In The Diaspora:Voting with ‘the Villafana’ in the 2010 Trinidad and Tobago General Election

Gabrielle Jamela Hosein is a feminist, activist, poet and Lecturer at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago.

By Gabrielle Jamela Hosein
The 2010 Trinidad and Tobago general election campaign is worth remembering for several reasons. It is the first campaign where an attack on the glass ceiling is being seriously waged, and where the nation may make history by electing a female, Indian Prime Minister. It is the first time in Trinidad’s post-independence history that a coalition of four political parties and a union are battling for power on a unified platform, fully aware that the population is still hurting from cleavages in the 1986 coalition government of the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR). Finally, it is the first time since 1956 that a People’s National Movement (PNM) government has collapsed so quickly, with no explanation by the Prime Minister, so early in its term. Yet, by far, the most memorable thing about this election, and its campaigns, is ‘the Villafana.’ Caribbean people everywhere will love this story. The Villafana is a pose. It has become a dance. It is a symbol that needs no words. The ‘massive’ at rallies enact it simultaneously, making Jamaica’s choreographed passa passas look small and scraggly. It is inspiration for an exceptional Caribbean-style take-off on the Obama campaign slogan, ‘Yes We Can.’

What is the Villafana? On March 15, 2010, Prime Minister Patrick Manning was on a political walkabout in the San Juan area of North Trinidad. He was walking up to doorsteps and residents to kiss babies and shake hands when he encountered eighty-one year-old Percy Villafana. Mr Villafana held his arms crossed in the air between himself and Mr Manning, blocking the PM’s entry to his yard. Mr Manning pushed past, actually trespassed, into Mr Villafana’s yard to greet others standing behind him. Enraged, the elderly man put his hands on the PM’s shoulders and shouted, “You didn’t hear what I say? You not welcome here!” The PM’s bodyguards then strong-armed Villafana, warning him that no one was supposed to touch the Prime Minister, and that he was “lucky” to not be further roughed up or even arrested. The PM went on with the walkabout.

The photo of Percy, arms crossed and blocking the PM was printed on the front of the daily newspapers and shown on the nightly news. Even more powerful, the clip appeared on Youtube and on Facebook. Showing clear signs of foot-in-mouth disease, the Prime Minister stood up in Parliament and announced that Mr Villafana was now a Canadian citizen who frequently visited Trinidad. This big brother style tactic, meant to scare Mr Villafana into fearing he might lose his pension or be harmed in retaliation, rapidly backfired. The population wondered aloud if Mr Manning had the state apparatus to illegally investigate Mr Villafana for protecting his property. No, sniffed the PM, it was the party machinery that snooped out this information. The nation was scandalized and Mr Manning appeared even more like the ‘Mugabe’ his opponents had been touting him to be. Percy Villafana responded that he was born and bred in the twin island republic, that he lived in his house on Real Street all his life, and that he was a citizen exercising his constitutional rights. Mr Manning hurriedly retreated from the fiasco, but the damage was done.

Within weeks, Kamla Persad-Bissessar and the United National Congress were using Percy Villafana’s symbol of crossed arms raised in the air on their campaign platforms. At rallies, dancers on the stage incorporated ‘the Villafana’ into their performance. Calypsonians and chutney singers added it to their act and their paid political music videos, hyping up the crowd to ‘do’ the Villafana together. Almost overnight, Mr Villafana had a Facebook fan page with 5000 fans and had become a national hero.

Then, less than a month before election day, thousands of posters appeared on electricity poles across the country. Against a white background, two arms crossed at the wrists appeared boldly beneath the caption, ‘Do so!’ In fact, nothing more needed to be said. The posters were also printed in newspapers as a full-colour centrefold pull out.  These were taken to rallies and could be seen in their dozens waving in the air. When Percy Villafana himself appeared on the opposition platform, in that moment he could have won more votes than either Kamla Persad-Bissessar or Patrick Manning. When he crossed his arms in the air, he sent his message more mightily than any speechwriter could have penned.  The body politic responded with body politics, using the Villafana to express their voice and their vote. The Villafana had become the campaign trail’s most recognizable organizing and unifying symbol of cross coalition and ordinary citizen opposition to Prime Minister Patrick Manning. The slogan ‘Do so!’ incited individual and collective action, implying in two words what it took Obama three to say, ‘Together, we can.’ No calypso on the PNM side could even match this kinetic force. The ruling party even toyed with a comeback poster that said ‘Do So!’ and featured a light-skinned hand shaking a brown-skinned hand, but it seemed more suited to the marketing campaign seen when grocery store HiLo was taken over by a Canadian company, and friendly propaganda began to feature in its aisles.

Mr Villafana’s spontaneous gesture was provoked by the waste, corruption and neglect widely considered to have characterized the Manning regime in the last eight years. While oil prices were at their highest in a decade, governmental spending also seemed out of control. One stadium being built in southern Trinidad had cost taxpayers close to TT$1 billion, with hundreds of millions in unaccounted cost overruns, and still no completion date. The Prime Minister’s official residence, also built with cost overruns, cost close to TT$300 million, two international summits cost approximately TT$1 billion, and a newly minted academy for performing arts cost TT$400 million. None of these seemed to be wise spending decisions when social services and hospitals remained under funded, when crime continued to plague a terrified populace, when the nation was collecting a debt upwards of TT$13 billion (the entire national budget in 2002), and when the government was functioning on a deficit. To add insult to injury, TT$2 million was spent on a big flag by the Ministry of Sport and more than TT$200 000 doled out on confetti to open a big overpass. Money seemed to flow, not like water, but like blood at a national massacre.

A public fallout between the Prime Minister and ex-Housing Minister Keith Rowley over the lack of transparency and outright corruption in the state company Udecott was the final straw. Rowley’s warnings to the PM about Udecott head, Canadian Calder Hart, dated back as far as 2003, but in 2010 Manning still found the brass to suggest to a distressed population that his ally Hart could be appointed to the watchdog Integrity Commission. It was the Hart debacle that finally brought Mr Manning’s government down after only two years in office. All this is what prompted Mr Villafana’s spontaneous gesture to both block the Prime Minister from entering his property and to use the sign of the cross to, in his own words, “ward off evil.” This is what further prompted his gesture to grow into the most evocative and influential symbol of the election at a time when many wonder if Mr Manning has gone mad with hubris or has gotten caught in Faustian deals with the devil.  If Kamla becomes the next Prime Minister, ‘the Villafana’ will certainly have helped her campaign get her there. If she and her coalition of parties repeat the recent failures of the PNM, the gesture will certainly be used against them. In fact, ‘the Villafana’ is here for a long time to come. It’s a pose, a dance, an action no highly paid or foreign strategist could have devised so brilliantly.

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