Tiny nation set to
Los Angeles Times
Sept. 4, 2005
Carol J. Williams
PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago - 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 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 this 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
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
The oil and natural-gas industries also stand to benefit from bridging the
linguistic gap with Venezuela, the hemisphere's biggest oil producer, whose
president wants to reduce dependence on U.S. refineries and markets. Trinidad
has more processing capacity than oil, and it would love to get 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.
"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
geographic 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 are Spanish-speakers, said
Pedro Centeno, academic director of the Caribbean Institute of Languages and
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 percent 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.
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."