Trinidad, the convenient scapegoat

A Trinidadian friend of mine sent me a series of messages this morning about the ongoing spat between Jamaica and Trinidad. She made a very interesting remark, when dealing with Jamaican accusations that Trinis are ‘buying up’ Jamaica. “What’s not for sale, cannot be bought.” Good point, I thought. Where were Jamaican investors when the opportunities came to buy local companies? Jamaicans sold their assets; they were not stolen!

My friend represents something very simple and real: she’s married to a Jamaican and they are a happy couple, from all I can tell. They have reached agreement on many things. Trinidad and Jamaica are not a happy couple and have been that way for decades. Resentment between the two countries has been barely hidden below the surface for decades. Each country, almost at opposite ends of the Caribbean Sea, has been trying to stand as the premier island amongst the English-speaking group. The mutual annoyance comes out easily: it could be over sport, or what we eat, how we party, anything.

That competition comes out in many ways. I was interested that the recent proximate problem between the two islands would morph. Trinidadian Immigration officers took exception to 13 Jamaicans trying to enter the twin isles, and denied them entry and later deported them. Jamaican public opinion started to get inflamed, and soon turned to talk of ‘retaliation’. However, the prime weapon chosen was what was seen as Trinidadian pocketbooks, by looking to boycott Trini goods. Jamaica has a huge trade deficit, and a large part of it is the deficit with Trinidad, of some US$1 billion. Stop them earning those dollars and they will soon start to ‘treat us right’. I don’t see it, but each man to his own choice.

The core disagreement between the two countries comes down to what the trade deficit represents: Trinidad can make and sell goods and services that people want more cheaply and sometimes with better quality than Jamaica can. It’s almost emblematic of the fortunes of the two places. Trinidad has certain benefits that are now key to economic success: it has oil and gas aplenty. It has cheap energy, which can fuel its economy. Jamaica has a painful energy bill, with oil imports making up a large part of our deficit to the rest of the world. The fact that Trinidad can offer its companies cheaper fuel is a huge boost, no doubting it. Maybe, somewhere in the Jamaican psyche, resentments is lurking and already ready to snarl when Trinidad and Tobabo step on our corns.

But, here’s the funny part. If Trinidadian goods were not desired and attractive to Jamaicans how could they come to penetrate our shores? They were not forced on the people. Jamaican companies and Jamaican consumers chose to support these goods and services. Admitted, importers could have tried to get their items from Outer Mongolia–though not known for catering to Jamaican tastes. You get my point. Trini companies meet the needs of many in the region. The same way that the US and UK do. We’ve been seduced by the taste for foreign things.

Now, try boycotting all you want, many are not ready to go ‘cold turkey’ and throw away the corn flakes from Trinidad that they already have in their larders. I suspect that any move to stay away from the Trini items, people will revert to what they did before. Where are the choices? I noted that the Facebook page that was opened by one boycotter listed items that were from Trinidad–shockingly, for some, including Jamaicans’ much-loved Excelsior water crackers. Having done that, the page did not list the alternatives that people could go for. Why? Some do not exist, because they are not produced here. Some can only come from another foreign country.

Jamaicans have put themselves into a trap and the ‘Trinidad affair’ only allows it to stand in clear light.

If we sense that Trinis are arrogant towards us, they may have good reason: they feel that they have done better than we have, and many things show that to be the case, as far as economic statistics go. Trinidad is quickly going the way of Jamaica as regards crime, but we wont hold that up as a major detraction at this stage.

If we really want to ‘hurt’ Trinidad we better move to stop playing tit-for-tat and ‘beggar my neighbour’. We need to work to overcome our own deficiencies. If we cannot do that, then as rain falls from the sky not come from the ground, we will have to accept what has been our lot: we have to take what others give us. The problem, however, is that we really cannot just do that because we do not earn enough to have real choice. That’s been the problem for decades and Trinidad is a convenient scapegoat to throw stones at, rather than be honest with ourselves as having a bit of an economic disaster.

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)