Post 171.

Amidst signs from Guave Road farmers showing government’s crop destruction in Chagaramas, banners from Tacarigua, increasingly intoxicated folk singing about Kamla drinking puncheon, and a cute Indian rasta with long dreads who danced spiritedly the entire way, last Friday found me in Port of Spain marching against corruption.

Amassing with unions can be pure joy for their unique sense of collectivity and reminder of popular strength. When else will exuberant songs and drums echoing through the street remind you that labour needs to hold the reins of power and that we might indeed overcome economic inequality and exploitation. Someday, someday.

As an anthropologist and activist, my instincts were to read all the handmade signs, walk within the energy of the unions represented, from contractors to oilfield and communication workers to UWI staff, and, as I was to speak on the platform later, give voice to protestors’ own ideas.

I especially tried to talk with women. One carried so much heavy determination to survive domestic violence and current unemployment that I couldn’t imagine how to begin to talk about politics. I could have connected her with a job, but despite having a computer, she didn’t have typing skills. Feeling her defeat, I could only think, may Jah provide the bread.

As I moved through the ranks, asking people how they would end corruption, many weren’t interested in talking, maybe because they wondered why an Indian like me, maybe ah UNC, was asking such questions. Such reticence wasn’t surprising. Dishonesty is the historical modus operandi of every party, yet this was opposition not national politics, personalizing corruption with a capitalized, yellow K.

Some women I spoke with lamented that race was holding back the country, but were clear that racism was worse now than ever before. One man said he’d end corruption by bunnin down Port of Spain. Most just said the solution was to vote out Kamla. I countered that PNM history tells us corruption isn’t because of this Prime Minister. Remember Tarouba Stadium? But, that mood wasn’t there amongst unionists, MSJ supporters, ILP members, PNM faithful, San Fernando workers wanting their back pay, and others wronged and disappointed by a Minshall-named ‘Mama of Mamaguy’.

A number of women told me that we can’t end corruption, we doh have no power. But then why march? On the platform, I hoped they heard me honour Caribbean women’s long tradition of resistance against oppressive systems which used sexual and other kinds of violence, including the law, to control their rights, bodies and fertility, paid women less than they paid men for the same work, and assigned them tasks worth less pay. This is why our great-grandmothers fought in their numbers, to give us this capacity we have today.

I didn’t expect marchers to bring up procurement legislation, political party financing reform, whistleblower protection, increasing police convictions for state fraud, reviewing operations of our tax department or strengthening the Certificate of Environmental Clearance (CEC) process. Yet, it’s also clear that unions need to make such specific solutions household words as well as call workers to the streets. They need to show how corruption bankrupts the treasury, and undermines the quality of schools, roads and hospitals, leaving the poorest the most hungry.

My speech emphasized that communities must be connected to each other, not to political leaders, and disrupting any myth of Indian women’s docility, I was clear that Jack Warner doesn’t have the moral authority to be on any anti-corruption platform with me. I then left early for a date with my husband, to give enough time and thought also to marriage and family.

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Post 150.

That Anil Roberts remains a minister suggests that the legitimacy of the government has completely gone up in smoke. That the UNC continues to give him tomfoolery time on their platform explains why there is so much Cabinet skin teeth glinting through their paid political broadcasts. The joke is obviously on us.

Roberts, who for years never stopped yapping at full attack and pitch, suddenly has no comment, and no balls. No lawyers are required to admit to or deny what are plainly his own actions. The Ministry of Communication should never have provided a façade behind which he could cower. His spineless silence to the media should not have be filled by his shouting from the safety of hustings. The PM should have handed him the press conference mic instead of defending nonsense about one-year old videos. Everyone knows that is not the issue. Neither is it small time marijuana use.

It is the failure to choose truth.

It’s one thing to admit to wrongdoing, like for example rolling ganja while in official clothes and on state business. It’s another to lie. It’s an entirely additional category of smartman politics to refuse for weeks to answer a straightforward public question, to deflect from personal accountability by pointing fingers in every pointless direction, and to boldfacedly try to impose the pretense, like the emperor with no clothes, that everyone can’t see your backside. Dat is truth.

A government who will let a cabinet member avoid answering an easy, small stakes, yes or no question about a roll on, will also let all its ministers avoid honestly answering hard, deeply accountable questions about expenditure of state funds, disbursement of state contracts, and signed deals for infrastructural development. Dat is truth.

These are the big stakes we face, the ones that will push the same people shouting ‘ray ray’ in today’s rallies to someday switch parties, then later burn tires in the road, and finally make their living by the gun once oil and gas money is inexplicably gone. Party supporter or not, that’s why this matters for you.

Even if Roberts is finally fired, it will be too late, reflecting political expediency, calculated timing and public pressure more than any immediate principle. If, on some surreal basis, he’s left at the helm of his ministry, Cabinet might as well wrap the concept of integrity in some paper and strike a match because Campaign 2015’s real politik is fire bun honesty.

Anil Roberts himself is abundantly irrelevant, but corruption under his watch is not, and be absolutely sure that the failure to choose truth is also happening in bigger, and more costly and consequential situations. Responsibility lies fully with the PM and the Cabinet. Undeniable truth.

The UNC will invest in expensively packaged rallies to hide such repeated turns away from transparency, forgetting that watching shiftiness on the news is free. What politicians often don’t realize is how much petty corruption, mismanagement or scandal backfires when they hope these will pass unnoticed or forgotten in relation to the billion dollar issues. Voters also don’t like over the top attempts to treat them like fools, a lesson that should have been learned from Tobago, Chaguanas West and St. Joseph.

Public officials cannot refuse to answer public questions. Ask Roodal, champion of answering every question put to government in Parliament, a man who can boast of success at something that the PNM not once in three decades managed to consistently do. The best way to turn that widely hoped-for legacy to ashes is an ongoing, parallel failure to earn our vote through truth.

 

 

Post 124.

These last weeks, political commentators have focused on the dramas of the campaigns and candidates; the meanings of voter sentiment and turnout; the ebb and flow of a dispersed but decisive ‘third force’; brouhahas over Mayorship and correct ballot counts; the fates of party elites, misuse of funds and media time, and so on.

As a political analyst, strangely none of these tugged my interest. There wasn’t much new in any of it.

My interest was finally peaked, after the dust settled, by Virmala Balkaran’s resignation from the post of Chairman of the Youth Arm of the Independent Liberal Party (ILP).

On Facebook, one man I know decided that Virmala resigned because Jack’s “star is on the decline, and she is disassociating herself”.

Yet, we miss bright points of light on the political horizon if young women like Virmala, only 21 years old, Indian, and who historically have not taken these public risks, are simplistically ignored or dismissed.

I observed Virmala while collecting data during Chaguanas West campaigning. She was optimistic and, like many others in that moment, gushing about Jack Warner. ILP youth believed Jack’s early rhetoric and many were fed up with the UNC Youth Arm. They seemed naïve to me, but as young people that’s their right, to learn like all of us along the way.

I came of age in the youth movement, getting mentorship from women’s NGOs, unions and articulate youth who were organizing on issues from reproductive rights to community violence. I grew into political consciousness, meaning an understanding that citizens must challenge unequal power relations, by taking young women and men’s vision and voice seriously. In those days of civil society involvement, I often interacted with youth from the PNM and UNC.

Early on, it was clear that these parties mobilise their youth without empowering them too much, rewarding those who play the game of loyalty, whether that meant silence in the face of undemocratic dealings or sexual harassment. Similarly for their women’s arms. There are smart and experienced youth and women in all of these, but their power to demand accountability, challenge hierarchy, secure youth and women’s rights, and be more than warm and compliant bodies is another story.

Small me, feminist, committed to fighting homophobia, unapologetically pro-choice, taking cues not from platforms, but from Haiti, Cuba and Grenada, and uninterested in stroking older men’s egos just so I could one day make Minister, could never last a day in those youth arms. They would have resigned me for inciting women’s arms to be a women’s advocacy army.

I respect those committed citizens working within political parties. Still, over all these years, I don’t remember one Chairman of a Youth Arm ever resigning on principle, even articulating personal principle against the party line. In her letter, Balkaran spoke against the recycling of UNC politicians, mud-slinging on the platform, and the failure of the party to nurture independent thinking, individual responsibility and true participation of youth in decision-making. This is the talk that should define Youth Arms’ reality.

Given that things have not been so different in any other parties, how many young people’s, or young women’s, or even an adult politicians’ voices, have we ever heard say ‘no’ publicly?

Once in a while, youthful idealism that insists on what Youth Arms should be allowed is more newsworthy than sashaying Ian Alleyne, compromised Kamla Persad-Bissessar and Janus-faced Jack Warner because such critique is rare, interrupting our cynicism like fresh breath in fetid air. The past youth activist in me hopes this shows budding political integrity to nurture in a new generation out there.

Post 119.

Yet again, I found myself standing outside of the PM’s office watching the women of the Highway Re-route Movement peacefully but defiantly sit against the walls of the building, trying to give visibility to what happens when government disregards its own rules. They were not going anywhere and why should they when they have their very houses and lands to lose, potentially leaving them with money as compensation but no place to go and no community that is home.

I saw the police first try to reason with them, and then physically lift them out of the compound.  I saw the actual tears in these women’s eyes, tears from feelings of frustration, defenseless, anger, disappointment and fear of loss. I could have cried right then too.

I saw how elite politicians pit police against people, forcing those who must enforce the law to simultaneously fail to protect people from state illegality.  These women’s breaking of the law, by occupying the PM’s compound and blocking the pavement, was more morally valid than the police’s exercise of force.  Officers were just doing their jobs, keeping their jobs, upholding one law for ordinary people and another for those on the inside of those walls.

Wayne Kublalsingh also watched from his usual spot across the street. Once my UWI colleague, Dr. Kublalsingh’s contract was not renewed because he missed classes while undertaking his breathtakingly courageous, 21 day hunger strike, and because the university decided he was a “risk” to students.  When I heard that news, I could have cried then too.

Universities should provide intellectual and political leadership to nations and communities. Our job is to spark, engage in and educate about progressive social change through theory that informs collective and individual action.

Some of us are full or part-time, have family responsibilities or are at a career stage where we need to get tenure or secure promotion, and so we make decisions about focusing on our research or our teaching or our families instead of our politics. It was therefore our responsibility to make sure that colleagues who are taking risks we are not, over issues of governance and development that affect us all, get to keep their jobs too.

Research gives universities an international reputation, but so do their public intellectuals, whether they are Arundati Roy, Noam Chomsky, Angela Davis or Vandana Shiva. The university desperately needs students willing to take risks for democracy and sustainable development.  As Sunity Maharaj sagely said to me, it is when you are taking a risk that it’s most important to speak out. Those are the kinds of theoretically informed, civic minded, ethical, politically astute and fearless students we need to produce, and the lecturers who can inspire that are role models to be held onto. Our message should never be conform to the status quo or we have no room for you.

On my way to the PM’s office, I passed Sea Lots’ graffiti that shouted, “ we not taking dat”. That, more than any campaign speech, is the national mood. Chaguanas West already told the PM that it felt alienated and even betrayed. Mon Desir is saying the same. People are resisting exclusion from decisions that affect their families and communities. Forget tears, one day all that will be left is anger which has less and less to lose in the face of power. 

I saw real leadership in this small group of committed women, leadership that I do not see in our political and academic hierarchy. That’s why I was there on Thursday. Solidarity on the streets and from the university is necessary.   

Post 110.

Hopefully the day that Ziya leaves home, she won’t do so in anger and rebellion, but with maturity. Hopefully, before that happens, I will have learned how to be that person that she looks up to and feels will listen without misrecognizing her message or putting it down.

I will have confronted how I must grow, change, mature and reflect if I want us to actually have the relationship that I say that we do. I will do the difficult work of seeing us and me through her eyes, and taking responsibility for my limitations, blind spots and hypocrisies.

 I will have been truthful that I need help and support, not because it is due to the parent or mother and not because traditions or God or rules demand it and not because those were the sacrifices I made which she must too. Hopefully, I will have enabled her to make her contribution to who I am because I recognize that she has wisdom, reciprocity, power and insight which I need, which are uniquely hers to bring, and without which our negotiations would be unfair, superficial and hollow.

 Hopefully, when she leaves, it will not be for worse circumstances, but for better, and it will not really be a leaving. May this home respect her rights and wishes, allow her to challenge and choose, and to feel safe. Whatever our mistakes, it will be here that she belongs because she wants to.

These were my thoughts as I sat on set at CNC3, on the morning after Jack Warner’s by-election win, listening to Basdeo Panday talk about the difference between the old and new UNC. I’ve never been a member of a political party, but I definitely don’t want back the old UNC.  Neither do the members who voted against it finally in 2010. That old UNC is where Rudy, the PM, Glen, Chandresh and all the others learned how to politick. I saw it up close these last weeks. CEPEP and URP workers compelled and paid to attend walkabouts and rallies, race and religion talk on the platform, exchange of cups, pencils and t-shirts for votes, speakers’ demands for loyalty at all costs, intolerance for dissent with the party family, corralling the Youth Arm for the campaign without empowering them with anything close to an ideology, a failure to defend real party democracy, and the unaccounted spending of hovering business men’s money. The new UNC is strapped for strategies that work because their tactics are textbook old UNC. They add insult to injury. That’s why UNC Indians of all ages, religions and creeds are yet again rejecting that kind of leadership by any means necessary.

My analysis here isn’t balanced and fair, but personal and fearless. I hope that Jack Warner’s win sparks a mass ‘spring’ for representation and local-level accountability. Given the heavy hand of our Governor-mode political system, that could be revolutionary.  Consolidation of Jack Warner’s power would not be. I think he is ruthless and not trustworthy. I think he can become the Dudus of Laventille, the Don of Chaguanas West, the authoritarian that gets the trains to run on time while establishing a police state like Mussolini. That said, I completely support voters’ mutiny and I think it’s breathtaking that before burning tires they have first tried the vox dei of democracy.  

For the UNC, these are lessons about the emotion of withdrawal, the heart-break of home failing to be a refuge, the ego-crushing work it takes for relationships to be based on empowerment rather than exploitation, ignorance and dishonesty.

There are parallels of the personal and political in our nation and our families. I see lessons about the demands of love and solidarity in watershed moments in our Republic and in the momentous trivialities of my negotiations with Zi. 

 

Post 109.

No single constituency has had such political attention paid to the state of roads, drains, recreation grounds and schools. People remain distrustful, cynical that the politicians they meet today will return tomorrow. The UNC knows that their heartland is emboldened to walk away with their jahaji bundle of votes if current campaign promises are not kept. Whatever the national consequences, and regardless of which candidate wins, Chaguanas West will benefit from today’s by-election. 

Since campaigning began, I’ve talked to more than 200 voters, primarily women. That number seems small, but the data is repetitive, suggesting clear trends. The majority of the women and men interviewed are either voting for Jack Warner or undecided. They think that Jack will succeed or it will be razor close. However, win, lose or draw, the by-election is a loss for the UNC.

Jack Warner will get too much popular vote to make a UNC win a genuine triumph. He will undermine Khadijah Ameen’s success by establishing a parallel state that delivers through his own and other private resources, ceaselessly wooing devotees across the nation, monopolizing headlines like a many-headed hydra, and flinging open his Pandora’s Box of exposes.

He is already campaigning for Local Government elections, and the government will get neither peace nor sleep until 2015. There’s karma here, no doubt. The nation will decide whether the UNC confronts it honestly through strengthening accountable and responsible party and governance structures, and re-connecting to grass-roots empowerment, or through expensive and ultimately unconvincing propaganda.

People wearing UNC jerseys are voting for Jack, and even those who “came back home” over the last few days will nurture off-script loyalties to him. Many of these are Muslims, almost all are Indians, and increasing numbers are youth who came of age under his shadow. I’ve watched them shake Khadijah’s hand and wave yellow flags, then quietly shake their heads. I’ve seen them tell campaigners one thing and me another, reassured I’m not part of the politics.

Green-shirted residents love Jack for helping them personally and for attending every wedding or funeral that mattered to them. One man said to me: “Indians are not a neemakeram people. Didn’t Jack help dem to win de election? Didn’t Jack do plenty for people in here?” Their hearts are at odds with the UNC versus PNM math in their minds. Even people who felt Jack didn’t help want to give him a chance to do for them what he did for, say, Felicity and Warner Village. Some on both sides hope that the UNC and ILP can reconcile before true fratricide – and matricide – ensues. They’ve hated the shame of watching party leaders, once hugging up like family, brawl on TV.

The UNC blames Jack for his betrayals, but rightly or wrongly many people blame Kamla for things falling apart. Every time Kamla Persad-Bissessar lashed Jack Warner on the platform, it disgusted those who felt that she should show more respectability as a woman, as PM and for a man they felt best represented his constituency while shining as ‘action man’ for the nation. Kamla has also appeared a “neemakeram” for turning on him after his support for the party.

Those who voted for her in 2010 did so because they wanted change and because she was a woman they felt could usher it in. Few women are voting to put a woman in power in this election, though doubtlessly the PM still has star status that was crucial to the campaign. Many felt that Khadijah should have campaigned alone, but that is naïve when at stake is Persad-Bissessar’s hold on the government and its credibility. One woman assured me that she is “voting for Kamla”, highlighting Khadijah’s place at the periphery.

Kamla has put all her energies to supporting Khadijah, pointing to the possible impact a woman party leader and Prime Minister can have in advancing especially loyal and competent young women’s political leadership, with the support of highly experienced women campaigners at the heart of the party machine. Most people I spoke to agreed, it is harder for a woman in politics because they are seen as “soft” and “have to constantly prove themselves” to not be seen as “weak” or get “fight down” by men. Jack’s personal attacks on Khadijah, with photos, records and rumours show this exactly, and he lost respect for turning so nasty.

Some voters’ decisions are based on UNC loyalty, but this is not the main rationale. They want to prevent a return to the PNM. They also don’t know how Jack will swing, whatever his protestations that the PNM is “the enemy”. Others think Jack neglected their street and that he will be unable to be the best representative unless he is in government. Thinking historically, many of these voters keenly remember the decades of struggle it took to get into power. They are emotionally attached to the narrative of their grandparents and parents voting for the DLP and ULF, and now the UNC.  

These voters agree that Jack should have cleared FIFA allegations and some are concerned about the murky sources of his seemingly unending wealth. Love and admiration for Kamla Persad-Bissessar as first woman party leader and Prime Minister and icon of motherhood and care remain, but those are not deal-breakers. If Khadijah Ameen wins the by-election, it will be because voters were convinced that the UNC needs to retain the seat in order for constituency needs to be met and in order for the UNC and People’s Partnership to remain in government.

History is not on the side of independents, but Jack’s supporters admire his out-of-pocket paternalism, cultivate personal obligation to him, love his common touch, and are utterly indifferent to local or international accusations. They say they are choosing corruption plus delivery instead of corruption plus neglect. They do not care about destabilizing the government. “Let them worry about that,” they say, also noting the UNC’s safe majority of seats, “if the constituency is not in the party, they will have to work harder in 2015” or, alternatively, “yes, bring dem down, is Jack for PM!”

UNC campaigners say that Jack is promoting a ‘gimme’ culture, politicking through handouts and playing on emotion. The UNC finds itself in the moral quandary of the PNM, unable to high-handedly accuse of what they do too. The green brigade symbolizes national need and euphoria for “change”, and they are clearly sending an angry message about arrogance, inaccessibility and nepotism. Party insiders were saying this already.

Late-night road-paving, targeted visits to the Muslim community, and Prime Ministerial presence may enable popularity to peak on schedule, but “performance” means Jack in this constituency. People are clamouring for the kind of representation they haven’t seen in the UNC. After the motorcades and the rallies, divisive emotions, desires and directions define today’s victory, and the national momentum now rolling out from Chaguanas West’s new reality.

Post 108.

In 2005, I invented a feminist movement-building game called Steppin’ Up. Groups of players encounter different scenarios and have to choose from among a range of options. 

The option they choose determines how fast they progress through a range of issues and challenges until they reach the winning square. 

Interestingly, when players open the responses telling them how much each option enables them to move forward, or not, they often start off reading the feedback to all possible choices. 

However, half way through the game, many start only reading the feedback to the option they picked. 

Not long after, I see them only reading the line that says how many steps to move forward on the board, entirely ignoring not only the explanation, but the information that would enable them to understand how much there is to learn from the scenario, the options available and all of the consequences. 

At fault is a focus on winning at all costs. I tell the players the objective is to win, and they assume only one group can win, but there is nothing preventing them from stepping on the board with a different vision. 

It’s much like this in the Chaguanas West by-election. I’ve spent these weeks on the streets, behind Khadijah and Jack, observing their campaigns and talking to voters. 

Today, there are only two options, Jack’s performance as MP will sweep the UNC, like dry season dust, out of the House of the Rising Sun’s safest seat or the UNC’s party-politics will win the battle, but send them wounded into unrelenting warfare. 

As I watch the candidates’ strategies, what’s clear is that there is no time to really read the dissatisfaction that characterises the terrain or assess the costs of the options chosen. 

There is only time to move ahead, though not to understand why, nor reflect on implications. Both campaigns have chosen to win at all costs, and this is the stark indicator of their actual vision. 

If the UNC wins, it is because they’ve put almost the entire Cabinet on the streets; they’ve told people it’s their “dharma” to vote for the party; they’ve terrified them with histories of “cow-shed” schools; they’ve said honour our Indian names and our beautiful women and fear the threat to our dhal and aloo; they’ve warned that if you are not a UNC, you are a PNM, and they have pulled that most polarising tactic of all, they’ve declared that everywhere, from Caroni to Felicity, is war.

On the board, Jack is master of rule-bending and mauvais-langue, tossing Khadijah’s supposed medical records into the public domain and then acting all coy, loving the PM on the one hand while firing scatter-bombs at her competence and her leadership, wise about the direction that the shrapnel will land, which is everywhere. 

Passive-aggression on the platform is his forte. He’s wagering his own resources as if he doesn’t know how much that fundamentally undermines state institutions. 

He’s rock star to the humble masses, a saviour higher than the state, a reluctant and dubious Mandela, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and an unlikely pious pundit for integrity, all along knowing these are mere high mas.

With their politics defined by staying a step ahead, both candidates’ campaigns are oblivious to wider consequences for other players, meaning us. 

Constituency voters invested in better representation will likely benefit from all this attention and the dice have only now begun to roll. 

As an independent observer on the ground, however, I’m convinced that all this strategic hyperbole points to a greater, more desperately needed vision being left two steps behind.