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Crossing Continents Wednesday, 1 May, 2002, 09:53 GMT 10:53 UK
Trouble in paradise
Political debate is alive on Woodford Square
Hot politics on the street
Forty years after independence from the British, the beautiful, proud and multicultural Caribbean paradise of Trinidad and Tobago is in crisis. It is becoming increasingly bitter and factionalized.


Some people fear Trinidad could become another Bosnia, Fiji or Northern Ireland.

Two solitudes

Trinidad is a small country with a population of just over 1m, dominated by two ethnic groups known as the Africans and the Indians.

Each community has its own strong racial and religious identity. The Africans are mainly Christian and the Indians mainly Hindu.

An African and Indian girl
The spirit of unity can be found

Trinidad's current crisis stems from a dangerous political chess match. The "two solitudes", as one leading academic calls them, are being reinforced by politicians playing off one ethnic group against another.

There are two main parties, one effectively for the Africans, led by an African, Patrick Manning, and one for the Indians, led by an Indian, Basdeo Panday.

Deadlocked elections followed a government collapse six months ago - with both leaders claiming the right to be prime minister - a political stalemate.

Trinidad has a very small 36-member parliament and at the moment each party has 18 seats. Nobody is prepared to budge.

The President intervened and appointed Patrick Manning - but no one is happy or in control.

Both the prime minister and the opposition leader have stressed Trinidad's stability as a democracy and its record of harmony and pluralism.

However, public unrest is growing and foreign investors in this relatively wealthy country, with major reserves of oil and gas, are getting worried.

Political adversaries on Woodford Square
The ethnic divide is the centre of debate

'Speakers' Corner'

In the heart of the capital, Port of Spain, there is a leafy square with a grand fountain and gazebo. On its west side is Trinidad's terracotta-coloured parliament, the Red House.

But for most Trinidadians real politics in the country takes place in Woodford Square, a highly developed version of Britain's 'Speakers' Corner' in Hyde Park. Every day large groups of people gather to debate.

They are fed up and angry.

"Indians cause racism in this country," one woman says. " They don't want to mix. They want to create a Hindu state. They're dangerous."

Another speaker, even more bitter and vitriolic, accuses the Hindus of "mixing excrement with their food. "They are evil" he says.

A great deal of envy is expressed for the business success of the Indians. Even though they are equal in number, demographically many of the Africans feel they are being "taken over" in public life and the professions.

We are civilized people. "We may hold different views but we are all Trinidadians

Trinidadian voices of harmony
But voices of harmony and concern also come from both sides: "We are civilized people". "We may hold different views but we are all Trinidadians."

And, "It's the politicians who cause this divide, for their own purpose... a stand-off is being deliberately orchestrated."

An historical divide

There are still those who blame the British for the creation of Trinidad's racial stereotypes.

The British colonizers abolished slavery 160 years ago.

The freed black slaves moved off the plantations to the towns and the British, needing workers for cane and cocoa fields, imported Indian labour from the Empire.

Trinidad's Africans, then in the majority, entered the professions and the judiciary and eventually, after gaining freedom from the British in 1962, became presidents and prime ministers too.

After being given freedom, Trinidad's Indians bought the land they had worked. They upheld strong family ties and religious rituals and assiduously educated and elevated themselves to the equal status they hold today with the Africans.

Basedo Panday
Panday's premiership became a turning point for Indian politics in 1995

When Basdeo Panday became the first Indian prime minister in 1995, it was seen as their coming of age - and a humiliation for the Africans.

The Indian solitude

Trinidad's Indian heartland is a town called Chaguanas, the birthplace of the island's most famous Indian, V.S.Naipaul.

Sunday worship at the nearby Mandir, or Hindu temple, showed how close and confident the Hindu community now is.

The young female preacher, Geeta Ramsingh - herself the granddaughter of indentured labourers - explained that Hindus in Trinidad feel they have to protect themselves against "growing Christian conversions".

"Christians", she said, were "the new colonial masters". The political situation was exacerbating the tension. "If we have to, we will fight our own African brothers."

Sat Maharaj, the leader of Trinidad's main Hindu organisation, the Maha Sabha, echoed Geeta's words. "We experience inverse racism".

"We have been afraid to be Indian. Hindus were once regarded as devil worshippers. We were never accepted centre stage.

"It is We Turn now" - is a phrase you hear often in Trinidad. Each side believes it is their turn - because of past and present grievances - to hold power in politics and public life.

Two African activists
"We are prisoners of the past here, and we don't understand it"
The African solitude

Khafra Kambon is famous in the history books of Trinidad as a leader of the 'Black Power Movement' in the 1970s. He too refers to history as a source of grievance.

"We are prisoners of the past here, and we don't understand it.

"The strongest ties in this country are race and ancestry. So in a contest for power, it is automatic that politicians draw on that. They focus on the differences to strengthen their positions."

Never the twain shall meet?

With politicians, community leaders and the media doing little to restrain the rabble-rousers or to provide any national vision, things don't look good for Trinidad.

The politically neutral Professor Ralph Premdas is the academic to whom the "two solitudes" phrase is attributed. He teaches at the University of the West Indies in the capital.

Through his studies of the Caribbean, Fiji, Bosnia and Northern Ireland, he's become a widely respected specialist in ethnicity and conflict. He is convinced there is trouble ahead.

Professor Ralf Premdas
The Professor forsees trouble ahead
"There are certain patterns how a benign country conflates. There is an 18/18 split vote. This fosters strong doubts and loyalties. The trigger is an instigator who will say we are deprived because of the other side and the situation in Trinidad is one in which people mobilize fast. it doesn't matter whether people are well off and middle class."

Professor Premdas says that Trinidad has had ethnic riots before, an attempted coup and is surrounded by countries like Guyana which has already erupted.

"People who used to be friends, can turn against each other. There is a failure of leadership. We're into a situation where we have the ingredients for action. If the two groups are confronted and somebody threw a rock, who knows what would happen?"

Trinidad - trouble in paradise: Thursday 02 May 2002 on BBC Radio 4 at 11:00 GMT & repeated on Monday 06 May at 20.30

This is the last programme in the current series, but it will return in the summer.

Reporter: Rosie Goldsmith
Producer: Keith Morris
Editor: Sue Ellis

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