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 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 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 106.

Playing the ‘Gender Card’

As I walk through Chaguanas West, Jack Warner’s trucks blare ‘Jack is de Man’ and ‘Uncle Jack’. These songs mobilise the respect, seniority and authority seen as rightfully due to such paternal roles. Being ‘the Man’ additionally symbolizes a macho figure of command and leadership, one to follow and admire. Only men can be ‘the Man’. There’s no equivalent for women. Being ‘de woman’ mainly refers to sexiness, and ‘woman is boss’ or ‘Iron Lady’ returns us to women trumping men at a standard they once and still set.

Khadijah Ameen’s soundtrack is Alicia Key’s ‘Girl on Fire’. Jack calls her a giggly child, an image easily available in a society where four year old boys are hailed as ‘small man’ and where total strangers can call hardback women ‘baby’ as they walk by. ‘Girl on Fire’ attempts to neutralise Jack’s wielding of the ‘gender card’ to trivialize Khadijah, and re-frames her as young, but unstoppable. Nonetheless, as an experienced adult and mother, note that she’s still positioned as only a girl.

Whenever women talk about their struggles to be seen as more than girls, but to not have to become ‘the Man’ like men, people think they invent the ‘gender card’ from nowhere, using it for unfair advantage, as if ‘a girl’ and ‘the Man’ compete on an equal playing field. Even male politicians I’ve interviewed argue that sexism makes it harder for women in politics, partly explaining why there are so few.

When Jack plies the associations between power and manhood, and attacks Khadijah’s reputation as a woman, no one sees him as playing the ‘gender card’. We think such resonance is inconsequential to elections, but in a world still overwhelmingly defined by male dominance and double-standards, such wars are inescapably battles of the sexes too.

Khadijah’s story parallels Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s experience of the ‘gender card’. On platforms, Kamla narrates how male leadership undermined her, put men before her and called her “a little girl from Siparia”, but she turned stereotypically feminine virtues of patience, loyalty and commitment into swords worthy of any vampire-slayer. Khadijah also has stories of being discouraged from leadership positions in the party, in favour of more powerful men, but she obediently accepted to rise another day.

When Roodal says that voters must protect Kamla with their “life” and “blood” and when Kamla says that mothers, fathers and brothers must defend Khadijah as a “our daughter” and “our sister”, that strategy trades on traditional beliefs about women’s need for protection. Troublingly, it interlocks gender with religion, and the need to protect Sita from Rawan. It interlocks gender with race and culture, and the extended family’s protection of their females from attack, perhaps particularly by African men. Kamla and Khadijah perform an ideal womanhood that is strong, but not so independent that, like Jack and Ramesh, they will ever betray.

The ‘gender card’ is littered all over the campaign trail, showing how our ideas of masculinity and femininity organize meaning and access to status, resources and power. Kamla continually struggles against accusations of weakness and indecisiveness, labels long flung at women whether or not they are true. Yet, she remains popularly celebrated for woman power, caring and motherly leadership, beauty and even “charm”. This has its risks, opening her to censure for firing words sounding “too much like Panday”.

At the polls, women are unlikely to vote for Khadijah because she’s a woman even if that mythical “subordinated Indian woman” no longer votes as her husband tells her to. Women will vote for performance or party. Perhaps, playing the ‘gender card’ requires knowing how those yet undecided must still be skillfully and successfully wooed.