Courtesy Reuters

Letter From Port of Spain

Is Trinidad the Next Jamaica?

On May 24, election day in Trinidad and Tobago, Patrick Manning, who had ruled the republic as prime minister for 12 of the past 18 years, appeared on television. He looked stunned, and his speech was halting as he admitted that the coalition led by Kamla Persad Bissessar, a 58-year-old lawyer and career politician, had won a landslide victory, gaining 29 of the 41 seats in parliament.

The abrupt change in the country’s political power filled the streets with a sense of joyous relief. Pickup trucks loaded with tall speakers cruised through many neighborhoods, playing soca music and broadcasting slogans from Persad Bissessar’s campaign. The night was humid and soggy, but people lingered on the streets to shake their neighbors’ hands, honk car horns, dance behind d.j. trucks, and drink beer and rum.

Policymakers in the United States and Europe are also paying attention. Trinidad and Tobago is a significant exporter of natural gas, which makes it something of a regional power in the West Indies. It has the largest economy in the English-speaking Caribbean; although its population is only half the size of Jamaica’s, its GDP is nearly twice as large. The country’s capital, Port of Spain, is the principal banking hub for investing in the Caribbean, and the city has also become a magnet for a young, professional class of immigrant workers from nearby “small island” countries. Trinidad is a regional military power, too: it has the largest navy in the West Indies, and its military often assists in regional disaster relief.

Its strategic location -- just seven miles off the coast of Venezuela -- also means that Trinidad is a key shipment hub for the cocaine trade. As elsewhere in the Caribbean, the illegal drug trade has corrupted much of the police force and undermined political institutions and the rule of law. Over the past decade, gang violence and government corruption have caused civil society to nearly unravel. Successive governments in Port of Spain have bought the support

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