Post 357.

Today begins the most important decade of our generation and perhaps of all human time. What we do in these next ten years will determine the future of billions and of hundreds of species on our blue planet, and it will do this with a finality we have never before experienced.

On the one hand, it’s the best of times. Even while economic and class inequality increases, the poorest across Asia and Africa are becoming less poor, increasing numbers of girls have access to education, forest protection is emerging as a priority, and agriculture is improving in productivity. Countries around the world are beginning to ban single use plastics, turn to renewable resources and energy efficiency, and clean up the oceans.

On the other hand, it’s the worst of all time. Given the biological annihilation of 60 percent of all wild animals in the past fifty years, and the extreme loss of insects and birds, we are in what is being described as the First Extermination Event or the Necrocene (necro means death so the age of death). We can also see this globally in the contradictions and realities of flooding, heatwave, stronger hurricanes, melting glaciers, sea level rise and drought. Wherever there is such crisis, the poorest, the youngest, and the most vulnerable disproportionately suffer, starve, become trafficked and exploited, turn to risky migration, or become incarcerated and killed. There are thousand of stories like this. Pay attention, for one day we too may be crying while no one hears.

I find hope in the public fury that emerged across the globe, seemingly overnight, from Paris to Port-au-Prince, Beirut to Bogota and Berlin, Catalonia to Cairo, and in Hong Kong, Santiago, Sydney, Seoul, Quito, Jakarta, Tehran, Algiers, Baghdad, Budapest, London, New Delhi, Manila, and even Moscow. People are furious. Dissent is everywhere. Where ordinary people see a system that alienates them, they sought to represent themselves and take power.

The New York Times reports that “many of the catalysts in 2019 were originally small, even unlikely, and the initial demands modest. In Sudan, the spark was the price of bread, in January; in India, the price of onions, in October; in Brazil, it was a cutback in funding for school textbooks, in August; in Lebanon, a tax on WhatsApp usage, in October; in Chile, a hike in subway fares, in October; and in Iran, a four-cent increase on a litre of gas, in November. But virtually all protests worldwide quickly escalated, and began issuing ultimatums for their governments to embrace sweeping changes—or to move aside.”

Here in Trinidad and Tobago, an election year is a time for anger, not for patience nor politeness. Why is there no procurement legislation? Why is there no Beverage Container Act? Why is there no approved National Gender Policy? Why is there no national strategy to prevent violence against women and girls or, worse, child sexual abuse? Why are we spending $5 billion for a Port in Toco when the population is not convinced it is necessary? Why is there no serious economic diversification strategy? Why are experienced domestic violence shelters closing for lack of financial support while the government plans to open more? Why must any of us repeat ourselves when we call for what is right?

From taxi drivers to hairdressers to supermarket cashiers to delivery men, who we decide to be, how we decide to live and what we decide we value will determine the survival of our children.

This is not a time for pessimism, just as it is not a time for passivity. Democracy is popular control over our social, economic and ecological destiny. It means that governments listen to sense without us having to beg. It means they answer to our refusal of injustice. It means that what they don’t hear, they feel.

We always had this responsibility and power. We wasted it in wars, in distraction, laziness, block talk and greed. We wasted it in letting elites make poor decisions while we vote them back in cyclically. Today there is a turning point by which this must stop.

In this decade, our primary responsibility is to seize power and opportunity to determine our fate. Each of us must find something we care about, some minor change we can make, some necessary demand we will defend, some part of a hopeful future on which you will leave your mark. Each of us must step forth into this dawn as if we were born to conquer the dark.

 

Post 233.

I’d argue that political and economic elites have greatest responsibility for the persistence of corruption in Trinidad and Tobago. It’s true that state officials, from the most petty to the most powerful, are involved, whether for a bottle of scotch, a bag of cash, a big cheque or small house. It’s also true that citizens of all classes engage in corrupt behaviour, illegality and disregard for law.

However, the scale and impunity of corruption differs vastly among classes, and there have never been convictions of ‘big fish’ or for white-collar crime. The impact of such impunity in a context of economic inequality means that if the big boys can get away with unbridled greed, then the small man thinks it is right to give it a try as part as one of many survival strategies. Even with patron-clientalism, corruption among the wealthy hits impoverishment among the poor more severely. Hypocrisy about this at the top is real.

Political and economic elites also have the most informal and formal influence on legal and institutional protections or their lack, for in all kinds of familiar ways, their business is interlocked with each other and the state.  They may not be able to make public officials or the state bureaucracy work as efficiently or modernly they would like, but the story of a ‘culture of corruption’ is far more stratified than the narrative of  ‘all of us are equally responsible’.

Some have more connected contacts than others and some can gain more than others – it is they who have both more to lose and more responsibility for ending the kind of corruption among their friends to which is regularly turned a blind eye.

Frankly, for the political parties, their financiers and their middle and upper ranking beneficiaries, the entire purpose of the state appears to not be about managing the social contract, but to legitimize and launder questionable personal gain.

This isn’t too surprising. Postcolonial societies like ours were founded on the intersection between elites, government and white-collar crime, known as colonialism, and the virtually unchanged state as we inherited it historically provided the managing infrastructure.

I therefore think its worth tempering a story about the role all of us have to play in curbing corruption with one that demands greater responsibility from those with greater privilege and power, as well state officials at all levels. Keep in mind that, in Trinidad and Tobago, confidence in the police and the justice system is half of the world average, and because people feel ‘advantage’ is the order of the day, nobody trusts anybody.

It’s in this context that Transparency International released its Corruption Perception index on Wednesday. Trinidad and Tobago scored 35, with freedom from corruption being 100, and our score was four points lower than in 2013.  Our public sector is increasingly perceived to be corrupt.

This is a global problem, not defined by race, political party or religion. Indeed, resource rich countries are at highest risk of corruption simply because so much wealth creates greater opportunity for public resources to be twisted into private gain at all levels of the state and society. Such wealth may provoke corruption, but tackling state officials’ and institutions’ failure, and failure to hold political and economic elites accountable, might give trust and truth more currency.

The Trinidad and Tobago launch drew different perspectives about how to curb corruption; the proverbial, ‘What we go do?’ question that persistently plagues us in relation to government and state. Some suggestions were for the reintroduction of ethics curriculum in schools. Some felt that corruption was so widespread in our society that it was everyone’s responsibility to not be enticed to pull strings, use contacts or grease palms in their dealings, whether with the Port Authority or Licensing or in securing contracts.

Other suggestions pointed to promised procurement legislation and official structures for monitoring compliance and breaches as well as the necessity for whistleblower legislation.  Ever hopeful, the Trinidad and Tobago chapter of TI has planned trainings with a range of state officials, from the Auditor-General’s office to the Ministry of Planning.

The bottom line is that we are doing poorly.  Without an urgent shift, the only outcome is greater inequality.

Post 159.

Representation is at the heart of democracy. It is reciprocity for the faith that people put into those chosen from among us to defend our needs, values and hopes, to speak out for the most excluded, and to protect the rules and institutions that stand between us and domination. It is about responsibility, but is also founded on true commitment to popular power and rights.

We desperately need to escape the two-party political culture entrenched by Eric Williams, and by political parties’ exploitation of race to win and hold power. Increasingly, instead of blind loyalty to an arrogant leader, we value trustworthiness, transparent talk and accountable rather than wasteful delivery. Our hopes are for more inclusion, whether that means the ability to afford a Sunday lunch with macaroni pie and baked chicken like so many other citizens, to secure welfare without having to trade your vote or to be able to rely on state agencies and officials to work effectively, with consideration and without a bribe.

Does the Partnership’s run-off election proposal advance representation that is accountable, transparent and inclusive? I can’t see how it does. The PNM was unapologetically corrupt through all its days of majority rule. The Partnership gained a vast national mandate and today the development of Invader’s Bay is shrouded in indefensible secrecy.

When our political parties are given sweeping popular support, they become more rather than less authoritarian. What has kept the PNM and the UNC in check is only ever the threat of additional parties splitting their vote cache, forcing them to appeal to a wider cross-section of voters, rather than forcing voters to misplace or withdraw their hopes. What we need is constitutional reform that encourages greater representation, not by the few, but by a wider array of those chosen from among us.

In a run-off election, do I vote for a PNM led by Keith Rowley? He thinks Dookeran should resign for expressing a different view from Cabinet colleagues, one that in this instance represented popular sentiment. He argued that calculating his own pension on his salary plus benefits, mathematics completely unavailable to ordinary workers anywhere in the country, was valid rather than elite hypocrisy. Without any necessary studies available for citizens to read, he’s ready to return to rapid rail and other mega projects, while the never-used Brian Lara Stadium in Toruba continues to cost us more than a billion dollars exactly for such reasons. The PNM rejects proposals for coalition politics as a dangerous dagger. It isn’t only about its politics of going it alone, the party’s position is based on cynical calculation that third party vote splitting will always work in its favour, and power is its goal. Great is the PNM, therefore the first-past-the-post system should prevail.

Do I vote for the UNC? This latest constitutional reform fiasco is another sign of how it will use its House majority to impose its rule. There was no popular call for a run-off election provision. No need to attach it to the two-term prime ministerial limit and set election date provisions. No need to rush passage. No need to stir such public distrust. Reforms that strengthen state watchdogs regarding corruption, procurement and campaign financing? Yes, push those through.

We do not need reforms that give more power to political parties, given what the PNM and UNC show they will do with parliamentary majorities. They leave us to defend democracy on the streets,  turn to courts to speak for those excluded, and tirelessly call for checks against our governments’ plans and deals. We resist precisely because representation remains our right and responsibility.