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 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.

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.

Post 105. 

I’m spending much of the next three weeks in Chaguanas West, following the by-election. I’m interested in the extent to which having a woman PM and party leader expands the possibilities for women’s political leadership and democratic participation, and their ability to challenge an entirely male dominated political culture. I’m interested in women’s experience of contesting elections, the roles played by young women, housewives and those in the women’s arms, and whether aspects of masculinity and femininity shape how men and women voters view Kamla Persad-Bissessar, Jack Warner and Khadijah Ameen. 

As an older, wealthy, dominant man, and as one who expertly plays the politics of patronage from his own and state largesse, Jack starts out with status, resources and power that Khadijah has no access to, even with the backing of the UNC. There is a reason that Jack can gun sling on his own, like a Clint Eastwood. We understand this model of manhood well, and it always commands respect. 

 
Khadijah Ameen is a young mother, racially-mixed, politically experienced, loyal and, frankly, quite brave. At some level, she knows she is positioned as the party’s sacrificial lamb as she faces off against Jack Warner, who has managed to constitute himself as both David and Goliath. Some think that Khadijah is ineffectual, too green, not friendly enough or has a problematic political history. Kamla’s direct support of her brings both benefits and costs, after all, in this election, the PM is fighting for her life as well. For feminist political anthropologists like myself, this election is gold mine for when and why gender does and doesn’t matter. 
 
The fact is that the call to party loyalty is falling on deaf ears. Jack’s supporters are absorbed by his ability to be their savior, fixing everyday sufferation with box drains, scholarships, wheel-chairs and groceries, when state institutions have seem to have entirely failed. Constituency voters think that everyone in the UNC is corrupt anyway, at least Jack is a Robin Hood for the poor.They don’t care if the UNC and Partnership government falls, Jack is the man they want for Prime Minister. Let’s be clear, Jack’s rallies may have the euphoria of a fete, but they carry the momentum of a mutiny.
 
If the government had strengthened the institutions of the state, people would look to local government and the right ministries for what they are willing to turn to Jack for. If the people of Chaguanas West were not so fearful of being abandoned again by the political parties, they could see the wider national skepticism about Jack as a future Prime Minister. If we didn’t think that elite corruption was everywhere, we wouldn’t be so willing to excuse it. 
 
Women don’t necessarily make better leaders than men, nor represent women’s needs better, but I’d like to see women be given the chance to make the differences and the mistakes that men have had since the beginning of the social contract. As both Kamla and Khadijah lead this struggle, two of the total minority of women in our politics, we will see how the forces of Jack, Inshan and others square off against Anand, Roodal, Suruj, Devant, Vasant and so on, and their financiers. I’ve my own fears that in the end none of us are really going to win.
 

Post 101.

This week, listening to 30 year old memories of the Grenada Revolution, all I could think about is the legacy of forgetting. My generation feels almost no connection to the vision of the revolution, the sweat and solidarities of the women and men involved, and the reverberations of pain that rippled across the entire Caribbean when gunshots, assassinations, US occupation, and fear, secrets and loss marked the end.

Being as intimate with that history as we are with the long plot of Game of Thrones or the personal sagas of the Kardashians could change us all. Claiming Cuba’s attempt to strike out against passivity about our economies and lives would help us realise that what happens in Chaguanas West matters less than what deals our Ministers sign, without a study to stand on, for highways to be built or tar sands to be mined.

Party school wouldn’t be about the history of the party but about the history of political attempts to free us from the kind of development that creates more who have but, inevitably, many who will not. It would be a place for establishing adult education at night in every school or mobilising community campaigns to grow the vitamins we need in our backyards or advocating for an end to criminalization of young people’s same sex desires in the law.

The Youth Arm of the UNC or the PNM wouldn’t be limited to election campaigning or proving loyalty to the leadership.  Imagine if those very youth learned about the bloody resistances that mark the country from Sangre Chiquito to San Fernando. They would start roaming the nation and the region to fill up on lessons of how politics can be and has been done differently. Party schools that teach them etiquette, correct dress and their leaders’ biographies would be rightfully empty.

If the Women’s Arms of the parties were even once taught about the role that women can play beyond waving flags, you think housewives would be running around in hot sun securing votes for a parliament and a Cabinet that remains indecently, overwhelmingly dominated by men? Knowing their power, these women would rise up and say no to inequity at the top because party school taught them this is what they do. They would wield the names of women from Elma Francois to Jacqueline Creft like a bilna and a balisier, symbolizing to their parties that it is these women’s struggles that they came to continue.

For all their participation in their political parties, not a PNM or UNC Women’s Arm activist can stand on a corner, while Celine Dion or Bryan Adams blares from the loudspeakers, and ex-tempo about how women and men from little two by four countries dreamed for more and then fought for those dreams until big stick diplomacy beat them into their corner. This is why today’s leadership will not organize for all out regional self-determination. Caribbean people have not recovered from the economic and political punishments and pain of Haiti, Guyana, Cuba and Grenada.

What can my generation could do to remember Grenada, plan a new revolution that promises never to leave women behind and invent a regionalism that fits our realities thirty years later? I know young feminist women and men from Guyana to Barbados to Jamaica. We can mine our islands and our seas for more than oil, we can mine them for memories. All those still alive, who are holding them safe and close, are just waiting for us to ask the right questions. I’m humbled by how much there is for us to know and to still achieve.