On the night of May 24, 2010, having observed the full election campaign and the events of that fateful and historic Election Day, I knew this country had changed. The multiple aspects of that change were not easy to identify intellectually but I know that, like me, many people felt it.
The election outcome was evidence of a major shift; many people who block-voted along traditional lines made a politically genetic change in supporting the concept of a people's partnership, an Indian woman Prime Minister in a United National Congress (UNC)-dominated coalition, and a philosophy of people-driven politics and participatory style of governance. At the May 23, 2010, People's Partnership rally in Aranjuez, a yellow canvas was painted with all the right images—crusaders against corruption in high office, a ministry of the people responding to enraged calls for basic services, diverse peoples holding hands walking towards a prosperous future, a just and fair environment that begins closing the gap between have and have-nots, ill people lying on a surplus of hospital beds being treated with dignity, etc.
A short two years later, the preceding paragraph is likely to elicit rueful laughter. Some people believed, some wanted to, others never would have believed. But we would be less than honest if we don't acknowledge that the majority of us hoped, believed, prayed, that we were about to turn a corner away from neglect and arrogance and towards more responsive and progressive governance of this small place.
Two years ago, our tiny, complex society had already absorbed a surfeit of violence, with a corresponding deficit of humanity and compassion. I have been anxious, like everyone else, about the overwhelming personal insecurity experienced by the population, but I have been equally anxious about what the overkill the country has been experiencing means for the national character. No society, I said on election night, can absorb this amount of violence and remain unaffected. None of us is untouched, directly or indirectly.
But as we gaze, often without hope, at the corrosion of our character, we cannot avoid seeing how we have encouraged and defended violence. We have always defended, for example, violent discipline of children; burning children's hands, dipping their fingers in boiling water to deter "bad behaviour" is not a new nor is it the only vicious parenting strategy, and we know it, as we know that abuse of women and the elderly has been normative.
Our own behaviours create and simultaneously reinforce our sadistic national environment: we drive violently, our vocabulary is violent, we argue with aggression, suppress opposing views brutally. And now, to address the violence we have created and reinforced, we call for more violence: hang them, castrate them, police right to kill them. In this environment, why wouldn't we bulldoze endangered turtle hatchlings and defend that savagery as collateral damage, complain that all people talking about is "turtle, turtle, turtle" while fishermen's nets are being destroyed by adult turtles, and describe the killings as "unfortunate"? Isn't this the same response by National Security Minister Jack Warner to the human deaths of those he considers "not innocent"?
Our national problem-solving paradigm is money and force.
So we have a disillusioned, violent and desensitised society, fertile ground for destabilisation. Many of us feel a deep uneasiness that we express as "something has to give", a portent of something dangerous about to happen, spontaneously and violently. There is a sense that the country is in a pressure cooker, the lid of which will inevitably blow.
In May 2010, I was among those who slapped their own backs in congratulations that we managed to engineer historic change without violence, notwithstanding the pockets of intense bitterness experienced by some on the opposing side.
Now, despite the overwhelming disillusion felt by voters and non-voters, this is one uplifting fact that we must acknowledge in service of ourselves: we did not degenerate into violent political conflict, we chose ballot over bullet at a time when bullets outnumber ballots, and we engineered change. Never mind the change thus far has been, in the prescient words of former prime minister Basdeo Panday, exchange rather than change (some would say worse than exchange); we thought it was change and we orchestrated it peacefully and decisively.
This is empowering, and the current Government, as well as those aspiring to government, should take note that having done it once, we can do it again. The question is, how long will the population be content to wait five years for change, and how long before we become so dreadfully dejected with political ineptitude and exploitation that we completely dismiss the potential of the ballot, opting instead for the tattoo of gunfire?
This society has changed. The country that is being governed now is not the country of two years ago. We are now more politically aware, more disillusioned, more violent, and considerably less patient. How we navigate this time will determine whether we evolve or devolve.