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Trinidad & Tobago - History

The history of the dual-island nation has been rather uneventful (i.e. peaceful). Until 1888, Trinidad and Tobago were separate territories. Both have a history of repeated invasion and conquest by competing European powers. Tobago has most likely changed hands more often than any other West Indian island. Tobago had an unsteady development, changing hands over 22 times as the French, Dutch, and British fought over to possess it.

Valued for its sugar during the 19th Century, Trinidad became a key oil interest for the British the 20th Century. Oil was discovered in three areas in Trinidad, and oil exports to Britain increased steadily throughout the century, buoyed by the advent of the automobile and the conversion of the British Navy from coal to oil.

In 1941 Britain permitted the United States to establish military bases in Trinidad in exchange for 50 destroyers given to the British government. This began an important period in the country; the G.I.s brought American money and culture to the island, and the Trinidadian people were steadily pulled away from their traditional British loyalties. The Marines also helped construct numerous roads in Trinidad, including the important Northern Coast Road, which is still is functional today.

A nascent movement for independence was born in Trinidad and Tobago in the 1950s, when Eric Williams, a Ph.D. from Howard University, returned to his native country and founded the Peoples National Movement (PNM). The PNM prevailed in the 1956 national elections, and Dr. Williams became the chief minister of the country from 1956 to 1959, premier from 1959 to 1962, and prime minister from 1962 to 1981. It was Williams who led Trinidad and Tobago into full independence within the Commonwealth in 1962, and he is now considered the father of independent Trinidad and Tobago. Trinidad and Tobago became a republic in 1976. Williams died while in office on March 29, 1981.

Trinidad and Tobago joined the United Nations and the Commonwealth immediately after its independence, and in 1967 it became the first Commonwealth country to join the Organization of American States (OAS). Trinidad is also active in the U.S.-initiated Summit of the Americas process and fully supports the establishment of the Free Trade Area of the Americas.

When the opposition parties boycotted the May 1971 elections to protest voting procedures, Williams' People's National Movemet won all 36 seats in Parliament. Although generally a capable leader, Williams' popularity was in steady decline because of his heavy-handed methods. A major crisis developed in April 1970 when labor unrest and rioting led to a mutiny bysectionsof thse small army. Williams used government forces in 1975 to quell violent strikes by petroleum and sugar workers. The dispute soon erupted into a more general strike joined by transport and electrical workers. The Prime Minister sought to disorganize the strikers by jailing key opposition leaders. Despite growing opposition by union members and somesectors of the business community, Williams political control remained firm, bolstered by the "miniboom" caused by the enormous increases in oil prices.

The country became a republic on August 1, 1976. Although the new constitution severed all ties to Great Britain, the country retained its membership in the British Commonwealth. Named as first president was Governor Gen. Sir Ellis Clark.

In the general elections held in September 1976, Prime Minister Eric Williams won a fifth 5-year term while his People's National Movement party took 24 of the 36 seats in the House of Representatives. The Democratic Action Congress, traditionally the main opposition party, won only 2 seats. In contrast, a new Marxist-Leninist labor oriented United Labor Front (UPF) won 10 seats.Representing stigar, oil and transport unions, the UPF had criticized Williams for failure to provide more jobs and housing and to control inflation. The group also opposed sections of the new constitution which vastly increase the power of the prime minister to restrict personal and politi cal rights during emergencies.

In July 1990, the Jamaat al Muslimeen, an extremist Black Muslim group with an unresolved grievance against the government over land claims, tried to overthrow the NAR government. The group held the prime minister and members of parliament hostage for 5 days while rioting and looting shook Port of Spain. After a long standoff with the police and military, Jamaat leader Yasin Abu Bakr and his followers surrendered to Trinidad and Tobago authorities. In 1992, the Court of Appeal upheld the validity of a government amnesty given to the Jamaat members during the hostage crisis. Abu Bakr and 113 other Jamaat members were jailed for 2 years while other courts debated the amnesty's validity. All 114 members were eventually released after a ruling by the U.K. Privy Council.

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Page last modified: 23-05-2017 15:48:40 ZULU