I normally enjoy reading Sunity Maharaj, but was disappointed with her recent Express column titled “Calling Dr Rowley”, in which she blames Keith Rowley and the PNM for the bloodshed in east Port of Spain, and calls on him basically to solve the problem. She writes that “because of the failure to provide the quality of representation that would’ve blocked the gang culture from taking root”, and because it has represented people in the area for most of its 57 years in power, the PNM is responsible for their problem. The People’s Partnership Government does not have the wherewithal to solve the problem of bloodshed in east Port of Spain she said, so PNM should be called upon to take it on. I find this idea to be so spiteful. The implications are so mind-boggling. Another way of articulating this logic will be to say that since Debe is a part of the PM’s constituency, she is right in wanting a law school to be built there and not somewhere else.
The problem of east Port of Spain requires socio-historical sense. On one level of this we will find that throughout the Americas there are geographic spaces that mimic Laventille, and East Dry River generally, meaning they adjoin a large city, the housing is unplanned and made up of shanties, the people are poor, their history is one of migration searching for work, and perennially the community is violence-prone. So if we go to Sao Paulo, or Bahia in Brazil, or we go to Mexico City, we will find the landscape to be familiar, hills overlooking the city, shanties or favelas, culture abounding, and crime.
In the cases of Brazil and Trinidad, there is also a tie to slavery. In Trinidad there is the further matter of immigration from the smaller islands, Beetham and adjoining hills are places that provided haven for immigrants from Grenada, St Vincent and probably other islands who came to this country, legally or illegally. My own mother would have been among this latter group, and my first years of childhood were lived in a shanty close to Ovid Alley, now Desperlie Crescent.
In making her case as to why the solution of crime in east Port of Spain should fall to the Opposition, and not the Government, Sunity Maharaj makes the point that the people of Laventille have always voted for the PNM. But it seems to me that the party in power cannot parse the population in terms of the historical voting tendencies of particular constituents. Obama cannot say to the people of the states of Utah or Georgia, traditionally Republican, that they must take their tough problems to the Republican Party, the party now in the opposition, because that is the party for which they have traditionally voted. The party in power has to see the whole country as its constituency.
Before Eric Williams came on the scene in 1956, Laventille Hill, and the immediate foothills were teeming with badjohns, who were affiliated with gangs, and with steelbands. Gangs like Marabuntas, Silkhats, Applejackers and Law breakers, and the legendary men who fought when the time came, men like Lil Axe, Papito, Musso, Dr Rat, Whitey Kincaid and Fisheye, the latter making an appearance in Earl Lovelace’s The Dragon Can’t Dance.
Sunity Maharaj seems to connect crime with the tenancy of the PNM, and I think that is worth some scrutiny. Here we could draw upon the work of Hyacinthe Ellis, who looked at crime statistics for Trinidad and Tobago over time. She found that in 1960 the murder rate in T&T was 8.1 per 100,000 people. In 1984, it was 7.1 per 100,000. If we convert the latter figure using our current population of 1.2 million, the comparable number of murders then would have been 85 for that year.
The table shows murders per year and the party in power for the year in question. The base year is 1984, one year before the NAR came to power. The number of murders in that year was 85. By 1995, at the beginning of UNC rule, it was still a comparatively low 122. The critical year seems to be 2005, when there is a jump of 126 murders from 2004. The year 2008 was the highest point we had reached.
Under the People’s Partnership, crime was down in 2011, due to the curfew. This was 131 fewer murders than in 2010, its first year in power. In 2012, the number remained relatively low, due perhaps to a lingering curfew effect. Generally speaking, murders have been down under the Partnership. But it has become, for some reason, politically incorrect to say so, or to say that the curfew was on evidence a very good idea.
The data shown in the table at left do not support Sunity Maharaj’s hypothesis, that the PNM is associated with blood in East Dry River. The party came to power in 1956, and 28 years later, it had handed over power to the NAR with just 85 murders having been committed the year before. The data also do not agree with her that the People’s Partnership is unable to make an imprint on crime. In 2011, due to the state of emergency, murders fell drastically. In 2012, there were 102 fewer murders than there had been in 2010 when the party came to power.
Recently, in his testimony before the commission of enquiry on the 1990 coup, Raoul Pantin said insurgents in that coup had indicated they had given away a large number of guns to people in Laventille, hoping they would be joined on the fateful day. He is of the view that the spate of crime we have seen since 2005 is correlated with insurgents having been released back into the society.
A second hypothesis, offered by Selwyn Cudjoe, is that jobs on the port and at Citrus Growers dried up and this led to unemployment, and to crime, in Laventille.
Whatever the reason for crime in East Dry River or elsewhere in the country, we could only make the problem more difficult by politicising it. The cooperation between the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader on crime is brilliant, and should not be shot down by the usual political reflex. And the Government cannot abandon the people of East Dry River, leaving them to the Opposition, because they live in an Opposition stronghold. You can’t hand out land to one group of people, and say to the other group go to the PNM for whom you voted.
• Theodore Lewis is Professor
of Education at UWI, St Augustine.