The Kamla Hoopla: A Case of Compassion or Caribbean Jealousy?

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Somewhere, Basdeo Panday is cackling like a hyena, and Patrick Manning has cracked his first, real smile since losing Trinidad and Tobago’s 2010 General Election.

Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar may have caused frowns, screw faces, and tears across the Caribbean region and its Diaspora, when she indicated that T&T would provide aid to islands affected by Tropical Storm Tomas if it benefited the country, but she brought her arch nemeses some glee.

“It damn good fuh she”, I can imagine them saying, on their downgraded, post prime ministerial cell phones, while cracking “I’ll help you, if it helps me” jokes that afternoon. Rumour is… they’ve become the ‘bestest’ of friends, ever since they’ve been relegated to the background. Misery does love company! But, I digress.

I have to admit that I’m quite fed up of all the quarrelling about Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar’s faux pas last week. This whole thing is a clear lesson in “it’s not what you say, but how you say it, who you say it to, and when”. Obviously, she put her foot in her mouth (the most overused phrase of the week by the way). All aid is conditional, and as any student of international relations will tell you, the theories of realism and idealism exist even in the most trying of times. Empathy and economics go hand in hand amidst death and disaster. However, one always tips the scale – in this case, economics.

Realists piss off people. Liberalists do too. Kinda like how President Barack Obama had to bend on some of his promises, and deal with real things, like not immediately removing troops from Iraq. Why would the PM look to upset people so? There are different ways of looking at the situation.

Scenario 1

You’ve got a newbie Prime Minister, who, in addition to managing an already bad economy, is also trying to flex her muscles among the big boys. Classic case of a woman in power overcompensating and coming across as a b&tch?

Scenario 2

She was recently featured in Glamour Magazine and was feeling herself.

Scenario 3

She was serious as a heart attack, doesn’t care about being liked, and figures that business will continue as usual, after all the commotion dies down.

Scenario 4

She forgot that’s what the fine print section of agreements is for.

The rage against Trinidad and Tobago is understood, given the fact that well… T&T is richer and carries tremendous clout in the region. However, is all the fuss just about communication that lacked the soft touch she promised on the campaign trail? Or is it about a deep-seated hate for Trinidad and Tobago? Does it strip away the façade that all ah we is Caribbean? What’s the real problem here?

Jamaicans were quick to jump on the bandwagon. The same Jamaicans who quarrelled that “they make them stay home” when Tomas hardly buss a drop. Ironic, Trinis said the same thing, although Tobago was affected. St. Lucians, Bajans, and Vincentians were even more upset, and understandably so, with the extent of damage they have suffered. For now, the talk of boycotts, rantings on Facebook and Twitter, and newspaper cartoons seem never ending.

Note the game of politics though. Many other leaders have shied away from commenting, save for the vociferous T&T Opposition PNMites, Keith Rowley and Paula Gopee-Scoon, whom one is always careful to take for being genuine or just scoring political points. I can only imagine the bitter pill St Lucia’s prime minister had to swallow to ‘play nice’ with Persad-Bissessar on her visit, when he probably wanted to put a sound cussing on her. But what are other islands saying about aid? Why weren’t people talking about Haiti before Tomas came to wreck disaster, and start a bacchanal?

According to the Jamaica Gleaner, “national honouree Doreen Frankson (Jamaican) ripped into the Jamaican Government, as well as the Opposition, for its ‘spineless and cowardly’ response to controversial emergency-aid comments made by the flamboyant and outspoken Kamla Persad-Bissessar, prime minister of oil-rich Trinidad and Tobago (T&T)”. Jamaica’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, Dr Ken Baugh, and Prime Minister Bruce Golding held off on accusations or criticism, instead suggesting that a boycott was not the way to go.

Jamaica’s Opposition Spokesman on Foreign Affairs, Anthony Hylton, of the People’s National Party, however, noted “that the attachment of conditions to humanitarian aid was not within the norm, and did not bode well for CARICOM unity and cooperation”.

Trinidad and Tobago’s economy is in a much worse state than the average Trini cares to admit. I’m not saying that it thus takes total precedence over the damage facing our affected Caribbean neighbours. I’ve seen people writing things like “aid isn’t trade” on Facebook. Ideally, it isn’t. In reality, it is.  America and China have been practising it for eons. Again, Persad-Bissessar didn’t have to say it.

Funny thing is, the same Trinis who are rebuking Persad-Bissessar are the same ones who would quarrel even more, should something unfortunate and unforeseen happen to T&T in a few months, and we have to beg for money. Know what people will say? She give ‘way all we money! While Manning was more concerned about being the Father of the Caribbean, Persad-Bissessar is showing everyone she doesn’t care about being popular (she’ll study that in five years). It would seem that she is prepared to make some tough decisions, with terrible diplomacy, to achieve her objectives. Unfortunately, it plays into the whole Trinis feel dey better than every other island mindset, and thus Trinis all over Facebook are busy apologising to their Caribbean friends for their PM’s behaviour, saying, “Doh take it as a picture of us eh”.

However, maybe it isn’t a case of Trini selfishness. Maybe it’s a sign of the times.

In these recessionary times, which don’t seem poised to fully recover overnight, maybe its time to renegotiate positions and policies. Again, Trinidad and Tobago has a strong position from which to barter. However, as Frankson rightly stated, “Jamaicans need to buy Jamaican to build Jamaica”. This sentiment applies to all Caribbean countries, including Trinidad and Tobago, which is still trying to convince citizens to “localizeitt”. The reality is that positions about regional trade need to be revised and considered with reality sitting squarely at the decision-making table.

If for decades, “Trinidad has continued to insult successive governments which have failed to retaliate and protect Jamaican citizens from the trade and verbal abuse”, and I would add other Caribbean countries here, isn’t it an inference on our politicians, and even we, as a people, who vote for these Governments, or don’t rile up until someone offends us?

All of this backlash and talk of boycotts is a bit tiring. Cue the CARICOM rewind tapes. Talk. Talk. Talk. That’s all we seem to do in this part of the world, and months later, the dog that once barked the loudest is happily wagging his or her tail in some Carnival band. Boycott. Boycott. Boycott. Will the boycott really go through, or will we see people still happily buying Trini-made goods this time next year?

The old boys, and now girls, did it, and it would seem that the current generation is all too happy to copy the age-old divisionary tactics, as opposed to considering, hey, is trying to pit country against country the way for us to go? And we wonder why the Caribbean still operates at quite the disadvantage in international trade.

Let’s see how the commotion turns out. Maybe PM Persad-Bissessar plans to take some diplomacy lessons. Maybe she plans to keep upsetting people. However, again I’ve got to ask. What’s the real issue? Compassion or Caribbean rivalry?


Author bio: Shelley Green is a Trini who loves everything Caribbean, and gets a writing itch every blue moon. If you need her help, she’ll scratch your back, even if you don’t scratch hers.

Image courtesy


Check out the rest of this week’s issue (Issue 31, 8/11/10)


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