The recently passed, so-called “Mother of All Carnivals” was, according to MP Michelle Benjamin, rightfully the “Mother of All Flops”.
It never should have been like this.
Instead of breathing new life into the Carnival, the PNM has been stifling it, Benjamin observes.
This is not a flippant political point to score, but rather a national tragedy, like so many other failures of this PNM Government: from Petrotrin, to Paria, to Train One, to our international reputation in human trafficking, now to Carnival.
As summarised by MP Benjamin,
“1. The festival itself far from being the “Mother of all Carnivals” was a flop.
2. Despite having resources in the tens of millions the Government and NCC failed at management
3. Many stakeholders and communities were left in the dark cut out of the support from the government
4. Ultimately, Carnival ’23 was a missed opportunity.”
Embarrassingly, weeks before the Greatest Show on Earth, we had headlines or stories that reflected the opposite. They read as follows:
1. “Late NCC Subvention hits regional carnivals” — Rhondor Dowlat, Guardian Wed 15th Feb 2023
2. “Government releases $83m to NCC” – Elizabeth Gonzales, Nessday Fri 17th Feb 2023
3. “Sando king and Queen competition cancelled due to funding woes” — CNC3, Tues 14th Feb
4. “Soca Monarch Cancelled” – Radeya Osman, Soca News Fri 27 Jan 2023
5. “Time to upgrade T&T’s Carnival product” – Roy Mitchell, Trinidad Express Jan 18th 2023
6. “Promoters bandleaders not feeling Carnival vibe” – Kay-Marie Fletcher, Trinidad Express 20th Jan
7. “Masqueraders face ‘ghost town’ at South Quay” — Shaliza Hassanali, CNC3 News, 21st Feb 2023
And, sadly, of course, around the country, people didn’t feel safe.
As MP Benjamin observes, Carnival 2023 — the Mother of All Flops — saw a significant scaling down of events, cancellation of events, poor attendance at tents and national events, vendors not capitalising as before, artistes not making any money for the season — all after a 2 year pandemic and a one time grant
The NCC demonstrated great incompetence in the manner in which it promoted some of its key events.
PNM withholding of funds virtually Killed Carnival
Again, according to Benjamin, “‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ is now ‘The Greatest example of PNM incompetence’ because those in authority lack vision, and very soon the cultural fabric of our prismatic landscape will dry rot before our very eyes.”
Incredibly, only on the day before Carnival Friday was the first tranche of the $147 million dollars disbursed.
Up to that point, stakeholders were still clueless as to what would be the government’s allocation. How could there be anything ‘Fantastic’ about that Friday?
The disbursement came after, out of sheer frustration, bandleaders held press conferences and engaged in a war of words with the NCC Chairman right up to Carnival Thursday. The complaints from organisers even came from the PNM-controlled corporation of San Fernando.
Even when the funding came, it was received so late, that key events had to be cancelled such as the prior showcasing and judging of the Southern King and Queen of the bands in San Fernando.
The organisers were ashamed but, according to MP Benjamin, because it is a PNM-held corporation, the Mayor of San Fernando, failed to raise this matter effectively and played it down.
It should have come as no surprise that Soca Monarch was cancelled as well.
You cannot plan to showcase ‘The Mother of All Carnivals’ if up to Carnival Thursday no money was issued to the relevant bodies or agencies to host events across the country!
Even for the small scale Moruga ‘Fisherman Festival’, MP Benjamin noted, the organisers start planning at least two months in advance.
MP Benjamin argues, “This is not a last minute thing; it is a PNM thing. It’s an incompetence thing. This government is known for that. But we as a people don’t intend to live with this forever. We deserve better. We don’t have to accept this and we don’t intend to.”
No Accountability for Funds
Indeed, one must ask, what sort of accountability will there be for that last-minute spending?
Michelle Benjamin has called on the NCC and the Ministry to provide a listing of all suppliers and the amount paid to them or amount owed. Accountability is needed from the NCC on how regional distributions were made and budget approval done.
As MP Benjamin noted, many of the events depended on complimentary tickets. Therefore, the UNC challenges the PNM government to disclose the books on the true costs and revenues of these events. We know many of them ‘buss’, as we say, when you compare cost to ticket sales and other revenue.
PNM Lacks vision for Culture’s Links to Development
Ultimately, the PNM has failed to place any importance on culture as a tool for national development.
Under the PNM, culture is treated as an appendage to tourism, tucked away in a corner of that Ministry, treated as a bastard child.
For the UNC, culture is far more than partying. It connected to who we are as a people and needs to be harnessed accordingly.
If we reflect on the history of how our Carnival became the unique festival that it is, it takes us back to 1881. In that year, frustrated Trinidadians took to the streets to protest against efforts by leadership to restrict our festivities.
The struggle was for inclusion, and the transformation of an elite-dominated festival, into an expression of creative, popular culture, further transcending class and race.
We must honour the memory of our ancestors who stood strong to fight against oppression, which has allowed us to celebrate Carnival together.
It is essential to our historic struggle for every creed and race to co-exist in harmony, to live, create and work together productively.
This is the essence of Carnival – a symbol of our togetherness, a space for every creed and race to find an equal place, to express all our creativity. It must be a platform to ensure our voices are never silenced.
The PNM’s censoring of critical calypsoes was a terrible blow to this historic struggle.
Over the years we have seen the emergence of the “Carnival Superstars”, the creative architects who have used their creative powers to bring Carnival to life and have been the driving force behind its success.
But, under this PNM, this success has been stifled by the lack of resources and the red tape involved in obtaining them. As a result, creativity has been stifled, choked, stamped and trampled upon.
To reverse this, we must be inspired by those who went before us to stand against tyranny. Our future generations deserve a space to freely express themselves, to create and earn, without fear of victimisation.
PNM has failed our vendors and the wider economy
At the most basic level, this vision of culture and national development must always include the small man and woman, at every level.
MP Benjamin rightly observed, “The Carnival is more than a fete to many stakeholders, especially:
1. To vendors it may mean sales to send their children to school.
2. To small bandleaders across the nation it means income needed to help pay the bills for the next few months
3. For the family selling craft it may be the only time of the year they get enough sales to balance them for the year
4. For the pensioners with a spare bedroom it could mean money needed to handle the family”
The economic importance goes well beyond the vendors, of course.
MP Benjamin has noted Dr Keith Nurse’s estimate that Carnival contributes in the region of TT$900 million to the Trinidad and Tobago economy as a whole.
Carnival as an event generates this much economic activity, yet the government continues to mismanage it. This has negative implications for jobs in the hotel and restaurant sector, as well as supporting business for Carnival, e.g. beverage manufacturers.
Our Carnival — and by extension our culture — is perishing before our very eyes because those that are in leadership lack the vision to take this country forward. If they had foresight, then they would have factored in financial support to the 6,000 companies that were forced to close their doors due to Covid-19, as reported by the Chamber of Commerce in August of 2021.
It stands to reason that several of those companies that closed their doors would have been in need of support by the government to recover post-covid to be part of the Carnival value chain.
Furthermore, many masqueraders of previous years would have been added to the increasing numbers of jobless citizens under this government. As a result, it was important for the government to provide proper leadership in terms of its commitment to our culture with Carnival being a flagship festival.
PNM sees no value in National Development
The actions of the PNM this year effectively went against this nation building focus. They systematically cut funding for many community Carnival observances in the name of consolidating funding.
This is a fundamental departure from the pillars of our cultural policy, notes MP Benjamin.
UNC’s philosophy and record on Carnival
In contrast to this failed PNM Government, when the Kamla Persad-Bisssessar led government was in office, not only was Carnival a success, it was placed firmly in the context of national, cultural, social, regional and economic development.
As the clearest indication, culture was given pride of place with its own Ministry of Arts and Multiculturalism. This was part of a mission for National Development.
Former Minister of Arts and Multiculturalism, Dr. Lincoln Douglas, recalls, “There were two things that the Political Leader had asked:
1. It’s role in diversification of the economy
2. Based on the Ryan report contributing to the reduction of crime and negative lifestyle.”
International Economic and Cultural Expansion
All of this cultural activity translated into economic activity, of course.
“Vendors were happy,” recalls Don Sylvester, former Deputy Chairman of NCC Board. “They failed this year. They made no money off the Savannah. They charged them too much money for the booths and all that.”
Former Minister Dr. Douglas also recalls, “I was moving to try to have the Ministry fulfil its role as one of the planks of diversification. Carnival was seen by my ministry not only as a festival but an industry also.”
Another aspect that Dr. Douglas concentrated on, was the expansion of pan to China and Africa, with Phase II and the National Steel Symphony Orchestra, in particular.
This began expanding and strengthening the groundwork of a significant global market for steel pan manufacturers.
In addition, this expanded international goodwill and recognition for Trinidad and Tobago, an essential part of building up our global “soft power”. It is how culture and economics combine globally.
Dr. Douglas tells a powerful story, “When we went to Nigeria, we played the pan for the Minister of Education. He summarily said that he wanted the steelpan in every school in Nigeria.
“You know, there are more than a million schools in Nigeria. Nigeria alone has 280 million people.
“When I was a Minister, we used to say that we could survive on steel pan alone. Can you imagine if we make a pan side in every school and community in Nigeria, and we’re selling those pans? So that was my intention to really sell pans to the whole of Africa.
“The Minister of Culture in Nigeria used to declare it as, ‘They left here with a wooden drum and they return now with a metal drum.’ That was the slogan they were going to move with.
And this would develop an industry so that our artistes and practitioners will have a place to sell and perform their art.”
The PP Government supported the development of carnival particularly in Nigeria, South Africa, Sierra Leone, and Ghana, all in an effort to support the development of an industry
In fact, the Ministry created a document detailing the setup of a Carnival in any country.
And the international links were not only one way. For the Carnival in Trinidad, Dr. Douglas recalls, “We brought down excellent sound engineers to work with our local sound engineers to assist with the quality of sound nationally.”
Cultural renewal and development
Don Sylvester was the Commissioner responsible for regional carnival, workshops and Carnival village, which he had founded and revived under the PP Government, recalled, “In the People’s Partnership time we increased the prize money for the calypsonians, the Soca Monarch to $2m, and the pan prize money increased to $2m as well.”
This was done after the previous PNM Government reduced the Soca Monarch prize from $1m to $600,000.
What was the effect of this increase? “People responded more,” Sylvester recalls. “You had more bands coming in and participating, so there were more bands on the street.”
This year, after declines in prize money to $1m, then $500,000, then $300,000, the International Soca Monarch show was cancelled altogether. This is an absolute disgrace by the PNM Government.
Under the PP, in contrast, there were more people coming to the shows, Panorama, mas, etc. Sylvester recalls that the NCC had a system to invite people to the shows, including persons from St. Ann’s Hospital, other homes and organisations.
Sylvester also notes, “There was a great increase in workshops for children. I understand they reduced the amount of workshops this year.”
The increase in childrens’ workshops, of course, meant that more children were involved in Carnival.
National Community Development
In addition, regional Carnivals were boosted under the PP Government, as part of its vision to develop all of Trinidad and Tobago.
“All the Carnival Committees throughout Trinidad got an increase in subvention,” recalls Sylvester.
“There were more committees. I personally formed more committees in more constituencies, whether it was PNM or UNC.”
In contrast, this year, under the PNM, some regional corporations were forced to either scale down or completely cancel their Carnival celebrations due to late subventions from the NCC.
The San Fernando City Corporation was the first to take such measure when it announced it had cancelled its Kings and Queens Carnival competition due to the late funding from the NCC.
Later the Penal/Debe Regional Corporation (PDRC) announced it had scrapped its Carnival completely.
This is another shame and disgrace from the PNM.
Dr. Douglas noted that under the PP, they began the process of regularisation of all pan yards in the country. This was an attempt to make all pan yards be owned by pan sides. This would revolutionise the economics and management of our steelpan cultural complex.
In addition, Festival Centers were being developed across the country, as places for the curating, creation and the excelling of artforms, for example with the Laventille Rhythm section, and the sugar museum.
His Ministry was also set up to complete the Mausica Folk Theater, a project promised and started by the PNM when Dr Eric Williams was alive, under the banner of the National Folk Theater.
On the issue of culture, Dr. Douglas noted that the Ministry held significant discussions on race and ethnicity in the National Library as it relates to race and the culture of Trinidad and Tobago.
Also, the Ministry commissioned two historical and cultural research projects on the development of Carnival.
By boosting sales to small vendors, who often come from crime-ridden communities, and increasing the amount of alternative activity for young men – who are both the main perpetrators and victims of violent crime – this would have a positive impact on crime reduction.
Don Sylvester recalls his initiative to employ around 100 single parents and unemployed mothers from the surrounding communities to work in the Carnival Village in particular. The communities included Nelson, Duncan and Basilon Streets and Bagatelle, Diego Martin, Morvant, Laventille, Sea Lots, Beetham and Santa Cruz.
They assisted with ushering duties, backstage management and janitorial services. Sylvester noted at the time, “It is about creating employment for these young women and girls. It is about helping them to support themselves and their children. They will be employed right through. Ash Wednesday is Gospel Night, Thursday is Family Night and Carnival Village closes Friday after Carnival.”
This created a stir, not only in boosting incomes, but also in boosting pride, as these persons were essential parts of a high-quality, well-organised event that impressed patrons and participants.
In addition, the Ministry of Arts and Multiculturalism were setting up at the time to launch The Peace Project.
MP Benjamin recalls her experience working as a project officer at the Ministry of Community Development, noting that it was always viewed that sports and culture were effective tools in the development of communities across the nation. These activities led to many young people leading more productive lives as well as building our nation, village by village.
Conclusion: PNM’s Mismanagement, Corruption and Unanswered Questions
Carnival 2023 was a metaphor for how the government is running the country, according to MP Benjamin. The PNM wants us to think that we should not believe what we are seeing before our eyes: everything is declining, people have lost their jobs, people can’t afford food.
Government is stifling the stakeholders of Carnival. Big Mike might just be the latest stalwart calling it quits, if we do not support it. Regional Carnivals may close for good.
The evidence is clear: The PNM has mismanaged the festival that has been our banner, a leading charge for culture in our beloved Trinidad and Tobago.
According to MP Benjamin, this government has left many questions to be answered on the failure that was Carnival 2023, such as:
1. Why were the funds released at the last minute?
2. Which events were failures in terms of cost and revenue and to what extent they would need to be supported?
3. Which regional festivals were cut and what was the rationale behind such, given the importance of culture in community development?
These and other questions we shall raise in the Parliament in the coming weeks as the reports surface from Carnival 2023.
As MP Benjamin argued, “This year, 2023 should have been a turning point for Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival. This was a missed opportunity to move ahead of other countries and showcase our creative and innovative ideas more than ever before.
As this opportunity was not taken, Trinidad and Tobago may be surpassed by other countries with greater imagination and enthusiasm with our very own Carnival creation. The signs are already there, and we know what the symptoms are.
Had there been a Kamla Persad Bissessar led UNC government, we would have taken the necessary remedial steps to heal our broken cultural showcase and rise again.”