The art of striking and democracy
Analysis by Tony Fraser with additional reporting by Jabari Fraser
Even by the standards of Trinidad and Tobago’s eventful politics, the hunger strike that recently dominated headlines in the country was an extraordinary event.
The two islands have not seen many serious day-to-day protests, apart from the Labour Riots of the 1930s and the Black Power upheaval in the 1970s, so direct action of that kind is something of a foreign concept.
But it was even more startling when the hunger striker, Dr Wayne Kublalsingh, turned out to be an Oxford-educated PhD in Literature turned environmentalist.
By camping out for three weeks outside the Prime Minister’s offices, the part-time University of the West Indies lecturer brought local discontent over a controversial road project to national attention.
Despite the scorn of senior politicians, he made clear that he was prepared to allow his already skeletal frame to deteriorate further until his demands were met.
And when he decided to refuse all medical assistance, including life-saving drips, Trinidad and Tobago realised this was not the usual nine-day wonder story: this was serious business.
What sparked it all off was the construction of a highway from the country’s second city, San Fernando, through several rural communities.
This included Siparia, the home town and political constituency of the Prime Minister.
The highway is scheduled to end in Point Fortin, an oil-boom town of the 1940s which now has four Liquefied Natural Gas trains.
The proposed route for the US$1.2bn highway runs through the eastern extreme of the Oropouche Lagoon and 13 communities with more than 300 homes, places of worship and schools.
The communities affected had all the infrastructure originally established by freed indentured East Indian immigrants settled there since the mid 1800s.
Essentially, Dr Kublalsingh and other protesters in the Highway Re-Route Movement want a nine-mile stretch of the 27-mile highway diverted away from their communities to run through old sugar cane fields, avoiding the destruction of their living communities and their rich heritage.
The groups have made it known that they were very much in favour of the construction of the highway. They just didn’t want it to blight their neighbourhood.
Dr Kublalsingh’s hunger strike drew national attention, even when the Prime Minister and members of her inner cabinet attempted to discredit the protester and question his motives.
But they underestimated Dr Kublalsingh’s mental fortitude and the toughness he showed over the 21 days of peaceful protest.
In her first official statement on the issue, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar said, “I cannot favour any one group or allow fear to control my actions.”
She made an appeal to Dr Kublalsingh’s ageing parents to “take on the personal duty of saving their son’s life and not to transfer this parental duty to the state”.
“His demand is not to meet me,” she added, “and so, as prime minister, what am I expected to do?”
She made clear she was not inclined to, as she put it, “give in to his demands to protect his life and give up the livelihood and future of hundreds of thousands of others who want the development, but choose not to protest in that fashion”.
Some of her ministers waded in with more callous comments. One of them accused Dr Kublalsingh of secretly eating “doubles”, an Indian delicacy, during the night.
Former Fifa vice-president Jack Warner, who in his capacity as national security minister had broken up a villagers’ protest camp months ago, was among the most angry at the hunger strike action.
“The biggest conman you could find in the land today is Kublalsingh,” Mr Warner told supporters.
“He killing himself. He better do it quickly.”
The prime minister, for her part, managed to be scathing without being openly offensive.
Inevitably, Mrs Persad-Bissessar had to give ground and agree to the demands of Dr Kublalsingh and the villagers who came from the country to challenge the might of the State outside her office.
Show of solidarity
Other members of the Highway Re-route Movement (HRM) found it difficult to match the strength of their leader and join the fast, but showed their support in other ways.
“He don’t want to hear nothing from nobody about stopping the hunger strike. So this is real difficult. I will cry. I tell him many times, Dr Kublalsingh, I think you should go to seek medical help,” said supporter Gita Boodhai, who joined the throng of protesters on nearly every day of the hunger strike.
“I said if anything should happen to you today, who would walk with us tomorrow? He said, ‘Don’t worry, I will be strong.’ And since then, we just here, day after day, after day,” she told Caribbean Intelligence©.
Ms Boodhai put the area in context: “I and most of these people here, our grandparents came from India, they plant rice and work in sugar cane as indentured labourers for penny and cent a day’s work.”
“They save and buy land and leave it for we; now the government coming like a thief in the night with all they equipments want to bulldoze we from we land,” another protester, Tara Sharma, told Caribbean Intelligence© in a voice choking with emotion.
Dr Kublalsingh’s key demand was for an independent technical team to assess the relative merits of the planned highway route and the alternative diversion through the cane fields, based on the human, environmental and financial costs.
Since Trinidad is a multi-racial, multi-faith society, he attracted support from many quarters. Those backing him included senior Roman Catholic priest Father Clyde Harvey and internationally famous artist and carnival band creator Peter Minshall – the man who designed large parts of the opening of the Barcelona Olympics.
Others voicing support included watercolour painter Jackie Hinkson; musician Mungal Patassar, who has experimented with fusing African and Indian music; revered steelpan man Ray Holman; popular musical group 3Canal; calypsonians De Fosto and Crazy; the mayors of the cities of Port of Spain and Arima; former and present government ministers; and an array of opposition politicians and trade unionists.
UWI students marched in support of the hunger-striking doctor.
Even Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Dookeran wrote to the Prime Minister asking her to exercise “compassion and compromise” in dealing with the hunger striker and villagers.
In the end, the government relented, fearing the political consequences if 53-year-old Dr Kublalsingh, reduced to less than 100lb in weight, were to die outside the office of the prime minister.
Works Minister Emmanuel George sat down with a team of professionals in the construction industry, trade unionists and women’s and civil groups to negotiate a deal to end the hunger strike.
The agreement required the establishment of an independent team of professionals to plough through the thousands of pages of documentation and technical, human impact and financial studies of the highway.
The team will report in 60 days, the report will be made public and a decision will then be made on whether the nine-mile portion of the highway will be re-routed or not.
The undoubted major long-term outcome of the protest has been the way in which it made the prime minister and her government back away from confrontation and forced them to allow people to be involved in matters which concern them.
Despite the comments of some of her cabinet, it also allowed Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar to show graciousness, even in backing down.
“We [the government] are very happy for Mr Kublalsingh and his family. Our prayers are with him for his good health and a speedy recovery,” she was quoted by Newsday newspaper as saying.
“I wish him recovery and hope that his actions do not attract imitators from peripheral urban and communities in the Beetham who can choke the city and then ask for ‘ransom’, ‘amnesty’ or ‘condonation’ as occurred in 1970 and 1990,” said political analyst Prof Selwyn Ryan.
“His hunger strike has accomplished a great deal already, not the least of which is a raising of public consciousness of the unsuitability of an untrammelled executive for democratic governance, especially one that includes unashamedly crass characters,” was the comment of Dr Winford James, another UWI lecturer.
Media reports indicated that Dr Kublalsingh had lost 40lb in making his point.
His gain, however, was in defining a new approach to Trinidad’s continuously lively political wars.