What's people got to do with it


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Category: Trinidad Politics Date: 02 Dec 01

Earlier this month a politician whispered to me: “What’s the word on the ground? What are people saying about the upcoming election?”


I hesitated, a thousand thoughts crowding my mind and murmured something non-committal, since it wasn’t the time and place to be earnest.


I should have said this:


“Why involve people at all? Why don’t you all go ahead and do your thing, without pretending it’s about people? What’s this catfight for power got to do with the boy who skips school to sell oranges by the traffic lights?

“What’s it got to do with the woman who sits in the maxi taxi with lines of defeat on her face, wondering if she will be able to pay her mother’s medical bills?

“What’s it got to do with the young boy who sleeps with his gun in his hand because that’s the only hope he’ll ever have for a piece of the goodies he sees flaunted every day by the people in power? 

“What’s the election got to do with the impoverished pensioner shuffling in the grocery, the dying child waiting to be seen by a doctor?”


“What,” I should have asked the politician, “should the people do when asked on December 10th, to choose - not between manifestos, health plans, or which education system is going to get 17-year-olds away from slashing throats for $100 into university, but between ethnic groups and personalities?”


“Why,” I should have asked, “should we bother to vote, or pretend you all represent us because it is our experience that when you people get into power you are too proud to be accountable.”


“Why bother when criticism, no matter how constructive on the impact of a politician’s policy, will be taken personally, construed as an attack on his or her entire party, on an entire race?”


“What,” I didn’t ask him, “does the waspish exchange between politicians, the personality-bashing, got to do with the families living like animals on the Beetham? What do your rallies and loudspeakers have to do with the destiny of the baby boy I saw there seven Christmases ago, his stomach bloated with malnutrition, flies hovering over his face?”


“What,” I wanted to ask, “does the scuffle over who gets more air time have to do with the ragged Beetham children who don’t officially exist because their parents hadn’t the few dollars to register them?”


“What has politics got to do with the wretched prostitutes in Curepe with scabs on their legs and lesions on their mouths?”


Saturated with disillusionment, I turned to Fr Paschal Tiernan, a Dominican priest at St Finbar’s Church. I am no Catholic, but when you get the chance to hear an intelligent man whose entire vocation is devoted to giving hope to the hopeless, faith to the faithless, you listen.


With just a few days of campaigning left, Fr Tiernam has this advice for the politician:


“Firstly, tell me the truth. Don’t try to manipulate me with lies or ways that are unfair.

“Secondly, operate with a deep sense of justice and work towards the common good of the people of this country. Put the everyday well-being of people before statistics, economics, trends. Never dehumanise people by quoting numbers. You cannot have a policy whereby you allow people to suffer for the sake of statistics.

“Thirdly, don’t play to the media. Don’t highlight self-interested statements. Stick to the objective truths.

“The media, too, must not cater to politicians. Media houses are abdicating in their social responsibility by choosing sensationalism over balance and objectivity.

“Ultimately, the citizenry lacks social and political responsibility. As someone put it, politics in Trinidad and Tobago means three minutes in a polling booth to people. It must mean more.

“The only way to create a real democracy is by educating the masses, making them conscious of their social responsibilities so that they will be wary of a campaign that uses race, or personalities to win votes. They will demand a campaign that has more to do with improving the quality of life of all people, that will develop, rather than split the country into bits.”


And finally, this vibrant and humane Dominican priest showed the way forward so that the missing link between people, (think of kidnapping gangsters, of the 17-year-old bandits, of sick children treated carelessly in waiting rooms of hospitals) and politicians is crafted, through dialogue.


“Dialogue literally means: I speak while you listen, then you speak while I listen. We have no dialogue. We have politicians shouting at people, without listening to them. There are very few opportunities for people to speak to politicians who will listen,” he said.


So that, I say to all our candidates, rookie and veteran, is the word from the ground. We are not as unknowing or indifferent to our fate as you might think.


Our heads are emerging from the sand to watch your las lap. Surprise us. Restore our hope, our faith. Put the people first.

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur