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Drowning in oil

By Martin daly

 I mentioned last week a recent visit to the Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts in Washington DC, USA.  I rode a shuttle bus from the metro to the Centre.  Sitting on the shuttle, a stranger engaged me in a brief but interesting conversation.

He knew where Trinidad was, which was a good start. When I commented, in response to his acquaintanceship with the Bahamas, that Trinidad, as opposed to Tobago, was not a typical Caribbean tourist site, he asked an interesting question about having an energy sector.

“Has it”, he asked, “sapped the resolve of the people”? He then expressed his opinion, that Norway had made prudent use of the fruits of its energy sector and had not spoiled its people with the fat of the land.

Thankfully the shuttle ride was short so I did not have to respond about our use of nature’s bounty or to confess that it had clogged and polluted our thinking and civic will; nor did I know then that in a day or two the south of our land itself would actually be drowning in oil.

I did mutter the well-known phrase “the curse of oil” in the course of the shuttle conversation. Having returned home and seen since the December oil spills began how unprepared we are to manage disaster other than for interested factions to ascribe blame, for so called communications specialists to give worthless assurances and for public officials to think only of their individual images, I decided to refresh my memory on what economists and others have said about the curse of oil.

One reference I found was a short but incisive column by Tina Rosenberg in the New York Times, published in February 2013, entitled: “Avoiding the curse of oil-rich nations”.

I noted all the points regarding the effect of oil wealth on many economies from a technical perspective but I was more struck about how telling was my shuttle bus companion’s reference to the sapping of resolve.

Ms Rosenberg’s column offers the following opinion, which I suggest is hard to refute given Trinidad and Tobago’s current political state, and despite the honest efforts of many professionals, entrepreneurs, managers and ordinary loyal employees: “Oil concentrates a nation’s economy around the state. Instead of putting resources into making things and selling them, ambitious people spend their time curry favouring or simply bribing the politicians and government officials who control oil money. That concentration of wealth, along with the opacity with which oil can be managed, creates corruption.”

In addition, in Trinidad and Tobago we have the insecurities of a post-colonial society, pervasive inter-locking relationships that are the natural condition of a small island and a mammoth state enterprise system.

These three conditions also make it very difficult to create any productive space even partially immune from the weight of the dominant and frequently unmeritorious political and business elites. In fact, these characteristics provide a further stimulus towards curry favour and fawning in order to gain, not earn, perceived status and the money to enter the “in your face” VVIP enclosures.

It is suggested that the oil curse condition described above produces slack governance, authoritarian tendencies in the rulers of countries in this condition as well as much internal conflict. Who would have thought that post-independence Trinidadians would have returned to playing mas inside of rope? That rope around Carnival bands to “protect” a self-appointed “us” from “them” is a vivid symbol of societal conflict in an oil-rich and, sad to say, drug-traffic ridden land.

In these socio political conditions it is impossible to fight crime successfully.  Violent crime is the spawn of these conditions.

One saving grace of our Republic is our vibrant, creative, unwavering artistic sector, which provides some independent productive space, even as successive governments seek to control the creative industries in the pretence of assistance to indigenous cultural talent.

Another saving grace of our Republic is that, despite snarling personal attacks and other sanctions on those who speak their mind, we have persevered in having free speech and the ability to vote out governments.  There is of course a link between the free speech and expression of the artists and the free speech of the commentators.

Our Carnival traditions — Pierrot Grenade, Canboulay, the steelband movement and some social commentary calypsonians -have contributed to keeping authoritarian politicians at bay. Likewise keeping the Hosay and Ramleela traditions alive are expressions of religious and cultural significance, which will not be readily yielded up to those of authoritarian tendency.

I have advocated in these columns ways in which to increase productive independent space and the need for greater civic will in order to increase the resolve and independence that has been drowned in oil monies and natural gassed to a state of widespread weakness. 

Now that we are drowning in the oil itself will we think afresh how to answer the man on the shuttle bus?

 
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