The Lost Rites Of A Blood-Spattered Paradise – Part 1


CaribWorldNews, PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad, Mon. Jan. 25, 2010: Trinidad and Tobago, the richest and most southerly islands of the Caribbean archipelago, hosted two high priced summits in 2009: the 5th Summit of the Americas in April, attended by U.S. President Barrack Obama and the Commonwealth Heads of Governments Meeting (CHOGM) in November and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh paid a state visit to the islands and as head of the Commonwealth she opened the conference.

The summits cost over one billion TT dollars.  Pomp and glitter masked the visitors from the reality of day to day life in the oil and gas rich twin-island republic.
Behind that scene, a rising tsunami of violent crime is gradually overwhelming a peaceful, fun-loving people; inventors of the steel pan, calypso music and spectacular carnival presentations.    In the past six years, over twenty-five hundred young men have been murdered, mainly by gunshots as street gangs` battle for turf, proceeds of the drug trade and even state funds. 

In 2008, for the first time in the nation`s history the murder toll crossed 500; reaching an alarming 550.  Two thousand and nine ended with another ominous toll of 506, including four secondary school boys who lost their lives in altercations with peers.  In the first twenty days of 2010, thirty murders were committed.  Less than 3 percent of these crimes are solved.  Trinidad and Tobago is now the per capita murder capital of the Caribbean and seventh in the world.

Visitors are not immune. Whereas travel advisories have been put out by major embassies warning their citizens about the dangers of the capital city Port of Spain and northern Trinidad in general,  Tobago is still revered as the idyllic, laidback paradise; scene of picturesque landscapes; haven for scuba divers world-wide, attracted by its famous coral reefs. 

All this was shattered, in June 2008 when the quiet island was rocked by the savage murder of Swedish couple 72-year-old Ake Alsson and 62-year-old Anna Sundsvall.  Retired British couple, Peter Green 65 and his wife Murium 59, were attacked and brutally chopped in August 2009; miraculously they survived. German engineer Peter Taut 49 was not as lucky. He was found buried in a shallow grave on his property in early November 2009.  The victims in these incidents all owned homes   in the quiet suburb of Bacolet, three minutes away from the capital Scarborough.  Hundreds of foreigners own holiday homes on the island.  Besieged and bewildered, visitors and locals wonder how a nation blessed with such an abundance of resources and promise has come to this.

The twin-island nation, a former British colony until granted independence in 1962,   has a population of 1.3 million; of which two groups dominate: the descendants of African slaves and those of indentured Indian laborers who both worked the sugar cane plantations.

Life changed in the 1970s, the result of a multi-billion petro-dollar wind-fall, in the wake of the Arab oil embargo in 1974. The effects were immediate, crude oil prices rose from a low pre-embargo $3.00 per barrel to $37.00 where it peaked in the early 1980s.  An orgy of unbridled spending descended on the islands.  With coffers fattened, the government embarked on a number of ambitious projects aimed at creating a modern industrial society with this bonanza.  Almost overnight, the country was teeming with experts, `expats` and consultants, some of whom were described by locals as `smart men` (conmen) with eyes on the national treasury.

It was a wild time; thousands, cashing in on back-pay, easy bank loans and government largess, went on spending junkets to North American cities; especially New York, Miami and Toronto.  Scotch whisky and other fine liquors flowed like water.   Car dealerships then, had long waiting lists and thousands of dollars in bribes to facilitate movement on these lists were not uncommon. Imported food and other consumer goods clogged the country`s main port in the capital   city Port of Spain.  Ships often anchored up to three months before clearing their cargoes; the additional costs passed on to the consumers.  

To reduce un-employment, a welfare program which originally provided ex-prisoners as they fitted back into society, was expanded nationwide.   The recipients are required to do community road works on ten days intervals until they find steady jobs.  It is here some of the seeds of the current crime wave were sown.

Before all this life was simple; prior to the 1970`s a child was the village`s child; nurtured and disciplined by any adult who belonged to the community   The journey from cradle to coffin was guided by rites of passage with the purpose of creating model citizens.  This passage was marked at specific junctures by simple but significant things.  The age of maturity then was 21and anyone under this age was considered a boy or a girl.  Boys were kept in short pants until this age of maturity; a trend influenced by    the colonial past.
Attaining 21 was a major milepost, where the new man was given his first long pants. If the means provided, a well tailored suit heralded a young man`s step into adulthood.   This was a special occasion around which the family gathered. 

It was here a young man would puff his first cigarette and tastes his first tot of alcohol; offered by his father, uncle or adult male of the family. Rum was the drink of choice, or whisky if his folks could afford it.

There were responsibilities too; a young man had to be well dressed, clean shaven and be a gentleman. Groomed beards marked the presence of distinguished professionals: doctors, lawyers, professors.

Girls were always under more scrutiny and restrictions     Mothers, aunts and especially grand-mothers who passed on feminine virtue, kept vigilance especially as the girls entered adolescence.
Hair ribbons marked this girl-hood, remaining with the lass into the late teens. At the village fair or other outings, girls were usually accompanied by parents, an elder brother, cousin or adult member of the family.  Curfew was the order of the day; under strict orders, children had to return home and be indoors by sunset or face the wrath and whip of their parents.

Intimate boyfriends were forbidden.    A teenage pregnancy was the horror of any parent, the testament to a failed parenthood; it brought shame to an entire family.  This was a time when the church held sway.  A child born out of wedlock was called a bastard, its mother a harlot; who usually became the subject of nasty gossip.  Many a young girl were hustled away to the aunt in the countryside to hide this ignominy; banished, sometimes forever from the parents` home; their humiliation less bearable than this painful separation.

Puberty was a time of preparation. This age of maturity for a girl was marked by her first dance; her debut; her coming out.  Most parents then were adept at ballroom dancing and took time to teach their children, especially the girls, the steps.  When she was ready, bobby socks gave way to stockings; hair ribbons put aside and replaced by salon dressed tresses.  Her father then took her to a dancehall where an orchestra played for an elegantly dressed crowd.  

This was another special occasion and the village usually came out to view fathers proudly escorting their girls to the ball.  All this is gone now and seem quaint, even bizarre in today`s fast-paced society where both parents must work long hours to secure the trappings of life: mortgage, a vehicle, education for the children and themselves.   The age of maturity was lowered to 18 in the late 1970s.

By 1982 the boom came to an end. Oil prices plummeted and the government advised citizens to tighten their belts.  The party was over; Trinidad and Tobago who   had become the `godfather` of the Caribbean, distributing   billions of dollars in loans to impoverished neighbors now faced hard times.

Nevertheless  there were successes: thousands of much needed homes were constructed by both government and private sector interests; schools and highways were spread across the landscape; a sprawling industrial estate and port, the largest in the Caribbean, were established at Point Lisas, central Trinidad, harnessing the energy of natural gas which was once flared away as a    waste  by-product of the oil industry;  the port of Port of Spain began renovations which transformed it into a modern international facility. A large modern European designed hospital and training facility was established at Mt. Hope in north east Trinidad.   Ambitions now had to be scaled back; some of the grand government projects had to be mothballed, privatized or cancelled entirely,
Worse was to come, as the economy declined, harsh   austerity measures were introduced by 1987.  Government was forced to slash its workforce and reduce wages of state employees by 15 percent. A Value Added Tax of 15 percent was placed on goods and services; some imported food items including fruits as apples, pears   and grapes were listed as prohibited goods.

Thousands of workers, state and private sector lost their jobs.   Some homeowners were suddenly unable afford their house payments.   Many chose to return   keys to the banks.  Others headed for greener pastures                 in North America, leaving their children behind in these mortgaged homes to fend for themselves.  This phenomenon is known locally as the `Barrel Children Syndrome` a situation in which kids survived on their own, relying on wire transferred money   along with food   and other goodies shipped to them in cardboard cargo barrels.  Many of these children were   forced to grow up too soon.   Some of them managed the situation well, while others got into difficulties requiring intervention by adults and the authorities.

The most popular means of public transport on the islands is by a series of zoned, colour-coded minivans called maxi-taxi which were introduced in the mid 1980s.  Despite providing a vital service to the public, a dark side emerged with the maxi-taxis especially, those ferrying school children. For some unknown reason, lewd, sexually explicit Jamaican dub music became part of the maxi-taxi culture; with booming sound systems driving away adults with sensitive ears but luring school children; especially girls to these rolling discos; some of them even equipped to show pornographic videos.   For years predatory operators, tout/conductors, conventional taxi drivers and others took advantage of youthful sexuality awakened prematurely and, force-ripened in this environment. 

Government had introduced junior and senior secondary schools using a shift system to maximize the use of space.  While senior students attended whole day school, junior students    between the ages of eleven and fourteen occupied their schools in two shifts 7:00 am to 12:00 noon and 12:00 noon to 5:00 pm.  Thus two schools were able to operate in the same space. Young children had lots of spare time on their hands.  A majority spent this time brushing up on their studies, some went to the video arcades; others were enticed into sexual liaisons. 

This subject is taboo; parents and the authorities took far too long to realize that children as young as eleven or twelve were having sex with their school friends and with strangers.  Too many years went by before the powerful sound and video systems were outlawed; by then enough damage was done.  The problem has not gone away entirely, but has simply migrated to the airwaves.  Trinidad and Tobago has over forty radio stations.  Dueling against fierce competition some of them feature a diet of salacious, rough edged Jamaican dancehall music and American Gangster rap, to attract the young crowd.   Then there is cable television and the internet which are the new babysitters in some homes. Without kids block and monitoring this threat is as great.

No one can count the number of trysts involving errant school children; however the evidence is there in the school moms to be, who, in contrast to the old days are quietly allowed to continue their schooling until they begin to show, then study at home until childbirth and return to normal classes. On their part, there is hardly any sense of shame, indeed the rising; tummies along with vivid tales of their exploits become badges of honor in the eyes of some of their peers.  In a country where 50 percent of marriages end in divorce or separation, some young women choose to have and raise children on their own, adding their numbers to the   legion of single parent homes.

By 1989, worsening economic conditions brought trade unions and social groups to the streets. The almost daily protests were brought to an unexpected and violent crescendo on Friday July 27th 1990, when a band of armed Islamic insurgents blew up the police headquarters in Port of Spain; killing a young officer on sentry duty, stormed Parliament and held it hostage for six days.  They belonged to the Jammat Al Muslimeen, a sect who had claimed and occupied a parcel of state land in western Port of Spain.  They were also part of the demonstrations through the city.  Over the years they had several disputes and encounters with the police and agents of the state who sought to evict them.    An estimated twenty-six people were killed including a Member of Parliament Leo Des Vignes.  The then prime minister Arthur Napoleon Raymond Robinson was shot and wounded in the leg.  Port of Spain lay in ruins; looters had broken into stores then set the business district on fire causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.

This was the watershed in relation to violent crime. One hundred and fourteen insurgents were arrested.  In a bizarre twist, before any charges could be laid on them, the courts had to determine the validity of an amnesty which was drafted by hostage parliamentarians and sent out for the signature and seal of office of then head of state President Emanuel Carter who was acting in the post while President Noor Hasanali was on vacation.  This matter dragged on for years and was eventually determined by the Law Lords of the Privy Council in favor of the former insurgents.  In the eyes of many who believed that citizens were suffering unjustly under the government`s structural adjustment program, the insurrectionists were heroes.  Gun culture had found fertile soil. – Commentary By Irwin Barry, Special To CaribWorldNews

EDITOR`S NOTE: The writer, Irwin Barry, is a fifty-three year old father of two girls, life-long participant in carnival; former co- bandleader and costume designer of Jouvert band `Mudders on the loose` and a full-time audio-visual technician. Look for part two in this series tomorrow.

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