What the hell has happened to press freedom in Trinidad and Tobago?
The news broke yesterday. Trinidad Guardian Editor-in-Chief Judy Raymond had reportedly walked off the job, followed by Sheila Rampersad and several other conscientious journalists in an atmosphere rife with allegations of political interference. Then today both the governemnt and the Guardian refuted the charge of political interference. As Patricia Worrell @bytesdog succinctly put it “This Guardian story have more twists and turns than Lady Chancellor or the road from Maracas.”
Raymond’s laconic Twitter account @HeyJudeTT doesn’t yield much at first glance. Her last three tweets are suitably cryptic but the Orwell quote is telling:
Trinidad Guardian editor-in-chief Judy Raymond did not even realise she was holding a political seat!
Raymond was hired last year to help the Guardian bottom-line: Increase sales. However, Mr Live Wire understands she ran afoul of the company’s motto: Stay close to the Government.
Photo: Ansa McAll chairman Anthony Norman Sabga.
Editorial policy is whatever he writes down on a sheet of paper.
In a politically aware country, although not necessarily a politically intelligent one, Raymond’s Guardian won nationwide acclaim for a string of exclusives including the stunning Section 34 scandal.
It turns out that Government officials felt Raymond and her nosey crew should spend more time on hard-hitting stories like the intrusion of Keith Rowley’s back door at Balisier House or MP Donna Cox’s alleged slap across the face of a PNM rival, presumably during recess.
A report on Trinidad’s inaugural Bocas Lit Fest 2011, a literary festival. with photos.
I have so much work to do, so many deadlines to stop ignoring, but i know i won’t be able to do a thing unless i spit this post out of my craw.
Bocas was a blast. I am SO glad I went to the first edition of this literary festival in Trinidad which promises to be an annual ritual. I mean I couldn’t not go really, after all one of the organizers was longtime friend and fellow reader and reviewer Nicholas Laughlin of the Caribbean Review of Books. And Trinidad is a place i like to visit as often as I can, awash as it is with good friends, doubles, rum and roti…
I think what impressed me most about Bocas was the huge amount of corporate support it recieved and the media coverage. On its opening day, April 24th, 2011, the Trinidad Express even devoted an editorial to it titled, “Bocas connects T&T to literary world”:
This country has nurtured some of the finest writers in a region whose literature is celebrated all over the world. Not only the Nobel laureates Derek Walcott and Sir Vidia Naipaul, but also CLR James, Eric Williams, Earl Lovelace, Sam Selvon, Edgar Mittelholzer, Ian McDonald and Michael Anthony are among the pantheon of those whose works are considered Caribbean classics. Yet until now, Trinidad and Tobago has not marked that aspect of its heritage in any organised way. Literary festivals take place throughout the Caribbean, but it is only this year that the country with one of the richest literary traditions in the region will celebrate that part of its culture.
The inaugural Bocas Lit Fest is an idea whose time has come. Named after the straits that connect Trinidad to the Caribbean, the Atlantic and the world, the festival, which takes place in Port of Spain from next week, will bring together writers and readers in over 50 events.
The festival aims, among other things, to celebrate the Caribbean’s literary achievements and to enhance this country’s presence on the world stage, as well as to encourage reading and literacy and to support the local publishing industry.
Writers and other participants will fly in from all over the world to watch, listen to and take part in readings, workshops, performances, panel discussions and film screenings. As word of the festival spreads, it has the potential, in the medium to long term, to become an attraction for the purpose of event tourism.
In its 43 years, the Trinidad Express too has played its part in supporting local writing and writers. In the past decade, this newspaper has serialised the publication of works by Anthony and Lovelace. At one time, indeed, Earl Lovelace was also a reporter in the Express newsroom, while he was already a prize-winning novelist. He covered the news alongside the late Keith Smith, Express editor at large, whose writing will be memorialised during the Bocas Lit Fest.
So as consulting editor Lennox Grant said at Tuesday’s launch of the festival, “The Express, then, as the One Caribbean Media flagship, can claim that we make good company for writers and for writing that bids to be remembered and cherished beyond the fleeting impact of the daily headlines.”
One Caribbean Media, parent company of the Trinidad Express, will demonstrate its commitment to excellence in writing in a concrete way, through its sponsorship of the OCM Bocas Prize, which is open to Caribbean writers and which comes with an award of US$10,000.
OCM offers its congratulations and best wishes to the organisers and sponsors — Republic Bank, KFC, National Gas Company and the National Library — and is delighted and proud to be associated with this historic event, the inaugural Bocas Lit Fest.
In fact the programme listed 20-22 sponsors on its back page. Clearly the Trinidadian media, their private sector and their government were quick to cotton on to the great potential of a festival such as this, something that can’t be said for Jamaica where the extraordinarily successful Calabash Literary Festival has just come to a premature end after a golden run of 10 years.
Bocas couldn’t have been more different from Calabash. Firstly it took place at the National Library of Trinidad and Tobago in Port of Spain, far from any quaint beach resort. The Trinis have invested big time in this Library which is a high-tech edifice of glass, steel and concrete across from Red House (that houses Parliament). Bang in the middle of the downtown area it was easy to slip out for a bite to eat or a spot of shopping.
Another thing i liked about Bocas was the mix of events in the programme. Readings were only one part of the Festival which included workshops with the invited authors, panel discussions such as the one on Caribbean writing pictured at the top of this post, “Does “Caribbean literature” really exist?” The moderator BC Pires limited the discussion by framing it too narrowly I thought, invoking the ghost of Wayne Brown, who hovered absently over the whole festival (not surprising since he died less than a year ago and was a Trinidadian writer of some prominence). Everyone knew what English Literature, Indian Literature, German Literature and American Literature are said Pires, so why the angst about whether Caribbean Literature exists or not? But of course none of the literary canons he invoked are as clear cut and well-defined as Pires was making them out to be…English literature is now written in India some say, and Indian Literature is a vexed terrain with some not wanting to admit Indians writing in English to the canon and others defining it exclusively by them as Salman Rushdie did in The Vintage Book of Indian Writing celebrating India’s 50th Independence anniversary more than a decade ago.
Another regular feature on the Bocas Lit Fest every year is going to be The Bocas Debate which this year was on Press vs. Government, the Freedom to Print What? with Judy Raymond, Selwyn Ryan, Mervyn Assam and Amery Browne. The latter two being politicians, predictably thought that if anything, TnT enjoys too much press freedom (!), while Judy and Selwyn both journalists/columnists scoffed at the very idea.
The real gamechanger Bocas has initiated is the annual OCM Bocas Prize open to poets, fiction and non-fiction writers who have published a book. Offering US$10,000 as the prize The Bocas is a serious literary award which will make a big difference to writing in the region. This year’s finalists were Edwidge Danticat in non-fiction for Creating Dangerously, Tiphanie Yanique in fiction for How to Escape from a Leper Colony and Derek Walcott in Poetry for White Egrets. Well, no prizes for guessing who won.
I attended several of the workshops which cost TT$50 each (about US$8.50): What happens next: how to build a plot with Marlon James and OCM Bocas Prize judge Mark McWatt; Words into flesh: how to create characters with OCM Bocas Prize judge David Chariandy; and What every writer wants to know: how to get published with OCM Bocas Prize judge Margaret Busby, Ken Jaikaransingh, and Jeremy Poynting.
The day before Bocas started ARC magazine was launched at Alice Yard in Port of Spain. I had the pleasure of introducing the magazine to its new audience. I also have a text in it about Jamaican-born artist Andrea Chung’s work. Look out for ARC! Its the first serious all out art magazine in the Anglophone Caribbean, kudos are due to its founding editors, Vincentians Holly Bynoe and Nadia Huggins.
Another post should follow tomorrow on Bocas…didn’t want to cram it all into one post.
Fifty-nine year-old Kamla Persad-Bissessar swept to power on May 24th in Trinidad and Tobago in a historic election rearranging the balance of power in that country forever. In a country riven by racial tensions (40% of the population is of Indian origin and about 37% of African descent), where the latter group has dominated the political life of the nation this Indo-Trinidadian woman campaigned and won on a platform of multi-racialism and the promise of change. Her win was decisive, the coalition she led winning 29 parliamentary seats out of 41. The ruling party, headed by former Prime Minister Manning only managed to win 12 seats compared to the 26 it had previously held.
Persad-Bissessar, with Basdeo Panday in the background
The 24th day of the month has proved to be a lucky one for Persad-Bissessar. It was only three months earlier that she bruisingly defeated Basdeo Panday, nicknamed the Silver Fox, the leader of the United National Congress, a party affiliated with Indian interests. On February 24th of this year Kamla Persad-Bissessar was elected political leader of the UNC and on March 24th she became Leader of the Opposition. On May 26th Persad-Bissessar was sworn in as Prime Minister on the Bhagavad Gita, a symbolically important act in this multiethnic society.
Though born into a Trinidadian Hindu family, at the age of 12 Kamla was baptized a Christian, making her, like many others in this fascinating island, a ‘Hindu Christian,’ that is, someone who is culturally Hindu who has also adopted the Christian religion for reasons of her own. After and during indentureship many Hindus in Trinidad and Tobago had to convert to Christianity to access education and other such benefits.
“I think Trinidadians are very comfortable with being bi-religious,” says Toronto-based sociologist Anton Allahar. “They see Hinduism more as a culture and less as a religion. Once you accept the central tenets of Christianity you could perform Pujas and other Hindu rituals and it wouldn’t be a problem.”
According to Trinidadian pollster Selwyn Ryan, Kamla Persad-Bissessar is ‘multi-faith’. She became a member of the Baptist Church at age 12 and her husband is Presbyterian, but she is a Hindu. “I consider myself a member of all faiths” she is reputed to have said. Ryan, an Afro-Trinidadian, previously a staunch PNM supporter and adviser, is now firmly in Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s camp as are many other stalwarts of that party.
In many ways Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s political campaign can be compared to that of President Barrack Obama’s. Her embodiment of different cultures, her ability to command the respect of all different ethnic groups and her argument against the old politics of divisiveness all stood her in good stead. Her personal charisma and well-maintained figure also did her no harm.
“In the 1980s I wrote a paper called ‘The Creolization of Indian Women’” said Patricia Mohammed, a leading authority on Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of the West Indies (UWI) in Trinidad. “I was talking about the way in which Indian women in Trinidad have turned the very weaknesses associated with them–submissiveness, subservience–into strengths.” According to Mohammed submissiveness is turned into endurance, passivity becomes a talent for negotiation and these married with intelligence, the product of their investment in education, can prove to be an unbeatable combination. “So what i see with Kamla Persad-Bissessar is a coming of age, to use a cliche, and to reduce her victory only to ‘the woman thing’ is to deny the importance of race and how important this has been for Indians here and Indian women in particular.”
Race and ethnicity may not have the same sway they have traditionally had, especially with the younger electorate, according to Gabrielle Hosein, a young lecturer and activist also from the Gender Studies Department at UWI. This may explain why traditional party loyalists were willing to switch their vote at the last minute to the UNC-COP coalition that Kamla Persad-Bissessar represented.
Crucial to her victory, according to Hosein, was the support of the COP, the Congress of the People, an influential group representing a diverse range of interests across race, ethnicity and even class. “If you went to COP meetings you saw working class people, both Africans and Indians who may have been fed up of both the PNM and the UNC. The COP was a palatable alternative. In my mind they gave a lot of validity to the UNC and allowed them to become the national party that they would never have been otherwise.”
Panday’s decisive defeat at the hands of Kamla Persad-Bissessar as leader of the UNC may also have played a role. “She fought an excellent campaign. It was so clean. Basdeo Panday was busy bad-talking her saying she was a drunkard, she couldn’t lead, how incompetent she was and she systematically praised him, saying he was her guru and she was his disciple…she ran the cleanest campaign. I was so proud of her.”
Despite her evident enthusiasm for Kamla Persad-Bissessar, Hosein, who is author of an outspokenly critical video blog called “If I Were Prime Minister” in which she had mercilessly parodied the mismanagement of the previous administration, says she will continue her vigilant monitoring of the new leadership. “I’m actually looking forward to making fun of Kamla because i think the blog is a no-holds barred statement of what we see that’s wrong around us and the need to fix those things.
If I Were Prime Minister, video blog by Gabrielle Hosein
“The blogs are not going to stop because what we’re called on now to do as social movements, and activists and citizens is to be hyper-vigilant because neither the UNC and the PNM–in fact no political part–is free from corruption, they all need to be held to account. I think the population needs to follow up on the vote by being active citizens and monitoring the processes of governance. I think the more people on the ground who are questioning and making demands of Kamla, the easier it will be for her to govern.”
PS: This piece was originally written for The Pioneer in India, which carried an edited version of it in May. In light of PM Persad-Bissessar’s visit to Jamaica to attend the CARICOM Summit i thought it might be worth reproducing here.
ALMOST two years after allegations of corruption were first made against him, Calder Hart yesterday resigned as the Udecott executive chairman and as the chairman of four other state boards he had been appointed to under Prime Minister Patrick Manning’s administration.
…His resignation came after Newsday last week published a series of documents which appeared to disclose clear links between his wife, Malaysian born Sherrine Hart, and a company the Udecott board awarded $820 million in contracts to. The documents, birth and marriage certificates tying Sherrine to two men who served as directors on Sunway Construction Caribbean Limited, emerged after being obtained by the Congress of the People in the course of a six-week investigation.
Hart’s resignation also came one day after High Court Judge Justice Mira Dean-Armorer shot down an attempt by lawyers acting on behalf of Udecott to stop the submission of the final report of the Uff Commission of Inquiry. The judge rejected Udecott’s arguments that the inquiry, which saw damning evidence of corruption and mismanagement emerge, was illegal.
Calder Hart was no ordinary Trinidadian. The following paragraphs were taken from his Witness Statement to the Commission of Enquiry Into the Construction Industry.
My name is Calder Hart. I live at No. 6 De Lima Road, Cascade, Trinidad and Tobago. I was born in Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada. I have lived in Trinidad and Tobago for the last 22 years and in 2004 I applied for and was granted citizenship of Trinidad & Tobago. To do so I was not required to renounce Canadian citizenship and as a consequence I am now a citizen of both Canada and Trinidad and Tobago.
As can be seen from my curriculum vitae attached below (annexure 2) before I first came to Trinidad and Tobago in 1986, I had acquired considerable work experience in the areas of housing (both private and public), mortgage financing, land assembly and urban development and redevelopment at both federal and provincial levels.
The news of Hart’s resignation and abrupt departure from the country drew loud and raucous responses from the blogosphere.
“The flight of Cobo Hart: naturally my Carnival placard helped turn the tide!: http://bit.ly/cmUG6m“ Nicholas Laughlin announced on Twitter, the link leading to his blogpost excerpted below:
SUNDAY, MARCH 07, 2010
The flight of the cobo My Carnival Monday placard from the band Cobo Town, proudly carried through the streets of Port of Spain nearly three weeks ago. The face of Calder “Cobo” Hart — head of the powerful state construction agency Udecott, widely suspected of massive financial improprieties and thought by some to be Prime Minister Patrick Manning’s bagman, subject of investigation by the Uff commission of enquiry — replaced the national coat of arms in the middle of a giant $100 bill. Read the rest of Nicholas‘s blog here:
Now the interesting thing is that i had arrived in TnT on the 20th of February just in time to be taken to the victory party of the Cobo (‘corbeau’ the equivalent of our John Crows) Town band (fourth place in the small band category at Trini carnival). I was transported from the airport to artist Ashraph’s frame shop in one fell swoop, where the erstwhile Cobos were flinging wine and sundry spicy snacks down their beaks.
artist Ashraph Ramsaran, leading the Cobo Town Band, seen above descending on Red House (House of Parliament)
One of them detached himself and introduced himself as Andre Bagoo, the author of the article quoted above and parliamentary reporter who was in the news only a few months ago. We had been following each other on Twitter and Facebook for some time but had never met in person. Bagoo is also author of the blog Pleasure (Art in all its forms) and had been banned from Parliament in TnT last November “for the rest of the session” on grounds of ‘contempt’. Coincidentally, as a Trinidad Express story said:
The article written by Bagoo arose out of a report stating that the Urban Development Corporation of Trinidad and Tobago, which had been referred to the Privileges Committee for alleged contempt arising out of a complaint made by Caroni East MP Dr Tim Gopeesingh, had planned to concede on the contempt charge and had decided to issue an apology.
A Cobo Town placard
Bagoo was not the only one so hastily dispatched. Former Trade Minister Diego Martin West MP Dr Keith Rowley was fired under mysterious circumstances. Rowley had called for Cabinet oversight of Udecott and accountability. And that’s not all. In the March 8th edition of Newsday Bagoo states: “BEFORE CALDER Hart resigned as executive chairman in the wake of documents showing links between Hart and a company the Udecott board awarded $820 million in contracts, the Prime Minister Patrick Manning and Cabinet defended Hart and Udecott no less than forty-five times over the course of two years, all the while apparently taking no action to deal with allegations against Hart.
And they claimed Panday was corrupt! One of the funniest, most effective pieces of satire in the Caribbean Blogosphere is a blog calling itself “The Secret Blog of Patrick “Patos” Manning”. The voice is ostensibly that of Manning:
Mealtime at a Commonwealth heads of government event is never pretty. You’d swear some of these characters have only recently learned to eat with knife and fork, and I’m not talking just about the South Asian and Sub-Saharan African delegates. For instance, it’s well known in Commonwealth heads circles that the person you never want sitting across the table from you isGordon Brown, who, in addition to having the table manners of a warahoon, insists of having a serving of haggis with every single meal. Experienced heads like me know that the thing to do is arrive at the dining room well ahead of time and choose the smallest table possible, which also limits your chances of having to sit near a type like Jacob Zuma.
But even an experienced head like me sometimes oversleeps. Thanks to a combination of jetlag, a not completely guilt-free conscience and a nightmare featuring a horrifying creature with the upper body of Calder Hart and the hindquarters of the Rev Apostle Juliana Peña, I didn’t manage to roll out of bed this morning until well after 8am BST. Hazel was already awake, talking on the phone in hushed tones. She said that she too had lost track of time and planned to skip breakfusses, which didn’t quite explain why she was already fully dressed, nor the general whiff of bacon and sausages about her person. I considered ordering room service, but in heads circles not showing up for a meal when you’re embroiled in a scandal is tantamount to an admission of guilt. Even Mugabe was still eating among us till the bitter end, much to everyone’s chagrin.
What i love about Trinidad is the freewheeling creativity to be found there as evidenced in the blog above and also in recent developments in Carnival. The riotous street festival which many feel has been hijacked by ‘bikini mas’ in recent years, is being reclaimed by a small band of politically and socially conscious revellers. A motley crew of artists, writers, fashionistas and techies this group has demonstrated what true creativity is, for two years running. Last year the band performed T’in Cow, Fat Cow, a commentary on the voicelessness of ordinary citizens. This year they performed as vultures, the birds of prey known as Cobos in Trinidad and John Crows in Jamaica.
Arriving back in Trinidad after my art appointment in Suriname i found myself riding in a taxi past the Labasse, the giant garbage dump across from Laventille. The sky was filled with circling cobos but what has truly stayed with me is the sight of 40 or 50 cobos sitting on the ground, striking birds of intense blackness, waiting their turn at the carrion. In the wake of the flight of Cobo Calder Hart and the unveiling of the depth of corruption in the governance procedures of the country, Cobo Town emerges as the stinging critical intervention it was meant to be. This is a kind of popular action that is definitely not happening in Jamaica.
In 2009Ashraph and Shalinidebuted an independent mas band of artists and ‘creatives’ calledT’in Cow Fat Cow with the theme ‘The People Must be Herd”. The photos below show their strikingly simple, immensely creative costumes. Below the photos i’ve cut and pasted their manifesto which was clearly designed to extend itself to political protest from being a mere mas band.
One looks in vain for anything remotely similar in Jamaica both in terms of sheer conceptual creativity and as political mobilization. I eagerly await the next installment of Gab Hossein’s hard-hitting video blog called “If I Were Prime Minister…” in which she mercilessly lampoons and takes down the political directorate of TnT about the absurdities that pass for governance. What will she have to say about the Hart resignation and the latest shenanigans?. One waits with bated breath.
Photo: Georgia Popplewell
On Thursday 16 April, as final preparations are being made for the staging of the 5th Summit of the Americas in Trinidad, a group of artists will do a performance installation on the streets of Trinidad and Tobago’s capital, Port of Spain.
The silent procession is part of a video installation being created by the band’s designers Ashraph Ramsaran and Shalini Seereeram.
T’in Cow Fat Cow debuted as an independent mas band in 2009, inspired by the song T’in Cow by 3 Canal.
The procession takes place on the streets of Port of Spain between 9 and 11 and started at that traditional seat of people’s democracy, Woodford Square.
The People Must be Herd manifesto
T’in Cow Fat Cow – The People must be Herd.
Dey belly full but we hungry And right about now we angry And de reason dat we angry Is because we belly hungry
Tin Cow tin cow green grass dey over so Fat cow de butcher callin yuh Watch for yuh head ah warnin yuh Otherwise in de pot yuh goin to go.
T’in Cow, 3 Canal
We represent the voiceless. The many thousands of Trinbagonians outside of the Red Zone. Whose tax dollars are being invested in a display that does not address their most urgent concerns. New buildings, a repaved highway, painted lamp posts and hidden homeless do not mean that we are on the road to development. In the midst of the Summit performance we ask, who is seeking the interests of the voiceless? Who is spending many many millions to address our concerns. Who is listening? Who will suffer the most in the face of a global economic meltdown?
The people of high risk communities must be heard. The missing children must be heard. The homeless people must be heard. The women and children who live with abuse every day must be heard. The people who will lose employment in the aftermath of the Summit must be heard. The people of communities in danger of environmental destruction must be heard. The physically challenged must be heard.
I’ve been in Trinidad the last couple of days where i’m contemplating the giant $2 million national flag fluttering in the breeze in Port-of-Spain, while hummingbirds fight each other for a suck at the red plastic feeder on the balcony of a friend’s apartment. Found out yesterday that Trinidad and Tobago is suffering from a prolonged drought as is the rest of the Eastern Caribbean. Jamaica has also been severely affected by the lack of rainfall recently but the discussions around this never ever referred to the fact that this was a regionwide phenomenon.
I was interviewed practically on arrival for an online forum called NBS or the No Behaviour Show by @SanMan_ish or Hassan, someone i previously knew only on Twitter. Hassan had just started NBS the week before and was wishing he had access to a Jamaican perspective on various issues including water shortages, when my tweet announcing my arrival in TnT appeared in his timeline. Before you knew it i was being interviewed on a variety of subjects starting with something Jamaican Minister of Culture, Olivia Babsy Grange, had said at the opening ceremony of the International Reggae Conference at UWI, Mona. Was Jamaica losing Reggae to European musicians as Ms. Grange had suggested, Hassan wanted to know. I said i preferred to view singers such as Gentleman and Matisyahu as ambassadors for Reggae, taking a Jamaican product to new brand audiences. To hear more of what i said click here…
The International Reggae Conference at the University of the West Indies, Mona, was a big success i thought. The first morning I chaired a panel on Collection, Storage and Dissemination of Jamaican music with three participants, Herbie Miller, the director of the Jamaican Music Museum and two Americans; Elliott Lieb, founder of the Trade Roots archive, dedicated to collecting Jamaican music and Brad Klein, a film-maker working on a documentary on Jamaican ska. In the audience, amongst others, was Stranjah Cole, ska maestro, who features in the film.
Stranjah Cole seated in front row
Herbie Miller made an eloquent case for a budget to stock his museum and do the kind of work the foreigners were doing gratis out of love for Jamaica’s music. How extraordinary i thought, that a case even needs to be made for something so obviously deserving of support. After all the Jamaican government had decided decades ago that Jamaican art was worthy of being collected, stored and disseminated, investing in a National Gallery for the purpose. And this despite the fact that Jamaican art is insignificant compared to Jamaican music which has virtually put the country on the map, creating Brand Jamaica and maintaining its profile to this day. Yet as Brad Klein pointed out many of the early recordings and films on Jamaican music have vanished without a trace. What a tragedy!
l to r: Chappie St Juste, Herbie Miller, Stranjah Cole, Brad Klein and Elliott Lieb
During the discussion that followed the presentations, cinematographer Chappie St. Juste who was in the audience, disclosed that the films were actually safely stored in vaults in England where they had been sent for processing and the task now was to repatriate them. But repatriate them to what? and where? and to what conditions? The music museum exists only in name. Perhaps instead of berating Europeans for ‘stealing’ our music we should be grateful to them for having stored our cultural products safely, something we ourselves have been careless about. Remember the scandal a few years ago when it was discovered that the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation archives had been vandalized, and that early recordings of Louise Bennett and others had vanished?