Winter 2006
Politics Here and There
by Anthony Milne
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There is a story that Sir Alexander Bustamante, Jamaica’s first prime minister, once promised exuberant supporters in Westmoreland, in the west-centre of the island, during an election campaign, that he would plant cod-fish trees in the area to make sure they would never run short. Bustamante, an eloquent slugger and union leader, may have been chief minister at the time, before independence in 1962, alternating in that post with his cousin, the Oxford-educated lawyer Norman Manley, father of Michael. 

To mollify any Jamaicans offended by the Bustamante story, I should, speaking as a Trinidadian, mention that years later Prime Minister Michael Manley noted that Trinidad and Tobago’s windfall of oil dollars in the 1970s passed through the twin-island republic “like a dose of salts,” which was largely true.

I don’t know if promises like cod fish trees are made here in Canada, but certainly I’ve been hearing some big promises costing big money, and about big scandals too, like the one to do with Québec. I’ve been in Britain and now Canada during general-election campaigns. I could be wrong, but they seem relatively tame, community-hall affairs compared to the colourful, occasionally violent, election campaigns and political agitation I’ve witnessed and covered as a reporter in the West Indies.

From 1956 to 1986 in Trinidad and Tobago, when Dr Eric Williams’s People’s National Movement (PNM) was in power, election results were virtually a foregone conclusion: 26 or so seats for the mainly Afro-Trinidadian PNM incumbents (though Tobago voted the PNM out of its two seats in 1976), ten for the Indo-Trinidadian opposition.

Things began changing, heating up, becoming more flamboyant after Williams died in 1980 and a serious challenge was posed to the PNM by Karl Hudson-Phillips’s Organization for National Reconstruction (ONR).

The ONR won no seats but got 90,000 votes from a total of about registered 300,000 voters. It was then that the age of big fund-raising and big donations began, as well as sophisticated television and other political advertising.In 1986, the big advertising campaigns continued and the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) wiped out the PNM…and on it went. Eventually the largely Indo-Trinidadian United National Congress (UNC) took power, and the PNM is there again. 

What I found really exciting are the big outdoor national party meetings where speakers can be addressing 10,000 people, or three times that many, according to who is making the estimation. Campaign calypsos and themes are composed and blasted from the stages where speakers make their spicy speeches—“Not a damn seat for them,” “Attack with full force”—flags and jerseys produced in profusion waved and worn proudly on these occasions. The speakers themselves can often be eloquent, in standard Trinidadian or “dialect,” as suits the occasion, searingly critical or humorous.

Of course, I know most about campaigns in Trinidad and Tobago but also a bit about those in other islands as well. Each has its own special venues for big meetings: Woodford Square in Port of Spain, Half Way Tree in Kingston, and the Queen’s Park Steel Shed in Barbados.

There have been politico-racial riots in Guyana, the earlier ones probably instigated by agents sent from Britain and the United States. There have been two serious attempted coups in Trinidad and Tobago (for which nobody has ever been sentenced to jail, because of legal technicalities), and a less serious one in Dominica, of all places. Nowhere else. (I’m talking exclusively about the English-speaking islands.)

Soon after the Dominica fracas I was on the last flight into Saint Lucia before the airport was closed to hear brilliant Brother George Odlum declare that he and his people would “march round and round Castries” till the government of Prime Minister Cenac fell. And fall it did, assisted by business and labour coming together to close down the country, paving the way for another general election. 

Something like 700 people were killed during one Jamaican general election, though there couldn’t have been more than a dozen lost in the general election of 1997 I was there for. Today democracy usually prevails, despite charges of media bias, intimidation, corrupt voting practices, and so on. It gets sorted out somehow.

“24 Hours” published a poll on December 22 which asked how many people were paying much attention to the federal election campaign in Canada. 68% said they weren’t, 31% said they were. I’m pretty sure that in the West Indies it would be the other way around, with perhaps an even higher percentage saying they were scrutinizing events very closely.

(Anthony Milne is a professional journalist who worked for several years for Trinidad Express in Trinidad & Tobago, and now resides in Canada  where he is writing an historical novel about his native Trinidad.)