White beaches, heat and the rhythm of the carnival. This view of the Caribbean has been perpetuated throughout the world, but behind the ‘paradise’ facade this is a region with a distinct political identity, one that differ’s from our perceptions. In the Caribbean, socialism, popular politics and corruption combine in a toxic mix that seriously damages the political freedom of the population.
The Caribbean has plenty of examples of extreme politics, from Communist Cuba to the authoritarian regime of Papa Doc in Haiti. These regimes helped to shape the image of Caribbean politics of the 21st century, but it is the grass-roots activism and black-power politics of other Caribbean nations (including Trinidad) that truly definied Caribbean politics. Trinidad represents the pressures many of the region’s nations have faced following their independence from European imperialism.
Eric Williams was the first Prime Minister of Trinidad. He wanted to inspire a nation that would emerge out of the shadow of colonialism and plot its own agenda for the future. He inspired nationalism and pro-Caribbean politics. For the British and European populations of Trinidad this new political environment made their position as Trinidadians largely untenable and a big exodus of Europeans began. This nationalism then led to the emergence of the Black Power movement.
Black Power challenged the way Trinidad operated as a nation. It argued that the regime of Eric Williams was a neo-colonial invention that inherited the elitism and social exclusion of British colonialism. Black Power was a grass-roots movement that was inspired by the Civil Rights Movement in America and the assertion of trade union rights in Trinidad. It was a movement of the people that sought to challenge the political control established by Eric Williams. For many in the island Eric Williams was an authoritarian leader and the Black Power Movement was a way to address the balance of power in Trinidad.
But the movement quickly became violent and uncontrollable and this social upheaval and violence became indicative of an undercurrent in Trinidadian life. It has manifest itself in the gang and drug culture and high crime rate of the islands (a symptom of the nation’s position in the drug trade between Latin America and the USA), but in particular it manifest itself in a coup in 1990 that threatened to destabilise the nation.
This coup was led by Yasin Abu Bakr, leader of Jamaat al Muslimeen. This organisation was a fundamental Islamic group that sought to overthrow the government of A.N.R. Robinson. They invaded Parliament and the state TV broadcaster (then the nation’s only TV station) and held members of the government, including the Prime Minister, hostage for six days. In these six days many people died and Port-of-Spain was beset with rioting and looting.
The coup had shown that behind the ‘paradise’ exterior of Trinidad there is a violent undercurrent of fundamental politics. Nationalism, fundamental Islam, socialism and crime combine in parts of the Caribbean to create a nation that diverges greatly from our perceived notion of these islands. Ultimately the beaches and hotels only part describe the Caribbean and the reality is that the politics of this region reveal the Caribbean, if only we can go beyond the hotel.
By Peter Banham
Cover Image: Stokely Carmichael, a Trinidadian-American activist, whose leadership of the Black Power Movement inspired Trinidadians in the 1970’s.