By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
March 11, 2014
Maxie Cuffie is a dear friend. It is unfortunate that he misrepresented and distorted what I said in my article. In his anxiety to defend our party, he simply repeats and repositions what he believes rather than to confront the points I made in”PNM’s Last Chance.” (Express, March 3 & 4, 2014)
I never said, as Cuffie purports, that the PNM “has not done enough for Afro-Trinidadians” (Trinidad Guardian, March 9, 2014). Using one of Mandela’s quotations I reminded the PNM that a nation should be judged by how it treats its lowest rather than its highest citizens. I noted: if PNM and Dr. Rowley “fail to leave Trinidad (and especially our brothers and sisters in our depressed areas) in a better way than they found them in 2014, one can confidently predict that 2020 would mark the beginning of the end of the PNM as a political force in the country.”
Then I drew a specific conclusion: “The PNM must accept that the party has failed the country in how it has treated the least amongst us: that is, the people of Laventille, Morvant, Sea Lots, Maloney, and other depressed areas that are predominantly black.”
Using statistics from the Household Budgetary Survey(2008), Cuffie asserted that the income levels of Afro-Trinidadians surpassed those of Indo-Trinidadians “in every income group save the $19,000 to $24,999 income cluster.” I never made a case for Afro-Trinidadians in general nor did I counterpoise Afro-Trinidadians to Indo-Trinidadians. I spoke about a specific subset of the Afro-Trinidadian population that has not done as well as it should under the PNM, especially when they have been a mainstay of the PNM.
If the people of these areas are in a better shape today in their overall well-being (that is, in education; finance; a crime-free environment; have greater safety in the streets; arebetter prepared to deal with the challenges of the 21st century, etc.) than they were twenty or thirty years ago, then I stand refuted. If this is so, all the PNM has to do is to keep on doing what all previous governments did and all will be well. However, I must point out that one way of describing insanity is doing the same thing over and over again yet expecting different results.
To argue that my main point of contention is that PNM did not do “enough for Afro-Trinidadians” is to enter a realm of insanity that always plagues our political analysts. It is as absurd as saying that Dr. Eric Williams called all East Indians “the recalcitrant and hostile minority” after the PNM lost the Federal Elections in 1958 when the record shows(the PNM Weekly, June 2, 1958) that Dr.Williams was speaking of a particular reactionary group within the Democratic Labor Party.
There is no need to pay serious attention to Cuffie’s contention that I discount Penny Beckles’s challenge to Dr. Rowley and that “an easy victory for the PNM is dangerous, especially if there is a perception of the ‘we time now’ politics which the professor seems to champion.” The truth of my predictions shall be known after May 28, 2014 and the General Elections of 2015. If Rowley and PNM win, I am vindicated. If they lose, I was wrong in my prediction. It has nothing to do with “we time now,” that wondrous leap of fantasy on Cuffie’s part.
That there is “serious work to be done to achieve a PNM victory at the polls” does not invalidate my proposition. I have been in these battles ever since MacDonald Stanley, the chief lieutenant of Uriah “Buzz” Butler, lost to Badase Sagan Maraj in Tunapuna in 1950. Six years later I was involved when Learie Nicholas Constantine won the Tunapuna seat. I was at the corner of Caura Royal Road and Eastern Main Road, El Dorado in 1976, when supportersof the ULF motorcade hurled insults at blacks as they passed through our area. All of us who were enmeshed in the politics then knew ULF was singing its death-knell. We did not need a poll to tell us what the results were going to be.
Fifty years of political history, being on the ground, and reading the political mood of our people tell me that the PNM shall be victorious in 2015 just as it told me that PNM would lose the 2012 election. I did not vote in that election (the only election in which I did not vote) for the simple reason that I rejected the politics in which a party takes its constituents for granted. This was a main reason why PNM was defeated in 2012.
Maxie Cuffie’s major objection to my essayin the Express has to do with “the role of government as it confronts today’s 21st century challenges” which leads to his larger philosophical point: In Trinidad and Tobago “it is generally assumed that elections are fought over how much of the treasury the government can allocate to certain interests groups.”
Then he says: “The government should have as a goal, making its supporters and the population less dependent on the government than they have been and fostering the spirit of self-reliance that is the foundation of great democracies.” To achieve this, “A government should be committed to transparency and integrity, but also more importantly efficiency.” All of this sounds good but does not respond to the point I made in my article.
I began my essay by demanding a change in our political structure. I argued that whereas during colonialism the society was ruled by the governor and the executive council for the benefit of the British Crown a Trinidad and Tobago government today “must involve a radical overthrowing of that order and placing the control of the society in the hands of the community.”
In spite of what Cuffie thinks, “self-reliance” has never been the “foundation of any great democracy.” After the United States broke away from Great Britain in 1776, its growth and development had little to do with self-reliance. It had to do with the restructuring of its internal social and political system to enable its people to rule themselves. In 1787 after the constitution was adopted the big question was how to construct a society that was different from the one they inherited from Great Britain.
The major challenge they faced (putting aside the issues of the enslavement of blacks and the taming of the American Indians) was the relationship between the central (or federal government) and the local or state governments. This was the big argument between Thomas Jefferson (1801-05), the third president of the United States, and Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson focused on the “firm protection of states’ rights against federal encroachment” (E. M. Halliday, Understanding Thomas Jefferson) which, by definition, constituted smaller government whereas Hamilton believed in the power and authority of the federal government.
These concerns had to do with how citizens structure their relationship vis-à-vis the federal and state governments and then the subsuming role of the towns and villages (smaller political entities) within the state. In Massachusetts, a state of 6,692,824 people, there are 296 self-governing towns and 55 cities. Some of these towns are as small as 8,485 people (Adams) and others as large as 42,844 people (Arlington). All of these towns and villages have their own budgets and run their own affairs.
My argument then has nothing to do with “affirmative action” nor does it reduce itself to a conclusion that it will not help to elevate Afro-Trinidadians “nor resonate well with the other parts of the country whose support is crucial to cementing a PNM victory.”
My concern has everything to do with deepening our democracy. It has to do with how PNM treats the least fortunate among its constituents once it wins elections. This is why the Economist argued recently: “One reason why so many democratic experiments have failed is that they put too much emphasis on elections and too little on the other essential features of democracy” (March 1, 2014). Their reporter may have been listening to me.
Since Mr. Cuffie is concerned about “great democracies,” I remind him what Lyndon Johnson (1963-68) did once he assumed the US presidency. The first bills he enacted were the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. He also implemented Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, and, most important of all, “the War on Poverty.” He enacted all these measures in the five years he was president. He was determined to help the least fortunate among those in the United States.
In this context, Cuffie and PNM should heed the advice of John Harwood in his latest “Political Memo”:
“After signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson famously told an aide: ‘We just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time.’ But he had also done something else: he delivered the African-American votes to the Democrats in overwhelming proportions.
“The party of Lincoln [that is, the Republican Party] has not won as many as one in five blacks in a presidential election since, while the African-American share of the electorate has swelled (New York Times, March 9, 2014).
This, as I understand it, is how party politics is played in the “great democracies.” Look out for the least fortunate segment of the population and they in turn will stand by you.
Perhaps Cuffie and the PNM possess a unique political formulation. However, I can assure Cuffie that if the PNM continues to treat its most faithful constituents as it has done in the past, they will desert the party in 2020 and look for another political home.
And this, my brother, is not about affirmative action; it’s the nature of political reality.