from April 25-27, 1962. The invitation read in part:
“Cabinet Ministers and the Constitutional Advisers to the Cabinet will be in attendance. There will be no public opening. The discussions will be held in private and the meeting will be open only to persons who have been invited to attend either as citizens who sent in memoranda or as representatives named by organizations which did so. (Office of the Premier, Trinidad and Tobago, Whitehall, “Press Release,” No. 111).
In those days your president and I were very active in every community organization in our district of Tacarigua and so it fell upon us to make our contributions on behalf of our fellow districkers. I do not quite remember what we said there, but I know that we, like most of our fellow citizens, were very heady about the possibility that we were becoming an independent nation, hopefully, to create what the Mighty Sparrow described in song as “a model nation at last.”
Looking back, it is not difficult to evaluate what we have achieved over the last sixty years if we compare our achievements with what we called at the time, the mother country and who, it is said, had the power/authority to “grant” us our independence. Last Thursday, Minouche Shafik, director of the London School of Economics and Political Science, wrote the following about the mother country in the Financial Times:
The UK economy has two urgent problems. The first is a cost of living crisis fueled by dramatic shifts in the supply and demand for goods-particularly energy-in a time of war, plague and other disruptions. The second is more than a decade of low growth and productivity, or what the Economy 2030 Inquiry calls ‘Stagnation Nation.’ With the highest inflation rate in the G7, growth in labour productivity well below the OECD average, stagnating real wages since 2010 and a host of other terrible economic indicators, it is no surprise that the Bank of England projects British households are facing its biggest collapse in living standards since such records were first kept 60 years ago. (Financial Times, Sept. 29, 2022)
Last Monday, Finance Minister Colm Imbert delivered his 2023 Budget Speech in the House of Representatives. Trinidad Newsday reported:
“expected earnings to be $56.175 billion and spending of $57.685 billion. On a predicted global oil price of US $90.50 and gas price of US $6.00 MMBtu, he anticipated $25 billion in energy revenues, $30 billion in non-energy and $1 billion in capital revenue.”
“He said TT’s finances were improving-with US $4 billion balance of payments, US $6.8 billion in reserves and debt-to-GDP at 70 percent (September 28).”
Now, I do not mean to suggest that Trinidad and Tobago is richer than London but I suspect, in qualitative terms, that compared with the present economic situation in which the UK finds itself, we are not doing so badly.
And this is the point. We haven’t done that badly, as a nation, over the past sixty years. We have made a huge impression on the world stage in terms of academics and sports, and have been able to spread our carnival-loving ways to many societies. We have also done very well in harvesting our energy resources. The latter has resulted in a significant growth in per capita income.
For example, in 1962, T&T’s GDP was about US $948. Today, as a result of several tactical investments in the hydrocarbon sector, together with the fortuitous rise in energy prices, T&T enjoys a GDP of US $15,696, and a much higher standard of living than when we became a republic in 1976. In fact, the United Nations Human Development Report of 2021 has placed us in “the high human development category, positioning it a 67 out of 189 countries and territories.”
In 2005 the same organization ranked us 57 out of 177 countries and we were in the “highest designation for countries whose life expectancy and adult literacy” placing us in the top tier countries of the world. Needless to say, the advent of the corona virus, COVID-19 has thrown us back on our heels and lowered our ranking in this regard.
Another indicator of our achievement has to do with how well we have preserved our democracy, particularly in the area of the peaceful transition of our government. Since our independence in 1962, we have witnessed the peaceful transition of governments, although there have been two unsuccessful coup attempts. In the early years of our republic, we could have taken that achievement for granted but, in the age of TRUMP, we can no longer take these elemental aspects of democracy for granted. So, even compared with the great United States, we held our own in this regard. It is one of the things of which we can be most proud.
T&T, as you know, is perhaps one of the most cosmopolitan countries in the world. As early as 1866, William Gamble, in his book on Trinidad, identified the various African ethnic groups in the island (the Yorubas, the Eboes, and the Congoes) and differentiated the languages spoken by the Indo-Trinbagonians: that is, the Bengalis who speak Hindi and the Madras who speak Tamil. Apart from the languages of the Portuguese and Chinese, Gamble noted that “Danes and Germans, Spaniards and Italians, Scotch and Irish, French and English, are to be found in Trinidad.”
In spite of such diversity, we have stuck together as one people, which is why, in our National Anthem, we assert, “Here every creed and race find an equal place” and implore that “God Bless our Nation.” Perhaps, the most notable feature of the last one hundred and fifty-six years is the manner in which the various groups in T&T have managed to live together harmoniously. This may be our most notable achievement.
There have been shortcomings over the last sixty years. My dear friend Dr. Brian Harry has defined them as matters requiring our attention. He lists them as education reform-we still cling to the colonial ways of doing things and prize formal academic education over everything else; legal and judicial reform-it takes too long to pass out justice; health care-too many people die from medical negligence; infrastructure reform-modernizing the water, electricity, transportation sector-archaic planning mechanism-we need to be planning year round, guided by a future-back position that informs our decision; poor governance; and weakening public institutions.
In this context, I would like to suggest that we can do a much better job in terms of how we perceive and organize formal education. Reginald Dumas, one of our more distinguished scholars and diplomats, asked recently: “To what end are we ‘educating’ our nation? Are we turning people out who can think critically, or people who, as a former UWI lecturer told me recently, merely regurgitate what they have been fed?”
Then he quoted Secretary-General Antonio Gueterres’s “Vision statement” that he delivered last month at the UN Summit on Transforming Education: “The crisis in education, however, runs much deeper and goes beyond the challenge of equity and equality. Study after study, poll after poll, draw the same conclusion: education systems are no longer fit for purpose. Young people and adults alike report that education does not equip them with the knowledge, experience, skills, or values needed to thrive in a rapidly changing world. Learning continues to underplay skills, including problem solving, critical thinking and empathy.”
Dumas asks: “Is T&T listening?”
Dr. Harry insists that it is imperative that we reform our infrastructure since it is the only way we pass on wealth to the poorer classes who, in the end, are those who suffer most in our society. While we may enjoy a high per capita income, it does not mean that our wealth is distributed equally, nor are the poor protected from mental and physical wounds of an unjust society.
And here is where we have to probe more thoroughly to find out how just and moral our society is to all of its members.
In my view the most obvious shortcoming of our sixty years of independence and republicanism has been the escalation of crime in our society. This is the greatest threat to our democracy. The ability to protect citizens so that they feel safe in their society is the hallmark of democracy in any country. If we don’t control the violence that is unleashed against our citizens, primarily by the growing number of gangs we are heading towards becoming another Haiti where gangs rule the roost and the citizens take the hindmost.
When your president and I were growing up in Tacarigua in those halcyon days of yore, we went for walks with our girlfriends, hung out with our friends, walked in the moonlight and went to midnight services at St. Mary’s Anglican Church. We cannot do that anymore. In many instances the society has become a jungle, approaching the point that Darwinian evolutionary theorists described as “the survival of the fittest” or what we, in T&T, call a “dog-eat-dog” society.
While we have achieved much materially over the last sixty years, we have lost much in terms of the ability to enjoy the sanctity of our own homes, and just to be able to “free-up” in our own social environment. Those of us living abroad should try to do as much as possible to raise the social and cultural standards of our people without which the future well-being of sweet T&T may not be as felicitous as we would like to see it.
The time for action is now. It certainly can and must begin with a discussion of our strengths and weaknesses, seeking primarily to understand how, in spite of our best intentions, the rampant crime in our society can doom us to a failed republic.
It’s a bit late but HAPPY REPUBLIC DAY!