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Selwyn Cudjoe as high priest

By Theodore Lewis

I have been trying to digest Selwyn Cudjoe’s two-part column published in the Express over Carnival. I find it to be strong on prediction, but weak on evidence or analysis. He said he is “certain” that Rowley will win the PNM internal elections and then go on to win the national elections. But he does not provide the basis of this bold and positive prediction. This is Selwyn Cudjoe as high priest, playing the role of soothsayer who can summon uncommon powers of prescience that bring the future to the present, thereby allowing his leader to conserve cognitive resources and shoe sole that he might otherwise expend as he tries to win back the elections for his party.
Indeed there are elections to be fought in this country, within the PNM, and then among the populace at large. They are not pro forma. Rowley could lose them both, if he looks past them and is perceived to be so doing by PNM supporters or potential PNM voters. He has to make his case to PNM supporters and to the public as leader, and these two elections provide him the opportunities to do so.
It was arrogance on the part of Manning, and a false feeling that he was divinely protected, that caused him basically to hand over the state, with two years to go. Manning had gone too far in front of his party. When he looked back on election day they were not there. The corridor was gone. As was Tobago.
Now comes Prof Cudjoe, as though none of this ever occurred, and he tells Rowley to start planning for what he would do for black people the next time, especially in hotspot communities where black people dwell, such as Laventille, and Maloney, constituencies the PNM were left with after the last elections.
It seems to me that Mr. Rowley would be better off if he takes Ms Penelope Beckles challenge seriously, and fights the internal PNM elections with real gusto. This is not the first test of his fitness for leading the party. The evidence is that he has been intellectually engaged in this, and that when the time came whether it was Section 34, or the host of other PP mishaps and misdeeds, he pounced, with good results. The PNM has done well in elections in the interim—in Tobago, St, Joseph, and in local elections. Rowley must communicate that Ms Beckles is a worthy contender, with whom he can have a civil debate about vision and priorities for the party. He cannot do less.
Prof Cudjoe’s main thesis is that this time around, if the PNM do not connect directly with the black electorate this would be its last chance. In particular, he focuses on the hot spot communities. He writes: “The PNM must accept that the party has failed the country in how it has treated the least amongst us: that is, the people of Laventille, Morvant, Sea Lots, Maloney, and the other depressed areas that are predominantly black.” I hear what Prof Cudjoe is saying with this point, and I will come back to this question of race and the PNM. But maybe Prof Cudjoe does not fathom properly what happened the last time. And it is that the PNM lost the corridor and Tobago. The party lost Arima, Toco-Sangre Grande, D’Abadie/O’Omeara, La Horquetta/Talparo, Tunapuna, St Augustine, Barataria, and St Ann’s East. It also lost Tobago East and Tobago-West. Plus Moruga, Fyzabad, and Mayaro.
So what happened in the last election is that the base of the PNM was washed away. This is bigger, much bigger than crime hot spots. This is also the middle class black person, fed up with crime, and wanting solutions. This is the elderly black woman wanting to get up at five o ’clock to go to mass, and afraid that she will be held imperilled.
As to the question of race, it is the case that party politics in this country was founded on ethnic strivings. The authority here is Morton Klass, who in his seminal study “East and West Indian: Cultural Complexity in Trinidad”, explained how the politics of the 1940s derived its outlines from the two ethnic poles in the plural society. Indians wanted to maintain their ethnic identity, and retreated to cultural enclaves after trading in the market place. Africans with looser bonds with ancestry favoured the Creole society.
The two groups mixed but did not combine, consistent with the theory of cultural pluralism as set forth by Furnivall. Both groups looked to their own for political leadership. This is our history. We must not be ashamed of it. We did not have Democrats and Republicans here as in the US. Nor Conservatives and Labourites as in the UK.
We had Africans and Indians, politics based on the ethnic outcomes of colonialism that can be seen in Malaysia, for example. We were defined politically here by the slave trade and indenture-ship. On the whole we have done remarkably as a nation, accepting each other and respecting each other’s rights.
As to black aspirations and the PNM, I think Prof Cudjoe has a point when he says that the party has sometimes been unclear in its message, for fear that it will be assessed to be race-based. A Peoples’ National Movement has to include not just Africans but all the races. The question though has to be what group constitutes the PNM base? The UNC in its various iterations whether PDP, ULF, or DLP, has never been unclear about this. Bhadase Maraj and now Sat Maharaj have told us loud and clear what is that base. Basdeo Panday said it was “sugar workers”. We could dance around this, employ euphemisms, or call each other racist, but we cannot deny history. It is the case that the PNM has been somewhat more shy than, say, the UNC, in naming or clarifying what is its base.
A final word here has to do with crime and dysfunction in the black community. Yes the PNM has to own up to some of this. But black people also have to take up our own beds and walk. Manning did not make anybody a criminal. Just like Obama did not make the young brother on the streets of Chicago a criminal. People make themselves criminals.
It is the case though that the absence of fathers or father figures in the black home, a perennial problem does not help. A grandmother or working mother is not a match for the gang leader on the block with his bundles of cash, and sexy girls, in convincing a 16-year-old youth to make the right choice between his mathematics homework or riding in a stolen car in which there are other black youth, one or more guns, and a Movado or Vibes Kartel sound track.
But there are choices that beat early death. Some African brothers sell nuts on the highway. Many work at the various ministries. I see young brothers selling yams and fish in Arima market. The Bravo brothers play cricket. Bunji and Machel followed their entertainment passions. Machel has O’ Levels. Sunil Narine plays cricket in India. I see my Indian brothers selling coconuts, and doubles. We can learn from this. I reject outright that black people are helpless against criminality.

The PNM must not pander to young black men who are criminals, and who love jobs that start at 7 a.m. and end at 8 a.m. If you make a CEPEP recipient literate, as Cudjoe says, how do you convince him to get out of CEPEP? Look at young black sisters. They are in school, and at the university, where the young black male is missing, here and in Jamaica. I think we need social policy and programmes, such as youth apprenticeship that focus on skill training, that engage black youth in their critical transition years between adolescence and adulthood. But murder is not a natural response to poverty.
This long after slavery, we have black men still, who believe they came on this earth to impregnate black sisters and to walk away. That is the reason why the black community is crime infested. It is not poverty alone, it is young boys who become men too soon, running communities at 16, a job that pundits, imams, the Chamber of Commerce and Kiwanis, with grown men, take on in other communities.

Theodore Lewis is professor
emeritus, University of Minnesota, USA.

—Winford James returns next week.
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