On the eve of the country’s independence from the United Kingdom, the soon-to-be first Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams, must have contemplated rather laboriously on what may have befallen this new nation in its new estate. In short time power would be transferred to its elected officials to self-determine its affairs but tied umbilically to this power was the onerous responsibility of chartering a course that ensured social and economic development. Equity must define this development. A corporate identity and vision must be framed so as to recruit enthusiastically all demographics into this national project. These aims would be best met by a strong, vibrant democracy. He articulated these thoughts in his address to the nation on the occasion of its independence.
The first responsibility that devolves upon you is the protection and promotion of your democracy. Democracy means equality of opportunity for all in education, in the public service, and in private employment, the protection of the weak against the strong. Democracy means the obligation of the minority to recognise the right of the majority, responsibility of the Government to its citizens, the protection of the citizens from the exercise of arbitrary power. Democracy means freedom of worship and freedom of expression and assemble of organisation.
All that is democracy. All that is our democracy, to which I call upon all citizens to dedicate theselves on this our Independence Day. Fifty years on, as a young Trinbagonian, I reflect on whether our politics of independent democracy has indeed achieved its stated aims. For if Trinidad and Tobago’s prospects are not currently better than what they were 50 years ago or what they would have been had external rule persisted, our independence would have been in vain. Surely titular independence and the pride that may accompany such can in no way substitute for genuine social and economic independence that brings tangible benefits to citizens. Staring me head-on as I contemplate is lingering poverty, parasitic crime and the abidance of antiquated values on race and class that act as resistant drag to national development. There is much around to prompt the question, “What did we do with our 50 years?” I stand at variance to any notion that they were wasted. When the Union Jack was lowered in front of Red House on midnight of August 30 and the Red, White and Black was hoisted, it marked the beginning of a period of opportunity and prosperity for the citizens of T&T hitherto unknown and so far unabated. Independence has seen continuous educational reform. Such reform means that secondary and tertiary education is no longer the reserve of an elite but a near universal, affordable resource, propelling many onto the ladder or social mobility. Colonialism was characterised by a few secondary schools; mostly private and clustered in urban centres. This severely restricted access to poor and rural children, most of whom abandoned schooling after primary level to seek employment wherever it was available. Our fledgling regional university had limited capacity. Access to formal vocational training was very limited. This picture lies in stark contrast to our present reality where schools exist in nearly every community and tens of thousands are enrolled in tertiary and vocational training. This programme is the fuel for a high skilled, high wage economy which is resulting in an ever expanding middle class. All this is the democracy of which Dr Williams spoke.
T&T has made major economic strides since independence. Our economic fortunes are not solely due to happenstance of having oil and gas within our borders. Natural resources are no guarantee of economic success; there are many global examples of this. Rather we prudently forsake those sectors which though historically significant, became unproductive, in favour of more lucrative ones. We made and sought wise investments. We diversified our petrochemical industry so that we were not just drillers but refiners and processors. We made use of the cheap electricity to manufacture goods and export. We trained our locals to acquire the highly skilled jobs such industry needed. Most importantly however, the proceeds from such industry is being felt by all levels of society. This is the ‘Production’ of which Dr Williams spoke when he coined the nation’s watchwords. To detail advances in health, technology, sports, culture and infrastructure would be tedious and time consuming. Even if all these things were not, the simple fact that we exist at 50 would be cause enough to celebrate. Dr Williams himself admitted; Other countries ceased to exist in that period. Some, in much less time, have become totally disorganised, a prey to anarchy and civil war. Not only do we exist but harmoniously do we. We have only witnessed peaceful transition of political power. There was that attempt to violently remove the government but the failure and lack of public support of such testifies of the resolve of Trinbagonian people to abide by the law and protect their democracy. We have never seen the scourge of racial or religious warfare. Freedom of expression and worship exists for all. All this is the democracy of which Dr Williams spoke. These I say without conceit because conceit brings complacency, but I speak of T&T with admiration for its people and thanks to God. T&T is a work in progress; there’s much left undone. We must continue to ensure that the prospects of the next generation are always better than the last. Good economic sense dictates that we diversify our economy in apprehension of the times when our geochemical blessings are no more. We must eschew racism and divisiveness and not reward it with a platform or political office. God bless Trinidad and Tobago.