Independence, like Emancipation, is a work in progress. Sometimes we are on target and, at other times, we lose our way. The question is: what are we independent from? Do we have a vision or aspiration for an independent Trinidad and Tobago? Do we have a collective desire that we are working towards?
Alice in Wonderland arrived at a crossroad. There were several options. She saw a Cheshire cat and asked for help. “Sir,” said Alice, “which road should I take?” “It depends,” said the cat, “upon where you want to go.” “I do not know where I want to go,” said Alice. “Then any road is as good as the other,” said the cat.
In 1962, Independence meant being free from a colonial master. Today, it should be redefined. Independence should mean the courage to chart our course towards human flourishing for all citizens. We may no longer fly the Union Jack, but are we truly free?
Christopher Laird, in his essay “Columbus’ Ships Still Sailing”, says:
“The very year that the colonial powers withdrew their infrastructure support, their bureaucrats, administrators and police, television sets clicked on in Caribbean living rooms. The Islands joined the consumers of credit, of goods, of a lifestyle. In the neo-colonial plantation, television is like a showroom for the company store. We are encouraged to buy our way into greater debt to the master.” (1994)
Over the last 57 years, we have bought into a certain lifestyle and the debt that supports it; and we bought into the values and attitudes of the Western consumer society.
The same lifestyle is reflected in two sides of the society. The rich have their fancy houses and cars, fine dining and worldwide travel. The poor may see the gang leader wearing gold and driving a fancy car with many women, demanding extreme loyalty.
Both these lifestyles were bought from the same “company store”. They are both a mock imitation of real life and sustainable values. Neither are what was hoped for when our forefathers pushed for independence. Both follow the 50 Cent creed: “Get rich or die trying.”
After Independence, our economic model appeared to place the common good above the individual good, creating a safety net for the poor while asking the rich to pay higher taxes to fund it.
This would have changed as we entered the recession of the 1980s and government spending was curtailed drastically, to the detriment of the vulnerable in the society.
By the time prosperity returned, our society had pivoted to a value system that allowed for greed and individualism, with what felt like accelerating corruption and greater disparity between those who have and those who do not.
Aristotle observed that the result of putting money as the highest good is violence—a reality we are contending with now.
In the Catholic tradition, St John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have each condemned a capitalist model of the economy in very strong terms. Ultimately it is or leads to idolatry—putting money in the place only God should occupy.
Pope Francis, speaking to grassroots organisers in Bolivia, said:
This system is by now intolerable: farmworkers find it intolerable, labourers find it intolerable, communities find it intolerable, people find it intolerable... The earth itself... also finds it intolerable... And behind all this pain, death and destruction there is the stench of what Basil of Caesarea, one of the Church’s first theologians, called ‘the dung of the devil’. An unfettered pursuit of money rules. That is the dung of the devil.”
“An unfettered pursuit of money” rules in Trinidad and Tobago. This unfettered pursuit is idolatry. Money does not flow down to all parts of our society. It creates a chasm between the rich and the poor.
We have condemned communities to intergenerational poverty while many of our citizens live lavish lifestyles. Is this independence? Only exaggerated responsibility for the common good will move us along the “road of independence”.
On this 57th anniversary of our Independence, let us push forward towards true freedom for every citizen of our nation. Freedom is not in what we own; it is in who we are as brothers and sisters, committed to the human flourishing of each citizen regardless of age, race or sex.
• The Most Rev Charles J Gordon
is Archbishop of Port of Spain.