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55 Years After Cutting Ties With Great Britain, Is Trinidad and Tobago Independent or “In Dependence”?

Image of a postage stamp displaying the Trinidad Hilton Hotel and a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, as well as the year (1962) of Trinidad and Tobago's independence from Great Britain. Photo by Mark Morgan, CC BY 2.0.

On August 31, 2017, Trinidad and Tobago celebrated its 55th anniversary of independence from Great Britain. Social media channels were full of the usual celebratory messages, but also commentary on the meaning of the event.

Dependence or independence?

The day had hardly begun when Facebook users began sharing “a short essay on the state of our Independence”:

Outside of a few sporting and artistic achievements, some internationally recognized local cuisines, some good rum of course, a handful of beauty pageant titles, and a couple of regionally powerful privately owned conglomerates, the slap in the face reality is that after 55 years of independence, this nation has little else it can boast of achieving on an international scale that was not imported, built by or managed by foreigners [who] returned to reclaim everything our independence was meant to give us. […]

They now again own, manage and control every major aspect of our lives, our finance, economy and future, so I really don’t know what 55 years of independence achieved.

Facebook user Tyehimba Salandy expressed similar concerns:

Myths of In Dependence: Eric Williams [Trinidad and Tobago's first prime minister] is not the father of the nation […] the national coat of arms glorifies Christopher Columbus, genocide and colonialism. Can we really celebrate and feel happy about all of this? In the words of Ramon Grosfoguel: ‘One of the most powerful myths of the twentieth century was the notion that the elimination of colonial administrations amounted to decolonisation of the world. The heterogeneous and multiple global structures put in place over a period of 450 years did not evaporate with the juridical-political decolonisation of the periphery over the past 50 years.’ Of course, we can still celebrate those who worked hard towards better, and contributed their blood, sweat and tears for this nation. Unfortunately much of them remains faceless, nameless, unknown or forgotten.

While many netizens acknowledged that the country has its share of challenges, others took heart from the many aspects of the country worthy of celebration. Kathryn Stollmeyer-Wight shared the musings of one of her friends, Stephanie Garcia-Plummer:

Yuh go to NAPA [National Academy of the Performing Arts] to hear the young people […] play pan and yuh feel like yuh went to heaven without even bothering to die. […] Yuh go to the bank and see faces of every kind and colour. Yuh know a single mother who took in ironing for a living and her son is now a ‘big pappy lawyer’. You and your friends volunteer in various organizations and yuh don't sleep well at first because yuh can't help all the children and yuh want to take some home with you. Yes you are very aware that there many problems. High crime situation, inept politicians, ineffective policing, terrible roads inefficient health care ad nauseum ad infinitum. We know we are a third world country. We do need to hold our politicians accountable. […] Become more responsible citizens in every walk of life. Hopefully all is not lost. […]

Let us endeavor to do better, use our resources wisely, make good use of the many dozens of NGOs operating on this little island. What have you done lately to help? If you are not part of the solution you may be part of the problem.

Happy and safe independence to all.

Corey Gilkes, writing at Wired868, also got in on the discussion:

You, the Independence Generation and the children and grandchildren you sired—including me—are you happy with how things turned out?

I’ll rephrase: Yuh own up yet to the shit yuh do? Have you acknowledged yet that the more you’ve tried to bend up this country like a kurma trying to fit it into Western colonial notions of modernity, the deeper we’ve sunk into the faecal pool the British (un)consciously left behind? […]

The root of many of our problems is a near religious refusal to believe we can do better, deserve better and can accomplish things bigger, older countries may want to emulate. Forget foreign recognition and validation, we’ve got that over and over; it made no difference.

Learned self-contempt is exactly that, learned! It is acquired, installed through a system of schooling and churching informed by deeply racist, pseudo-scientific ideas and clever divide-and-rule measures an elite minority needed to keep in place.

Harsh words, you might think, but truths which must be spoken.

Like Garcia-Plummer, though, he too thought there was hope:

We have almost all the models we need right here; we have most of the solutions that will move us up to a different level. It’s all there in the heads of our grandparents who could barely read or write; it’s there in the civilisations that our ancestors came from which we have been taught to scorn.

What we lack is the self-confidence to tap into it…

Independence Fireworks (Port of Spain, Trinidad). Photo by C*POP and uploaded by Georgia Popplewell, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

In that vein, many Facebook users were appalled at the choice of music that accompanied the national television coverage of the Independence Day fireworks display. Peter Samuel mused:

55 YEARS of INDEPENDENCE and they could not find anything local to play… SMDH…. Big FAT steupsss.

A “steups” is a noise that Trinbagonians make by sucking air through their teeth, usually to express annoyance or disapproval.

Divisive politics

Curiously, an event that would typically unite both sides of the political divide caused further alienation when a news report alleged that for the second year running, Leader of the Opposition Kamla Persad-Bissessar and other members of the opposition bench failed to attend the traditional Independence Day parade.

Facebook user Hyacinth Bovell commented:

Thought that this was a NATIONAL CELEBRATION.

Rhoda Bharath was less diplomatic:

Public Facebook status update by Rhoda Bharath, which reads: “So the Opposition really ducked Independence celebrations? For real? In 2017? Happy 55th, TnT.”

Images of unity were still shared, however, most notably those by photographer Maria Nunes, who regularly chronicles national events and festivals:

Independence Pan on Tragarete Road, hosted by Newtown Playboyz. Photo by Maria Nunes, used with permission.

Scenes from Newtown Playboyz Independence Pan event. Photo by Maria Nunes, used with permission.

Other perspectives

The 55th anniversary was viewed through many different lenses. In typical style, many injected humour into the mix, thanks to a meme showing a classic shot of Dr. Eric Williams, one of the engineers of Trinidad and Tobago's independence and the country's first prime minister, with members of The Beatles—except that this version surreptitiously snuck in the figure of Cedric Burke, an “alleged criminal” whose presence at a government minister's recent swearing-in caused a social media outcry, resulting in the ministerial appointment being revoked.

Meme, extensively shared on social media. Caption reads: Dr. Eric Williams liming with John Lennon and Ringo Starr of The Beatles. [1966 film photography]”

Rhoda Bharath, who shared the meme on Twitter, commented:

“Trinidad-Tobago gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1962, and selected the Scarlet Ibis as the symbol for Trinidad and the Rufous-vented Chachalaca for Tobago. Both species are featured on the T-T Coat of Arms.” Photo of a Scarlet Ibis by Len Blumin, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Writing at Wired868, Salaah Inniss focused the spotlight on the plight of Trinidad and Tobago's national bird, the Scarlet Ibis, which despite being a protected species, is being poached:

As we approach the 55th anniversary of the attainment of Independence, I think it is appropriate to ask whether national pride is only fit to be, like the national flag, unveiled and unfurled when we are strutting proudly on the international stage. Shouldn’t national pride be something we show off on a daily basis, arguably in everything we say or do?

A retired teacher, Patricia Worrell, lamented the lack of local knowledge by the younger generation:

Just had the ‘pleasure’ of listening to interviews with some young Trini people who were clearly clueless about basic facts about Trinidad and Tobago.
And I was getting more and more angry with them, and disgusted at their basic ignorance about their own country, until I remembered:
These young men and women have all passed through the education system in T&T, which obviously allows our citizens to experience both primary and secondary education, and to emerge with all the bloom of their ignorance about their country upon them.

But as always in these twin islands, hope got the last word. Criminologist Renee Cummings, in a public Facebook post, said:

I remain hopeful that one day soon our collective behaviour as a nation will catch up to the holidays we celebrate. We began the month with Emancipation Day and we end it with Independence Day. How powerful is that! Happy 55 beautiful T&T!

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