Selwyn Ryan on CARICOM, Caribbean Crime and Trinidad’s State of Emergency


Above: Professor Selwyn Ryan (Photo: TGISL)

By Alexander Britell

University of the West Indies Professor Selwyn Ryan is one of the Caribbean’s most influential thinkers. Ryan, who earned his PhD in political science from Cornell University in 1966, has been a member of two constitutional commissions established by the government of Trinidad and Tobago, and has also been the chairman of the country’s Public Utilities Commission. Ryan, who is also a columnist for the Trinidad Express newspaper, is now heading a team examining the causes of criminality in Trinidad, having been appointed by Trinidad Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar. This weekend, Ryan presented at the Miami Book Fair as part of a panel on the post-colonial Caribbean. He talked to Caribbean Journal about the politics of Trinidad’s State of Emergency, the problem of Caribbean criminality and what he viewed as the death of the integration movement in its present form.

What do you think about the integration movement and its progress, or lack thereof?

One of the things I said very frankly and bluntly was that CARICOM unity at least as understood in the 1950s when we began the self-government movement, is dead. Or as some put it, it’s on pause. But that pause is likely to be very long because there has over the years been a number of things which have been put in place – functional unity- the university [UWI], the cricket team, weather services, etc. But the political architecture, something is very wrong about it, or improbable about it. Because I think a lot of good men have spent a lot of time trying to put the thing together, trying to make compromises. The declarations have been there, but the will is not there. In part, it derives from the insularity of the region – the leader of every island wants to have his or her day in the sun. However small, being prime minister is a valuable resource. You could use it to try and attract funds to your country, you can use it to attract funds for yourself, and there’s been a bit of that. So I think on balance, I would have to declare in a way that that project has really come to an end. And we have to rethink what it is we can meaningfully and reasonably do.

Is CARICOM too weak in your view?

Well, it’s weak, but these things are very difficult to manage. We were following the European Union. We felt that if it could be done in Europe, we could do it, and a lot of what we attempted to do copied the European Union. The EU is now itself experiencing enormous difficulty. We don’t know whether it will survive, we don know whether the Euro would survive, and whether, by consequence, we will survive. Because we depend a lot on trade and various things with Europe, and if they can’t work it out and if they don’t manage to work it out… So we probably have to think of different strategies.

IF the EU is not the model, what would be the alternative?

Maybe we were too ambitious. Maybe we underestimated how easy it was, or how difficult it was to effect these kinds of arrangements. I have no idea – if I knew how best to transform the existing arrangement, I would be the first to offer my services. But I am pessimistic, and we can still whistle in the dark and say well, we’ll work it out. But I, after 50 years or so, I’m not optimistic. Maybe not in my time.

The OECS seems to have gotten some traction, on a smaller scale.

Yes, they have. I think part of the problem is that they’re all very small. And smallness should really enhance the possibilities of practical strategy, but it seems to be the reverse. The burdens of smallness I think have been articulated, but I think they have been underestimated. Because you read, and I read my colleagues, whether it’s [St Vincent and the Grenadines PM] Ralph Gonsalves, or whoever – they all understand the problem, but when it gets down to the nitty-gritty and decisions have to be taken which involve them as prime ministers and leaders of countries, reason and practicality go out of the window. I really wish I could be more optimistic, but unfortunately I am way past that now. I’ve been involved as a professor, and teacher and colleague of all of these people, and I know they mean well, and they all consider themselves at one level to be Caribbean peoples, and we all share certain kinds so things, we understand each other instinctively. But that has not been enough to bring us together.

What do you think the impact or benefit has been of the State of Emergency?

That’s on the agenda. It’s a current problem. Since I’m involved, because arising out of what happened, when the state of emergency was declared, the Prime Minister called me and asked me to undertake a root and branch analysis of the problems of black male risk, so to speak. And I have agreed to do it, so I am coming to the matter with fresh eyes, having written on it before. In fact, I have a book which is sitting there, and I put it away because I don’t want to pronounce anything in the book which I might have to revise. But right now, both parties, the ruling party, the PP, and the [opposition] PNM, are locked in a battle and it almost seems as though the PNM wished that the thing did not succeed. Because if it succeeds, it brings into question their viability as a prospective alternative government, so they have to be whistling in the dark and hoping that the thing will not work, because if it does, the PP gets locked into power for another 20 years. By the same token, they can’t come out openly and say they wished it would not succeed. So they have to be very, very careful. So a lot is riding on it – the government also has a vested interest in it, because the opposition is in effect predicting that the thing would not work, it’s not viable, its not sustainable – they have to show that it is.

“It almost seems as though the PNM wished that the thing did not succeed. Because if it succeeds, it brings into question their viability as a prospective alternative government, so they have to be whistling in the dark and hoping that the thing will not work, because if it does, the PP gets locked into power for another 20 years.”

They have the benefit of a fairly illiquid treasury. It’s not overabundant, but they have money, so they’re going to use some of it to try and ameliorate the problem, and I really wish them well – as a citizen. Because the problem is very serious – we have young people, and they’re not all black, but many are, who don’t seem to think they have a future, and they are assuming that they will not live to 30 or beyond, and their behaviour indicates that that’s what they expect. So they live for the present, spend for the present, whatever little the have. I tell you frankly that they have already decided a whole lot of things relating to their passing, and there’s a kind of fatalism which is frightening. It affects their behaviour, the choices they make, the way they see the world. So I think it’s the most serious problem facing the Caribbean. It’s not only Trinidad and Jamaica; the problem is in the Eastern Caribbean. We don’t hear as much about it, but they themselves – when three people die, it’s a big thing for them. It used to be a big thing for us, now , [just] three- we’re happy. I was saying this morning, that in the Jamaican state of emergency last May, 73 people were killed. It’s very serious.

St Kitts has also talked about a State of Emergency.

And St Lucia also discussed it. So what I’m reflecting is a pessimistic mood, but it’s not one that says nothing can be done. We just have to start all over again and work and not expect that it will solve itself in five weeks or five years, or even longer. It’s a long-term struggle that has to be continued.

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