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PNM's Last Chance

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
March 05, 2014

Part 1

A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones—and South Africa treated its imprisoned African citizens like animals.

—Nelson Mandela

I am pretty certain that Keith Rowley will emerge victorious during the PNM's party election and go on to become the next prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago. Fortunately, that is the easy part of the political equation. The more difficult part is to govern in such a way that the society emerges in a better place than it is in 2014. That's the challenge PNM faces when it takes the helm of government. However, if Rowley and the PNM 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 our country.

PNM has contributed much to our society. Therefore it stands to reason that if the party accepts praises for the good things that have happened, it must also accept its share of blame for the bad things. If the society is more crime-ridden today than it was yesterday, the PNM must accept its share of the blame for such a condition. It does not do any good to blame the PP (the People's Partnership) for the state of crime in the society since both parties share in the blame.

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 the other depressed areas that are predominantly black. If the party wishes to be a relevant entity after 2020, it must stop the downward slide in which these people find themselves and work towards creating a more equitable society where they feel they have a stake in the society and that Trinidad and Tobago is as much theirs as it is ours.

If PNM wishes to make the society more livable, it must make the community the center of all social and political development. It is an opportunity which the PNM rejected and one that has come back to haunt all of us. In 1989 Joel Krieger, a colleague of mine in the political science department at Wellesley College, and I wrote PNM's 20/20 Vision Statement (it was adopted at the 1989 PNM Convention) the one thing we stressed (but could not get Patrick Manning to agree with) was the principle of community control as the foundation of our social development.

We argued then—and I have continued to do so consistently—that if colonialism involved the control of the society by the governor and an executive council who worked for the benefit of the British Crown, then independence—and later republicanism—must involve a radical overthrowing of that order and placing the control of the society in the hands of the community. Today people must work for themselves and the enhancement of others. The community must become the fulcrum around which our social and political system revolves.

In today's world, government officials are slowly realizing that the communities are the key to solving many of our problems. A week ago Garry McCarthy, the police chief of Chicago, Illinois, the murder capital of the United States, attributed the drop in the murder rate in Chicago (the murder rate dropped by 18 percent in 2013, the lowest level in fifty years), to the role of community policing and the provision of more social services and amenities for the "worst neighborhoods" in his city.

Speaking about the success of his efforts, McCarthy noted that "the department was structured around community rather than citywide policing, resources were shifted to the most dangerous areas through more spending on overtime, and merit—based promotion for commanders was introduced" (FinancialTimes, February 18, 2014). The police department, he said, had done a "gang audit" and identified "every member, every territory and every conflict in the Chicago's entrenched gang culture."What he did not mention was his department's close working relationship with the community.

Crime however does not exist in a vacuum. Sociologists have attributed increased crime in these black areas to the high levels of unemployment that exists there. Heidi Shierholz, a labor market economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington D.C. noted that for seventy years black unemployment had been twice that of white workers. She says: "It's hard not to use the word 'depression' when you're describing the labor market conditions among African Americans now" (FT, February 17, 2014).

Part 2

On February 28, in light of the catastrophic conditions among young black men in the US, President Barack Obama announced an initiative to empower them. He stated that the country should do more to show these young men "that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them." He emphasized that government needed "to partner with communities and police to reduce violence and make our classrooms and streets safer. And we need to help these young men stay in school and find a good job—so they have an opportunity to reach their full potential, contribute to their communities and build decent lives for themselves and their families" (New York Times, February 27, 2014). He also called on the non-profits to assist him in achieving his objectives.

For fifteen years the National Association for the Empowerment of African People of Trinidad and Tobago (NAEAP) has been urging our government to partner with local black organizations to alleviate the conditions of black communities and black youths but to no avail. We established a school, conducted seminars, held summer classes and gave evening lessons. We offered national lectures but never received any assistance from the government or prominent blacks in our communities. Today that neglect continues to haunt us.

To make matters worse, it seemed to us that Mr. Manning had an intractable fear of Sat Maharaj, and the PNM feared to be associated too visibly with anything black. In the early 2000s I sent a memo to Mr. Manning recommending that there be an educational component in every CEPEP program. I made that recommendation knowing that not every participant in the CPEP program would learn to read and write but remained convinced that if the children of a CEPEP worker saw his or her parents reading and writing, they were more likely to want to do the same. Fear of what the PP or Sat would say prevented the PNM from incorporating this very worthwhile idea into its public works program.

The PNM has an obligation to work to raise up those who have received least from society's abundance. Afro-Trinidadians from the depressed segments have been the backbone of the PNM but have not received as much as they have given to the PNM. The PNM has been so afraid of being labeled "racist" that it has done little to enhance the well-being of those who need their assistance the most. Today, the outcome is clear: you either empower black people, starting from the base of their communities, or the society will pay a high price for such neglect.

Mr. Rowley should also guard against a related tendency among the PNM hierarchy. On Election Day, come hell or high water, the people of Laventille, Morvant, and other such areas turn out faithfully to support PNM. Once the party gets into power a special select few who usually surround the leader profit most from the party's victory by way of contracts, special favors, etc., while the poor and downtrodden, faithful to the end, go back their homes, hoping that things will be better this time around.

Mr. Rowley will have to remember the importance of an organized party in achieving the party's objectives, particularly with regard to black people. When C. L. R. James left the party in 1961 (or was he thrown out?), he emphasized that the party must be controlled by its members. He noted: "A party leader has constantly to ask himself: If I am struck down tomorrow (or shot down) what will happen to my program? The answer is not in individuals but in a solidly organized party" (Party Politics in the West Indies, 54).

James realized that an organized party was indispensible for the achievement of the party's objectives. He observed: "It is the organized party which alone can assure success against the most powerful enemies. It is the power of the organized party which will bring to the party young and educated elements who are so conspicuously missing [from the party]... Periodical exhortations and denunciations by the political Leader will not organize the party" (Ibid., 60—1). It is a warning of which we need to be aware as we prepare for government.

The PNM also has to be careful about its tendency to glorify "the political leader." We do not even refer to him by his name but by his title. Party members ought to remember that we serve Keith Rowley or Penny Beckles when we insist on the centrality of the party in formulating policies and practicing consistent democracy within the party. The leader of the party articulates the party's views and inspires us to greater heights. Ultimately, the leader is not the party: he or she represents the concentrated expression of the party's aspirations which he or she is bound to respect.

On May 28 I will support Keith Rowley's candidacy for the leadership of the PNM as I did in those not-so-glorious days of 1996 when he challenged Mr. Manning for the leadership of the party. However, I would be lacking in patriotic sentiments if I did not remind my party of the debt it owes to its most faithful followers and the need to stop taking their loyalty for granted. I may be wrong, but I think the fortunes of the party will rise and fall on how it treats this important segment of the party. As the old folks used to say, "A word to the wise is sufficient."

Selwyn R. Cudjoe is a member of Party Group 12, Tunapuna Constituency. He can be reached at and tweet @ProfessorCudjoe.

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