If the protesters gathered outside the Oval to protest the registration of Venezuelan migrants had considered the national anthem they might have noticed some compelling words.
“Where every creed and race find an equal place,
And may God bless our nation.”
Those words, written first by the composer Pat Castagne to unify the West Indies Federation, presumed that good works and a humane embrace of our fellow man would bring blessings on a freshly independent TT. It takes seriously blinkered thinking to view the arrival of desperate migrant Venezuelans to this country as something new. The ocean between Tucupita and Cedros has been well travelled for centuries in both directions, depending on which nation was doing well and which was struggling.
After Venezuela became a republic in 1821 it struck up profitable trade with TT, and goods would arrive in small ships at the Port of Spain port for trade. It was during this era that alpagatas, open-toed slippers made of leather, and tassajo, infamous in TT as tasso, a tough but cheap, dried meat became part of the local market. In 1903, the steamers SS Manzanares and SS Delta offered fortnightly service between Trinidad and Cuidad Bolivar. By 1912, Venezuelan cattle brought on barges was walking onto the port at Corbeaux Town, now gentrified Woodbrook, to be herded to Marine Square for slaughter.
Other migrations were triggered by political trauma in Venezuela, though few were at the level of crisis that prevails today. Venezuelan migrations to Trinidad happened during the administrations of Antonio Guzman Blanco between 1870 and 1887 and that of Juan Vicente Gomez in the early 20th century. Venezuelan trade faltered after 1922 with the spectacular success of the Barroso well, which began decades of successful oil exploitation in that country.
Lago Petroleum and Standard Oil set up staging areas in Trinidad and Curaçao and before long, citizens of TT would make up the largest number of West Indians working in Venezuela, a country overrun by foreigners seeking wealth. These workers from TT enjoyed a special status as “British Negroes,” according to author Vincent Peloso, and were prized for their ability to speak English and their familiarity with British administrative procedure. They were also resented by Venezuelans who did not, at first, enjoy these advantages.
The Venezuelans who have come to this country seeking mercy and shelter in their time of need are not the first, and citizens of this country have travelled in the opposite direction to their advantage. Our history of trade and migration runs deep and long and understanding that should guide a compassionate process and procedure in responding to the current challenge of assimilation.
We can do better, because we have.