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Cinderella finally shedding her rags?

By Selwyn Ryan

Tobagonians go to the polls tomorrow. The elections take place in Tobago, but they are really not about Tobago. For most people, the interest has to do with what the results portend for Dr Rowley and the PNM on the one hand, and the status and sustainability of the People's Partnership on the other. Neither could afford to "lose" the election. While there is widespread interest in the outcome, and much that is whispered, little is known about the antecedents of the conflict. Thus the decision to use this column to recall for the benefit of the younger and not so old, some of the iconic events that mark the historic journey to the House of Assembly.

There was a time, in the 1960s, when a small but significant number of radical Tobagonians flirted with the idea of independence from Trinidad, so deep was their hatred of Dr Williams and the PNM, and so bitter was their hurt about what they deemed to be Trinidad's neglect of Tobago.

As the Chief Secretary lamented not long ago, "People (in Trinidad) do not fully appreciate the level of hurt that Tobago feels about what has happened."

The hurt continues.

There was a feeling among this element that Tobago would have fared better if it had been on its own within the federation that was then coming into being. That view held that Tobago could make independence work for it just as Barbados or any other member of the little eight had done.

They shared the view of APT "Fargo" James, Tobago's political patriarch, that if Tobago had been standing alone, it would have been granted aid as were the other islands in the Caribbean Sea.

Dr Williams and the PNM generally did not agree with that line. Williams agreed that Tobago had indeed fared badly under the British, but he believed what Tobago needed was greater administrative autonomy, not independence which he viewed as a retrograde step from the perspective of the goal or Caribbean unity. Williams wanted to use Tobago to show that unity was a sustainable and viable ideal. The road to unity lay through Scarborough.

The then opposition Democratic Labour Party (DLP) came out in support of "full independence" for Tobago. It proclaimed that "Tobagonians must be encouraged to manage their own affairs. We support full independence for Tobago within the Federation. If the (Federal) capital is to be moved at all, we advocate its removal to Tobago."

That was opportunism with a vengeance. The DLP calculated that it stood to gain electorally if Tobago was politically sundered from Trinidad. Tobago did not rise to the bait, and gave its support to the PNM and Arthur NR Robinson who won the Tobago seat with 68 per cent of the popular vote. Tobago had become PNM country.

Williams was ecstatic about the PNM victories in the 1958 and 1961 elections. He spoke glowingly of the Tobagonians's "national pride which they have been able to reconcile with a parochialism in respect of their villages and parishes".

He boasted too that Tobago, like "Cinderella, had begun to shed her rags and was getting ready to enter the PNM's ballroom." Unfortunately, Cinderella took long to dress for the ball, and lost her way as she sought to get there.

Despite the general admission on the part of all that the relationship between Trinidad and Tobago was not working well in the era of independence, there was no agreement as to what should be done about it. The Wooding Commission came out against any formal separation or the creation of a National Assembly. Wooding believed it would be unwise to have a special lawmaking agency in a small state "where enactments would be the same as for the entire unitary state".

The crisis came to a head following the defeat of the DAC in the 1976 election. Robinson chose to focus his political energy on the Tobago self government issue which he now saw as his destiny to fulfill. As he said, "If it is our historical function, our destiny to drive home that lesson (about Tobago), and we will not shirk that responsibility."

The exceptionally crude and abusive manner in which Williams dealt with Tobago after the 1976 election badly bruised Tobago's already sensitive hide. Williams was crimson with rage.

He saw the Tobago vote as one for secession, which it clearly was not. He claimed that "the outcome was the by-product of a sickness, a general malaise resulting from all the flotsam and jetsam brought to the Caribbean over a century". Williams rudely told Tobagonians that "if they wanted to go, they could go. We not holding you. The real problem would come if Trinidad decided to secede from Tobago".

What was important was the divorce settlement. That could be bad; that could be bitter; that could be fatal in some respects. The PNM and Tobago had become arch-political enemies. Many feared the worst.

Robinson complained that the PNM was always comparing Tobago with the worst in the Caribbean or with places in Trinidad. Tobago, he insisted, had to be treated as a "special case". To him, Trinidad was the imperial metropole and Tobago the Caribbean's "Third World".

Robinson's obiter was that what if Tobago teaches us that the "slave of today can be the slave owner of tomorrow and the anti-imperialist of yesterday can become the imperialist of today. The history would show that racism and colonialism have nothing to do with geographical position or the colour of one's skin".

The eventual agreement to self- government and the establishment of the THA in 1980 did not resolve the basic problems that bedevilled the relationship.

They deteriorated to the point where in 1983, the DAC felt driven to introduce a motion calling for a termination of the "unjust union", and to secure its replacement by another on terms more acceptable to the people of Tobago.

George Chambers withdrew his offer of a "hand of friendship", and told Tobago he was not made prime minster to preside over the demise of the Trinidad state. "When all my efforts to establish a modus vivendi failed, I was left with one alternative only, and that was to open direct lines of communication with the people of Tobago".

Chambers was electorally rebuffed in Tobago and it has always been a miracle to me that the PNM has survived, notwithstanding Williams and Chambers. I have also marvelled that notwithstanding which party controls the national government and the THA, there remain enduring disagreements as to who is responsible for what in terms of plan, policy and personnel, and that the relationship continues to be seen by the THA as a neocolonial one.

THA executives of all parties always claim they are not able to exercise much influence over their people's destiny.

As one Chief Secretary moaned, "Just about every key institution operating in Tobago took its ultimate directive from some central ministry or authority." Tobago, he said has had to suffer "under the yoke of a succession of uncaring governments in Port of Spain".

Will TOP be any different if it wins? One hopes that whoever wins, Tobago will find a way to resolve the seemingly intractable problems that confounded Robinson, Hochoy Charles, Jeff Davidson, Orville London and others.

Cinderella did get to the ball with her new robes in 1980. The problem, however is that she never learnt to do the "Jig". Now she might also have to learn how to do the "soca chutney".

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