If anyone asks me about the difference between the United States of America (USA) and Trinidad and Tobago (T&T), while I can talk about US dollars being worth less than seven T&T in the bank but much more on the black market, or that while Trump is no longer President there, T&T is down to trump regardless of who is Prime Minister or President, I refer to what for me is the acid test. According to Reader’s Digest, “On August 11, 1984, President Ronald Reagan was conducting a sound check for a radio program. ‘My fellow Americans,’ he said, ‘I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.’ The joke was on him: The microphone was live and the entire world heard his words. Thus began National Presidential Joke Day in the U.S.” I then add that what makes T&T different from the US is that in Trinidad every day is Presidential Joke Day.
There is a story about a man on a street corner in Moscow yelling, “The president is an idiot. The president is an idiot.” The police surrounded the man and handcuffed him. They told him, “It is illegal to insult President Putin.” He replied, “You don’t understand. I mean the Ukranian president, Zelensky. He is the one I was insulting.” The police captain shook his head and said, “You can’t fool us. Everyone knows who the idiot is.” Right now, the entire T&T population might feel they know who the idiot is but there are some who have heard the rumour that the present Prime Minister, who has publicly announced that one of his major female party members will become President, is planning to take over the post himself. As one of my friends said, “Tony boy, this thing have we in limbo.” My reply was, “Worse than that! The PM might want more ball-room.” What makes it tougher is the rumour that the Leader of the Opposition has been asked to hand over her party to someone else and when the new leadership wins, they would make her President. My friend’s response was, “I’ll drink to that.” I replied, “And you will not be alone.” He almost had the last word, “You see what I tell you! Every President in T&T is a VICE president!” Then I added a quip from my favourite US comedian, Johnny Carson, “Democracy means that anyone can grow up to be president, and anyone who doesn’t grow up can be vice president.”
The fact is that there are already four Republics in the Caribbean- Barbados, Dominica, Guyana and T&T. Guyana is the only one with an Executive President who is the political boss. In the other countries the President carries out “ceremonial” duties and, as many of us felt was the case in Trinidad over the past few years, the dictates, demands and determinations of the Prime Minister who put that person in power. This is why someone who wanted the post really badly called up the Prime Minister’s Office in Whitehall, Trinidad, and told the receptionist, “I want to talk to the boss-man.” The receptionist explained, “I can’t just send you through like that. You have to explain to me why it is you want to speak to the Prime Minister.” The man replied, “I want to be the next President of Trinidad and Tobago. I believe I could do better than any woman and I have more strength to stand up for the people of the country and make the right decisions!” The receptionist, who had already written the man off, asked him, “What are you? Some kind of idiot?” The man responded in alarm, “Why, is that a requirement for the post?”
Even though the President of T&T is not at the same level of the President of the US, there are similarities. For example, the party in power in Trinidad has already announced one of its political diehards as its candidate for the post and the Opposition has named its own candidate. In this case I share the view of the elegant and acerbic writer, Gore Vidal, “Any American (in this case Trini or Caribbean person) who is prepared to run for president should be automatically, by definition, be disqualified from ever doing so.” As I thought about the politics of the region, I remembered what initially got me into politics and how much it cost me. I had graduated with a first-class honours degree in Journalism and was working at the Office of the Prime Minister in Trinidad when I was selected, together with two other people from Finland and Tanzania, for a politics course in Germany. One evening, my colleagues explained their roles in the politics of their countries and then asked me what I did in Trinidad. I made it clear to them that I was a journalist and had no interest at all in politics. They both made the point that as a graduate I represented about .001 percent of the population of my country and if someone like me was not involved in politics then I deserved whatever the politicians meted out to us. When I returned home, I thought it out and realised that the party in power, like any other party anywhere in the region, was comparable to a Ti Marie or Shame Plant (Mimosa Pudica or “Touch-me-not”)- the moment you touched it, the plant closed ranks. This meant that to have any effect on change, I had to be inside the organisation. I joined the party and learnt, at an extremely high cost not just in money but in reputation and pride, the lesson of my life. Stay far from the politics and continue to be a journalist. Even if you can’t save the country or the people, you can at least save yourself.
For me, though, that is still not enough. I believe that in a country like T&T that is deeply divided by race, or some of the others in the region by “tribes” or political support, what we need is a very clear commitment by all parties to equal opportunity. People, regardless of race, must have a fair and equal opportunity for every job, not just by the governments but by all employers.
I was reading some comments by schoolkids about what they thought Presidents did. One said, “If I were President, I would spend the money that is spent of wars every 20 years and spend it on giving people work. Let them build roads, bridges, building schools.” Another said, “The presidentwork in the white house and he killed black people”. The one who knew who he was talking about was clear, “If it’s Donald Trump, the president is mean.” There is a view that by 2030 the eight independent Commonwealth Caribbean countries will become Republics and each will have a “President”. What would be that person’s role? As one American kid said, “I think he executes the laws.”
*Tony Deyal was last seen quoting U.S. president, Ronald Reagan, “Politics is supposed to be the second-oldest profession. I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first.”