For as long as political systems have existed in this country, parties have operated along racial lines.
The People’s National Movement (PNM), the party that currently holds the reins of power, has had an Afro-Trinbagonian base throughout its 70-year history, while the United National Congress (UNC) and its previous incarnations—the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) and the United Labour Front (ULF)—has had solid support from Indo-Trinbagonians.
Although T&T is often described as a cosmopolitan society, the truth is that any semblance of peaceful coexistence is fragile, due in part to the deliberate divide and rule system by which past colonial rulers kept control over this country’s two main ethnic groups.
For a fleeting moment in the 1980s, it looked like T&T could achieve real unity when the genuinely multi-ethnic National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR), a party formed from a merger of various opposition groups, gained power. However, that party broke apart along ethnic lines early in its only term in office and steadily diminished as a political force after that. Since then, while the main political parties have fielded racially diverse election slates, their campaigns are often tainted by rhetoric and posturing that are ethnically repressive, discriminatory and deeply divisive.
This country has so far avoided a full eruption of ethnically driven political violence, but we still face consequences from an electorate that casts ballots based on tribe rather than issues.
Even outside of election seasons, parties get deeply mired in race and there are some controversial examples in the recent past
The PNM came in for widespread criticism when, at a Family Day event in August 2018, a constituency group did a skit in which a woman had her yellow sari taken off by men in gorilla suits to expose a red undergarment. The racist and misogynistic overtones of that display prompted an outcry from opposition and other groups
Not to be outdone, at a UNC political meeting the following month, Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar stirred up more racial tensions when she called Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley an “Oreo.”
The wretched state of race relations in T&T was accurately summed up by Professor Rhoda Reddock, of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, in her contribution to a virtual symposium hosted by the Port-of-Spain Archdiocese in August 2020, when she said: “We understand almost everything through the prism of race. Race becomes an explanation for all failure, achievement, economic decisions, marriage decisions, education decisions, employment decisions and, of course, voting decisions.”
Sadly, T&T’s politicians seem incapable of breaking the cycle of mistrust between Indians and Africans, in which each suspects the other of wanting to “take over” the country. If anything, that ethnic discord is frequently exploited to score political points.
The UNC leader has again skidded down the slippery slope of race-baiting and stereotyping with her comment about ancestral and slave names, offending and alienating a huge segment of the population she aspires to once again lead. As a former prime minister, she should have known better.
T&T needs leaders capable of bridging the ethnic and cultural divide to build a stronger nation but such people do not seem to exist in our fractured political arena.