Jamaica, Trinidad commemorate 50 years of independence

As Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago prepare to mark a golden milestone, citizens in both Caribbean nations are grappling with whether they have lived up to the expectations of their modern-day liberators.

08/05/2012 5:00 AM

07/30/2013 5:26 PM

Despite brimming with Olympics success, Jamaica is approaching its golden jubilee — 50 years of independence from Britain — shouldering decades of struggle against a stagnant economy, widespread poverty and vexing crime.

“It’s hard to see the progress we’ve made, when we’re immersed in all the other failures. And in our case, I am afraid, more failure than progress is apparent,” said Kinshasa Minott, a life coach and mother of two from the upscale St. Andrews community. “We’re failing far more than we’re succeeding. But we can celebrate our successes.”

More than 1,100 miles southeast in Trinidad and Tobago, red, white and black flags and banners adorn government buildings and downtown plazas. The mood is festive, but pensive. Trinbagonians, blessed with revenue from oil and gas, are questioning whether their twin-island republic has lived up to the expectations of Eric Williams and other leaders who pushed for independence from Britain 50 years ago after plans to unite the English-speaking Caribbean failed.

“Yes, we are better off,” said Paul Guerra, 71, a retired ministry of works maintenance supervisor, enjoying an afternoon in Independence Square in the capital of Port-of-Spain. “But we are moving at too slow a pace.”

Anand Ramlogan, the attorney general, said that as “the economic flagship” of the Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago has “progressed as a nation, very, very well” since Aug. 31, 1962.

“We have changed governments three to four times over that 50-year period without any bloodshed, without any riots, in a country that historically has a politics infused with race and religion in a very complex potpourri,” he said. “We have matured politically and socially as a functioning democratic society to the point where maybe the time has come for us to undertake a 50-year-mark review of how well our Constitution has served us.”

A half-century after the two nations broke ties with Britain and took charge of their own destinies, citizens find themselves grappling with the realities of independence as discontent over governance, upsurge in crime and lagging social development threaten to overshadow decades of achievement.

Last month, a Roman Catholic priest in Trinidad warned that race and politics still divides the multi-ethnic, multicultural country, and called for greater harmony. His calls came amid concerns about another social ill: spikes in violent crime, which last year forced Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar to declare a state of emergency and institute a curfew.

“The nation,” she said at the time, “will not be held to ransom by marauding gangs of thugs.”

But just last week, with the murder rate rising, Persad-Bissessar announced that the country’s police commissioner and his deputy had both resigned. Both had been under pressure over their crime-fighting tactics and raids of two newsrooms.

“The country has lost its way,” said Hugh Sorrias, 60, who moved back to Trinidad from Venezuela 30 years ago. “The country is blessed. But a lot of the mentality of the people has gone haywire.”

In Jamaica, citizens are equally disappointed over the direction of the country since it became the first of 10 Caribbean nations to declare independence from England, on Aug. 6, 1962.

“I remember how things were,” said Dr. Camara Brown, an eye surgeon who grew up in the labs and hallways of Jamaica’s hospitals. “Comparing it to how things are now, we are way behind. The general demise of standards is very sad.”

That demise, say observers, can be seen in an education and healthcare system that were once models for the Caribbean region but today are faltering amid brain drain and debt. It can also be seen in the ongoing political bickering over the upcoming anniversary celebrations: Earlier this summer, the governing People’s National Party canned the anniversary song that had been chosen by the Jamaica Labor Party before it lost last December’s elections.

“If the fight is about a song, then what can I expect for the next 50 years?” said Amba Chevannes, a writer.

Still, for Chevannes and others here, the traditional Festival Song that marked childhood independence celebrations was a social commentary and pleasant reminder of what independence and being Jamaican are all about: a celebration of culture and achievement in a developing nation all too often associated with violent elections, a failed brush with democratic socialism, and “garrison politics” — the power-sharing alliance between politicians and gang leaders.

“It is a great time to be Jamaican,” said businesswoman Suzanne Rousseau Bernard, tying the anniversary to the Olympics, where Jamaica has often had significant success. “This should be an opportunity for us to really celebrate our culture and our heritage, the best of Jamaica.”

Still, instead of looking at the best of Jamaica, many are looking at its shortcomings. Conflicted and disappointed, they recall the “golden era,” which marked the first decade after independence. .

“We have been taking forward and backward steps,” said former Prime Minister Edward Seaga, who helped draft Jamaica’s Constitution and designed its easily recognizable black-gold-and-green flag. “I think we are the only country in the world that has had four successive decades in which, after a strong start, there was backward movement in the ’70s, in the ’80s we had to put it back together again and in the ’90s there was backward movement again, and in the 2000 period the stagnation continues.”

With poor governance blamed for the lack of economic success, a newspaper poll found that six in 10 Jamaicans believe the country would have been better off had it remained a British colony. The affinity for Britain comes as Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller signaled that she’s prepared to ditch Queen Elizabeth II as head of state.

“Maybe if we had stayed with England, the money wouldn’t be so small,” said Kemar Stephenson, 29, a struggling street vendor who lives in Trenchtown, referring to the weak value of the Jamaican currency.

P.J. Patterson, who served as prime minister for 14 consecutive years before his 2006 retirement, said the vast majority of Jamaicans today have no personal experience of life before independence.

“Jamaica may not have achieved all that was expected,” he said. “We certainly have advanced in terms of breaking down the barriers of social divisions and of creating basic standards of life, which are distinctively higher than they were before.”

Herbie Miller, curator at the Jamaica Music Museum, said nowhere is Jamaica’s accomplishment more visible than in its music and athletics, both of which are on display this summer as the country, which gave the world musician Bob Marley and runner Usain Bolt, seeks gold at the London Olympics.

“We have carried this country on the wings of our music,” Miller said as he led a tour of a reggae albums exhibit installed as part of anniversary celebrations at the Institute of Jamaica. “As a result of all of that, here comes Bolt and all of them. At the end of their victory, what do they do? They dance to the reggae.”

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