How To Miss A Coup d'Etat

The neo-Gothic Old Police Headquarters on Sackville Street in Port of Spain, Trinidad, frames the country's parliament building, Renaissance-style Red House (1906), which was stormed by insurgents of the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen on July 27, 1990.  Photo by David Stanley (CC BY 2.0).

The Red House (L) and the Old Police Headquarters (R) in Port of Spain, Trinidad. The Red House was stormed by insurgents of the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen on July 27, 1990. The Old Police Headquarters were also damaged by a car bomb. Photo by David Stanley (CC BY 2.0).

The original version of this piece was published on the Caribbean Free Radio blog on July 27, 2010, the 20th anniversary of the attempted coup d'état perpetrated by members of the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen in Trinidad and Tobago. 

Start by leaving the country a few days before the event (not that you know it’s going to happen). About five days is good—say around July 22, 1990. Make sure the place you’re going is far from any established West Indian community. Northern California is a workable option.

On the morning of the event, sit down in your Trinidadian Stanford Medical School student friend’s cottage in Menlo Park, type up a television script on said friend’s boyfriend’s Mac Plus computer, print it out and take it to a nearby copy shop. From the shop, fax the script to your colleagues in Trinidad, who, later that day, will use it to shoot a segment of the television show you’re working on together. The act of faxing also inserts you—tenuously—into your colleagues’ much more heroic narrative related to the event, though of course you don’t know this at the time.

Take the train into San Francisco, trawl around the city like a tourist, then in the afternoon meet up with your friend in order to hitch a ride back to Menlo Park. While sitting in the car in rush-hour gridlock on US-101, fiddle with the dial on the radio and happen upon a National Public Radio report about an attempted coup in your country.

Marvel at the coincidence of your landing, just at that moment, upon a news report about a nation that would otherwise receive scant coverage in US news, even on public radio, but still await the jingle at the end of the report announcing that what you just heard was a comedy segment. When, instead of a jingle, you hear another report about something bad happening in some other part of the world, freeze for a few seconds. Then try to recall whether, five days before, there had been any sign or indication that something like this was going to happen. Decide that there hadn’t.

As it would be some years yet before either you or your friend—or most of the world’s citizens—acquires a cell phone, sit impatiently in traffic until you get back to Menlo Park. Once there, rush to the answering machine which is pulsating with voice messages. Be amused at the succinctness of your friend’s Washington DC-based sister’s message: “They had a coup! Call me!” Wonder how all the Trinidadians on the west coast had managed to get hold of your friend’s number. Return calls. Answer new calls that come in. Lament the fact that nobody has any real information.

Even though the phone lines to Trinidad are perpetually busy, keep trying to get through to family, but make sure you have a list of questions prepared, as long distance calls aren’t cheap and neither Skype nor the Magicjack has yet been invented. Lament the absence, in northern California, of a real West Indian community such as exists in New York or Washington D.C. or south Florida or even Atlanta, and discuss how this limits your access to the choicest rumours and to folks who know folks who had managed to get through to somebody in Trinidad who knows somebody who knows what’s going on. Experience feelings of profound isolation.

Keep the radio tuned to NPR. Make sure you tune in to an NPR report in which a journalist you know is interviewed in Port of Spain about the horrors to which your homeland is being subjected while sitting on the bonnet of a car in Stinson Beach, in the atmospheric Marin Headlands, looking out at the magnificent Pacific. Note it as one of the most bizarre juxatpositions of your life thus far.

Leave California for New York. Wait it out there for what seems like—or may well be, as you don’t yet record all your trips using as-yet-to-be-dreamed-of services like Dopplr and TripIt—weeks. Watch, over and over again, that single, worrying image on CNN of the city of Port of Spain with a plume of smoke rising up from the middle of the city. Listen to the West Indian radio stations; talk to folks on the phone—but still feel you have no idea what’s going on in your homeland, except that the insurgents have surrendered and there’s now a curfew. Write letters (longhand, on paper, as you’re still five years from getting an e-mail account) to friends in various places announcing that you might end up stranded in the US.

Be deeply envious of your two colleagues who were in fact shooting your script when news of the insurrection reached them, and who, with all other work brought to a standstill by the events, report that they’ve been venturing out with a camera to capture coup-related action.

Keep harassing the airline to put you on a flight back home. Settle eventually for one that connects in Miami, even though it means spending an awful night in Miami International Airport.

Return to Trinidad. Fail to remember, 25 years later, who collected you at the airport, what you saw from the car on the way home, what you felt when you finally walked through the doors of the home you weren’t sure you’d ever see again.

Wonder if 25 years is really that long, or if there’s some other reason you’ve shoved those memories aside.



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