By Raffique Shah
January 08, 2024
Little did Desmond Cartey, who held a doctorate in something-or-other, suspect that he was about to write his name in this country’s political history— not in a flattering way, I should warn. Cartey, a burly Laventillian, was running for a seat in Parliament in his hometown, once again I don’t recall which one. It was the 1986 general election and the PNM, which had held power for 30 consecutive years, was under threat from the united opposition running as the NAR.
Cartey had come under intense heckling from a not-so-friendly crowd. One could hear voices of his supporters attempting to drown out his opponents, but Laventille post-1970 was not the same as pre-1970, when the PNM reigned supreme. The shock attack on Cartey had become more or less the norm for PNM in their heartland.
So flustered was he by cries from the near-hostile crowd that he responded to, “Allyuh tief!” by saying, “All ah we tief!” I remembered that bitterness against the PNM from the people of Laventille.
In fact, not only Laventille but elsewhere in PNM strongholds of the East-West Corridor, and from San Juan to San Fernando and other town centres, the tide had turned against the party that ruled Trinidad, seemingly forever. Now the NAR, which came about from a unity against the PNM, was smelling blood. Election Blood.
From 1981 when Karl Hudson-Phillips formed the ONR and although he did not win a seat, he garnered over 80,000 votes; the electoral map had changed as never before. Basdeo Panday’s UNC held on to its ten or so seats, while ANR Robinson reigned supreme in Tobago.
I do not now recall full details of elections at that time. I had left the ULF at the end of my one term in office— Siparia 1976-1981. The ULF, which was created out of a unity among labour unions and some politicians, displaced the then-main opposition DLP in 1976. Thereafter, my interest in electoral politics remained that of an observer and analyst.
When news of Basdeo Panday’s passing broke last week, only the hypocrites among UNC’s leadership and membership bothered to commiserate with the family. As if it was some signal for UNC supporters and members to ignite a struggle for leadership, they sang praise to their fallen leader in one breath, then placed the question of the leadership of the party that has not been up for discussion since the last internal election.
Many UNC members who were not there in the ULF incarnation of the party sang loud praises to Bas for the role he played in uniting not just its membership, but the ethnic groups in the country. I do not believe that Panday was a racist, but I am convinced that he knew how to use race to stay in control of his political holdings.
I was there before the beginning, when the sole function of the party we the collective leadership had set: it was to unite the ethnic groups in the country. For far too long we had stood by, as DLP leaders had before us and PNM leadership throughout its existence, watching our people— members, supporters— fight like crabs in a barrel to gain or retain power, even at the expense of seeing our people divided.
Each side was willing to put a few faces of their ethnic opponents as proof of their commitment to unite, but there existed across all parties great divides that ran from villages and settlements across the country to workplaces and schools as well. Now, I know I come across as being hasty in wanting to see unity tomorrow. I know, too, that won’t happen.
What pained me, though, and propelled me to sit far from the madding crowd, to not play the games that so many leaders in the last 50 years that I have observed, pay only lip service to the quest for unity. I could not stomach the deceit as a 25-year-old lieutenant although the race question fared better in the army.
Today I feel powerless when I see the nation lionise the same men who have worked overtime to keep our country divided. I cringe when I see the most corrupt celebrated and martyred, leaving behind them a nation so steeped in banditry and corruption— and people think the murder rate is the only thing we should be bothered by.
To think that almost 70 years after the PNM brought organised party politics to the country the term “All ah we corrupt” rings a warning bell that nobody seems to bother with. Panday, the only prime minister to have been jailed for corruption so far, is lionised by the very people who complain about corruption being endemic to this society.
Trini, what yuh really want? Shall we continue to wine and dine, and make heroes of corrupt men and women? Tell me.