Saturday, 19 December 2009

Returning Home

I have perhaps spent too much time paying attention to the affairs of the wider Caribbean state and not enough on what has been happening in the country of my birth.

Much of this has been fueled by my conviction that the countries subscribing to the notion of a Caribbean Community should have long dropped their claims to individual self-determination in exchange for a broader notion of regional sovereignty. A single Caribbean country. A United States of the Caribbean - all five million of us, with Haiti and Suriname awaiting their respective turns.

Since 1994, I have been employed by institutions in St Lucia, Jamaica and Guyana and have undertaken various professional assignments or participated in conferences and workshops in almost every other English, Spanish, French and Dutch-speaking state in the Caribbean Basin.

In the process, I have come to know Kingston as well as I know Kingstown and Georgetown as well as I know Port of Spain. Moving around Castries is as easy for me as it is to weave through the narrow streets of St John’s or St George’s or Basseterre.

I am yet to identify any substantial distinction in the ethos of these places and their people. What is the difference between Gouyave and Anse la Raye? Is the conch in Nassau sweeter than the lambi St Vincent?

Some cultural antecedents vary through historical accident. The spell-check in the average Guyanese version of Word will not, for instance, include the word ‘parang’ and it takes forever to bury the dead in Jamaica even as Muslims in Trinidad and Guyana measure the time in hours. At one time St Lucian Hindus sent corpses overseas for cremation while in Trinidad and Guyana funeral pyres have been found for ages near waterways and beaches from where the ashes of the dead reach for other shores.

These are stories told by poets and musicians everywhere in these small islands and deceptively large mainland territories where people are joined, almost mystically, by both the past and by the present.

My own journey probably started with the poems of Derek Walcott in my youth followed by a visit with cousins in Barbados in 1979 and family in St Lucia a little later. Then, in the mid 80s, I met the vast rivers of Guyana I only knew through Wilson Harris and earlier Port Royal in Jamaica when I honeymooned with Celia in 1981 in the land of her birth.

But it can however probably be said that I only truly sailed away from Trinidad in 1994 when I took up the challenge of a job at the Caricom Secretariat in Guyana for one year. Since then, my concern about the state of our humanity has not revolved exclusively around the managed chaos of this wildly tossed human salad sprinkled recklessly across two small islands that seem, at times, like a million raindrops on an otherwise sunny day.

I grew to believe that by resolving the pain of all, the agony of the constituent parts would end.

It is the kind of mistake the old socialists made and that capitalism perhaps denies for all the wrong reasons.

Now comes the roguish behaviour and impunity of the Trinidad and Tobago government. On Friday December 18, trade unionist David Abdulah was carted away by the police during a peaceful march against the grossly unjust introduction of a new regime of land and property taxes. There has only been a whisper about its potential unconstitutional character, but the political strategists are perhaps awaiting a date in court.

Friday’s development needs to be placed alongside the new habit of using the Privileges Committee of the country’s parliament to silence dissent. Three journalists and a Senator have recently been referred to the Committee in an attempt to muzzle information and opinion of urgent public importance. In one case, the Committee proposed a ban on journalist, Andre Bagoo.

There is little to distinguish this behaviour from that displayed by the current parliamentary opposition, the UNC, which, while in office, proposed the most sweeping challenges to free expression the country has witnessed since the achievement of independence in 1962.

These two obvious wrongs do not result in something that is right, though the hypocrisy of some dissenters is painfully obvious to all independent observers. The question of moral authority in such matters also arises when it comes to the involvement of people who served in the UNC administration of 1995. I have neither forgiven them nor plan to forget what happened.

But the immediate question at hand remains the slow but definite descent into autocracy. David’s arrest, though not as traumatic as broadcaster Inshan Ishmael’s seizure and detention in 2007 under anti-terrorism laws, marks an important turning point in relations between the state and the people and emphasizes the unjust nature of what is being proposed and how it is to be introduced.

Some of us are concerned but not entirely surprised it has come to this. The culture of political intolerance is deep-seated and challenged only by the myth of a happy-go-lucky, freedom loving society.

The more I think about it, the more I think about truly returning home.

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