PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad (AP) -- It's a brisk autumn night, but The Pelican
is red hot.
Salsa, soca, calypso and reggae fill the air, energizing a diverse crowd
locals and visitors.
"They say we are the rainbow country," says a smiling Opal Douglass, who
has come to "lime" -- the ubiquitous "Trini" verb meaning "to hang out."
She's with her friends Ron, who is of African descent, Terence, whose roots
are in India, and others. "I myself am so mixed I can only say I'm
Trinidadian!" the 33-year-old insurance company worker shouts above the
music, then downs the rest of her Carib beer.
Hers is a happy, booming society where things are looking up.
Leroy Clarke's dark, lined face breaks into a rueful grin at such talk.
"People existed here for a long time on this lie -- that we were some kind
'rainbow society,"' the respected Afro-Trinidadian poet and painter says. "But
I tell you: This rainbow has teeth. Trinidad as a unified society is what we can
only dream of."
With eloquent anger Clarke recounts how successive Spanish, French and
British masters imported shiploads of African slaves to harvest sugar. How
after the abolition of slavery in 1834, the British brought indentured servants
After their terms, many Indians were given land, and that, says Clarke,
source of their widely perceived -- but difficult to quantify -- economic
domination of Trinidad.
Today, 40 percent of the 1.3 million Trinidadians are of Indian descent,
equal share are of African heritage. The rest are either mixed or hail from
Portugal, Syria and other places.
Clarke, 60, sits on a wood bench surrounded by dozens of his mural-sized
paintings in a display that occupies half the national museum building.
His words are harsh, but measured, and coming from a national institution
carry some weight.
"The Afro-Trinidadian's disenfranchisement has never been redressed," he
says. "We are on the brink of something tragic, a tidal wave of psychic
disorder. Any little thing could spark such a convulsion, such a catastrophe. So
we cannot afford to go out in public and be ridiculous as some people have
He's talking about Prime Minister Basdeo Panday, the longtime political
firebrand who was finally elected to head the government, by a whisker, in
After 32 years of nearly all-black government in Trinidad, Panday's victory
was a cathartic coming of age for the Indians, and they intend to keep what
they have gained.
For many blacks, the loss of political power on top of their economic woes
was an almost unbearable humiliation.
Panday can't understand what the noise is all about.
In a recent speech he noted unemployment is down from 19 percent in 1995
about 13 percent and an economy that was shrinking then will grow around 5
percent this year.
The economy "has never been more prosperous; it has never been more
stable," he said.
And the potential is tremendous. With natural gas reserves of 20 trillion
feet and probably more, Trinidad has attracted $4 billion of investment by
dozens of U.S. companies in the past five years. Every week seems to bring a
new factory opening.
Yet in its zeal to bring him down, Panday charged, the black-dominated
People's National Movement and the black-dominated news media have tried
"to whip up racist sentiments when any Afro-Trinidadian was fired or
removed from office, even though it was for corruption or other wrongdoing."
At a rally marking three years in power, Panday enraged his critics by
declaring war on the press: "They are out to destroy us. We must do them first
... they must not be allowed to attack this government unfairly and escape
What Panday recommended was an advertising boycott, but many of his
supporters weren't splitting hairs. They began shoving, verbally abusing and
throwing drinks at reporters and cameramen on the scene.
The next day, Therese Mills was a very worried woman. The editor of the
highly successful daily Newsday had just ordered security beefed up in the
newspaper's downtown building.
"There are lots of crackpots out there who could be influenced," she said.
afraid the result will be severe attacks on journalists and maybe even on press
"The country has become radically polarized," she added. "This never would
have happened before Panday. The prime minister seems out of control."
Beri Singh is a man who speaks so quietly, with such meticulous enunciation,
that almost anything he says sounds reasonable and correct.
"Racism in this country has always existed, but we didn't let it out. It's
dangerous. After all, you always have in every office black people and Indian
people working together. But now people are talking and talking all the time."
Then Singh, 60, offers this: "For years a black government ruled this country,
and that is why we were in decline. Now, with the Indian government, we
have had a few achievements."
Voicing a stereotype that is widely accepted among Afro-Trinidadians as
Singh adds: "The Negro people -- when they get a bit of money they just
spend it! The Indian people, they try to put together every coin, so that they
will be able to buy a little business or something."
That doesn't make Singh an Indian nationalist, though. He, too, feels
Trinidadian, and a recent trip to India drove that fact home. "My wife was
pleased to be investigating her roots," he says. "But as for me, to be perfectly
truthful, I did not like it. Too many people. Too many poor people. I was very
pleased indeed to be returning back home."
It's more than Africans and Indians only. About 15 miles east of Port-of-Spain
lives the Akaloo clan -- a group of most embittered farmers.
About 15 years ago, they say, they were encouraged by government officials
to cultivate rice on 2,000 acres of remote swampland near the island's eastern
coast. They invested in roads and drainage, but because of environmentalists'
objections they were never given a formal lease.
The 16 farmers -- all Indo-Trinidadians -- voted for Panday in 1995, and
his victory would pave the way for their legalization.
Instead they were soon expelled by police.
"We were employers, and now we are unemployed," laments Hashem
Hussein, 29, who relies on welfare to feed his family of four.
The issue was taken up by the media, and became something of a national
scandal, with allegations of corruption and unfairness raising a vocal lobby for
The Akaloos have little faith they'll get their land back, though. They're
convinced the problem is ethnic: They say fellow Indians want to ruin them
because they are Muslims, members of a minority within the Indo-Trinidadian
"There's a conflict between the Muslim and Hindu," says Phiw Akaloo, his
colleagues nodding in consensus.
"This is a place divided along lines of race," says Satnarine Maharaj,
spokesman for the Indo-Trinidadian cause, sitting in the ramshackle offices of
his weekly newspaper, The Bomb.
"At the heart of the matter, it is a fight for space. But the tension must
controlled. Otherwise it certainly could get very dangerous, very unpleasant."
He glances at a mirror strategically aligned in the corner of his office
him a view of the guard and of anyone entering.
On a hilltop about 1,000 feet above Port-of-Spain, a calypso band quickly
forms around an American who stops to admire the panorama.
Strumming on a rickety steel guitar, the bandleader improvises:
"Welcome, friend, to my beautiful land,
"I bet that you are a business man!
"And when I conclude my song and my dance
"We hope you'll please this calypso man!"
No tension here on this green hillside. Just $5 changing hands in a flurry
Copyright 1998 The Associated Press.