With a stable democratic system and strong regional and international ties, Trinidad and Tobago is one of the most prosperous countries in the Caribbean. The twin-island nation is rich in oil and gas, the economy is comparatively wealthy, and the twin island nation is known worldwide for its vibrant cultural and musical traditions. Nevertheless, T&T has faced a series of challenges. The economy remains highly dependent on its rich natural resources, including petroleum, natural gas and asphalt, which makes it susceptible to commodity price swings. In addition, corruption remains a concern, though the government has launched a number of initiatives to increase transparency. Similar to most Caribbean nations, T&T also faces a high youth unemployment rate, and recent economic and political instability in Venezuela has led to a rise in the number of refugees in the country, potentially exacerbating issues (see analysis).
T&T is a parliamentary democracy modelled after the Westminster system in the UK, with a constitution dating back to 1962. The head of state is a non-executive president elected by an electoral college comprising all the members of the upper and lower chambers of Parliament. The executive is led by the prime minister, who appoints the Cabinet and is accountable to Parliament. The president holds a largely ceremonial role, serving a term of five years. The prime minister and their appointed Cabinet members are also in office for a term of five years with no term limit. Keith Rowley is the current prime minister and head of government, having been elected in September 2015.
The legislature consists of a bicameral Parliament, with a directly elected 41-member House of Representatives and a 31-member Senate. Members of the House of Representatives are elected by a first-pastthe-post system, while the president appoints the members of Senate. Of these, 16 are appointed on the advice of the prime minister, six are appointed on the advice of the leader of the opposition and the remaining nine by the president based on advice given from social affairs or economic spheres. Senators also serve a term of five years in office.
T&T has two primary political parties: the People’s National Movement (PNM) and the People’s Partnership (PP), formed by members of the United National Congress (UNC), the Tobago Organisation of the People, the Congress of the People and the National Joint Action Committee. The PNM, formed before independence, was in power from 1956 to 1986 having won six consecutive elections. The UNC governed for intermittent periods before forming the PP in 2010. The support bases for the two main parties are largely, but not exclusively split along ethnic lines. Generally speaking, the PNM receives support from Trinbagonians of African origin and the UNC draws from those of Indian origin.
January 19, 2018 saw the election of T&T’s first female president, retired justice of appeal PaulaMae Weekes. Upon taking office the following March, she became the sixth president of T&T since independence and the only sitting female president in the Americas. Weekes is not affiliated with any political party, yet she is still permitted to promote certain social causes. She has been active in pushing educational development with a special emphasis on ensuring girls receive 12 years of education. In January 2019 T&T launched the Platform for Girls’ Education programme, alongside the UK and Kenya, which aims to ensure 1m of the poorest and most vulnerable school-aged girls across the Commonwealth of Independent States receive 12 years of quality education by 2030.
Tobago comprises a single ward, governed by the Tobago House of Assembly (THA), which was established in 1980 to provide greater autonomy for the island. The assembly comprises a legislative and executive arm with limited powers. The legislature is composed of 12 elected members, each serving four-year terms, while the executive, led by a chief secretary, carries out the tasks of the assembly through its 10 divisions. The THA is tasked with administering local economic, political and social policies, with regard to varying sectors, including health, agriculture, the environment, tourism, transport, infrastructure and public utilities. Orville London, now T&T’s ambassador to the UK, was the chief secretary of the THA from 2001 to late 2016. Assemblyman Kelvin Charles of the PNM replaced London after winning 10 out of the THA’s 12 total seats in the January 2017 election.
The resulting roadmap for greater self-governance, namely the Tobago Self Government Bill No. 5 of 2018, was presented to Parliament in early 2018, with the recommendations for amendments from a committee representing both houses received in mid-2018. Prime Minister Rowley, who is from Tobago, also supports the bill, which includes a number of amendments to the country’s constitution.
On a subnational level, Trinidad is composed of 14 municipal corporations, which are administered by locally elected councils. In 2016 the government published its Draft Policy on Local Government Reform, which was drafted following a number of consultations across all of the island’s municipal corporations. The reforms recommended that the role of corporations should be to emulate the model of the THA, with greater autonomy and responsibilities. While the process has already begun, complete legislative implementation will likely be brought before Parliament in 2020.
Population & Demographics
According to the Central Statistical Office, the population of T&T stood at 1.36m as of June 2019. Owing to its small size, the country is relatively densely populated with 267 people per sq km. The annual population growth rate stood at 0.3% per year, the slowest since 2000, according to figures from the World Bank. The low replacement rate has contributed to a gradually ageing population, though the country remains relatively young by global terms, with a median age of 34.3 years in 2018, up from 31.9 years in 2010. Similar to many high-income countries, this demographic shift could potentially add pressure to the nation’s social services and pension systems. The population split between the islands of Trinidad and Tobago stands at 96% and 4%, respectively. The majority of both islands live in suburban or rural areas, with just 8.3% living in urban areas. Port of Spain, the capital and most populous urban centre, has a population of around 35,000 people.
African or Indian descendants account for about 75% of the islands’ population, followed by those with mixed heritage (23%), descendants of ethnic minorities, including Chinese, Syrian and Lebanese (1.2%), and those with European ancestry (0.6%). The recent arrival of Venezuelan refugees from the South American mainland has resulted in a demographic shift. According to the UN Refugee Agency, there were an estimated 40,000 Venezuelans living in T&T as of June 2019 (see analysis).
Regionally and internationally, T&T is a member of a number of key multilateral institutions. Shortly after its independence from the UK in 1962, it was admitted into the UN following Security Council Resolution 175. At a regional level, T&T is one of the four original signatories at the signing of the Treaty of Chaguaramas in Trinidad on July 4, 1973, along with Barbados, Guyana and Jamaica to establish CARICOM. As a country that was once a colony of the British Empire, T&T remains part of the 53-nation Commonwealth of Independent States and retains strong links with the UK and other anglophone countries in the Caribbean.
Overall, T&T’s foreign policy emphasises economic and political cooperation with its regional counterparts. With Venezuela as its closest neighbour geographically, T&T has maintained cordial relations with the administration of President Nicolas Maduro, as well as the Caribbean’s other leftist nation state Cuba (see Regional Relations chapter). The country has also maintained good relations with the US, and it remains T&T’s largest export partner. Former US president Barack Obama paid a visit to T&T in April 2009 during his attendance at the Fifth Summit of the Americas, which was held in Port of Spain.
In 2018 T&T ranked 78th out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, representing an improvement of two places on 2017. The country’s individual score increased from 39 out of a possible 100 in 2012 to 41 in 2018, in line with the global average of 41. To further this progress, institutional efforts are being made to implement top-down anti-corruption measures. In a 2019 public speech, Justice Melville Baird, the president of the Integrity Commission of T&T (ICTT), advocated for collective action to bolster transparency, promoting the role for civil society in aiding existing measures.
In June 2019 the ICTT took a significant step by publishing the names of 841 public figures who had failed to declare their income, assets or liabilities in 2018. With a more substantial scope, the establishment of the T&T Revenue Authority in 2018 looks to reform the way that tax laws are administered, with the overall aim of boosting transparency in the country’s tax revenue (see Economy chapter).
Language & Religion
The country’s official language is English, otherwise referred to as T&T Standard English. However, colloquially, there are a number of regional variations, including an English-based creole with each island having its own dialect. These languages are spoken by the majority of the population. There are also a smaller number of French and Spanish originated creoles still spoken, and Spanish is the unofficial second language, in large part due to T&T’s proximity to South America. Although Spanish has been spoken on the islands since the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1498, it is becoming more prominent once again due to the arrival of increasing numbers of Venezuelans as well as a desire by business leaders to interact more with the South American mainland. In 2019 one of the country’s three daily newspapers, the T&T Guardian, began publishing a Spanish-language supplement targeted at the growing Hispanic population on the islands. Indian and Chinese languages and dialects can also be heard due to the country’s history of colonisation and immigration.
The country’s diverse cultural heritage has meant there is no single official religion, but a number are still practised, which has led to a variety of religious holidays celebrated throughout the year including both Christmas and Diwali, along with many other officially recognised events. According to the most recent government census taken in 2011, it was estimated that 32% of Trinbagonians identify as Protestant. This was followed by Roman Catholic at 22%, Hindu (18%) and Muslim (5%).
Another important cultural activity for many Trinbagonians is cricket, arguably the most popular sport. Brought to the islands in the late 19th century by the British, it has become the country’s national sport, as it has for many nations in the English-speaking Caribbean. While there is an intense rivalry among Caribbean nations’ teams, the countries play together on the international circuit as the West Indies. Trinidadian player Brian Lara is recognised as one of the greatest batsmen of all time, and holds the record for the highest score in First Class and Test cricket. After cricket, football is the next most popular sport. T&T qualified for the 2006 FIFA World Cup, the smallest country in population terms ever to do so. In 2021 the country is set to host the 2021 Youth Commonwealth Games, taking place in the first week of August of that year. Teams from over 60 countries are expected to attend. The previous games in 2017 were hosted by the Bahamas.
The country’s cultural identity is strongly influenced by its highly diverse ethnicities. In culinary terms, a variety of West African, Indian, Chinese, Middle Eastern, European and Latin American dishes prevail. Musically, T&T’s most famous exports are calypso and soca. The country is also famous for chutney music, a style that fuses Indian and Caribbean influences. The single most important event in T&T’s cultural landscape is its annual Carnival celebrations, featuring parades and flamboyant costume competitions. The event has now become a prominent tourist event that attracts a significant number of overseas visitors to the capital each year. Like many other carnivals in Latin America and the Caribbean, it is celebrated the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, the religious holy day involving prayer and fasting.
T&T’s economy has reaped the benefits of its hydrocarbons and hydrocarbons-derived exports, in particular oil, natural gas and asphalt. Together, these three account for 40% of GDP and 80% of all exports.
While in the early 1990s the focus of the country’s commodity exports shifted from petroleum to natural gas, oil remains an important generator of revenue. Offshore activity accounts for the majority of hydrocarbons extraction, and T&T is the home to a number of prominent international oil companies. The largest producers are the Anglo-Australian multinational BHP Billiton and the state-owned Petroleum Company of T&T, more commonly known as Petrotrin. Each controls around 25% of crude oil production. In 2017 T&T’s proven crude oil reserves were estimated at 243m barrels, while proven natural gas reserves stood at around 1.2trn standard cu feet. Although recent years have seen a decline in output, a number of new projects – coupled with financing from the Inter-American Development Bank – means the country should be able to extract proven reserves of 44m barrels of heavy oil from onshore and offshore fields. With regard to downstream activity, the petrochemicals industry is also a strong contributor to the economy. T&T is the world’s largest exporter of methanol and the top source market for US ammonia imports. The asphalt industry is also significant addition to T&T’s export portfolio. Located in the town of La Brea, in the south-west of Trinidad, Pitch Lake is the world’s largest deposit of natural asphalt, contributing to T&T’s status as a major supplier to global markets.
According to figures from the International Labour Organisation, the unemployment rate dropped to 2.81% in 2019 from a high of 2.97% in 2016, but still above the most recent low of 2.21% in 2015. Youth unemployment remains a domestic and regional challenge. Current estimates put the 2018 figure at 6.6%, down from 6.75% and 7.07% in 2016 and 2017, respectively. While these figures are far from high by regional standards in the Caribbean, they nonetheless present development challenges that will need to be addressed for the country to continue to move forward. As such, tackling youth unemployment will remain a significant issue for the government and the private sector going forward.
Additional issues with the labour force are also symptomatic of the transition to a higher stage of development, with private sector demand shifting towards higher levels of skills and training. There remains a shortage of young workers in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, and a surplus of well-qualified graduates with degrees in social sciences and business.
Faced with high rates of youth unemployment as well as taking into consideration the additional difficulties faced by those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, a number of organisations have appeared to help empower young, disadvantaged Trinbagonians. The government has a legacy of successful programmes from which it can draw experience. One such example is Service Volunteered for All (SERVOL), which emerged out of the black power movement of the 1970s. The programme was founded by Father Gerard Pantin, a Roman Catholic priest, and Wes Hall, a Barbadian cricketer. SERVOL has sought to provide work opportunities for young people from low-income backgrounds. It receives support from the Ministry of Education, which accounts for half of its budget, while the remainder comes from global organisations such as the World Bank and development agencies.
Immigration & Refugees
A recent increase in the number of migrants travelling across the sea from Venezuela has also reportedly put pressure on labour margins. Due to T&T’s proximity, it is often a destination of choice for Venezuelans looking to escape the humanitarian crisis in their country. The T&T government works closely with a number of international institutions, such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, as well as a number of non-governmental organisations to effectively manage the issue. It is a challenge for the country, especially given the amount of refugees having arrived over recent years. In June 2019 the UN estimated that migrants from Venezuela make up 2.9% of the population. While internal debate within T&T has been polarised, many business leaders have welcomed the arrival of Venezuelans and the skills they bring to the labour market (see analysis).
In global terms, in November 2000 T&T signed the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees – two treaties that are regarded as the foundations of international refugee law. However, while the country has a clear refugee policy, it has no refugee law, nor has it implemented any aspects of the 1951 Convention or the 1967 Protocol into its domestic legislation. The process to effectively implement legislation for the issue is under way. As it stands, Belize is the only country in the Caribbean with domestic legislation for refugees.
The end of the 2000s commodities super cycle caused a number of social and economic setbacks for T&T. Crime remains an issue, affecting the quality of life for the population and pushing up operating expenses for businesses, while the deteriorating situation in Venezuela has put greater pressure on public services and the job market. While the refugee crisis is seen as a negative by some, there remain many upsides for both businesses, which benefit from additional consumer demand, and demographic factors, as the country continues to experience a low population growth rate. Subdued hydrocarbons prices have also forced the twin-island nation to increase its diversification efforts. Heading into the next decade, however, the incoming governments will be required to address social challenges if the country is to experience another period of sustained economic expansion.