Bitter Trinidad Sugar
We watch with concern at the
growing disquiet in central Trinidad, where the sugar belt remains
tense over restructuring plans by the Trinidad and Tobago government
for the loss-making sugar monolith, Caroni (1975) Ltd. Many of us here
in Toronto retain intimate linkages with relatives there; for many of
us too, we hold investments and stakes in central Trinidad, whether in
properties, businesses, or the regionís tertiary industries.
Undoubtedly, the goings-on there are cause for our concern and
What the government of
Trinidad and Tobago plans to do with the troubling sugar industry is
an across-the-board retrenchment of 9,000 of its workers. This
severance of employment and livelihood for these thousands of workers
would see voluntary termination and the offering of a package of
benefits as part of the overall restructuring plan for this
deficit-inducing industry, which as the government has been
complaining as a major shareholder, continues to reach deeply into the
Stateís coffers for sustenance and viability.
Consequently, and predictably,
the line has been drawn in the sand between the government and the
affected workers and their representatives.
Trinidad and Tobagoís PNM-led
government, as Caroniís major shareholder, has embarked on a public
relations campaign to sell the idea to those affected, and the rest of
the nation. It is maintaining that the voluntary separation employment
programme would be good for all of central Trinidad. Among the
incentives, which includes cash, would be an allocation of viable
agricultural and commercial lands as part of the retirement goodies.
But many are opposed to the
idea, and rightly so, for they are seeing further into the issue, that
it is more than just dollars and cents. The UNC, now in Opposition,
grew out of the culture of sugar; the fact is its taproot is buried
deep in central Trinidad, and this political party understands how
intricate and interwoven is this industry in the lives of the
thousands and thousands of nationals who are now threatened with
retrenchment, the loss of their livelihoods, and indubitably, an
uncertain financial future.
The party has thus been urging
sugar workers to struggle against these decisions that would shut down
the last sugar factory in central Trinidad. "We must take to the
streets and fight back," one of its leaders declared last month.
For the loss of such a
livelihood within a mores that traces its origin to the very dawn of
what was then the islandís monocultural history would mean an
aftershock that could see the emergence of a crisis of identity; too,
it could impact on political issues that foreshadows the emergence of
a layer of socially and financially oppressed second-class citizens in
a nation that cannot deny its history of racial divisiveness.
In essence, there are long-run
social, economic and political issues which the PNM government, with
questionable insensibility, is refusing to bring into the debate, and
which are paramount to the well-being of central Trinidad, to its
culture and its history as a region populated mostly by Indo-Caribbeans,
and for the overall good health and wellness of the entire nation.
And so, more than 1,000 Caroni
workers marched in Port-of-Spain last month, symbolically waving cane
stalks, protesting the threat not only to their livelihoods, but also
to their families, communities, and a way of life. For it is their
fear, and ours, that the plans which are afoot could be punitive and
politically motivated, but which would undoubtedly bring social chaos
through unemployment; for the central region, it would mean financial
hardship to businesses that rely on spending by sugar workers and the
industry, and by escalation would create as aftershocks deleterious
impacts on the wider economy.
Clearly, the PNMís agenda for
restructuring the sugar industry needs to be rethought. Surely, an
approach needs to be made with a view to stanching the financial
haemorrhage, but at the same time an assessment is also required on
the worrisome social and financial consequences such an undertaking
would cause in central Trinidad.
Not bad in Canada, even with its chill
They say distance can lend
enchantment to the view. This may explain the persistent dream of many
Indo-Caribbeans to return "home" in retirement and enjoy our last days
in warmth and comfort. Itís so easy to forget the many annoying and
frustrating things about the home country.
But in the case of crime and
racism, distance can exaggerate the view and make things seem more
frightening than they probably are. That will explain why so many of
us in North America are holding off on the retirement dream for fear
of the nightmare of crime and racism.
Not one of the many
Indo-Guyanese I have met recently has come close to talking about
returning to Guyana. They donít like what they are reading and hearing
about continuing attacks on Indians, burning of businesses, and
These things may be happening
only once a week or once a month, but thatís too much for us spoiled
immigrants. Here in Canada there may be crimes and racism, but few of
have the feeling that we are targeted or are in any imme-diate danger.
Freezing winter winds we can take, but vicious kick down door bandits
with guns we cannot tolerate.
Indo-Trinidadians have the
same kind of reservations. They are very uneasy about the unending
string of kidnappings in Trinidad, with most of the victims being
Indo-Trinis. Itís now been about 16 months and over 25 kidnappings
since the trend started.
More worrisome is the fact
that the police have failed to discover the identities of these
kidnappers and to put a stop to them. In such a tiny country where
everybody knows each otherís business and where there are no secrets,
the police cannot find a few kidnap gangs.
Itís a miracle. Meanwhile
kidnappers are snatching eight year old children in broad daylight,
young women, killing victims while still negotiating for the money.
The police are getting the government ready to pass a law allowing
them to prosecute relatives who try to negotiate with kidnappers. They
cannot catch the criminals but they are getting ready to punish
relatives of victims. Sweet Trinidad doesnít seem so sweet anymore.
The Trinis keep hearing about
a swingback of anti-Indian racism, now that the
PNM is back in government. Indians are being mercilessly purged from
government and state jobs. The big sugar company Caroni is being
closed down, and thousands of Indians stand to lose their jobs.
Meanwhile, the PNM government
is handing out tens of millions of dollars to its supporters for
cutting grass by the side of the road. Government houses will be built
and given to you know who. The rural areas are sliding back into dusty
neglect. Racism rides again.
Who wants to go back to that?
In Canada the racists donít rub your face into their hate, and
generally leave you alone. The criminals donít pick you out for
special treatment. The place is reasonably efficient and well run. You
can get to like this place, and tolerate the cold winters as you once
tolerated the relentless heat back in the Caribbean. You may not want
to go as far as "sweet Canada", but this place can really grow on you.
So what will persuade Indo-Caribbeans
to go back "home", invest their money in the place of their birth and
the skills they have learned abroad? Maybe they could stop reading the
crime news and political reports. Maybe the thought of their relatives
remaining in the Caribbean could provide the pull. Maybe after a few
drinks the idea of martyrdom could start to look good.
Seriously, folks, we have a
situation here. Our home countries say they need us, and they are
right. But while family, sense of duty, and even guilt may pull us
back, other things are pushing us away just as strongly.
It might not be entirely fair,
but we want some repairs to the Caribbean house before we get into the
taxi. We should really be going there to help fix up the place.
People, however, donít always do what they should. They do what they
feel comfortable doing.
I sense the tide turning
against any kind of widespread return to the Caribbean. Only our
generation will even consider it. Our children who grew up or were
born here will not go to the Caribbean. This is home for them.
Trinidad and Guyana will only be places they visit for short holidays.
Nobody knows how many of their parents will make the same trips as we
go to Cuba or Mexico, before returning "home" to Canada.
Finally, a good roti comes north
early in February and I wasnít even aware of it until a fellow church-goer
made mention of the fact, in passing conversation, a couple weeks
ago."So, what do you think of the new Caribbean restaurant up the
street?" he inquired.
"Caribbean restaurant?" I wondered, my thoughts
turning unhappily to a fruitless trip made in the middle of a northern
winter one year on the northside of this fair city of champions, only
to discover dear Monica had retired, selling the establishment to new
owners too far removed from savoury Trinidadian cooking.
"What? Yuh mean yuh donít know about the new Trini
place dong de road? But way yuh living at all, man!" And he had
gestured outside to a wasteland white with packed snow, the average
temperature that week hitting in the tremendous -40s for a low; two
hours drive north and the temperature was -52 Celsius.
And indeed, as we drove past after church, there
was advertisement indicating that a Caribbean restaurant was within.
Later, we found out there had been a flyer campaign, and the good
owner of said premises had been featured on local television. We had
missed it all, no doubt blinded by the bright lights of Wendyís.
So, we had to go take a look, this being the lean
and hungry season; too, we were starving not only for a good roti, but
for sunshiny Caribbean personalities, this being the time too, as
indicated, of double digit cold weather temperatures and
season-affected grumpy natures.
Now one dead giveaway of a true-blue Caribbean
restaurant is a look from the outside in to see non-Caribbean
clientelť having a meal within. And so, even before we entered, there
were signs of a tremendous but enjoyable distress in the works with a
couple families having a spicy meal and bawling, politely, of course,
for more liquids to douse the consuming fires.
Now I recall the same distress in evidence in
Toronto, whereupon entry into a Caribbean restaurant that specialized
in real Jamaican jerk would reveal a sibilance of silent
Of course, the scotch-bonnet induced anguish was
not evident here, but the array of drinks on the table was an
immediate signal that a torturous epicurean repast was being consumed
on these premises. I also knew the cuisine was authentic when I espied
rows of neatly sliced currant
rolls in a glass case typical of Trinidadian
displays. Too, there was the smell of frying and the sounds of
sizzling from the kitchen, which woke up my subdued palate to a
longing for phoullorie and its complementary mango chutney, only to be
told that said delicacy, along with the dayís quota of doubles and
channa, had been rapidly consumed by a ravaging but dedicated horde.
But there were lots of roti available! And the
conversation with fellow nationals conversant with the nuances of a
language long unused was enough to bring out the Trini in me, which
fortunately, resides deep in the bones, awaiting a moment just like
this to spring out, much to the amusement of my lovely spouse, and
especially the kids.
"But what you mean?" I intoned incredulously. "Yuh
mean the doubles done? And the phoullorie sell out? And the ginger
beer hot?" It was reminiscent of that episode of The Simpsons,
where Homer, happy as a lark in hell, discovers to his horror that the
potato salad contains chunks of pineapple.
But where there was lack, it was certainly made up
for with personality. And itís always a joy to share similar memories
of sunshine in a walk on a Port-of-Spain street, or "íround de
Savannah" looking for "a certain doubles vendor", or to just exchange
opinions in the richness and evocativeness of a language that makes
your children giggle with curiosity, or other customers in the
restaurant look up from their food in wonder, thinking, no doubt, that
the meal before them contains sparkles of that pervading sunshine.
And the roti? Well, it was as good as any that
could be found in Scarborough or Mississauga; or by the market in Debe,
south Trinidad, or on the road from the airport, minutes after the
BWIA plane touches down at Piarco International.
About a week later, I unwisely told my lovely
spouse, "Well, doux-doux, now is time for you to retire your
Naparima cookbook!" Said cookbook is a veteran of many meals made this
far from the diaspora, more than a hop and a skip from the centre of
the Trinidadian culinary universe ó and Lord, put a hand, this
cookbook has retained a stain from every sortie it led at the stove,
its pages tattered like an old soldier deserving of many Purple
Hearts. But my unsavoury foot remains in my mouth for making that
statement, so this is certainly down for a telling from a zone of
comfort that is more articulate, if not palatable.