Trinidad and Tobago

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Patriot games

By Terry Joseph
August 29, 2003

Unless a nation the size of Trinidad and Tobago can boast some unique self-replenishing element, one impervious to superpower meddling, declaring Independence really amounts to little more than a precocious self-esteem project.

Hype about self-determination of political and economic destiny might garner stout applause at patriotic rallies, but only works until neo-imperialists grow bored with such tropical amusements, intervening by any means deemed necessary, where the impact of a particular crisis exceeds the boundaries of offending countries.

In small States, fiscal management is only as independent as the International Monetary Fund and a phalanx of other transnational comptrollers allow. And lest we forget, the derogatory term "banana republic" was not coined to describe agricultural initiatives in developed countries.

Indeed, after superpowers scuttled the fragile economies of more than a few small nations for whom agricultural produce was a major revenue-earner, the imperialists now wish to foist upon them genetically-modified food in lieu.

But it wasn't always like that.

The more mature will remember parents marching in driving rain to secure the return of Chaguaramas, prime western-peninsula real-estate, cavalierly bartered by Britain as part of a WWII deal with its US ally. It was our first real taste of the patriotic spirit, a battle for land and patrimony fought against formidable foes; stuff that authors notes for the drum and fife of many a national anthem.

But less than 40 years later, without a fight, we surrendered weekday use of Marli Street to the very US, "out of concern for embassy security". Of course, politicians who misconstrued the power of independence, promised "to look into the circumstances", only to later discover the embassy had not even requested such a facility.

The "diplomatic gesture" also prohibited vehicle access to the 157-year-old All Saints Church, which shares Marli Street with the Embassy and the USIS.

In a rush of reciprocity, the Americans allowed funerals limited trespass, sparing pall-bearers the burden of toting caskets an extra 100 metres to the church's vestibule.

To be fair, there have been sporadic displays of real independence, most notably a 1983 decision by Prime Minister George Chambers to thumb this country's nose at an American proposal for Caricom participation in the Grenada invasion, an arbitrary military solution to US perception that the island's government constituted a threat to regional security.

Today, fully 20 years later, when the supposedly stronger regional body had the temerity to vote against the American position on the International Criminal Court, its Prime Ministers have been reduced to begging the US to rescind a punitive withdrawal of handouts; facetious little independent nations made to kneel for their insolence.

Excerpts from an address to schoolchildren gathered at Queen's Park Oval on August 30, 1962, by the Father of the Nation, Dr Eric Williams, set the bar against which we may measure decline. "Our new nation must provide the doctors, lawyers, engineers, nurses, teachers, skilled workers and writers and artistes, which every independent nation has and provides for itself," he said.

In the interim, we have achieved quite the opposite, importing Cuban doctors and nurses wholesale, routinely selecting British lawyers to argue our most expensive cases, sourcing engineers even from questionable foreign corporations for major projects and jettisoning our best teachers and skilled workers, while artistes continue to wait on the perennially-promised national cultural centre.

Our watchwords "discipline, production and tolerance", coupled with the unassailable concept of "together we aspire, together we achieve", after ringing proudly alongside cathedral bells at the inaugural celebration, returns to haunt us 41 years later; a conspiracy of indiscipline and intolerance having degraded them to the point of mockery.

With each passing year, rather than solidifying our position, we seem to be losing independence and not only through differences with superpowers on political or economic issues. Indeed, our culture, normally the most dependable of peculiar self-replenishing elements in any country, simultaneously took one helluva dive.

Even in the heady days, when the concept of Independence was fresh and "Massa Day done" the catchphrase, it was still okay for a guitar and chac-chac band to parade the streets at Christmastime, whereas pannists were arrested for similar musical expressions; presumably because they were playing instruments created here.

From minute-one we castigated Pat Castagne's lyrics of the national anthem on the basis of a puerile pun about the opening word "forged", saying it was a confession of counterfeit then, at every opportunity, played the intended march as a dirge, further weakening integrity of the work.

In the land that created a variety of music forms, we have come to the pass where a Jamaican accent is part of our product, a style promulgated by local artistes who proudly sport brand-name clothing advertising other countries.

We have "summer" camps and spring breaks, 62 cable channels of 24/7 foreign fare and, quite unfairly, The Prime Minister's Best Village Competition has become a standard metaphor for mediocrity in the arts.

For a small country to declare independence, then fail to address respect for its culture with the same enthusiasm it applies to economic and political issues, makes patriotism a game, a kind of masquerade in which everyone dresses in red, white and black costumes for a day; just waiting to change into basketball clothes again once the clock strikes midnight.

If that is what we are going to continue thinking of ourselves, then: Let the 41st games begin!

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