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Caribbean Islands

 
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Caribbean Islands

Political Unrest and Economic Troubles, 1970-73

Although the PNM dominated the national bureaucracy and the civil service, by 1970 its popularity among the electorate was considerably lower than it had been at the time of independence. Election turnouts were lower, and election procedures increasingly were questioned. The poorest segments of the population, which were also East Indian, were largely left out of the government and the growth process. The PNM became quite centralized as Williams made most decisions by himself. By April 1970, he had not held a press conference in five years and was poorly prepared to respond to the challenge of the Black Power movement that spread across the Caribbean.

The Black Power movement was introduced into Trinidad and Tobago in 1970 by the National Joint Action Committee (NJAC), a party that sought fundamental changes in Trinidadian and Tobagonian society. The NJAC charged that the root cause of the nation's 14- percent general unemployment was white dominance. According to the NJAC, foreign and local white capitalists owned the country and oppressed blacks, defined by the NJAC as Trinidadians and Tobagonians of African and East Indian descent. In fact, a 1970 survey had found that 86 percent of business leaders were white. The NJAC maintained that Williams had white Anglo-Saxon values and decried his leadership. A major political crisis began on February 26, 1970, when the NJAC joined the Students Guild at the UWI in a march of 250 students in Port-of-Spain. The march was organized to protest the trial in Canada of Trinidadian students accused of occupying a computer center there. The government's arrest of nine marchers generated solidarity marches that over the next few months attracted increasing numbers of people and nearly toppled the government. After 20,000 marched in San Juan, the NJAC attempted to gain the support of the East Indians by asking the largely black marchers to cut cane for a day to show solidarity for East Indian sugar workers. East Indian leaders opposed this, and a forty-five- kilometer march from Port-of-Spain to Couva was substituted. Significantly, fewer than 100 of the 5,000 to 10,000 people who took part in that march were East Indians.

Williams tried to defuse the Black Power movement by supporting it and by paying the fines of the Trinidadian students in Canada, but the marches continued and attracted additional supporters, reaching their peak during April 1970. Thirty percent of the population of Tobago took part in solidarity marches on April 4 and 5, and more than 30,000 marched in a funeral procession on April 9 for an NJAC supporter shot by police. After several strikes the following week, the deputy prime minister, A.N.R. Robinson, a Tobagonian who was also minister of external affairs, resigned from the cabinet. In an attempt to preempt a general strike and march on the capital, Williams declared a state of emergency on April 21. Some of the officers and men in the Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force seized control of the barracks at Teteron, however, thus depriving the government of arms; Williams was then forced to make hasty purchases of arms from the United States and Venezuela. Once rearmed, the 2,500-member Defence Force remained loyal to the government and was supported by the citizens. The crisis passed after the trade unions called off several scheduled strikes.

As a consequence of the 1970 uprising, Williams became increasingly disillusioned. His government moved farther to the right, introducing several measures to curtail individual freedom. Although a bill proposing very stringent state control over public meetings and freedom of speech was defeated, several other bills passed regulating public freedom, broadening police search powers, and requiring licenses for firearms. Concern about these measures led to the drafting and adoption of a new constitution in 1976.

There was general discontent with the government by the time of the 1971 elections, but the PNM again benefited from disunity in the opposition camp. An opposition alliance collapsed following the withdrawal of Robinson and his new party, the Action Committee of Democratic Citizens. The opposition's subsequent decision to boycott the election enabled the PNM to capture all thirty-six seats in the House of Representatives.

Despite its electoral victory, Williams's government reached a low point in 1973. The PNM was in power because of a majority boycott rather than a majority election. Strikes were frequent, the government treasury was nearly bankrupt, and there was concern that the government would not be able to pay its employees. Williams became so disillusioned by strikes that at the PNM convention in 1973 he resigned as prime minister and left the convention. Karl Hudson-Phillips was elected to succeed him, overwhelmingly defeating East Indian Kamaluddin Mohammed; Williams returned later in 1973, however, reassumed leadership, and forced Hudson-Phillips to leave the party.

Data as of November 1987

Caribbean Islands - TABLE OF CONTENTS

  • Section > TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO


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