A Growing Suspicion in Jamaica


An article I wrote for the Trinidad Newsday newspaper.

The text for the article is below the graphic.


The recent trade dispute with Trinidad and Tobago amplified a feeling that many Jamaican business-people have felt for some time – Trinidadians are not to be trusted, and in this case they have earned the nickname passed around in local business circles: “Trickidadians.”

A seemingly “done deal” turned sour when Jamaican patties, revered across the Caribbean and the Diaspora for their quality and taste, were halted at the Trinidadian docks for dubious reasons. The fact that meat products from other countries were entering Trinidad without a problem did not escape attention.

The large number of Trinidadian products on Jamaican shelves, the number of companies owned by Trinidadian interests and the recent news that Caribbean Airlines may be purchasing one the country’s cherished institutions – Air Jamaica – only heightened emotions.

It appeared to many that those tricksters from down south were once again taking an unfair advantage.

I have done business in Trinidad and Tobago for several years, and am actually married to a Trinidadian, and I can’t say that I find Trinidadians to be any more “tricky” than Jamaicans in terms of their ethics or behavior.

At the same time, Jamaicans who meet Trinidadians can see a palpable difference in behavior that sets off warning bells in even casual meetings.

We Jamaicans are actually more comfortable doing business with Americans – after all, we know all about them from television and from having relatives living abroad. If a Jamaican is heading to the airport, the odds are that they are heading north on one of the 10 or so daily flights heading to North American, rather than south on the single flight headed to the Trinidad. Only 90 minutes separate Kingston and Miami, while a hefty 5 hour journey is required to spend the night in Port of Spain.

When Jamaicans make an international call to family overseas, the odds are good that they are calling one of the 1-2 million or so Jamaicans living in the U.S., rather than the handful that live in T&T. Many Jamaican businessmen and women are dual citizens, or hold a U.S. green card or visa, but very few care about having a CARICOM skills certificate.

There is simply very little natural interaction with Trinidad and Tobago, apart from the handful of individuals with an interest in Carnival, cricket or CARICOM. Pembroke Pines, Miramar and Kendall are psychologically “just around the corner” while Diego Martin, Arima and San Fernando might as well be on Mars. Ask the average Jamaican how many Trinidadians they know, and the answer is likely to be none.

My overwhelming impression, born out in research my company conducted, is that Trinidadians take things with a smile and a joke that we Jamaicans consider to be deadly serious. Patties stuck on a wharf, preventing free trade, look to us a lot like jobs lost, paychecks delayed and meals for the children being skipped for lack of funds. I imagine that to Trinidadians, the situation might have spawned little more than a few jokes over drinks.

I now know from experience that when Trinidadians make sport, and engage in “Ole Talk,” that no malice is intended.

But I can testify to my personal situation – when my wife falls into her “Trini talks” now and again, I sometimes argue back, which is perhaps a typical Jamaican response to a Trinidadian whose casual and jokey manner is being misunderstood.

“Pressure made for pipe, not for man” is a saying I heard from a Venezuelan who was amazed at the Trinidadian capacity to roll with the punches. Here in Jamaica, we take pressure seriously, and we aren’t about to roll with any punches. Instead, we often look to hit back.

Unfortunately, rolling with the punches has a downside.

Apart from the patties on the wharf, I have found Trinidadian customer service in general to be tinged with a Don’t Care Attitude that, with Jamaican eyes, looks a lot like a provocation.

It may well be, but the Trinidadian who rolls with the punches and cracks a joke in the face of horrendous treatment at the passport office, motor vehicle department or restaurant might do the country a disservice by tolerating too much. When a Jamaican, or any foreigner, comes to Trinidad and faces the same treatment the response is generally not one of jocular understanding.

Instead, inside, it feels like pressure.

When a Jamaican responds to that feeling with a loud complaint, Trinidadians will often mutter – “Who he think he is? We all have to deal with the same bad service here in T&T!”

True indeed.

What’s not shared, however, is the Trinidadian capacity to react with a joke, a laugh and, in extreme cases, a kaiso in the tents. Perhaps I can speak for Jamaicans when I say that we don’t laugh when the stakes are high, we don’t think it’s OK because everyone suffers in the same way, and we can be expected to protest with venom when anyone’s rights are being stepped on.

When those rights happen to be Jamaican rights, we could learn a thing or two about laughing it off, and not being so “wassy.” Trinidadians on the other hand, could learn to build service standards, and institutions, that don’t require an ability to make a joke in order to keep one’s head.