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The Revolutionary '70s

By Raffique Shah
September 02, 2012

"...the beginning of the Decade of the Seventies finds the Caribbean in a revolutionary mood."
(Dr Eric Williams, The Chaguaramas Declaration, November 27, 1970)

THE SEVENTIES started with a revolutionary bang. By mid-February 1970, Black Power exploded onto the national stage, erupting in social and political convulsions such as the country had never known in its recorded history. Before the Seventies turned into the Eighties, Trinidad and Tobago experienced a mutiny in the army, guerrilla warfare in the hills, unprecedented labour unrest, a bust-to-boom economy, the resignation of Dr Williams (and its withdrawal), the decline of the dominant People's National Movement (PNM) and obliteration of the opposition Democratic Labour Party (DLP).

The nation was not yet ten years old when it was baptised in fire. The children of Independence, who had reposed much faith in Dr Williams to lead them out of the constraints of colonialism into a more equitable, thriving nation, felt they had been cheated. True, education up to the secondary level was more easily accessible. But success in academics did not guarantee job opportunities that still favoured those of fairer complexions, and tertiary education was available only to the very bright or the wealthy. Unemployment stood at around 12 per cent, but among youths it was more like 25 per cent.

The young became very restless. Besides their frustration with their own circumstances, they were witnesses to a global generational upheaval. In the USA, they saw Blacks and radical Whites rise up against racism and inequality. They heard or read the rhetoric of resistance coming from the mouths of icons like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Che Guevara and Stokely Carmichael. They followed with interest the escalation of America's war in Vietnam, and the growing resistance to it, the mass protests, and the brutality that both the Black activists and anti-war protestors encountered. They were au courant with the often violent liberation struggles in much of Africa and Asia. They were influenced too, by songs of protest emanating from artistes like Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, James Brown, Joan Baez, John Lennon, Aretha Franklin and Jimmy Cliff.

So when Geddes Granger (later Makandal Daaga), Dave Darbeau (Khafra Kambon), Clive Nunez, George Weekes and other frontline Black Power activists took their crusade onto the streets in early 1970, the seeds of revolution found very fertile ground among youths-the unemployed, students, workers. Although young people formed the base of this mass movement, its ranks also included mature persons and veterans of the 1937 Butlerite strikes who had remained militant.

In three short months (February to April), the Black Power Movement swept through Trinidad and Tobago like a whirlwind, touching almost every district in the country. At a time when the population numbered around one million, daily protest demonstrations averaged 15,000, peaking at as high as 50,000 when they buried Basil Davis who was shot by the police outside Woodford Square. The revolt was so powerful, NJAC, the umbrella organisation that served as the vanguard, staged several meetings and marches on any good day. Woodford Square, renamed the People's Parliament, was packed with people at nightly meetings.

The revolution shook the foundation of the establishment; Dr Williams and his Government appeared to be cornered. The business sector was in shock. Labour was divided: militant unions and workers joined the Movement while pro-Government leaders pleaded with the Prime Minister to rescue them from a tidal wave that seemed to be sweeping the old order aside. Williams responded by declaring a national state of emergency on April 21, imposing a dusk-to-dawn curfew, and detaining the leaders and frontline activists of the Movement. In an unexpected counter-strike, two young lieutenants (Raffique Shah and Rex Lassalle) and more than 300 troops of the 600-strong Regiment mutinied and seized control of the army's headquarters at Teteron Barracks. The rebel soldiers demanded that the Government fire the army's high command and release all political detainees.

The Coast Guard, using its two Fast Patrol Boats (FPBs) and a 40 mm Bofors gun, prevented the mutineers from moving into Port of Spain laden with firepower that could have threatened the Government. The rebels remained in control of Teteron for 10 tension-filled days, in spite of interventions by the Venezuelan and United States armed forces-mainly naval and air. The leaders eventually subjected themselves to be arrested and charged with mutiny and treason. In all, close to 100 soldiers were charged with various offences and faced four courts martial. The initial State of Emergency stayed in effect for six months, during which time 80-odd activists were detained on Nelson Island and at the Port of Spain Prison.

Trinidad and Tobago had lost its innocence in a rough and rude awakening that would reverberate throughout the decade. Black Power did not die with the end of the emergency or the arrests and jailing of the rebel soldiers. Williams would resort to a second six-month State of Emergency in late 1971, as labour unrest continued unabated. And even as the rebel soldiers sat in jail awaiting trial, armed attacks on prime targets-the Coast Guard commander, a court martial prosecutor-would signal the start of a new phase of the struggle for what many young radicals saw as true independence.

By 1972, elements of the National United Freedom Fighters (NUFF), struck: armed youths attacked an estate police outpost in deep-south Forest Reserve, robbing the station of arms and ammunition. The attackers left behind a pamphlet explaining the reasons for their raid (see David Millette's thesis, 'Guerrilla War in Trinidad,' 1992). In two years of active operations, NUFF, led by and comprising mainly young people fresh out of secondary school, conducted similar raids against police outposts and arms dealers. They robbed banks. They engaged the police and army in battles in forested parts of the country.

But poorly armed by comparison with the police and army, these young idealists were doomed to die in battle or to be shot like dogs by policemen led by Randolph Burroughs. They did kill at least three policemen and wound several more. By late 1974, when the group succumbed, some 15 members, all under age 25, had been killed. Prominent names included leaders Guy Harewood and Brian Jeffers, as well as John Beddoe and Rudy John. Beverly Jones was only 17 when she was killed in a battle in Caura. Her younger sister Jennifer was captured. Much later, Jennifer became a Minister in the UNC Cabinet and is currently this country's ambassador to Cuba. Of the 20 or so NUFF 'fighters' captured and jailed, and the 200-plus support group, many went on to complete their education and become professionals.

The Seventies would also see the emergence of militant artistes who articulated the 'causes', who put into song the cries of the masses. Prominent among this new breed were calypsonians Black Stalin, the Mighty Duke, Brother Valentino and Chalkdust. Andre Tanker 'come back home' to take indigenous music to new heights, and 'rapso' took on new meaning through the voices and rhythms of Lancelot Layne and Brother Resistance. Pan music rose to a crescendo (some say it was the "Golden Age") and Sundar Popo popularised Chutney music. The revolutionary spirit of the 1970s did not halt the march of conventional politics, but it did influence the latter. At his party's annual convention in November 1970, held at the Chaguaramas Convention Centre, Dr Williams told the party faithful, inter alia: "The word 'revolution' has always held terrors for the privileged groups in the Caribbean...(the) PNM must continue to be revolutionary...In fact, the beginning of the Decade of the Seventies finds the Caribbean in a revolutionary mood."

The PNM leader went on to outline in The Chaguaramas Declaration several fundamental policy positions that might have come from the mouths of spokespersons of the Black Power Movement.

Clearly, the Prime Minister recognised that for the PNM to remain relevant in a society fired up by revolution, it must capitalise on the mood of the masses. Hence, even as the revolutionaries remained in detention or on trial or being hunted in the hills, he took the PNM into general elections in 1971, facing a boycott by the main opposing parties.

Central to the opposition's boycott was a call for the return to the ballot box over the suspect voting machines that had been introduced in the 1961 elections.

The opposition now included former PNM deputy leader ANR Robinson, who had resigned in 1970 as a Minister and from the Party because of the way it handled the Black Power uprising. Robinson's ACDC joined with Vernon Jamadar's DLP and many prominent personalities who strongly believed that the PNM could be defeated in the aftermath of the events of 1970. Others who were not involved in the elections, but who supported the boycott, included NJAC, the progressive trade unions and a host of radical organisations.

Williams did not budge on the voting machines issue. But he sensed that the boycott could be embarrassing to the PNM. Mysteriously, his ally in opposition, Bhadase Maraj, hastily formed the Democratic Liberation Party to contest and legitimise the elections. But the mood of the electorate was unforgiving. There was a paltry 33 per cent turnout, down from 66 per cent in 1966. The PNM won all 36 seats with 28 per of the electorate supporting the party. The Indian constituency wiped Bhadase off the political map. The results signalled the dawn of a new electoral era.

With complete control of Parliament, Williams should have been a happy man. But he was not. The Court of Appeal, and later the Privy Council, freed the mutinous soldiers. Rebellion lingered in the air even as NUFF guerrillas fell in the hills. The masses stood stoutly against the draconian Public Order Bill-Government withdrew it. Passage of the IRA in Parliament in 1972 failed to stem industrial unrest. Most of all, the economy, heavily dependent on oil and sugar, remained stagnated. Between 1960 and 1970, oil fetched a paltry US $1.80 a barrel. The price rose marginally in 1971-72 ($2.40). Williams, despondent over being unable to implement many of his ambitious projects outlined in The Chaguaramas Declaration, shocked his party and the nation by signalling in September 1973 that he would not run for leadership at the December convention.

In a daze, the PNM faithful prepared to elect a new leader. Karl Hudson-Phillips, the young Attorney General, was odds-on favourite over the older deputy, Kamaluddin Mohammed. But between September and December there were some interesting developments. An Arab-Israeli war erupted in October. It was a key factor in driving the price of oil to over $3 a barrel. The Arab-dominated OPEC started flexing its muscles, suggesting even higher prices. Williams smelled an economic turnaround. At the PNM convention in Chaguaramas, Karl, having staged a glitzy campaign that brought him to the brink of leadership of the party and the position of Prime Minister, saw his hopes dashed when Dr Williams returned to claim his space, to wild acclamation.

The seeds of discontent that were sown in that convention would return to haunt the PNM a decade later. In the meantime, though, Williams' sense of timing proved to be superb. Oil prices rose to over $11 a barrel by 1974-75, $13 by 1976, and $32 by 1979! Oil production, too, rose from 140,000 barrels a day to over 200,000. The Treasury overflowed with money, and Williams famously boasted, "Money is no problem!"

Huge infrastructural projects got underway. The Solomon Hochoy Highway was extended from Chase Village to San Fernando. Scores of secondary schools were built. Construction of the Mount Hope Medical Complex, the Hall of Justice, the Financial Complex, began. Point Lisas started taking shape. And corruption rose to epidemic proportions.

By 1973-74, new leadership emerged to challenge the PNM. As a trade unionist, George Weekes had grown in stature. Bhadase Maraj, leader of the sugar workers' union, had died a broken man in late 1971. In 1974, Basdeo Panday filled the leadership void in the country's second most important union. And Raffique Shah carved out a new union among the country's sugar cane farmers. By 1975, these three, and Joe Young and Clive Nunez of TIWU, along with several other radical and progressive unions and citizens' groups, came together as a labour coalition named the United Labour Front (ULF).

The fledgling ULF took strike action in the sugar belt in 1974, and in 1975, with oil workers joining; they brought the country to its knees. The unions demanded huge increases in wages (100 per cent) and the price paid to farmers for canes (150 per cent). The Government conceded, but following the brutal suppression of a huge protest demonstration in San Fernando (Bloody Tuesday, March 18), the ULF transformed itself into a political party in early 1976. General elections were due later that year.

Before the elections, though, the all-PNM legislature (two members had resigned from the party, forming an opposition of sorts) decided to change the country's constitution, abolish the monarchical system and make way for the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago (effective September 24, 1976). Out went the Governor General (representing the Queen), and in came a president as Head of State (Sir Ellis Clarke made the transition). In keeping with global trends, 18-year-olds were given the right to vote, and Dr Williams finally agreed to scrap the voting machines and return to the ballot box.

In spite of the body blows it had suffered from the early 1970s, the PNM went into the 1976 elections full of confidence. Dr Williams was still at the helm (for the last time), and the opposition was badly fractured: nine parties squared off against the PNM. Moreover, the nation's coffers were flush with cash. And Hasely Crawford won gold at the Montreal Olympics on the eve of the elections: the PNM exploited the champion athlete on the campaign trail.

(The following year, 1977, Janelle Commissiong won the Miss Universe title in Santo Domingo, the first black woman to do so.)

Among the nine opposition parties, three born in the decade were of significance: the ULF, Robinson's DAC and Lloyd Best's Tapia. NJAC decided it would not engage in electoral politics. Leaders of the ULF sought to forge an alliance among these four entities, but failed. By then, the divided DLP was a spent force and the other contestants were of nuisance value. It was a bruising campaign, but when the votes were counted on the night of September 13, the PNM had won 24 seats (54 per cent of votes cast), the ULF 10 (29 per cent), the DAC two (Tobago, eight per cent) and Tapia none with four per cent of votes cast.

Williams wallowed in this victory-by-ballot-box, since between 1961 and 1971 the PNM had been accused of stealing elections by rigging the voting machines. Now he could legitimately continue the 'revolutionary' goals he had set for the PNM back in 1970. Already, back in 1972, in response to demands from the militants that the people of the country control 'the commanding heights of the economy,' Government had formed NP to market all petroleum products. It had also acquired the assets of Shell under a new State-owned company, TRINTOC, which would eventually control the massive Pointe-a-Pierre refinery. Post 1976, Williams consolidated the State's grip of the economy's behemoths. Caroni Ltd had been acquired in 1975, to which he added the remaining sugar companies. The State-owned ammonia plant, Tringen, started operations in 1977, and T&TEC's new power station became the first big tenant at Point Lisas. Government went ahead to build a steel plant, ISCOTT, also at Point Lisas. It would be commissioned in 1980. With these new plants coming on stream, another revolution was underway by the end of the decade-the emergence, and soon, dominance, of gas-based industries.

Some might posit that the decade that began with a political revolution ended with an industrial revolution. That is partly true. In time, gas would overtake oil in importance to the national economy, and fluctuating oil prices would see the economy shift from buoyancy to bust, and into the arms of the IMF. But the spirit of the Black Power revolution that started the decade would also endure. So much that we take for granted today-local captains of industry, finance and manufacturing, respected technocrats and professionals, universal education (with all its flaws), a respectable GDP, vibrant cultural expressions and harmony among our people-all have their roots in that revolution. Give thanks.