After 200 years of turning its back on geography, this English-speaking former British colony is searching for its Latin American soul.
Just seven miles off the coast of Venezuela and dappled with Spanish place names bestowed half a millennium ago by Christopher Columbus, Trinidad and Tobago has set the lofty goal of becoming a Spanish-speaking nation by 2020.
With next month’s start of the new academic year, Spanish instruction will be compulsory in public schools from first grade through high school. Civil servants also are expected to attain basic proficiency in the language of the conquistadors, who came and went so quickly here that Spanish was never really the dominant tongue.
The effort to transform the predominantly Indian- and African-origin islanders into bilingual citizens of Latin America is motivated by shifting trade ties, officials say. Today, Chile, Brazil and Costa Rica are more important partners than the Europeans with whom the Caribbean nation has long been politically aligned.
The oil and natural gas industries also stand to benefit from bridging the linguistic gap with Venezuela, the hemisphere’s biggest oil producer, whose leftist president wants to reduce dependence on U.S. refineries and markets. Trinidad has more processing capacity than it has oil, and it would love to take on the job of refining Venezuelan crude.
The strongest driver, however, may be the quixotic quest of Port-of-Spain, the capital, to be chosen as the seat of the emerging Free Trade Area of the Americas, an economic bloc of 800 million mostly Spanish-speaking consumers. Other prime contenders among the 11 cities seeking to host the FTAA headquarters include Miami and Panama City, both far ahead of the Trinidadian capital in the share of their populations who are proficient in English and Spanish.
“A Venezuelan colleague told me that for years we’ve been like Siamese twins joined at the back. We never see each other,” said Sharlene Yuille, an official with the government’s Secretariat for the Implementation of Spanish. Noting the proximity to Venezuela, she said foreigners looking at a map of the Americas often assume that this is a Spanish-speaking country.
Only about 1,500 of Trinidad’s 1.3 million citizens speak Spanish, said Pedro Centeno, academic director of the Caribbean Institute of Languages and International Business. With the officially mandated target of having at least 30% of public employees proficient within five years, Centeno’s school and the handful of others in the capital are enjoying a boom in contracts for continuing education courses at government ministries and private companies alike.
“The need for Spanish speakers is steadily rising because the export-import sector increasingly requires contact with colleagues in Latin America,” said Centeno, a relatively rare Trinidadian of Spanish descent.
Before March, when the government’s Spanish program kicked off, English had been the sole official tongue since the British wrested control of the islands from Spain in 1797. East Indians, who make up 40% of the population, often speak Hindi, and smatterings of Chinese, French, Syrians and other ethnic groups also maintain their own linguistic traditions here in one of the most diverse countries in the Caribbean.
Despite having only one official language for centuries, Trinidad is as diverse economically and visually as it is ethnically. Lush with tropical rain forests, coffee-planted slopes and white-sand beaches, the island is home to people who make their living in tourism, agriculture and the oil and gas industry.
The pace and rhythm of life reflect the ways of Latin Americans more than the formal and reserved Europeans who originally molded the island culture. Calypso music pulses from bars and cafes thronged with “Trinis” until the wee hours. Locals joke that there are only two seasons in Trinidad: getting ready for Carnival and Carnival itself, the hedonistic pre-Lenten festival that halts all work, school and commerce for weeks so everyone can take part in the celebrations.
Some Trinidadians are skeptical of the Spanish initiative, arguing that too few Latin American tourists travel here to justify such an undertaking.
Tour guide Abder Jumar conceded that the language would probably be useful for those employed in international business but added, “I don’t really see what it will do for most of us.”
Still, educators have embraced the bilingual initiative as an effective means of preparing young people for the jobs of the future.
“Learning Spanish would enable students to break linguistic, geographical, cultural and marketability boundaries and awaken in them a progressively deeper sense of global citizenship and partnership,” said Sharon Balroop of the Education Ministry.
A recent study by the local University of the West Indies Institute of Business suggests that 61% of corporate executives consider fluency in Spanish an advantage for applicants and leverage for negotiating higher salaries.
Sonji Pierre-Chase, manager of the business sector of the Trinidad and Tobago Chamber of Industry and Commerce, said Trinidadian traders are increasingly interested in shifting from their traditional markets in Europe and the Commonwealth to those in the mammoth Latin American backyard.
“Quite a number of our members have already made inroads. We have factories in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic,” Pierre-Chase said. “They’re finding it much more cost-effective to produce and export from there.”
Because of its development as part of the English-speaking Caribbean, Trinidad has a dearth of Spanish teachers. But the thriving natural gas industry keeps public coffers sufficiently filled to fund the import of Latin American instructors.
Venezuelans in the service and petroleum industries have long been attracted to Trinidad as a convenient place to study English, Centeno said, a handy potential pool of Spanish instructors to tackle the task of teaching an entire country.
Symbolic steps toward creating a Spanish atmosphere have already been taken. In downtown Port-of-Spain, English street names have been augmented in the past five months with Spanish versions, from Calle Frederick to Avenida de la Victoria and Plaza de la Independencia.
John-Paul Pantin isn’t buying it.
“Our trade isn’t that dependent on Spanish-speaking countries,” said Pantin, a manager of the offshore crewing company Thin Red Line. “I don’t see a die-hard need for this right now.”
A frequent traveler to Latin America, Pantin said the Spanish-speaking region and his Caribbean homeland are “worlds apart.” He called the official effort to redefine Trinidadian culture overly ambitious and heavy-handed.
“If given the opportunity and time was available, I would take up a second language,” he said. “But I would do it for my own reasons, not because the government says I should.”