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 solicitude.

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

Ramdath Jagessar

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 recently, kidnappings.

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

Romeo Kaseram

It happened 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 screams.

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.




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