BY last Thursday, when that ugly big word, “xenophobia”, was falling from common mouths, about 14,000 Venezuelans had passed the government’s registration test, thereby qualifying for temporary if not permanent residence.
The big word, meaning dislike of foreigners, was even used by generic minister Stuart Young for tongue-lashing of the UNC and other critics of the official reception of those initially tagged “desesperados”. Supposedly, soon, the formerly undocumented seeking refuge from across the Gulf will be issued cards bearing entitlement to a one-year stay. Shortly, T&T began settling down to the clamorous reality of “Spanish” in the place.
A regular supplement in that language began appearing in the T&T Guardian. That newspaper’s reporting on the boat people influx had initially been presented with the telling “desesperados” tagline. In Newsday, house ads, “Newspaper Sellers Needed”, were also being printed as (Newsday necesita vendedores) to reach the “desesperados” from next door. Suddenly, T&T’s under-appreciated capacity in translation resources was being pressed into service. To the unilingual jobless, wretchedly exposed to the elements outside the Queen’s Park Oval, San Fernando, and in Tobago, fast-food and other companies needing workers distributed application forms in their language.
However overtly resistant, T&T, after centuries of sharing easy-access coastlines with people identified by Hispanic language and New World culture, was confronting change. Or at least T&T is recognising realistic possibilities. For long, T&T secondary schooling had attached importance to the absorption of Spanish-language communication and literary appreciation. Compared with that discipline, the French language, another heritage of European colonisation in the Caribbean, lost favour and ground in the cherishing of historical wherefores seemingly beneficial today.
By 2019, the Venezuelan invasion, improvised in short-order small boatloads, did not make landfall here as an inrush coming out of some unknown nowhere. Still, for long, the Keith Rowley administration declined to be distracted by what was going on across the Gulf, past the mouth of the Orinoco River, and consequences likely to be given effect in T&T. Endowed with deep undersea hydrocarbon reserves, T&T struck it rich with natural gas. Venezuela, meanwhile, drew upon its singular enormity of oil resources, and shrugged off natural gas prospects. It took long for Caracas, in response to prodding from Port of Spain, to contemplate possibilities of mutually beneficial sharing in gas fields such as Dragon and Loran/Manatee.
Venezuela has been enduring the extensively painful effects of its own mismanagement, heightened by the sanctions imposed by US President Donald Trump. It is accordingly reduced to the inevitability of sharing its sufferings with the neighbour republic visible and reachable from various parts of its continental shoreline. So T&T is historically assigned a role in the present-day restaging of Venezuela’s economic and political drama. The Bolivarian republic has fallen short in the capacity to employ, feed, and otherwise support its people. They find themselves accordingly reduced to exploring options in, among other places, neighbour T&T republic.
No doubt other shorelines and other borders have signalled, beckoning promise to Venezuelan sufferers. But after back-and-forth centuries, T&T represents one reasonably promising option. Its own plate of economic and other shortcomings already full, T&T had no doubt hoped to be bypassed in the export of worse-case Venezuelan misery. Not so did it work out. Long before the Rowley regime could impose visa restrictions, the desesperados have arrived among us, implying and confirming special demands on an already overburdened state.
Ever more, the Rowley-Young management team voice hope in the utility of long overdue and underperforming preventive measures. The T&T Coast Guard earns the ministers’ recognition for its role in turning back some of the non-stop boatloads of the desperate and luckless. In the T&T Caracas embassy, lacking an ambassador, and long presumed non-functional, hope is reposed for screening out suspect visa seekers. “We expect that this too will pass,” Dr Rowley prayed. “This should bring out the best and not the worst in us.” At the Queen’s Park Oval, what has been on display showcases the worst of T&T public administration.
Last week, as the Government claimed a total of 14,000 registered incomers, one nameless official was estimating 20,000. The Central Bank, informed by international sources, was itself working with a count of 40,000. At the Oval, noted for accommodating 30,000 test and one-day cricket fans, just four “plastic bathrooms” had been provided for the Venezuelans, who were denied access to QPCC facilities. “They are peeing outside,” a nameless official told one reporter.
Meanwhile, a disordered melee of Venezuelan men, women and small children made for distasteful scenes as they were punished, unaccommodated against sun and rain, on the sidewalks of Tragarete Road and Havelock Street, relying on handouts from T&T do-gooders. So it looked from close-up, taking a see-for-myself visit last week.
To take shame out of the T&T face, why had not the Rowley/Young executive team rented half of the Oval seating. That appeared to be the solution for keeping the unseemly sights of degraded humanity away from the eyes of a disbelieving world?
Maybe some unrecognised “xenophobia” had also infected attitudes of official T&T.