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A progressive social movement takes root in Trinidad

This weekend, I had the honour of representing Common Frontiers at the founding congress of Trinidad’s Movement for Social Justice. The MSJ is a labour and popular movement-based political party which joined four other parties during national elections a year ago to form a coalition alternative to the PNM called the People’s Partnership. The coalition swept the 2010 elections, and with two members now in government as part of the partnership — Labour Minister Errol McLeod (pictured at podium) and Senator David Abdulla — the MSJ is poised to change the politics of Trinidad and Tobago, and with luck the broader Caribbean. Speaking at a press conference earlier this year, Abdulah said MSJ membership includes “not only workers who are unionised, but non-unionised workers, farmers and fisherfolk, the youth, the elderly, retired workers, small business people, the self-employed, those who identify with what we stand for: social justice equity, sustainable livelihoods for all, sustainable development, peace and security for every single citizen of Trinidad and Tobago.”

On Saturday, the MSJ elected a new executive, passed a constitution and agreed on a draft policy document whose principles include:

– Placing the people first and at the centre of development
– Ensuring that there is social justice, equity, decent work and sustainable livelihoods for all
– Respect for the environment
– Community based development
– Culture of peace
– Gender equity
– No discrimination based on race, religion, geography, age, party affiliation

The MSJ built these principles into its constitution, which includes commitments to “promote and defend participatory democracy,” to “provide for the political education of our people so as to stimulate their consciousness and guide their patriotic, moral, social and cultural development,” and “to support and extend solidarity to all peoples who are struggling against all forms of domination and anti-democratic practices everywhere throughout the world.” The party will be entirely member-funded. Its executive council will include permanent youth and mass movement members.

To commemorate their founding congress, the MSJ invited leaders of progressive political parties and social movements from across the hemisphere, including Common Frontiers, to bring words of solidarity for the party’s struggle to transform the politics and economy of Trinidad, and to bring a peoples democracy to the nation. These international representatives participated in a two-day conference last Thursday and Friday on the current political and economic conjuncture, which took place at the head offices of the Oilfield Workers Trade Union in San Fernando.

Sandra Quintella of Jubilee South (Brazil) at the MSJ meeting on the current political and economic conjuncture

Guests from the Caribbean, many of whom form the executive of the Assembly of Caribbean Peoples, included: Otto Marrero of the Communist Party of Cuba, Mario Molina of OSPAAL, Rupert Roopnaraine with Guyana’s Working People’s Alliance, Doris Pizarro and Flavia Rivera Montero of the independence movement in Puerto Rico, Robby Naarendorp and Ewald Gefforie of the Surinam Labour Party, Claudette Etnel of Surinam’s C-47 (labour federation), Camille Chalmers (pictured far right), an economist with the Haitian Platform to Advocate Alternative Development (PAPDA), Sandra Massiah of PSI Caribbean in Barbados, and Robert “Bobby” Clarke of the Clement Payne Movement.

From Latin America were: Pedro Paez of the Ecuadorian Presidential Commission for a New Regional Financial Architecture, Valter Pomar of the Brazilian Workers Party and Sao Paulo Foro, Sandra Quintela (pictured above at podium) of Jubilee South (Brazil), and Jorge Cabral of the Party of the Socialist Movement in Paraguay. Cabral missed his country’s 200th birthday as a free nation to attend the gathering in Trinidad.

The result was an extremely rich discussion on the state of capitalism globally, the prospects for Caribbean integration, the devastating impact of climate change and debt, the role of U.S. and Canadian multinational firms in the region, how trade agreements limit economic and governance options, and the importance of coalitions in the maintenance and growth of left governments in the hemisphere.

Trinidad and Tobago is an oil and, more recently, a gas economy. The country is food-insecure, meaning it imports most of what it consumes. The former PNM government ended the sugar cane industry by political decree. Once lush, rolling hills full of cane and other crops are now fallow. The dairy sector has also been marginalized with Nestle buying milk from what dairy farms remain for its re-processed milk product monopoly.

In 2007, CARICOM signed an intrusive economic partnership agreement (free trade deal) with the EU that restricts what Trinidad can do to diversify and grow local industries. The regional governance body is in the middle of stalled free trade talks with Canada that will undoubtedly push beyond what Trinidad agreed to in the EPA with the EU, as well as include an investor-to-state dispute process to further bully the national government into giving multinational firms what they want. That includes profiting from infrastructure projects, including water services, and financing tar sands development in southwest Trinidad. Scotiabank and Royal Bank of Canada have a firm foothold in the country to profit from this foreign investment.

Canada’s relationship with the West Indian nation also includes policing and security. Last April, Canadians Dwayne Gibbs and Jack Ewatski took over as commissioner and deputy commissioner of the Trinidad police force — a move some opposition parties worried would demoralize local police officers.

The founding of the MSJ gives Trinidad new hope for a different type of politics and economics in the Caribbean. The “pink tide” which has installed left-wing government across Latin America has not yet reached the islands, long considered the United States’ backyard by fanatical anti-communists in Washington, D.C. The MSJ faces a long struggle ahead as it works to build national support for its policies and vision for Trinidad. But the party has history on its side, and the support of progressive movements across the hemisphere.