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After January 21, 2013

By Reginald Dumas

Part I

There have been a multitude of comments by pundits on the THA election of last January 21. I make no claim to being a pundit (even a so-called one), but I do have one or two points to offer.

I shall begin by setting the election completely aside for the moment and giving my broad understanding of how, fundamentally, Tobago sees itself and how too many in Trinidad do not see it and have not seen it. The following is an excerpt from a speech I gave at the Mt Irvine Hotel in late March 2007.

"But why should Tobago be so concerned with autonomy, you may ask. From my lengthy time in the Foreign Service, I am in no doubt that you cannot satisfactorily confront people's concerns unless you make a determined effort to understand and, to the extent possible, empathise with their history and culture. Globalisation or not, the strong and continuing group identity of many minorities is everywhere apparent: in the Basque region of Spain, for instance, in Kosovo, in the Punjab, in Nevis, in the Kurdish areas of Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq, and in Tobago. Even the flawed 1996 THA Act, in Section 43, recognises what it calls 'Tobago's distinct identity'.

"This group identity is one based on centuries of living and interacting together, of a shared ancestry, descent, language, historical tradition, culture and geographic space. It does not take kindly to, or accept, what it sees as imposition from outside. Rather, there is a solidarity of the members of the group which truly makes the group a nation in the anthropological sense as distinct from a state in the accepted political science sense. Thus we often speak of the 'Basque nation' or the 'Ashanti nation' or the 'Apache nation', and the Maroons of Jamaica, whose cockpit country is now threatened by what the Jamaican government calls 'development', fall in the same category.

"And last November the Canadian House of Commons adopted a resolution recognising the Québecois as 'a nation within a united Canada.' Bear in mind that Canada is a federation, not a unitary state. Bear in mind also that being 'united' is far more crucial to the viability and progress of any state than reverence for a political science concept that is not even mentioned in our Constitution.

"From this perspective, Tobago too is a nation, and Tobagonians are not Trinidadians across the water. Trinidad and Tobago is not Trinidad. It is a fundamental that Eric Williams, brilliant historian though he was, never seemed to grasp. In his book, History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago, he had written about Tobago's 'humiliation' by the British at the end of the 19th century. Yet he himself would add to that humiliation when in 1976 the two Tobago parliamentary seats migrated from the PNM to Robinson's party and Williams, in vindictive rage, punished the island by virtually suspending essential services and payments on which it depended. And he never seemed to examine dispassionately why the two seats had deserted the PNM.

"Tobago did not accept the forced union with Trinidad at the end of the 19th century. To the extent the island felt, because of its then parlous economic condition, that it had to yield to British pressure, it repudiated, as Williams himself tells us, 'the extension to Tobago of the fiscal laws of Trinidad or of the utilisation of Tobago's revenues for purely Trinidad purposes.' The British were unrelenting, however, and an October 1898 Order-in-Council made Tobago a ward, or district, of Trinidad and Tobago, and decreed that 'the revenue, expenditure and debt of Tobago shall be merged in and form part of the revenue, expenditure and debt of the united Colony …'

"Tobago did not accept the forced union with Trinidad then, and the fact is that Tobago is uncomfortable in the relationship now. The obstinacy of successive central governments regarding centralised control, manifested in their Pavlovian genuflections before the deity of the unitary state, has only managed, after 108 years of union, to persuade successive generations of Tobagonians, including the present, that the relationship, as it has been and is constituted, is not in their best interest."

In my next article, I shall try to locate the January 21 event against the background given above.

* Reginald Dumas is a former

ambassador and former

head of the Public Service

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