Most USA-born folks don’t know that the World Cup Soccer Finals and the Olympic Games (both quadrennial), are the sporting events most watched by people of this planet. Many of them think that such distinctions would go to baseball (World Series) and basketball (NBA Finals); so it wasn’t surprising to find many of my USA-born friends asking rather silly questions, about the event currently being hosted in Germany. But that’s okay; many of us foreign-born folks understand the narcissism and we do empathize. Right here in these dis-united states, there is a different world beyond New York City. Just go south and west of the Potomac. And, oh yes, there surely is a different world east of the Atlantic Ocean and west of the Pacific too. Sometimes we tend to miss these lil truths while living in New York. Sometimes; especially when we want too.
In this year’s event, the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago became the smallest country (on both size and population) to ever qualify for the World Cup finals. It was not the first time that these twin-islands of the Caribbean Sea had made sports-history. It may not be the last. You see in the 1976 Olympics, when Hasley Crawford won the gold medal after victory in the 100 meters running-race, we became the smallest country then, to have won a gold medal at those illustrious games. These sister-islands of roughly 1.3 million people, and only around 2100 square miles in size, have always had a “swagger”-larger than many at the international level would expect. Harry Belafonte (during a concert at Queen’s College in New York City) once referred to Trinidad, as “the most arrogant little island in the Caribbean Sea”. He wasn’t far off the mark here/lol. Much to the chagrin of many from the region, TNT people tend to think that they are “all that and more”. We tend to be most insensitive at times.
Maybe it’s because so many things have been accomplished by those born there; and maybe still, it’s because the islands themselves both have their unique rustic charm and beauty. From being blessed with bountiful flora and fauna; to usually skirting the periphery of the most dangerous hurricanes -luckily being the southernmost island in the Caribbean Sea. From spawning rum and roti politics; to glorifying tasty exotic dishes and fruits. From calypso, soca, limbo and steel-pans; to Carnival as an international export-item. From Stokely Carmichael, Eric Williams, Rudy Capildeo, Vivian Naipaul, C.L.R. James and Geoffrey Holder; to Bucco Reef, the Pitch Lake, Maracas and Mayaro beaches. Whatever or whoever you wish to cite, TNT people can always try to one-up you. And to most of them, it’s not even about conceit, it’s about conviction; they do love their country, even in a dangerous way. They are convinced that it is an island paradise. Listen to their calypsos sometimes, and then tell me if I am incorrect in this analysis.
There is arrogance in this love, and as in love sometimes there is denial. Just like the wife who claims that her husband is a loyal man -even though he has fathered a few children with other women, on the outside of his marriage- some TNT people take this love of country to extreme places, especially in terms of what they consider as “loyalty”. They need to stop, because too many people down there are getting away with murder. It’s time to put them in check.
When Trinidad whipped Mexico, to move forward into the last qualifying round of the World Cup preliminaries, these party-people feted for days and nights. Nothing unusual here; you give TNT people the flimsiest reason and they would have a fantastic fete/party. Partying and liming (hanging out) are ways of life here. They are known internationally as “party-people”. They love to hang–out, drink, eat, and also “shit-talk”. But it’s all good. It’s truly a thing of beauty TNT-style. And believe me when I say that the rum is fine “every time of year”; and the food also.
When they whipped Bahrain to reach Germany, the game ended around 4pm. Within an hour or so, Mr. Patrick Manning -the Prime Minister of the country- had declared in midweek, a public holiday set for the very next day. So when some make the charge of “mickey-mouse” leadership, you can see where they come from, whether you agree or not. Anyway, some partied in the streets and danced into the night. What a country: “sweet sweet TNT”.
When in the first round, the “soca-warriors” (as their soccer–players are called) drew the game with the Swedish team, TNT people were talking upset -David vs. Goliath style. It didn’t matter that the bookmakers in London had placed the odds against Trinidad and Tobago winning the Cup, at an astronomical three thousand to one. Can you imagine how many TNT dollars went down the drain? You talk about feet not planted firmly on the ground. But then dreams are readymade for dreamers and without dreams – and dreamers to dream them- life would be a lot less colorful.
You had to be caught up in the moment; there was magic all around. There were parang-sections with guitars and cuatros. There were rhythm-sections with steel-pan and iron. There were shack-shacks and tassa-drums. Television crews from all over the world did stories on these islanders, ignoring other countries that had qualified for the first time also. Billions of people in the world now knew that this island–republic existed, when in fact most of them had never heard of TNT before. There was at least one zillion dollars worth of tourism-advertising for good ole TNT: for free. What a bonanza for TNT’s Tourism-board. But would tourists really go there once they ascertain the truths behind this Cinderella story? Would they fly to TNT when the masks are removed on the Ash-Wednesday of this soccer-carnival? I don’t think so.
Just like the World Cup finals, carnivals and escapism are but one; they are temporary and illusionary. They are short-term fixes. They are momentary highs. When the nostalgic orgy of TNT’s World Cup performance is done; when the romanticists return to reality; when the swallows come back to Capistrano; TNT will still be facing the twin-problems of crime and deteriorating race-relations.
When the team finally lost to both England and Paraguay, you would have thought that sanity will finally sink in. After all, they had been eliminated from the tournament. No way Jose; each member of the soccer team was rewarded with one million TNT dollars (US$ 170 thousand/ approx.) from the TNT government. It appears to be a little home-coming present; a parting-gift of sorts. In my estimation this gesture was a bit extravagant, but who am I to say. Now today, some are arguing for land to be added to these perks. Enough already!
To put all this in better perspective though, do consider that the Latin-American countries Honduras and El Salvador went to war over the outcome of a soccer game. This was in 1969, merely 37 years ago. Nationalistic passions always run deep; why should TNT people be any different?
Yet, behind this Cinderella-story there are two ugly truths: (1) this lil republic is slowly becoming the murder-capital of the western hemisphere; (2) this lil republic is disintegrating into further racial-polarization.
As I write this column, TNT has a murder rate of roughly 30 per 100,000 people. Based on population, this is about 15 times higher than the murder rate in Canada, and about 20 times higher than the rate in England. It is also roughly 5 times higher than the murder rate in New York City.
To paint the picture in even more stark terms, consider this: the conviction rate for these murders is now running around twenty percent. This means that four out of every five murderers are getting away with it. In gang-related and drug-related murders, no suspect is identified over 80% of the time. Witnesses are too afraid to come forward, and others are often threatened and/or intimidated to the point of silence. Even witnesses in the “witness- protection program” are sometimes snuffed out (murdered).
Mix to all this, the rise in drug-related offences, with the knowledge that TNT is a transit stop for drug-cartels originating in Latin America, and you see the potential for a further downward spiral. Add rapes, sexual assaults, fraud and robberies, which are all at record-highs when the statistics are broken down decade by decade for the last thirty years or so, and I am sure you get the clear picture of one of the maladies that has been transforming this lil “island-paradise”.
Also creeping up into the mix are crimes of a sexual-predatory nature, against young people (even kids) in TNT society. This has been quite alarming to the prurient amongst the population. They see decadence setting in. Let’s not forget also, that TNT is now in the “top 4” when it comes to kidnapping in this hemisphere; a crime where many victims end up dead even when the ransom is paid. Further, when you add the fact that there is a perception-pervasive amongst most ordinary folks-that the police and other armed forces are corrupt (so too the judicial system); then you have the ingredients for anarchy or despotism. For reasons of brevity, I will not elaborate here on what I see as another major issue facing the country: a potential race-war between Negroes and East-Indians. To explore that subject, I will need a whole new column.
So now the question becomes: what can be done? Well, many things; but first TNT people have to end the decades of denial and selective-acceptance. They are both counter-productive.
In 1994, I returned to Trinidad after twenty and a half years of estrangement. What was most depressing about my visit was the after-shock I experienced once I conversed with old-timers there. They all bemoaned the fact that they were virtual prisoners in their homes, having to secure themselves behind iron-gates, iron-doors and tall fences or high walls. Their burglar-proofed windows and triple-locked doors were no aid or comfort in the event of a fire. They came in early (if they did go out) and hardly ever stayed out late. They were fidgety and nervous, they were wary of the changing times. They were sad and scared. They were also very pessimistic about TNT’s future.
When I spoke to the younger middle-class set, they were in absolute denial. They would a say things like: “it’s the drug-runners or the returning deportees (ex-offenders) from the big countries like USA and Canada, or even the local hoodlums”. They all felt and stated that it had nothing to do with them (law-abiding folks), and that it was just sensationalism on the part of the newspapers to sell their products. They even questioned the veracity of some of the stories being reported. They kept insisting that I not believe the things I was reading on the internet about TNT, despite the fact that these websites were put up by the Express, the Guardian, Newsday, and other reputable news-sources from the twin-islands. The same sources they themselves used daily, for news and other pertinent information. I was amazed at the level of denial. I was surprised by their selectivity as to what things were acceptable as facts. But then it was always said that TNT people were “coskel”.
Since 1994 I have been traveling to Trinidad and Tobago on a regular basis. Some years I have gone two or three times; and once or twice I skipped a year or two. In all these trips, I evaluate and re-evaluate both the crime and race-relations situations. It keeps getting worse. That’s why I ring these alarm bells so much and so often. As we would say in TNT: “Lord put a hand, if you can’t then send a man with a plan”.
After a dozen years, I am convinced that denial, selective attention, selective acceptance and selective perception have all hurt efforts to seriously address the situation. Before you start changing things, you must first admit that things need to be changed. Any recovering addict or substance-abuser, will tell you that the first steps to resolution or change, are acceptance and admittal. To me, it has only been over the last six years or so, that more and more TNT people have come around to admitting and accepting these hard truths: that the republic has major major issues which must be addressed immediately; especially in the areas of crime and race-relations.
Many years ago, East-Indians left Trinidad and Tobago seeking political asylum in Canada. Their perception-real, imagined or fabricated- was that they were being victimized by the Negroes (descendants of African slaves). With time, I believe that this was debunked by the Canadian authorities and as such the applications for asylum dried-up and/or stopped. Today, East-Indians are saying (again) that they are being targeted by criminal-elements in the country because of their race. They present statistics showing that most of the people being kidnapped are of East-Indian decent. They are suggesting that most crime victims are of their ilk. Without wading in too deeply on this issue, I will only say that whenever a significant group within a polity makes a running complaint, political-sensitivity should dictate that some commission of inquiry be set up to do fact-finding. However, the ruling political party in power (perceived as Afrocentric), has done little to address race issues in a formal way. There appears to be no structural apparatus in place to handle complaints of this ilk. There seems to be no governmental response to what many on the streets see as a festering sore; a bubbling cauldron.
In Trinidad there is distrust on all sides of the racial divisions. The biggest divide (Negros v. East-Indians) seems heading for an inevitable confrontation -if things go the way they have been going over the last century. Polarization is real; it’s alive and residing in TNT. But again, TNT people–for the most part- are in denial about this, just like they were about the crime problem.
It’s time to seriously recruit help in tackling the myriad problems facing TNT. Ostensibly, some of the help should be imported. By now, most civic-minded citizens must know that denial is nothing but a silent killer.