Thursday, November 1, 2007

Trinbago to de Bone: Two Islands One Nation

One of the main reasons why I gave this blog the name I did (maybe more appropriately, this should have been an earlier posting), was to make sure to incorporate the complete name of the country Trinidad and Tobago (pronounced toh-bay-go). For those of you who still do not know where to find us, see the red rectangle to the top left of the map of South America above (taken from the World CIA Factbook) with a clear view of the country in the map below. The country is just off the coast of Venezuela.

I once lived in Washington State (not Washington D.C.) in a town called Bellingham, on the US Pacific Northwest -a most beautiful part of the US, very scenic, with very friendly, civic-minded, welcoming people- where, when I applied for my driver’s license, for “Place of Birth” I, of course, filled in "Trinidad and Tobago." At my turn at the counter, the clerk said to me, “Which is it? Make up your mind. You can’t be from two places.” Whereupon, I explained to him that that, was the name of the country and I went on to provide some brief local and Caribbean information. He then smiled broadly and thanked me for the quick geography lesson, saying he’d always dreamed of traveling to the Caribbean but never did.

The US northwest, unlike the US east coast, does not have large populations of Caribbean people. Indeed, there are Trinbagonians and other Caribbean people living out in the US Pacific Northwest as you find us scattered anywhere, but there, we are much fewer and farther between. And so, knowledge of our part of the world is less known to people in that part of the US, unless perhaps they frequent Vancouver Canada, where there is a huge Caribbean population and an annual summer Carnival put on by the Trinidad and Tobago Cultural Society of British Columbia.

My point still though, is to always keep in mind that we are two islands but one nation and this is a point I think that some of us fail to present or remind ourselves and non-nationals about. I guess this is typical where you have two distinct regions within a country, one larger than the next, with the larger having more infrastructure and is also the seat of government. Whereas for many people in Trinidad, Tobago comes to mind as a place to go for the long Easter weekend, the Heritage or Jazz festivals, I believe many people in Trinidad forget that many people in Tobago need to come over to Trinidad to purchase goods, obtain specialised healthcare, conduct business etc. So there is, I believe, a general marked difference in perception of how people from the two islands look at each other.

My last posting dealt a bit with constitutional matters. Here, let us follow-up a bit with putting Tobago into some focus. For our constitution, there is, in a matter of sorts, two major aspects to consider. One, is the overarching constitution, as it relates to all the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago. The other is the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) Act, 1996 (with the latest amendment, Act No. 17, enacted in 2006 increasing the number of departmental secretaries from five to seven), which stipulates how the governing body of Tobago, the THA, governs that island and its relation to the central government in Port of Spain. For years, there have been public fora and discussion in the media about the administrative relationship between the two islands. One recurrent theme in relation to this has been the granting of more autonomy to Tobago, or what is more commonly know as the Tobago internal self-government movement.

A major proponent of this movement has been Mr. Arthur Robinson, who was born on the island and is a former Prime Minster and President of Trinidad and Tobago and the leading architect of THA Act, 1996. Even with the current election hustings, the question of preserving the autonomy has been broached again. In a Newsday report ("Sinister Plan for the THA," Friday Nov, 2, 2007), Dr. Jeff Davidson, a member of the Tobago United Front/Democratic Action Congress (TUF/DAC) Steering Committee, was said to have raised the issue at a public meeting in east Tobago, last Saturday. According to the Newsday report, Dr. Davidson stated that the question was relevant, given the recent establishment of an office of the Ministry of Local Government at Plymouth, Tobago.

Despite all these efforts by those in Tobago for consolidating their autonomy, what we typically have in Trinidad and Tobago is always a movement of power remaining and being pulled toward the centre. This is evident in what passes for local government in our country, where local election candidates are characteristically proxies for the major parties and the elected MPs from the general election. Similar to Tobago in the region, is Nevis in the unitary state of St. Kitts and Nevis, which also has long been seeking greater autonomy. The extreme end of these arrangements in these situations is, of course, secession and the middle ground and more widely proposed suggestion being some sort of federal arrangement as exists, say, in the United states and Canada (Canada, people should remember, still continues to deal with a similar situation with Quebec).

Dr. Ralph Premdass, Profesor of Public Polcy at the University of the West Indies (U.W.I.) St. Augustine, in a paper titled "Self-Determination and Decentralisation in the Caribbean: Tobago and Nevis, " (July 3, 2000) writes that:

"The claim to sovereign autonomy in a separate state runs into a series of doctrines which both affirm and deny that right. The United Nations Charter seems to do exactly this. The self-determination principle has become firmly enshrined in Article 1 of the United Nations Charter: "All peoples have the right to self-determination; by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social, and cultural development"."

In further explaining, Dr. Premdass goes on to inform us that:

"While part of the UN Charter seems to legitimize the right of a people for statehood, another part, Article 6, argues for the preservation of the territorial integrity of the state: "Any attempt aimed at a partial or whole disruption of the national unity and the territorial integrity of a country is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations". The matter of defining precisely what is a people, homogenous or diversified, in a particular territory, small or large, with or without economic self-sufficiency and viability, had been a source of much debate historically."

Whatever is the ultimate solution in all this, remains to be seen and is to be determined by the citizens. As a people though, we do need to start raising and discussing these matters with more regularity rather than, if at all we do, every five years. Moreover, exposure to such matters of local civics, should have its inception in our schools and youth clubs.

Questions relating to the configuration of our nation are far too important to be repeatedly set aside, for they go at the very heart of who and what we are: to ourselves and to the world.

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