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STAYING TRUE TO THE COUP
As a student of history, I tend to take note of dates that mark important events and hold minor observances for them. In the last two months, I had a moment of silence on June 6 and 18 for the brave souls who lost their lives at the Invasion of Normandy and the Battle of Waterloo. I read the American Declaration of Independence on July 4. And I celebrated July 14th’s Bastille Day with a croissant and a coffee. So it was rather embarrassing that I awoke on the morning of July 27 and completely forgot about the anniversary of the attempted coup. Of course, it’s a date of immense significance, not only as I’m a Trinbagonian national, but because I lived through those six days in 1990; six days when the population held its collective breath and the future of our country appeared to rest on the edge of a knife. That being said, I doubt I was the only person who forgot about it. And judging by the scant media coverage and public reverence, I wonder what July 27 now means for us as a nation and what lessons, if any, were learned as a result of those fateful days.
So…27 years…it is an odd number to aggrandise, especially since decades and quarter-centuries are usually the historical milestones that people take notice of. I suppose, “27 years since July 27”, did make for an enticing soundbite. But even then the day went by with only token recognition. When I asked my father if there was a wreath-laying ceremony at the eternal flame outside the Red House, he replied that he couldn’t recall, and went on to add, in a rather sarcastic tone, “What do you expect people to do, light a candle every year?” As far as he is concerned, July 27 is in the past and the entire country has since moved on. I, on the other hand, have a different point of view. An entire generation of Trinbagonians was born and have matured in the years since that event. What do they know about it? Have they bothered to ask those who experienced it first-hand, or read the few historical texts and articles that have been written? It was an event that defined our society, and yet there remains both an absence of understanding and a failure to seek out its relating causes and effects.
Fortunately, our nation was spared the worst of the anarchy a coup d’état can produce. The storming of the Parliament didn’t turn out as the perpetrators had hoped; there was no popular uprising in support of removing the Government and establishing a new regime. Thus, the situation at the Red House and Maraval Road quickly turned it into an armed standoff. Men who styled themselves as rebels with a righteous cause were shown up to be nothing more than armed thugs hiding behind hostages. Even the authority of their leader extended no farther than the walls of the building they occupied. And his “commands” that the population remain calm and for there to be no looting would have been laughable if the exact opposite didn’t take place. But that’s what happened when the lawless masses descended on the capital, seizing on the opportunity to smash, loot and burn. Despite that long night and the five days after, our democracy survived. Port-of-Spain was rebuilt, and life went back to normal for most of us. Some lost their lives, others lost their livelihood, but the entire country lost something as well—a sense of the truth about it all.
In the years since 1990, there have been attempts to accumulate, preserve and present as much information as possible pertaining to the coup. However, there have also been competing narratives that seek to rewrite history, or at the very least—change the way it is remembered. In keeping with his yearly habit, Yasin Abu Bakr (born Lennox Philip) emerged on the anniversary to hog the spotlight as a pious, civic-minded citizen who’s dedicated to righting the wrongs of social and racial inequality. Needless to say, it also allows him to reiterate his version of the coup, perpetuating the myth that it was a people’s revolution and ignoring the fact that the very government he tried to overthrow was in the process of evicting his group from the illegally occupied site on Mucurapo Road. Even the razing of downtown PoS has been given a different spin, with some local activists explaining that it was an explosion of outrage by the impoverished classes as opposed to simple wanton thievery.
As fellow Guardian columnist Wesley Gibbings noted two weeks ago, referring to the events of July 27, 1990, “In relative scale and impact, this was our 9/11.” If we don’t treat the memory of the attempted coup with the respect it deserves, it runs the risk of becoming historically irrelevant. It’s an experience that still has many lessons to teach, the most important being how to avoid the mistakes of the past. Maybe next year I will do as my father suggested and light a candle, even if no one else does.