Until the cooks rule, Trinidad will not be a paradise

I arrived here in Port of Spain, Trinidad, a week ago to attend the centennial anniversary of C L R James. I spoke, in a rather abstract and intellectual way, on James and popular journalism at a conference where the slogan was "Every Cook Can Govern". I alerted the conference to the verb "can", as opposed to the Kantian imperatives "should" and "ought". Popular journalism, with television and the internet in tow, had responsibility for preparing the cooks (and other ordinary workers) of the world to govern. Investigative journalism, the documentary, the drama, the chat show are all instruments in this process. But the opposite would be taking place at the same time: scandal, sex, violence, the dumbing-down of reality are instruments aimed at keeping the cooks in their place. I identified the last in a daily paper that was launched here in Trinidad a few weeks ago.

These remarks, quoted in the press without comment, threw me immediately into the arguments that are engulfing this tiny island. Not for a very long time have I witnessed a government in such mortal crisis. It is budget time, and the governing party has a parliamentary majority of two. It is almost exclusively a party of the East Indian section of the population. The prime minister recently brought into the party an Afro-Caribbean group, one of whom made a bid for the deputy leadership. Four members of the party, all ministers, dissented and drew up the slogan "No turning black". Thereafter, all hell broke loose, and continues to do so.

Right smack in the middle of the budget debate, the opposition leader produced a photograph of an exclusive dwelling at 12 Campden Hill, Kensington, London, with the prime minister's wife alighting from a Mercedes-Benz at the door. He asked: "How could the prime minister afford this Kensington house on his salary?" That same week, another opposition MP produced a cheque in the name of the prime minister for US$50,000, paid to him personally by a remote committee of the party and signed by a certain Dr Tim Gopeesingh. Gopeesingh has been on the rack for plundering funds from the ministry of health. Day after day, this drip-drip effect winds up the population through chat shows, popularly written articles, cartoons and the rest. The discussions continue everywhere - on street corners, in bars, restaurants, homes. The diet of investigative journalism prepares the cooks to govern.

As I write, the radio announces that the leader of the Afro-Caribbean group borrowed a large sum from a local bank without security. The dear fellow failed to service the loan, and a local capitalist venture, associated with benefiting from government privatisation bids, offered to secure it. It is as stark as that.

The question now is whether the government can withstand this bombardment. If the prime minister were to fire the gang of four from the cabinet, his majority will be in peril.

Trinidad's Piarco International Airport is referred to as "new". There is no new airport, merely a terminal building, a shell. How this cost the government 1.5bn Trinidad and Tobago dollars, I shall never know. So the intense public debate will continue. To adapt lines from one calypso: "Trinidad is not nice/Trinidad is not a paradise."

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2001 issue of the New Statesman, What would you do?