Political Dynamics

Caribbean Islands Table of Contents

Between independence in 1962 and 1986, politics in Trinidad and Tobago was inseparable from the story of Williams and the party he founded, the PNM. Even after his death in 1981, Williams's legacy helped win another five-year term for the PNM. As the first leader in a newly independent country, Williams set many precedents and came to be seen as the father of the country. Williams's legitimacy derived from his education, his charisma, his speaking ability, and his personal identification with the lower class blacks in Trinidad. He also was an astute politician who did not hesitate to be ruthless if maintaining his power and leadership depended on it. As time went on, power within the PNM became increasingly centralized and Williams less tolerant of dissent. In spite of his high-handed way of dealing with PNM members who disagreed with him during his twenty-five years as prime minister, Williams left Trinidad and Tobago with a functioning democratic political system, including a free press and a healthy opposition whose leaders had been trained in PNM ranks. Throughout Williams's tenure as prime minister, there were numerous strikes and labor disputes. Labor leaders formed various coalitions and parties, but none of these was sufficiently powerful to gain control of the government.

Postindependence PNM rule can be divided into four phases: 1962-69, a period of consolidation and economic hardship; 1970-73, a time of economic and political troubles that included the Black Power riots; 1974-81, a period of prosperity and increased government centralization; and 1981-86, the period after Williams's death when George Chambers was prime minister.

On December 15, 1986, the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR), under the leadership of A.N.R. Robinson, won the election by a landslide. The NAR captured thirty-three out of the thirty-six House seats, including that of Prime Minister Chambers and his two deputies.

Consolidation and Economic Hardship, 1962-69

At the time of independence, politics in Trinidad and Tobago was conducted by the middle class; both the PNM and the DLP were nationalistic, largely pro-capitalist parties that were controlled by the middle class and supported by the working class. Earlier, more radical labor movements had been defeated or sidelined. Race was an important component of party loyalty, and the dominant PNM drew its support largely from black voters. Blacks controlled most PNM leadership positions; Williams's cabinet in 1961 had only two East Indians--Winston Mahabir, a Christian, and Kamaluddin Mohammed, a Muslim. East Indians generally supported the DLP.

After his election in 1961, Williams reached an understanding with R.N. Capildeo, the Hindu DLP leader, under which the DLP was consulted in some national decisions and DLP members were sent abroad on diplomatic missions. Capildeo was allowed a special leave of absence from Parliament to spend the greater part of the year in London. Although the understanding appeared, on the surface, to be a magnanimous gesture on Williams's part, it was a skillful political move because it left the opposition party without a leader in Trinidad and Tobago. Capildeo's high-handed absentee management alienated many within the DLP, especially blacks. In 1964 many non-East Indians defected from the DLP and founded the Liberal Party of Trinidad, reducing the DLP representation in the House from ten to seven.

Serious problems in the Trinidadian economy between 1962 and 1965 caused by the falling prices of its main exports generated strikes in the sugar and oil industries, and the black-dominated Oilfield Workers Trade Union (OWTU) became increasingly radicalized. The new leader of the OWTU, George Weekes, charged that the PNM had sold out to big business. Despite an increasing sense of dissatisfaction with the PNM, the DLP was unable to capitalize on this opportunity to assume the role of champion of the working class because of intraparty squabbles and black loyalty to the PNM. Instead, the DLP provided crucial support to a PNM bill in March 1965 curbing strikes and lockouts. As the 1966 elections approached, the DLP continued to fragment, whereas the PNM closed ranks and campaigned hard. The PNM won 24 of the 36 seats in the House of Representatives and received 52 percent of the vote. The other 12 seats were won by the DLP with 34 percent of the vote. Several new smaller parties, such as the Liberal Party of Trinidad, failed to win any seats. In response, Capildeo claimed that the election was rigged because of the use of voting machines, and he pledged that the DLP would not contest any elections if voting machines were used. This strategy only succeeded in further reducing DLP influence, because many PNM candidates ran unopposed in the 1968 municipal elections and Capildeo himself was defeated. The PNM was able to increase its seats significantly on a very low turnout, but observers believed that this represented disillusionment rather than endorsement on the part of the voters.

Since there was little political opposition, the PNM was able to concentrate on economic matters. The population was expanding, but the oil industry needed fewer workers because of retrenchment and automation, so unemployment had increased, reaching about 15 to 17 percent by 1967. In response to the many strikes in 1967 and 1968, the government announced a development plan that attempted to increase employment. It also increased its participation in the economy by buying out the British Petroleum Company (see Role of Government, this ch.). Government companies were inefficient, and the PNM did not solve the economic problems but in the process of trying became more rigid and bureaucratic.

Political Unrest and Economic Troubles, 1970-73

Although the PNM dominated the national bureaucracy and the civil service, by 1970 its popularity among the electorate was considerably lower than it had been at the time of independence. Election turnouts were lower, and election procedures increasingly were questioned. The poorest segments of the population, which were also East Indian, were largely left out of the government and the growth process. The PNM became quite centralized as Williams made most decisions by himself. By April 1970, he had not held a press conference in five years and was poorly prepared to respond to the challenge of the Black Power movement that spread across the Caribbean.

The Black Power movement was introduced into Trinidad and Tobago in 1970 by the National Joint Action Committee (NJAC), a party that sought fundamental changes in Trinidadian and Tobagonian society. The NJAC charged that the root cause of the nation's 14- percent general unemployment was white dominance. According to the NJAC, foreign and local white capitalists owned the country and oppressed blacks, defined by the NJAC as Trinidadians and Tobagonians of African and East Indian descent. In fact, a 1970 survey had found that 86 percent of business leaders were white. The NJAC maintained that Williams had white Anglo-Saxon values and decried his leadership. A major political crisis began on February 26, 1970, when the NJAC joined the Students Guild at the UWI in a march of 250 students in Port-of-Spain. The march was organized to protest the trial in Canada of Trinidadian students accused of occupying a computer center there. The government's arrest of nine marchers generated solidarity marches that over the next few months attracted increasing numbers of people and nearly toppled the government. After 20,000 marched in San Juan, the NJAC attempted to gain the support of the East Indians by asking the largely black marchers to cut cane for a day to show solidarity for East Indian sugar workers. East Indian leaders opposed this, and a forty-five- kilometer march from Port-of-Spain to Couva was substituted. Significantly, fewer than 100 of the 5,000 to 10,000 people who took part in that march were East Indians.

Williams tried to defuse the Black Power movement by supporting it and by paying the fines of the Trinidadian students in Canada, but the marches continued and attracted additional supporters, reaching their peak during April 1970. Thirty percent of the population of Tobago took part in solidarity marches on April 4 and 5, and more than 30,000 marched in a funeral procession on April 9 for an NJAC supporter shot by police. After several strikes the following week, the deputy prime minister, A.N.R. Robinson, a Tobagonian who was also minister of external affairs, resigned from the cabinet. In an attempt to preempt a general strike and march on the capital, Williams declared a state of emergency on April 21. Some of the officers and men in the Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force seized control of the barracks at Teteron, however, thus depriving the government of arms; Williams was then forced to make hasty purchases of arms from the United States and Venezuela. Once rearmed, the 2,500-member Defence Force remained loyal to the government and was supported by the citizens. The crisis passed after the trade unions called off several scheduled strikes.

As a consequence of the 1970 uprising, Williams became increasingly disillusioned. His government moved farther to the right, introducing several measures to curtail individual freedom. Although a bill proposing very stringent state control over public meetings and freedom of speech was defeated, several other bills passed regulating public freedom, broadening police search powers, and requiring licenses for firearms. Concern about these measures led to the drafting and adoption of a new constitution in 1976.

There was general discontent with the government by the time of the 1971 elections, but the PNM again benefited from disunity in the opposition camp. An opposition alliance collapsed following the withdrawal of Robinson and his new party, the Action Committee of Democratic Citizens. The opposition's subsequent decision to boycott the election enabled the PNM to capture all thirty-six seats in the House of Representatives.

Despite its electoral victory, Williams's government reached a low point in 1973. The PNM was in power because of a majority boycott rather than a majority election. Strikes were frequent, the government treasury was nearly bankrupt, and there was concern that the government would not be able to pay its employees. Williams became so disillusioned by strikes that at the PNM convention in 1973 he resigned as prime minister and left the convention. Karl Hudson-Phillips was elected to succeed him, overwhelmingly defeating East Indian Kamaluddin Mohammed; Williams returned later in 1973, however, reassumed leadership, and forced Hudson-Phillips to leave the party.

Prosperity and Government Centralization, 1974-81

The Arab oil embargo was a boon to the Williams government. The oil price increases that followed it created a prosperity that made the government of Trinidad and Tobago not only solvent but financially comfortable. Concerns about the PNM were muted because of the healthy economy, and since the opposition did not come forward with a better alternative, voters continued to endorse Williams. As GDP rose, however, various segments of society fought for larger slices of the pie. Strikes, which had been frequent in the lean years of 1972 and 1973, continued. During the spring of 1975, an estimated 45,000 people were involved in strikes.

The 1976 election again illustrated the difficulty of developing a political movement in Trinidad and Tobago that appealed to working-class people of both African and East Indian origin. The black-dominated OWTU joined the East Indian-dominated All Trinidad Sugar Estates and Factory Workers Trade Union (ATSE/FWTU), the Trinidadian Islandwide Cane Farmers' Union, and left-of-center intellectuals to form a new political party, the United Labour Front (ULF). A Trinidadian political scientist has called the ULF "a political banyan tree" that provided shelter for many ideologically incompatible elements involved in the protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Envisioning itself as the representative of the working class, the ULF called for land reform, nationalization of multinational firms, and worker participation in management. Nonetheless, the ULF was unable to overcome ethnic suspicions. Working-class blacks feared that East Indians would control any ULF-led government. The ULF was also hurt by the perception that the party was communist. Williams exploited this view, promising to preserve individual landownership and capitalism; as a result, the PNM captured twenty-four of the thirty-six House seats in 1976. The ULF's ten seats came primarily from former DLP seats with constituencies in East Indian workingclass areas.

Two remaining House seats, both in Tobago, were captured by the Democratic Action Party (DAC). The DAC was founded by Robinson, the PNM minister of external affairs who had resigned during the 1970 Black Power riots. A Tobagonian-based party, the DAC promised to lobby for some regional autonomy for Tobago and specifically called for the reinstatement of its legislative body. Once in Parliament, the DAC members proposed the Tobago House of Assembly Bill, which passed in 1980. This measure gave some self-government to Tobago in the form of a fifteen-member elected House of Assembly, although Port-of-Spain still retained a number of controls. In the first election for Tobago's House of Assembly in 1980, the DAC won twothirds of the seats.

Subsequent to the 1976 election, Williams continued to gather more power into his own hands, so that even the smallest decisions came to be referred to him. He created the National Advisory Council (NAC), which was a think tank made up entirely of individuals selected by, and responsible to, Williams. The NAC did the planning for the national bureaucracy and also masterminded the increasing government participation in the economy. Because of the oil windfall, per capita income increased and unemployment declined. The state used the additional revenue to increase educational expenditures and to attempt to restructure the economy. State spending increased dramatically as over fifty governmentowned companies were created. Subsequently, the Williams administration was accused of corruption; high officials were alleged to have taken bribes in connection with purchases of Lockheed airplanes for the national airline BWIA and Sikorsky helicopters for the Ministry of National Security and in awarding contracts for a racing complex. In the PNM convention of September 1980, Williams attributed the erosion of popular support to the trade unions and to "enemies within." A poll conducted in January and February 1981 indicated widespread suspicion that the PNM cabinet was engaged in a cover-up of corrupt practices. Fifty percent of those polled, including both blacks and East Indians, felt that Williams should resign.

In March 1981, as the nation prepared for as yet unannounced elections, Williams died. Although members of the cabinet knew that Williams had been sick, his death was an unexpected shock to the rest of the nation. Contrary to dire predictions, Williams's death did not cause political disarray in Trinidad. Despite Williams's own disillusionment with his role as leader and his increasing centralization of power, he and the nation's British heritage had forged a firm democratic tradition in Trinidad and Tobago. A few months after his death, democratic elections took place on schedule, reelecting the PNM once again.

The Post-Williams Era, 1981-86

After Williams's death, the PNM appointed Chambers to succeed him as prime minister and as party leader in the 1981 elections. Chambers had entered PNM politics in 1966 and had served the government as head of several ministries in succeeding years. One of the main factors in Chambers's selection was that, as a black Trinidadian, he was more acceptable as prime minister than two more senior East Indian PNM ministers, Kamaluddin Mohammed and Errol Mahabir, both of whom remained in Chambers's cabinet.

The 1981 election marked the appearance of a new political party, the Organization for National Reconstruction (ONR). The ONR, led by former PNM prime minister Hudson-Phillips, attacked government inefficiency and called for a rollback of "massive state capitalism." The party attempted to appeal to a cross section of voters, including black and East Indian workers as well as all groups in the middle class. In addition, three opposition parties-- the ULF, the DAC, and Tapia House (a reformist party of intellectuals and the middle class)--attempted to form an electoral coalition appropriately termed the Alliance. The coalition fragmented over ethnic divisions, however.

Chambers campaigned on the PNM party record, pointing with pride to twenty-five years of accomplishments in education, housing, and culture and to the prosperous economy. Although only 30 percent of the registered voters voted for the PNM, the party once again won, getting over half the vote and taking two seats from the ULF to win a total of twenty-six out of the thirty-six seats in the House of Representatives. The ULF lost ground, receiving only 15 percent of the vote and retaining only eight of its ten seats; the DAC kept its two Tobagonian seats. Because of the winner-take-all rule, neither the ONR nor the Alliance won any seats despite the fact that the ONR received nearly a quarter of the popular vote. Observers attributed the PNM victory in 1981 to healthy economic conditions, poor organization by the opposition, and a fear of unknown and untried parties.

Chambers's five-year rule as prime minister was plagued by economic and political problems (see Role of Government, this ch.). He had ridden in on a wave of prosperity but was defeated five years later by an economic downturn. Oil prices fell in 1982 and 1983, and the oil industry, faced with lower revenues, forced concessions from the OWTU. Oil layoffs increased unemployment, and the 1982 sugar crop was below target level, compounding the problem. The government ran a deficit in 1982 for the first time in many years. During the oil boom, the PNM government had subsidized many consumer items, especially food and transport. Chambers reduced these subsidies, resulting in significant increases in food and transport prices.

Chambers changed many controversial government-to-government arrangements under which Williams had invited foreign governments to engage in development projects using their own companies. The foreign contractors had had frequent cost overruns and had angered local producers by sometimes refusing to work with local materials and local personnel. Chambers was also faced with the aircraft purchase and racetrack complex corruption scandals involving officials of Williams's government.

Hoping to reduce imports, the government instituted a system of import licensing in November 1983. This caused much criticism from other Caricom members because Trinidad and Tobago absorbed half of the intraregional trade (see External Sector, this ch.). Despite these efforts, foreign reserves continued to dwindle.

By the time of the 1983 municipal elections, PNM support had seriously eroded. With an eye on the elections, Chambers raised the salaries of 52,000 public workers, thereby increasing government expenditure by 76 percent. Despite this action, the ONR and the Alliance joined forces to win a total of 66 of the 120 municipal seats, the first opposition victory since 1958. The PNM also lost disastrously in the 1984 elections for the Tobago House of Assembly. That contest, which became a personal clash between Robinson and Chambers, resulted in the DAC's winning eleven out of fifteen seats.

The PNM was under heavy criticism by the time parliamentary elections were called for December 15, 1986. The opposition coalesced in the NAR, formed earlier in the year. The four parties comprising the NAR included the three that had formed the Alliance in 1981--the ULF, the DAC, and Tapia House--and the ONR. These four included a wide spectrum of Trinidadian political views: the ULF, headed by Basdeo Panday, president of the ATSE/FWTU, represented the indigenous working class and was mainly East Indian and left of center; Robinson's DAC primarily represented Tobagonian interests; Tapia House was a small intellectual party under the leadership of Lloyd Best; and the ONR, led by Hudson-Phillips, was largely middle class and right of center. Robinson was chosen head of the NAR, and Hudson-Phillips and Panday became deputy leaders.

Campaigning under the slogan "one love," the NAR issued a broad appeal to all ethnic groups. Robinson cited details of government corruption that the PNM was not able to dispel. Surprisingly, in response to a question at a political rally about corruption, a PNM candidate replied, "we are all thieves." Robinson promised to name an Integrity Commission, as provided by the Constitution, and to create a Register of Gifts to keep track of gifts to cabinet ministers. He also outlined a massive campaign to improve employment and promised to publish a report on drugs that had been suppressed by the government (see National Security, this ch.). Deputy leader Panday said that a NAR government would concentrate on divestment of some state enterprises.

The 1986 election was remarkable, for both voter participation and results. In the highest voter turnout (63 percent) in twenty years, the NAR captured 67 percent of the vote and won a stunning 33 out of the 36 seats in the House of Representatives. Most of the NAR seats were won by large margins, even in districts where the PNM candidates were cabinet ministers. Chambers was swept out of office with the tide. Despite losing almost all of its seats, the PNM, according to subsequent analysis of the election, retained almost half the votes of the black community. Although middle- and upper-middle-class blacks voted for the NAR, less affluent blacks stayed loyal to the PNM. Much of the NAR strength came from East Indian votes. Patrick Manning, one the three representatives who had survived the 1986 elections, was chosen to head the PNM.

The Robinson Government

Robinson was sworn in as prime minister on December 17, 1986. He had been involved in Trinidadian politics since 1958, when he was first elected as a representative from Tobago. Robinson had served the PNM as finance minister from 1961 to 1967 and as minister of external affairs from 1967 to 1970, when he resigned from the party. He returned to Tobago to head a local party that later became the DAC; when the DAC joined the NAR in 1986, he was elected leader of the new party.

Robinson reorganized the cabinet, creating a number of new ministries. In April 1987 the ministries were those for education; energy; external affairs, international marketing, and tourism; finance and economy, which Robinson kept for himself, designating two additional ministers to serve with him; food production, marine exploitation, and forestry; health, welfare, and status of women; industry, commerce, and enterprise; labour, employment, and manpower resources; national security; planning and reconstruction; works, resettlement, and infrastructure; and youth, culture, and creative affairs. He named Selwyn Richardson as attorney general, a post Richardson had formerly held under the PNM. Deputy leader Panday resigned his post as head of the ATSE/FWTU to become minister of external affairs, international marketing, and tourism.

The Robinson government was immediately faced with serious economic problems. On taking office, Robinson found that financial affairs were much worse than had been apparent. In April 1987, in his report to the nation Robinson painted a grim picture of an empty treasury with little relief in sight. The 1986 deficit was US$2.8 billion rather than the US$1 billion claimed by the previous government. Because the deficit had been covered by borrowing from the Central Bank, there were few financial reserves left. Reserves, which had been US$3.3 billion in 1981, dropped to less than US$400 million by the end of 1986. Oil prices fell, aggravating the situation, and the state-owned oil companies expected to lose money in 1987. Robinson promised to conduct a more open government than the PNM and proposed a number of construction projects to stimulate economic growth. He also attempted to cut costs by withdrawing the cost-of-living allowance in the public sector, causing a storm of union protests (see Role of Government, this ch.).

Since independence Trinidad and Tobago had never had a change in party administration, and it experienced transition problems when the NAR took over in December 1986. Questions arose as to whether the public service commissions could be fair and nonpartisan since they were a product of thirty years of PNM government. The commissions and the civil service were scrutinized to ensure that their members would serve an NAR government as loyally as the former PNM government, to which they owed their jobs. Provisions for retraining were made, and new guidelines on discipline were established. When President Ellis Clarke, the first president of Trinidad and Tobago, came to the end of his five-year term, Parliament elected Noor Mohammed Hassanali, a Muslim and a former judge. Immediately prior to the end of his term in March 1987, Clarke made two appointments to public service commissions that angered Robinson, the latter claiming he had not been "consulted" as provided in the Constitution. Robinson caused a storm of protest by proposing a constitutional amendment to clarify the legality of appointments made by an outgoing president. The proposed constitutional amendment was later withdrawn because of the intense criticism, and a commission was appointed to review the Constitution for possible changes.

In an effort to deal with government corruption, the Robinson administration published a formerly unpublished drug report that detailed an increase in cocaine activity made possible by corruption in the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (see National Security, this ch.).

By the time of its party convention in July 1987, the NAR was struggling with the responsibilities of trying to solve large national problems with few resources; as a result, there were strains within the four-party coalition as well as strikes by various unions. Local government elections called for September 14, 1987, were the first referendum on the Robinson government. The NAR held together and scored some gains, winning two of the four municipalities previously controlled by the PNM and retaining six of seven county councils. It failed, however, to capture the important Port-of-Spain municipality from the PNM, giving both the NAR and the PNM reason to feel confident about the future.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress