Trinidad and Tobago Prepare for Tense Elections

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Trinidad and Tobago are preparing for general elections, and race is sure to be a factor in the election of a new prime minister. Voters in the region are almost equally split between those of African and Indian descents. But a new, multi-ethnic third party promises new hope. Tony Frasier, a journalist in the region, is joined by scholar David Hinds to discuss elections.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now, to the Caribbean buffeted by a tropical storm Noel in the North and by a fiery election campaign farther South, we'll ask about the continuing storm in a minute.

But the people of the twin island nation, Trinidad and Tobago, go to the polls on Monday. Race is certain to play a role in the vote. The population is almost equally divided between the people of African descent and those of Indian descent. Each group tends to favor a different political party. But in this campaign, a third party is promising to bridge the gap to build a multi-ethnic governing coalition.

Here to talk about this are Tony Fraser, he's a freelance journalist in Trinidad and Tobago, and David Hinds, he teaches about the African Diaspora and the Caribbean at Arizona State.

Gentlemen, welcome.

Professor DAVID HINDS (Assistant Professor of African and African American Studies, Arizona State University): Thank you.

Mr. TONY FRASER (Freelance Journalist, Trinidad and Tobago): Welcome.

MARTIN: And to remind our listeners, Trinidad and Tobago is just off the coast of Venezuela at the bottom of the Caribbean chain of islands.

Mr. Fraser, to you first, now, let me see if I have this right. As I understand it, those of African descent generally favor the People's National Movement, and those of Indian descent generally vote for the United National Congress. So do I have it about right?

Mr. FRASER: That's absolutely correct.

MARTIN: So is there no crossover? Do they even bother to compete for each other's votes?

Mr. FRASER: Yes. Because for any party to win the election, because the population is so even and because as there are a number of other kinds of mixed ethnicities in the population, one side has to gain some measure of support from the other side.

And indeed, the two major parties - the United National Congress, which is the major opposition party, and the People's National Movement, which is the ruling party - both of them have members and supporters from each group - meaning, Indians and Africans. So they are predominantly, but not exclusively one or the other.

MARTIN: Okay. So how did the idea of this multi-ethnic party come about - the Congress of the People? Was it disenchantment with the policies of each party? Was it - is it drawing equally from the existing parties?

Mr. FRASER: Well, the idea of a third force made up of the mixed ethnicities is not a new one. I mean, indeed in 1986, some of the same people were in the arena representing some of the same ethnicities from the Coalition National Alliance for Reconstruction and won the government by a huge margin — the largest margin ever in the country. So it's not a new idea.

However, this one has come out primarily out of a fallout with the major opposition, United National Congress, because the political leader of this third force, which is the Congress of the People, Winston Dookeran - he fell out with the leadership of that party and decided to form this third force. And by definition, he had to go looking for supporters from all groups to be something of a credible force in the country.

MARTIN: Professor Hinds, as you know, there's perpetual interest in a third party in the United States, at least there has been growing interest in the recent years, and part of the driving force behind Barack Obama's campaign is about bridging the racial divide.

I wondered if you think that there's a general concern in the hemisphere that politics are too racialized, too vulcanized? Is what's going on in Trinidad sort of part of a general concern, or do you think it's just too particular to each country?

Prof. HINDS: No, I think it is a general concern, because it has to do with stability in the hemisphere. And what we've seen over the years is that whenever there are these divisions, whether they're ethnic divisions or, as they say in the Caribbean, political tribalism, these divisions have an effect on economic development. They have an effect on foreign policy.

And so, therefore, it is within the interest of stability and economic development in the atmosphere that there be some kind of consensus in the political process, whereby we have political actors coming together in a politics of inclusion rather than a politics of exclusion.

MARTIN: Mr. Fraser, how serious is this new third party? Are they competitive?

Mr. FRASER: They can be competitive, and they have been competitive. If you look at the campaign, if you look at the manifest or proposals, if you look at the turnout at the political meetings, people are going to them. They have drawn something like 25-30 percent of the support from the traditional United National Congress so far, and they have certainly drawn some support from the People's National Movement.

MARTIN: Professor Hinds mentioned concern about the economy as driving a lot of the politics of the region. Is the economy a big issue in the campaign? And what are some of the other issues that people are talking about?

Mr. FRASER: If the management of the economy's a big issue, another issue in terms of the economy is corruption. There have been allegations, and some government ministers have gone before the court. And that, indeed before the court now, one major issue where the parties differ, it's with regard to the ruling party - that's the People's National Movement - attempting to use the country's natural gas to develop aluminum-smelting industries. They - that's the ruling party has come up against a wall of protests from the environmentalists.

But that party is sticking to its guns. However, the opposition - the media opposition, United Nation Congress Alliance, is saying that it will not develop smelters. The Congress of the People, the other minority opposition party, is silent on the matter.

MARTIN: Hmm. That's interesting. I was going to ask you how the whole natural-gas situation was playing out, because natural gas prices are high, and Trinidad and Tobago's a major exporter. One would think that the coffers are flush right now.

Mr. FRASER: Absolutely, and that is a one of the great factors in driving the political parties. Whatever else they say - a party in office budgeting about $8 or $9 billion annually for a population of 1.3 million people must feel a drive towards holding the government and holding the treasury at this point in time. So that is a major factor in the elections.

MARTIN: Professor Hinds, does the U.S. have an interest here? And what is it?

Prof. HINDS: Yes, the U.S. interest, of course, lies in the natural gas. Trinidad is a big exporter to the United States of America. But I think from the larger political-economy standpoint, the United States must often interest in the Caribbean because the Caribbean is so intertwined with the United States, especially in this era of the fight against terrorism and so forth. The Caribbean is very strategic. And Trinidad and Tobago, with its natural gas deposits and its ability to become a first world economy in the next decade and half or so, must be a big consideration from the U.S. standpoint.

Mr. FRASER: Can I just add something?

MARTIN: Sure. Mm-hmm.

Mr. FRASER: In addition to all of those things, you think of Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago's proximity to Venezuela, and also Trinidad and Tobago and the rest of the Caribbean's involvement with President Chavez at this point in time in terms of sweet oil deals. That has been of some concern to the U.S. government.

MARTIN: Okay, and finally, Professor Hinds, have you observed, throughout the Caribbean, a similar move toward a third-party politics - a new wave, if you will?

Prof. HINDS: Yes, over in Guyana, which resembles Trinidad and Tobago a lot in terms of the ethnic composition, there was a third party in the last election last year. And that party resembles very much the Congress of the People in terms of it's composition and in terms of it's vision for the future. And that party did better than any other third party in Guyana since 1964. It was able to garner 8 percent of the vote, which in ethnic societies, it's really a big chunk.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. HINDS: And so if we take Guyana as a sounding board, yes, there is a trend in that direction.

MARTIN: Finally, Tony, Tropical Storm Noel is causing some havoc in Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Cuba. I know that's far north of you, but I'm told that there are at least 90 dead at this point. This wasn't even a hurricane. Were these countries somehow not prepared for this storm? We're just wondering why is the death toll so high? It wasn't even a hurricane.

Mr. FRASER: I think what you are seeing here is the disparity in parts of the Caribbean. Take, for instance, in Haiti, in Cite Soleil, which is a slum area in Haiti, the destruction is easy because there are mud huts, tin roofs and so on. And the construction is not based as in the cities on reinforced concrete and steel and so on. So these poorly constructed homes, often on the hillsides, they just slide right down to the bottom of the hill with the first set of rain. So it is more than preparation, it's the social condition - social and economic condition of these countries - certain parts of the countries.

MARTIN: And finally, we're just about to enter into the tourist season. A big part of the economies of a number of countries in the Caribbean, are these countries going to be able to recover in time to accommodate the upcoming tourist season, particularly the Dominican Republic?

Mr. FRASER: Absolutely. You're talking about the cities - the hotels are in the cities and some parts of the countryside, some parts of the rural areas. But those areas are very well - in terms of the infrastructure, they're very well off, so that there should be no difficulty.

In addition to which, the hurricanes come every year, so that hoteliers and the government people who are planning and developing the infrastructure are well-prepared to deal with these hurricanes as a matter of cost.

MARTIN: All right, thank you.

Tony Fraser is a freelance journalist in Trinidad and Tobago. We spoke to him from Port of Spain. We also talked to David Hinds. He's an assistant professor focused on Caribbean studies at Arizona State. And we spoke to him from Phoenix.

Thanks to both of you.

Prof. HINDS: Thank you very much.

Mr. FRASER: Thank you.

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