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 of urban criminal groups through generous -- but only marginally effective -- make-work schemes, which allow gang members to charge inflated rates for small-scale infrastructure projects. In attempts to control more territory, and thus gain more access to government largesse, these gangs have turned parts of the capital into virtual war zones. More than 500 people are murdered in Trinidad and Tobago each year, representing one of the highest per-capita ratios in the world. The effect has been chilling: these days, parties and events are scheduled for afternoons, so participants can safely return home before dark.

In 2002, Manning, then prime minister, convened a meeting of gang leaders in a bid to halt violence. He offered them increased payouts in the form of development grants for landscaping and construction projects. Manning began referring to some of these kingpins as ”community leaders,” and they, in turn, began acting as a force of political mobilization. During the May election, police say, candidates from Manning’s party were handing out checks worth thousands of dollars to gang members and promising them more fat contracts.

So far, the new government is confronting these gangs head-on. In mid-July, it put forward legislation that makes gang membership a crime punishable by 20 years in prison. The government has also proposed changes to laws on bail and illegal firearm possession, which would allow police to deny bail to suspected gang members for up to five days.

The ascendancy of Persad Bissessar has raised hopes among foreign investors, diplomats, and Trinidadians themselves that the new government can reverse some of the mistakes of the past. But the West would be wise to temper its early enthusiasm. Manning’s administration was extremely corrupt and inefficient, and Persad Bissessar faces a tall order in reshaping the political culture in Port of Spain.
Beyond the recent anti-gang policies, Persad Bissessar needs competent help in instituting bureaucratic procedures that bolster economic development, the rule of law, and citizen trust in government.

Yet, instead of articulating a new strategy for reinvigorating the economy, breaking the power of gangs, or pursuing drug smugglers, Persad Bissessar has spent much of her energy since the election publicly humiliating Manning and calling for inquiries against him and his associates. Such investigations seem wise given the likely scale of the looting of the treasury by Manning and his cronies. But this kind of tit-for-tat vindictiveness can be particularly destabilizing for a small democracy.

In one of its first moves, the new government installed John Sandy, a retired military officer, as national security adviser. Appointing a military official to the post revealed a sinking confidence in the police, which was further emphasized by Persad Bissessar’s suggestion to temporarily deploy the nation's soldiers, and even low-wage private security guards, to do police work. This reform of supplementary manpower makes sense, but only in the short run: sooner or later, the bad apples within the police will need to be fired and tried for their crimes. In addition, the idea raises some constitutional questions, since the country’s judges do not allow evidence on gang activity that was obtained by the military.

Lately, the reputations of several officers from a high-profile anti-gang unit were tarnished after images posted on Facebook showed them relaxing on a yacht with prominent underworld figures. Instead of being fired or suspended, those officers were transferred to a different department. Such a laissez-faire attitude toward corruption within the police is deeply troubling for U.S. officials who oversee regional security operations, including cooperation against drug smuggling.
Most important, the government has yet to signal whether it will continue programs that allocate money to gangs. Of course, terminating the grants would rob gangs of a large source of their funds. But in the short term, such a move could also worsen the situation, as gangs would likely react to the diminished revenue stream by fighting over the drug trade, their other main source of income.

Official corruption is another ongoing problem, often ensnaring leading politicians. One of the new government’s leaders, Jack Warner, who holds the important office of minister of works and transport, is especially corrupt. Andrew Jennings, a reporter for the BBC and the London Sunday Times, called him "a kleptomaniac.” During the 2006 World Cup, for example, Warner, a vice president of FIFA, the worldwide governing body for soccer, scalped about $1 million worth of tickets to the highest bidders. His first task in the new government, he says, will be to get rid of traffic jams. But critics fear that the initiative is simply a means of distributing political pork by granting contracts to companies that will pay kickbacks to his associates and relatives. Any cabinet containing Warner is bound to be viewed as suspicious, unreformed, and fiscally self-destructive. (Yet many in Trinidad, it should be said, consider Warner to be something of a Robin Hood figure.)

Some officials in the U.S. government -- particularly those who focus on drug-interdiction efforts -- may feel that they have no choice but to deal with whatever administration holds office in Port of Spain. For years, officers from the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration have collaborated closely with their counterparts in Port of Spain. In June, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton outlined a $79 million aid package for Caribbean nations, much of which will go toward improving maritime interdiction capacities.

But the United States should also emphasize civil-society projects, such as support for NGOs working in the most violence-afflicted neighborhoods, as well as for independent media. Trinidad and Tobago also suffers from poor municipal infrastructure: although an average per-person income of around $17,000 means that Trinidad and Tobago is considered a high-income country, in the densely populated neighborhoods where gangs operate, access to such basic needs as clean water is often lacking. Earlier this year, there were months-long demonstrations over water shortages in some rural communities.

By all accounts, Persad Bissessar is full of integrity and energy. Yet she leads a government that has regarded under-the-table payoffs as a way of civic life. Even in relatively wealthy Trinidad, there are considerable inducements to look the other way or to align with criminal syndicates. With her strong electoral mandate, Persad Bissessar has an opportunity to reduce domestic support for gangs and to pursue a more vigorous campaign against drug smugglers.
The stakes for Washington are large, too. It is not in the U.S. interest to watch as Trinidad morphs into a Jamaica-style nation where gangs are hugely powerful. Up until now, its leaders have turned a lazy eye to corruption and violence. Trinidad is not in danger of becoming a failed state, but it is a floundering one.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • DORN TOWNSEND is the author of a study of gangs and governance in Trinidad for the Small Arms Survey.
  • More By Dorn Townsend