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Staining the Soul of Our Nation

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
August 15, 2014

To hear Kamla Persad-Bissessar and Anand Ramlogan tell it, one would think that August 12, 2014, was a red-letter day for Trinidad and Tobago's democracy. They seem to indicate that somehow our society realized one of its brightest moments when the PP voted legislation to recall parliamentary representatives after three years of service if the needs arises, to creating time limits for the prime minister and, most important, to require that each parliamentary representative receive more than 50 percent of the votes cast at a general election though not necessarily more than 50 percent of the total voters of that constituency. Although I have no problems with the first two resolutions, I don't know what democratic magic occurs when 50.1 percent rather than 49.50 percent of a constituency votes for a candidate of their choice.

Yet, in all of the heart-wrenching debate no one told us why this magic number is supposed to deepen our democracy and lead to a more just and caring society. Commentators drew on examples from France, although we never stormed the Bastille or experienced the savagery of a Robespierre; examples from the United States although we never experienced a Civil War or the wrenching trauma of a Civil Rights struggle; nor as in England, where a Seven Years War and an Industrial Revolution shaped much of its history. All we are told is that the measures taken by our government are good for us because they have been adopted in part or whole by France, the United States, and England.

While there might be some relevance in those examples to our society–we don't necessarily have to reinvent the wheel–the nurturing of democracy has more to do with the specific needs of a society, how we draw on our history and its culture, and how, as Gypsy says, we seek to safeguard "the soul of our nation."

This is why I am always so troubled that whenever we launch into a discussion of the future possibilities of our nation it seems we can never look any farther than Eric Williams and the PNM as though our political history began in 1955 and everything that happened before then is of little importance to our conversation. It almost seems as though two hundred and seventeen years of political history (I prefer to begin our history in 1797) have nothing to teach us as we seek to move our nation into new phases of social development.

As I listened to the PM and the AG discuss the glories of this new paradise, I recalled a debate that took place in our Legislative Council on November 2, 1848, as the ruling elite, under the leadership of Charles Warner, the attorney general, sought to convince us that the enslavement of East Indians was necessary for the strengthening of the island's wellbeing (we were then a colony of England) and the material progress of the island.

Among other things, Warner's legislation bounded Indians to their estates; set their workday from sunrise to sunset except some time for meals; demanded that Indians receive a pass from their master before they left their plantation; be imprisoned with hard labor for any wilful neglect of work or disobedience; and other such demeaning aspects. Believing in the righteousness of his position, Warner declared: "So far as this system may be open to the objection of coercion I will not be deterred by objections."

It took the courage of John Scoble, the secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society, to point out the cruelty of this legislation; the undue haste under which it was undertaken (it was passed in a day); its similarity to the slave codes, and why its adoption would throw the society back into slavery "under the pretense of organizing an efficient system of labor in the island." Having no other alternative, Scoble wrote to Earl Grey, the secretary of state, demanding that the government withdraw this pernicious piece of legislation from the law books.

There is no doubt that the legislation Warner passed was not in the interest of the laboring population, "whether Creole or immigrant," as Scoble noted. Yet, Warner was certain that such legislation was in the benefit of the laboring population because it regulated their terms of employment and made it easier for the planters to extract their surpluses. I am sure that if Errol McCloud and his legislative colleagues were around they would have given their stamp of approval to such a noble bit of legislation.

Any legislation that seeks to deepen our democracy must possess one cardinal virtue: it must bind our people together and create one nation out of diverse loyalties. Demanding a Parliamentary representative receive more than 50 percent of the votes cast does not reach the threshold of what constitutes real rather than formal democracy. Trinidad would not necessarily be more democratic if five or even ten of our parliamentary representatives received less than 50 percent of the votes cast during any given election.

Democracy is a process where dialogue, consensus, and trust are more indicative of its strengths than the number of votes a candidate receives. A strong man in an autocratic society who gets 95 percent of the vote does not reflect a more democratic state than someone who receives 61 percent of the votes in an open society. Democracy is not diminished if, in a race of three or more candidates, the winning candidate receives less that 50 percent of the votes.

I do not know how the Senate will vote when it debates the motion on August 26. I would hope that it votes against this renegade piece of legislation that seeks to divide rather than bring our society together. Yet, I have so much faith in my nation that whatever the Senate does come June 2015 the PP will fade into the sunset, just another aberration that sought to take us back to a servile past.

Selwyn R. Cudjoe, a professor at Wellesley College, is a member of the People's National Movement. He can be reached at and @Professor Cudjoe.

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