Title: Dilemmas of a cultural policy in Trinidad & Tobago
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Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/CA00400137/00001
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Title: Dilemmas of a cultural policy in Trinidad & Tobago
Physical Description: Book
Language: English
Creator: La Guerre, John Gaffar
Publisher: Caribbean Studies Association
Publication Date: 1993
Subject: Caribbean   ( lcsh )
Spatial Coverage: North America -- Trinidad and Tobago -- Caribbean
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Bibliographic ID: CA00400137
Volume ID: VID00001
Source Institution: Caribbean Studies Association
Holding Location: Caribbean Studies Association
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Department of Government
UWI, St. Augustine

May 1993

"The battle between Europe and Africa
continues for an African centrality in the
indigenising process, if not for uncontested
supremacy: and neither Guyana and Trinidad
with their growing East Indian aggregates, nor
Cuba with its predominantly European
population or Jamaica with its overwhelming
African majority, can escape the fact of the
African presence in the national cultural
ethos. This is a fact of Caribbean Lifel"

(Caribbean Cultural Identity: The Case of Jamaica.
An Essay in Cultural Dynamics, Institute of Jamaica,
1978, p.6)

The purpose of this paper is to show how cultural policy

makers in Trinidad and Tobago face a formidable task in formulating

a policy for the society as a whole. The major problems derive

from the fact that Trinidad is a tri-racial society, whereas the

other Caribbean societies are largely bi-racial. Since however, in

Trinidad the political parties are mainly derived from racial

bases, cultural policies usually become involved with political

considerations. The paper accordingly argues that the best policy

in the circumstances of Trinidad and Tobago is a genuine policy of


The problem of devising an appropriate cultural policy for

Trinidad, it should be noted, was also a problem for the colonial

Power. Although its official policy was the eventual absorption of

subcultural groupings, it was forced in the case of Trinidad, to

adapt to the needs of the more resistant Indian culture.

Thereafter, it was hoped that the other cultural elements would be

integrated around the dominant metropolitan values. Braithwaite's

assimilationist model postulating a differential rate of


assimilation for the various segments of Trinidadian society around

metropolitan values accurately captures the mood and intentions of

official thinking. The implications of this state of affairs for

the integration of the Indians was more fully articulated in his

article, The Problem of Cultural Integration in Trinidad and Tobago

(Social and Economic Studies).

Yet, there was always some uneasiness with the policy of

assimilation in* the context of independence. If independence now

made possible policies of decolonization then it was possible also

to have more authentic cultural policies The anti-colonial

stances and strident nationalisms of the sixties and seventies on

the part of the new states also gave added impetus to questions of

cultural policy.

In Trinidad, a Ministry of Education and Culture was set up by

the first People's National Movement (PNM) Government. Its major

concern however was with art and its propagation in schools rather.

It did however actively promote the steelpan, carnival and later

Better Village cultural expressions. The Best Village Programmes

were however largely focused on 'African' cultural expressions.

It was largely in these circumstances that the successive election

manifestoes of the PNM promised support for carnival, Best Village,

calypso and the steelband. In the tourist brochures and in the

rhetoric of politicians, Trinidad became "the land of the humming

bird, steelband and the calypso."

Yet it was significant that it was not until 1983 that

Emancipation Day was proclaimed a national holiday whereas Eid and


Divali had been made holidays years before. It seems that the

assumption was made that the African had been assimilated around

Creole values, and that with time the Indian would in turn be also


It was the explosion of 1970, by all accounts, the most

substantial challenge which Caribbean societies had to face in

decades, which brought the question of cultural policy once more to

the fore. It was clear that the independent governments, whatever

their pronouncements during the anti-colonial period might have

been, were content with restricting culture to art and quietly

going along with the old colonial policies of assimilation.

Such attitudes in the wider Caribbean no doubt had to do with

the individual propensities of the political leaders of the region.

The Manleys of Jamaica were devotees of sculpture, dance, theatre

and music. Seaga, an anthropologist, was also known to be

associated with the development of pocomania. Barrow, Adams and

Burnham were never accused of such tendencies. Williams, during

his early years in office was associated with Presence Africaine,

was Chairman of the 1959 Rome Congress of Black Writers and had

flirted with negritude. And yet, despite these personal

idiosyncracies, they all seemed at least until the great explosion

of 1970, to follow a well-trodden path.

It seems that the leaders of the region, and with them

Williams, believed that to embark on a serious cultural policy

would be to endanger the fragile unity of these states by the

reassertion of communal and other cleavages which the policy of


assimilation had so far contained. Hence, in Trinidad, the

grudging concessions to 'African' culture. It was Black Power

which forced them to reconsider the time-honoured policy of

assimilation. For these reasons, the Jamaican Government in 1972

appointed a committee to consider among other matters,

the development of means to bring the
country's cultural heritage into perspective
bearing in mind the imbalances of history and
the contemporary response to this phenomenon
especially among the assertive and self-aware

As is obvious, the major objective of such policies would be to

scrutinise the 'imbalances of history'. As Nettleford puts it, the

major question to be asked was "whose and what cultural values must

be preserved and for whom and what (sic) must they be developed?"2

Nettleford is right to assert that it would be foolhardy "to deny

to Caribbean experience the capacity claimed by all other

civilisations to throw up verities, maxims of prudence, moral

guidelines in short, a philosophy of existence that can be of

universal significance."' But there is also a Trinidadian

experience, a Guyanese experience, a Jamaican experience and a

Barbadian experience that is prior to and must precede the wider

SQuoted in Nettleford, Caribbean Cultural Identity. The
Case of Jamaica, p. 87.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid., p.191.

Caribbean experience.

In this respect, an article by M. G. Smith on West Indian

culture in 1961 is instructive' Smith argues that cultural

homogeneity may be used to promote political unity, that since

culture is a universal attribute there must be a West Indian

culture. But as he notes, difference of history and metropolitan

affiliation ensure that the Creole institutional complex that is

different from.the metropolitan model. He also points out that

African culture does not exist in pure form but are overlaid by

'Creole influences and situations'. Smith declares, "the West

Indian bred white is not culturally European. He also notes that

Jamaica, St. Kitts, Barbados and Antigua are predominantly

Protestant; St. Lucia, Grenada, Dominica and Trinidad remain

Catholic, and whilst one version of patois may be intelligible in

St. Lucia, Trinidad, Dominica and Martinique, it may be beyond the

Jamaican or Antiguan. In short, the regional problems are almost

as intractable as domestic ones. For these reasons, the regional

frame is a poor vehicle for a cultural policy in Trinidad and

Tobago. The fundamental clash between regional and domestic

perspectives were nicely illustrated by the controversy some years

ago surrounding a calypso contest,the winning calypso being

For a critical assessment of regional cultural policy, see
Nettleford, op. cit., p.155.

a See M.G. Smith, 'West Indian Culture' in Caribbean
Quarterly, Vol.7, No.3, Dec. 1961, pp. 111-119.



'Caribbean Man'.7 The singer was Black Stalin and the lines which

triggered the controversy ran thus,

Dem is one race, De Caribbean Man,
From the same place, De Caribbean Man
That make the same trip, De Caribbean Man
On the same ship, De Caribbean Man"

Rev. Hamid wrote a letter to the Express on February,28, 19791and

complained 'Stalin either does not respect facts or has no place

for a significant number of Caribbean people.'" Hindus, through

the Maha Sabha also condemned the calypso, whilst the Express

tended to equate Trinidadian with Caribbean. At one level it was

understandable that those who supported Stalin could feel a sense

of identification with the Caribbean man since the population of

the Caribbean was largely African-descended. But that was a matter

of racial identity which could hardly have provided a basis for a

cultural policy in the context of the Commonwealth Caribbean, given

its differing circumstances, history and cultural influences.

For in Trinidad the issue could not be as clearcut as it would

be in Jamaica. In Jamaica political parties and the governments

that emerged from them did so on the basis of ideologies and

distinctive programmes. In Trinidad, by contrast, political

parties developed from racial and cultural bases. The major

pressure groups and other auxiliary organizations tended to follow

7 For a discussion of the whole controversy, see R. Deosaran,
"The Caribbean Man" in Samaroo and Dabydeen (eds.) India in the
Caribbean. A Hansib (Warwick Publication, pp. 81-117).

U Deosaran, op. cit.

Hamid's letter was not published.


cultural and racial lies. Thus, in Trinidad the Indian party and

its successors were largely supported by Indian cultural

organizations; and similarly, the major African party was supported

by African organizations.

It was not surprising then that cultural policy, such as it

was, followed along the lines of political alignment. Some o the

most devoted supporters of the early PNM came from the Laventille

area, famous for its steelbands. It was largely for these reasons

that the PNM at an early stage in its career as government, had

considered the 'Africanisation' of Trinidadian society by

appropriate cultural and other measures." It was in this context

that the decision was taken to set up the Carnival Development

Committee in 1957. It was soon recognized however that the Indian

presence was substantial and the plan was abandoned.

It was the explosion of Black Power in 1970 and its emphasis

on culture as the agent of change that gave the question of

cultural policy new urgency. The Carnival Development Committee

was transformed into the National Carnival Commission. Until 1972

there was a widespread perception that the resources of the state

allocated to culture went largely to Carnival and its ancillary

activities. It was the celebration of the anniversary of

Independence in 1972 which for the first time witnessed a

reasonable allocation to the National Council for Indian Culture,

to mount its own celebrations. In keeping with the new mood

Cabinet-appointed an Archaeological Committee in 1979 to advise the

'e For a discussion of the question see Elton Richardson.


Minister of Education and Culture on all archaeological matters and

'to co-ordinate the preparation for the archaeological research

project in Tobago.'

There was also a concerted attempt to make near compulsory the

celebration of carnival in all state schools. There were however

reports of resistance by Indians in some of these schools. By far

the most integrated attempt at a cultural policy was represented by

the Better Village Programme run from the Office of the Prime

Minister. It was clearly derived from the Jamaican model and

geared to community action; but transplanted into the Trinidadian

social structure it soon became a source of political patronage and

control. In this respect, it merely carried on the earlier

traditions of the community centres. It was not surprising then,

that African culture received far more emphasis and support from

the state than Indian culture did. Indian culture was viewed as

the culture of the opposition. It was also regarded as outside the

mainstream of the Afro-Caribbean culture.

The formation of the National Alliance for Reconstruction

(NAR) in 1985 did promise a new conception of politics in Trinidad

and Tobago. For the first time a conscious attempt was made to

recognize the plural nature of Trinidadian society and to build on

those premises. It was for its day the grandest experiment in

Afro-Indian solidarity. Consistent with these perspectives the

manifesto of the NAR promised to recognize the various cultural

'1 For an evaluation of the Community Centres and their
activities, see S. Craig, "Community Development in Trinidad and


strains that made up Trinidadian society and committed itself to

the establishment of a National Cultural Commission. It was in

fulfillment of this promise that a steering committee was set up

with the following terms of reference:

... to formulate a Brief regarding the
National Cultural Policy with particular
reference to the structure, organisation,
functions scope, staffing and budget (overhead
and operational costs involved in the
establishment of the National Commission on

... to consult with as wide a cross-section of
appropriate national interests as possible;

... to propose a time-table for the
establishment of the National Commission on

... to propose a Draft Bill, in collaboration
with the Ministry of Legal Affairs, for the
establishment of the National Commission on
Culture. 2

The report recommended the provision of resources so that all

citizens could realise their cultural and creative potential; the

presentation, conservation and documentation of the cultures

present in the society "the promotion and dissemination among the

nation's peoples of knowledge of all the cultures present in the

society; the enhancement of indigenous cultural phenomena and

practices. It also proposed vesting responsibility in the

Commission for advising the State on cultural relations with

foreign governments and agencies. The Commission was to be

organised on the following principles:

Only four (4) of the fourteen members of this Committee
were Indian.


(1) Status and membership of the Trinidad and Tobago

Commission on Culture

(2) Structure and operation

(3) Scope and Cultural Action

(4) Relationship with existing governmental agencies.

Significantly, the report also proposed a Cultural

Commissioner for Tobago affairs. A de facto Ministry comprising

five departments was also recommended. It was also recommended

that the Commission should assume responsibility for all programmes

and projects then carried out by existing governmental agencies

responsible for culture. Under this arrangement, the National

Carnival Commission would have been assigned to one of the five

departments. It was proposed also to offer these proposals as a

White Paper in Parliament.

As a proposal for a cultural policy applicable to the whole

state of Trinidad and Tobago, it had a lot to recommend it,

although the proposal to have a Cultural Commissioner for Tobago

Affairs did suggest a concern with electoral base. There can be no

doubt too, that the authors of the report were inspired by the

noblest of philosophies. They recognized that culture was "the sum

total of ways of life, thought and action, behaviour, beliefs,

customs and the values underlying them. They also conceded that

'cultural action by the state capitalizes on this potential (our

diverse cultural heritage) to strengthen the fabric of society,

thereby facilitating of the people's creative energies and

engendering a sense of well-being through satisfaction with one's


Invoking the constitution, the report claimed that its

proposed policy "affirms the responsibility of the State to

encourage the cultural expression of the Nation's peoples as part

of the concept: 'Unity in Diversity'. Commissioners were to be

appointed by the President in his discretion after consultation

with the ministers of Education and Culture. As a document

designed for a* plural society such as Trinidad and Tobago, the

report was indeed a progressive one. As it turned out however, the

document never achieved the status of a White Paper and instead the

NAR proceeded with the promulgation of a National Carnival


The report struck all the right chords in the formation of a

national cultural policy. It clearly recognized that cultural

policy was a problem in management; that it had to be aware of the

technology and possibilities of mass communication, that it had to

reach as wide a cross-section of the people and to evoke their

loyalty and commitment. It also attempted to appeal to all

segments so that there could be no fear that one culture would

dominate the other. It finally attempted to lift cultural policy

from the domain of politics by assigning the choice of

Commissioners to the President in his discretion.

What, then, went wrong? Ironically it was the congruence of

politics and culture in the Trinidadian situation which by their

operation led to the collapse of the NAR as a party and thus to the

attempt to formulate a truly multi-racial cultural policy. For the


NAR was truly a coalition party which had temporarily, at least,

had successfully assembled a vehicle for the competing interests of

African, Indian and Tobagonian block within the state of Trinidad

and Tobago. But an imbalance developed almost simultaneously with

their victory of 33-3. It meant that the Indian vote in Parliament

was no longer as critical as it was expected to be. It was a

situation that was made worse by the quarrels and recriminations

that developed.over the division of the spoils of office.1

It is in this context that the controversy over the Indian

Cultural Centre must be viewed. The offer of a Centre had been

made by Indira Ghandi in 1968 but had not been taken up by the PNM.

It seems that while the NAR agreed to accept the offer, problems

relating to protocol and diplomatic niceties arose. It was felt,

however, that the delay in approving the arrangements was unduly

long. Indians also pointed out that France and Venezuela did

have centres in Trinidad and that they had voiced no objections to

the building of a Pan Theatre or a Carnival Museum. Those who

opposed the Indian Cultural Centre argued that Indians had no need

to 'produce a civilisation' in the Caribbean since the contract of

indentureship required them to return to India. Thus the burden of

creation in the Caribbean fell on the African. Lovelace argued


When we point to Steelband and Calypso, to the
Spiritual Baptists and to Carnival, we are
pointing not simply to artifacts that people
of African race have created but things that

13 For a discussion of these difficulties of the NAR, see
Ryan, The Politics of Succession.

also express the stubborn creative potential
of the Caribbean people."

What this illustrates is the confusion that exists between

conceptions such as art and culture; for while the African was

forced to be more creative there can be no doubt that Carnival,

Calypso and Steelband were connected institutions deriving 4rom

French and African influences and largely associated with the

African community in Trinidad and Tobago. It should also be

pointed out that despite their insistence on the guarantees of a

return passage in the indentureship context, the vast majority of

Indians ultimately chose to remain in Trinidad. Indeed, there was

a process of creativity no less compelling than was the case with

the African; for adaptation, creation and recreation began as soon

as the recruiter took his prize to the depot and from there to the

port of Calcutta. In the Depot and during the Middle Passage, the

Indian was also forced to adapt to new castes, mores and standards

and values. All cultures including European, Indian and African

-were forced to adapt and recreate in the Caribbean. Given the

fact of European dominance in the political and economic sphere, it

was not surprising that European norms, culture and values for

substantial sections of the community, became the object of

striving; but equally important is the fact that a great deal of

what has been described as "African" or "Indian" culture involved

"1 Ryan, op. cit., p.162.

'~ For a more finished analysis of this area, see G.Rohlehr,
Calypso and Society.

a process of adaptation, recreation and syncreatisn.

Part of the problem too was that 'Indian' culture was a

devalued culture, especially during the period of colonial rule.

The colonial elite, African, Indian or European-descended, tended

to evaluate cultural forms by reference to the dominant

metropolitan standards. On these grounds African and Inhian

cultural expressions were devalued and as Rohlehr has pointed out,

became the targets of prohibitive legislation. While there is no

intention to judge the calypso either as art or "social

commentary", there can be no doubt that they reflected deeply-held

views of the African and Indian cultures in the society. while for

instance, Black and Indian women were reviled, there was little

comparable attack on White women; and while the shango, obeah,

massala and dhal and maharajins became the objects of satire and

mockery, there was no comparable attack on the whites or on

Christianity and its sacred figures. Not only was the metropolitan

world the centre of gravity, it became as well the standard by

which other cultures were judged.

The policy of assimilation to which reference has been made

was an attempt to transplant metropolitan values and culture in

place of African and Indian cultures. The transfer of power and

the acquisition of independence did not change these perspectives.

As we noted earlier, it was not until 1983 that Emancipation Day

was declared a national holiday. The consequence of this position

was that cultural policy such as it was, were responses to

political pressures of one kind or another. This is why as the two


major enquiries into cultural policy in Trinidad and Tobago

discovered, there was so much overlap in the institutions involved.

It was also found that there was a conspicuous lack of co-

ordination among the units involved in cultural activity. Thus,

both governmental and non-governmental agencies were involved in

cultural affairs but the relationship between them was never quite

spelt out; nor too were the principles by which state funds were

allocated to non-governmental organizations really worked out. The

Division of Culture however does receive requests for financial

assistance from groups, organizations and individuals but these

must be approved by the Minister.

The accession to power of a new government in 1991 has once

more restored the issue of a cultural policy to the agenda. The

major event was the decision by the government of Trinidad and

Tobago to recognize the steelpan as the national instrument. The

arguments advanced by the supporters of the policy was that the

steelpan was invented in Trinidad and was therefore the only

institution that could be called indigenous. Critics of the move,

mainly Indians, held that the issue was not whether the instrument

was indigenous or otherwise, but rather that it was a decision to

legitimate by State action, the institution of one group as against

another. It was held that the steelpan, calypso and carnival were

all institutions associated largely with the non-Indian community;

to recognize the steelpan then was to commit the State to favour

L" See Claude Fabrizio, Towards a Cultural Development Policy,
(UNESCO, 1979,and Sheila Graham, Orcanising the Cultural Complex of
Trinidad and Tobago (Dept. of Cultural Affairs, OAS, 1987).


the related institutions of the steelpan in preference to the

institutions of the Indian community.

For much the same reasons, the allocation of state lands for

cultural purposes has now become a major political issue. For some

time, the issue of land has been a major political question. It

has been advanced that the cause of relative Indian success inthe

economy has been due to the fact that they were 'given' lands by

the Colonial Government. For these reasons, successive governments

were reluctant to lease lands to Indian farmers at Caroni Limited;

and even more, central to the cultural question also explains why

the organizers of the Divali Nagar are now finding it difficult to

lease more land from the Government.

Some of the considerations we have been discussing have also

exercised the attentions of the Commissioners of the recent West

Indian Commission. Their report on the cultural dimension of the

regional integration puts a great deal of emphasis on the Caribbean


It is important, however, to recognize that the agenda of the

Commission entailed the integration of a very disparate region. It

was imperative therefore for them to paint a broad canvas and to

emphasise the common features of the Caribbean experience. For

these reasons, more emphasis was placed on Carnival than on Phagwa

and in drama, dance, sculpture, music and painting, the

perspectives were undoubtedly Afro-Caribbean. It was therefore not

7 See Report of the West Indian Commission, "Time For
Action," pp. 265-305.


surprising that they hoped for "the triumph of oneness over

otherness, "' Among their many recommendations was the proposal

that there should be a new look at Carifesta and that the policy-

makers should "formulate a regional cultural policy matched by

national cultural policies." But this is just the problem. Should

the policy be first formulated at national level, simultaneously

with a regional policy? It has also been asserted that Indian

culture are no more than isolated pockets in the Caribbean. But a

lot depends on whether the boundaries are the Commonwealth

Caribbean or the larger Caribbean. The Indians may represent

pockets of culture in the Anglo-Caribbean but it is important to

remember that in Guyana, they are a decisive majority and in

Trinidad, according to the latest census figures, the largest

majority grouping in the society. In such a situation, it is

neither useful nor appropriate to regard Indian culture as mere

pockets, as the recent Carifesta conference demonstrated.


It should be clear by now that nation-building, especially in

plural societies, requires a carefully thought out and integrated

cultural policy. The new states, as they went into independence,

proclaimed their intentions to be rid of colonialism and its

"1 The West Indian Commission, p.290.


cultural baggage. The Caribbean was no exception but as the events

were to prove, the newly-independent states soon fell back on the

time-honoured colonial policies of assimilation. In Trinidad, it

essentially meant a concern with art rather than culture. Part of

the problem was that given the nature of the social structure it

was impossible to promulgate a policy in 'African' terms, whatever

the actual 'African' content of that policy might be. Policy-

makers accordingly settled for ad hoc responses to claims of

groupings and organizations; and given the nature of the political

parties and the fact that one party was in office for nearly thirty

years, meant that there were substantial imbalances in the way that

resources were allocated by the State to 'African' and 'Indian'

organizations. It was in this context that feelings of alienation

did develop. Yet, without a cultural policy that can appeal to a

wide cross-section of the Trinidadian community, commitment to the

State by all sections of the community would be fragile. The

proposal for an independent National Cultural Commission with

powers and responsibility for the formulation and implementation of

a cultural policy for Trinidad and Tobago is now more imperative

than ever.

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