THE increasing public xenophobia about Venezuelans who have fled their country to come to our country with little except the clothes on their backs is disheartening.
We complain about local politicians appealing to the herd instinct to have people vote in accordance with “tribal” politics and appreciate that the treatment of any group in society as the “Other” is wrong but we are quite happy to jump up in the band with herds of haters of Venezuelans who have fled the terrible situation in their homeland.
Ironically, we celebrate and want to increase the value of our Amerindian heritage. Mr Navarro of Moruga was made a chief and spoke of his antecedents, who came here from where? What we now call the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Our country officially adopted Spanish as our second language under the administration of former prime minister Patrick Manning. The vision of the then-government was that our country would be the “Gateway to the Americas”. That is why our government ministries and street names are also written in Spanish. This did not happen because Venes reach.
Over the centuries, families from Trinidad, before we became a twin-island state, and families from Venezuela have married and formed social and business alliances. In the early 70s, when Venezuela was surfing on the wave of oil money and our country was poor by comparison, many citizens emigrated there to make new lives. Some never returned. Not so long ago, Venezuela’s medical care was of First World status. Our citizens would travel there for treatment and would receive it at affordable cost. Medical personnel would train in Venezuelan hospitals.
Doris Millan, who was born in Venezuela but emigrated here with her young husband, taught Spanish to our first prime minister, various presidents and their spouses and to government officials at all levels. She spent a life of service to Trinidad and Tobago. She is just one example of many.
The very earth on which we walk is believed to have broken off from the South American continent. Where do the Scarlet Ibis go during the day before coming home to roost in the Caroni Swamp? Why are our flora and fauna different from that of other Caribbean islands? Why do we have oil? We have human, social and geographical ties with Venezuela.
The sheer ignorance of what passes for public discourse on our radio waves should make us as a herd of Trinidad and Tobago citizens feel jointly and severally humiliated. That this discourse is not being effectively combated by a clear public education programme for citizens who deserve to have information about why these people have fled, what is required of us as citizens and what is required of our Government would be good starting points for contemplation and action.
In 2000 we ratified a UN Convention on Refugees. What have we done since? Nada. FATF and CFATF only have to suggest that we jump and we do not even wait for the instruction. We ask how high.
As for individual State obligations after treaty ratification, well, we treat that as less important. The Living Water Community presented a proposed Refugee and Migrant Response Plan several years ago to the Government but who knows what was done with that? Perhaps the only way we may find out is by putting in a Freedom of Information application.
The numbers of Venezuelans who have come here are smaller than the numbers who have fled to other countries. By the end of last month several international newspapers placed the overall number at around four million. These people have left because they have no food to eat. Many do not have homes or roofs over their heads. If they had jobs, their salaries could not buy a loaf of bread. Their hospitals are without electricity and water. Many parts of their country have been without electricity. Their children, the differently abled, the old, pregnant women and babies are dying.
And radio hosts here are talking about whether Trini men want Vene women because they think they are white? And soon Spanish will be our second language? It already is!
Official response has been poor. Apparently our Minister of Energy took a while to realise there was a crisis in Venezuela in the first place. When the rumblings started about losing the gas deal were we not then sufficiently alerted to prepare a plan to deal with the exodus affecting our country?
Just a few months ago, our Minister of National Security said quite properly that these persons would be treated as illegal migrants. There was however no legislative movement to make laws to regulate official agencies and inform citizens about their interactions with refugees. And as for the Opposition which calls itself the alternative government or the government in waiting, what is your plan of action, if any?
Please let us turn down the volume on the hatred coming from our airwaves. Let us remember that there but for the grace of God go we.
Here is part of a poem by Rudyard Kipling, and yes, I do get the irony: “All good people agree, And all good people say, All nice people, like Us, are We and everyone else is They. But if you cross over the sea, Instead of over the way, You may by (think of it!) looking on We, As only a sort of They...”
Sophia K Chote SC is an Independent Senator