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A case of race in the 2015 general election

Sunday, March 22, 2015
Satnarayan Maharaj

T&T must confront the racial divide if it is to move forward as a society. However, that confrontation will not take place before the 2015 general election, as race will once again be a significant factor in the polls, said UWI professor and noted historian Dr Brinsley Samaroo. Speaking with the Sunday Guardian about the contentious issue, Samaroo contended that there would be a continuance of tribal voting in 2015 since that was what citizens had been taught and that was all they knew. 

“I am sure we can change positively, but in the interim, for the next election, my own view is it will be fought very much along ethnic lines with very few cases of crossovers. As we say in local parlance ‘who have more corn will feed more fowl.’ “The bottom line is I do not see in the next election any change in the ethnic pattern of voting, very unfortunately, very sadly.” 

Race has been in the spotlight over the last two weeks. Firstly, it was raised when a firestorm erupted on social media over a photo of a National Gas Company sign advertising the refurbishment of the East Indian Recreation Ground in south Trinidad. The issue escalated last week with the publication of a racist rant from Chaguaramas Development Authority (CDA) board member Jaishima Leladharsingh on Facebook last year. He was immediately fired when the racist posts resurfaced on social media. 

Samaroo contended that even though citizens might challenge racial issues, at the end of the day, when they went into the voting booth in 2015, people would not look at what parties had to offer by way of education, health, or diversification of the economy. “Most people are not concerned about that, they are concerned about me and my kind. I and I have to take political control. I say sadly, as blessed a nation that it is and as much as we love it, going into the next election (T&T will) basically be voting on ethnic lines,” Samaroo said. 

‘The elites don’t want change...we need a unifying leader’
Samaroo said though he did not believe any of the present politicians deliberately wanted to continue this ethnic trend of politics or foster racism, neither did he believe that any one of the current cadre of politicians “has the larger vision and the capability to do something about that (ethnic voting) in their political tenure.” He said, historically, the masses were brought up in a status quo of divide and rule which had been entrenched by colonial masters. This, he said, continued today and was unlikely to change soon. 

“The elites are the ones who like it so and there are those elites who have the political power, the economic power and so on. And if you are prospering in a system then why should it be changed? That is why the elites do not want any change,” Samaroo said. “So we are in a real dilemma and all I can say is, I wish the country well for the next election.” He said in 1937 the races in T&T came together under the guidance of Uriah “Buzz” Butler and Adrian Cola Rienzi during the “Oilfield riots” and that was a “watershed moment” in this country’s history. 

Samaroo said he was hopeful that T&T could recreate that unification of the races. “We certainly can and my hope is that we do. I would really like to see people brought together, not as Africans and Indians but as members of the working class, as members of the professional class, as members of the ruling elite crossing those ethnic lines and really working together to build the nation,” he said.

However, he said, the trade union did not have the kind of leadership Butler and Rienzi provided. “We do not have such big men, such great men who provided a fantastic vision for T&T. Sadly, we do not have trade union leaders who have the vision, the capacity, the charisma of either Butler or Rienzi to bring the ethnicities together on a working class basis.” Samaroo said the only way to get rid of the “ethnic bogey” was through constitutional reform that truly incorporated aspects of governance from the various ethnicities present in T&T.

Kambon—Citizens must want change, voices of reason must emerge
Chairman of the Emancipation Support Committee, Kafra Kambon, also contended that the 2015 general election would be one fought on the basis of race. However, he suggested, citizens must want to make a change in society and voices of reason must emerge to reverse the trend of tribal voting. “We have a tendency to perceive things through a racial lens and examine through that and focus on that and it (tribal voting) is going to happen. I do not know what voices of moderation can come into play to prevent [race] from escalating because it is a big challenge,” Kambon said. 

He said T&T had not moved past race because the issue had never been addressed with the required seriousness. “We have not done that and we have not done anything institutionally as well to ensure that other generations grow up in a different environment. Therefore, it is always dependent on the goodwill of some persons who have some influence to maintain things in some kind of balance.” Race, Kambon contended, has to be institutionally addressed.

“We do not really give thought to that. Individuals who hold public office are also too careless in terms of how they deal with issues of race,” he said. Society can only be harmonised, he said, through “unity in diversity.” “We have the cultural background for that, but we are not drawing on it and making use of those elements in our cultural background that will bring about a greater harmony. We prefer not to discuss it, and pretend that it is not a factor in how the society functions, and then practise it,” he said. 

Sat Maharaj: Expect a bruising campaign based on performance and personalities

Satnarayan Maharaj, head of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha, agrees with Samaroo that race will play a part in the general election, but he believes that most citizens have matured beyond ethnic voting. In recent times, there have been people migrating over racial lines when it comes to voting and we saw that move when the COP (Congress of the People) emerged during the Basdeo Panday era. So that in a mixed society such as T&T race should be discussed openly and without any animosity and we will live happily ever after,” Maharaj said.  

He said T&T’s citizens had a more elevated way of thinking and he believed that “there will be movement across the racial barrier” in 2015. “ I think the politicians have managed to shift the issues away from race to performance and vision. I think we have come a long way, we have matured,” he said. Maharaj said he expected the 2015 general election campaign to be a “bruising campaign.”

However, “I do not think race will play an important part in the campaign itself. But I believe it will be a bruising campaign when it comes to performance and the personalities involved,” Maharaj added. 


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