By Henry Srebrnik
The southernmost of the Caribbean islands, situated just off the coast of Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago were first colonized by the Spanish, then came under British control in the early 19th century.
The islands' sugar industry was hurt by the emancipation of the Afro-Trinidadian slaves in 1834, but they were replaced by indentured labourers from India between 1845 and 1917.
This legacy remains evident today. The country's population of 1,225,000 consists of Indo-Trinidadians, who constitute 40 per cent; Afro-Trinidadians, another 40 per cent; mixed 18.4 per cent; white 0.6 per cent; and Chinese and other minority groups 1.2 per cent.
Though all these people share a small island, a common language, schools, and even food and clothes, their identity as Trinidadians exists alongside their separate political and cultural spheres.
Many Indians, in particular, feel they have been forced to submerge their culture and conform to the country's Black culture.
The plural nature of the society gave rise to political parties sharply divided along ethnic lines, as politicians began playing the "race card." Even before independence in 1962, two major parties had emerged six years earlier, as the two dominant ethnic groups began to battle for political primacy.
The People's National Movement (PNM), led by Dr. Eric Williams, represented the Afro-Trinidadians, and the People's Democratic Party (PDP) under the leadership of Bhadase Sagan Maraj, was the vehicle for the Indo-Trinidadians.
The Democratic Labour Party (DLP) replaced the PDP in 1957 and it evolved into the United Labour Front (ULF) in 1976, and later into the United National Congress (UNC) in 1989, both led by Basdeo Panday. For the most part, its fate would be that of the official opposition. Under the rule of the PNM, the political identity and international face of the country was an Afro-Caribbean one, with South Asian culture minimized.
This is now changing. In May 2010, the People's Partnership party, led by Kamla Persad-Bissessar, an Indo-Trinidadian, achieved a landslide victory against the incumbent PNM government of Prime Minister Patrick Manning. The new grouping won 29 of the 41 seats in the House of Representatives, reducing the PNM to 12. It even captured the two seats on the island of Tobago, whose 60,000 people are mostly of African origin. However, in the 2013 election to the Tobago House of Assembly, the local government body responsible for the small island, the PNM won all 12 of its seats.
The People's Partnership was formed after a Unity Accord was struck prior to the election between several groups, including the Opposition UNC; the Congress of the People (COP); the Tobago Organization of the People (TOP); the Movement for Social Justice (MSJ); and the National Joint Action Committee (NJAC).
Many of these groups, including the COP and the MSJ, representing labour, had felt alienated from the governing process under the PNM.
The rise to power of the island's first female prime minister has had a transformative effect. For decades, politics were dominated by men, and Kamla Persad-Bissessar, who became leader of the opposition in 2006, had at times been fighting for her political life.
Despite its goal of people-centered growth and development, the People's Partnership faces numerous challenges. The country's ethnic and class cleavages result in competing interest groups and divergent demands.
During the election campaign, Manning had sought to stir up intercommunal divisions by suggesting that Persad-Bissessar would seek to harm the interests of Afro-Trinidadians should she be elected.
On the other hand, Persad-Bissessar claimed that while the previous government "did not pay much attention to the Hindu population," her government would. Her new attorney general, Anand Ramlogan, concurred. "People think of Trinidad as a predominantly African country. We want to rectify this misperception." Previously there was "discrimination manifest in subtle ways," he stated, "one of which was the allocation of state funding."
The government has instituted a new multicultural policy, which came about, according to Winston Peters, the Minister of Arts and Multiculturalism, because the new government recognized that "a large portion of the citizenry feels itself alienated from sharing in the development of the nation."
The policy seeks to foster "a climate of inclusion, equitable distribution of resources and recognition and celebration of cultural diversity."
This emphasis on Indo-Trinidadian culture will rectify the previous lack of attention given to Indo-Trinidadians by governments dominated by Afro-Trinidadians. But in the end, for the country to thrive, it will need to find a middle ground between the needs of its citizens of African and Indian origin.
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.