It's buying Ugandan doctors, and trades big with Gabon: 10 things you didn't know about Trinidad & Tobago

The country just did one of the most bizarre bailout packages you have ever heard of: oil-for-toilet paper.

THIS week, Uganda announced that it would send 263 health professionals to work in Trinidad and Tobago despite protests from civil society organisations, who argued that Uganda’s needs to keep its health workers at home.

But Uganda’s ministry of Foreign Affairs says that the country’s public health sector is unable to absorb all the doctors and nurses who join the labour market every year, and it is the government’s responsibility to provide them with jobs, says the report by Xinhua.

A statement from the ministry said there were 59,000 registered health professionals in Uganda, but just 63% were employed in the public sector, while 37% were either in the private sector, unemployed or had emigrated in search of work.

“The absorptive capacity of the public sector is limited, and this is the gap that the framework is trying to bridge,” the statement said.

But civil society organisations argue that there is a shortage of medical personnel in health centres across the country.

Data from the World Bank corroborates the view that Trinidad has more doctors at its disposal than Uganda; the estimates show that the physician density in Uganda is 62 physicians per 100,000 of the population, while Trinidad has nearly twice as much, at 118.

What’s Trinidad and Tobago offering in return? The primary export of the pair of small Caribbean islands is petroleum, in the form of oil and natural gas; Trinidad and Tobago has been “helping Uganda build skills” to exploit its oil reserves.

It comes just a few days after the Caribbean nation offered to help its southern neighbour, Venezuela, with perhaps the most bizzare bailout package you have ever heard of: oil-for-toilet paper.

Venezuela’s economy is on the brink of collapse following spiraling inflation and a plunge in the global oil prices.

Despite having the world’s largest oil reserves, price controls and a shortage of dollars for imports have emptied stores of basic goods, with Venezuelans now lining up outside supermarkets for hours to get cooking oil, detergent, or toilet paper.

It means that essentially, Venezuela can now mostly conduct its trade by barter; so Trinidad’s prime minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar proposed giving toilet paper, among other goods, to Venezuela in exchange for oil.

Why would Trinidad need oil if it is an oil exporter? The reason is the country’s sole refinery, state-owned Petrotrin, has the capacity to refine 160,000 barrels per day, but domestic output is only 60,000. As a result, Petrotrin must source crude petroleum in foreign markets to fully make use of its excess refining capacity.

Here are ten more things you didn’t know about Trinidad and Tobago:

1.   The central African nation of Gabon is Trinidad and Tobago’s primary trade partner in Africa; Gabonese exports to the Caribbean nation are almost exclusively of crude petroleum, that Trinidad uses to mop up its excess refining capacity.

2.    The country comprises two islands, the much larger Trinidad, and the small island of Tobago to the northeast. In total, the country is just 5,128 sq. km; if it was in Africa, it would be Africa’s smallest country on the mainland, but among the islands, it would be Africa’s second biggest island nation after Madagascar.

3.    Because of its long coastline, 362km in total, Trinidad and Tobago has a much larger exclusive economic zone – the 200 nautical miles out to sea that a country can stake a claim to – relative to its land area. At 79,200 sq. km Trinidad and Tobago’s EEZ is nearly 16 times larger than its land area, and it’ s bigger than that of countries like Sudan (68,148 sq. km) or DR Congo (just 1,606 sq. km).

4.    Trinidad and Tobago were originally inhabited by Amerindians of South American origin, but they were decimated by disease upon making contact with European explorer-settlers.

5.    The island was then developed into sugar plantations using slaves brought in from Africa, but in 1835 when all slaves in the British Empire were emancipated, labourers were imported from India, China and Sri Lanka as indentured servants. Today, the islands’ ethnic composition is 35% Indian, 34% African, 23% mixed, 1.3% other, and 6.2% unspecified.

6.    Trinidad and Tobago has a population of 1.2 million, less than the population of the Ugandan capital, Kampala. Like many small island nations, it has a high emigration rate as people leave in search for opportunities.

7.    At -6.42 per 1,000 of the population, it would have the fourth-highest net migration rate; if it was in Africa, it would come after Somalia, Lesotho and the Republic of Congo.  Still, it has nearly twice as many doctors per capita than Uganda does.

8.    At $32,346, Trinidad’s petroleum revenues and small population make it the richest country in Latin America and the Caribbean by GDP per capita, adjusted for purchasing power parity. It’s actually the third-richest country in the Americas after the US and Canada. If it was in Africa, it would be Africa’s second-richest country by GDP per capita, after Equatorial Guinea’s $36,600.

9.    But the human prosperity in the two countries is very far apart. If a Trinidadian was born in Equatorial Guinea, he would be 3.8 times more likely to be unemployed, be 2.9 times more likely to die in infancy, spend 17% more money on health care, and die nearly a decade (8.8 years) sooner.

10.   Trinidad and Tobago is the birthplace of calypso and soca music, as well as the steel pan, which is claimed to be the only musical instrument invented in the 20th century. The island is also the birthplace of Carnival, in the form that has been widely copied in the Caribbean and around the world. 

The islands claim two Nobel laureates in literature - V.S. Naipaul, known for his 1961 novel A House for Mr Biswas, and Derek Walcott, who, though born in St Lucia, spent much of his adult life in Trinidad. Walcott’s best known work is the epic book-length poem Omeros, which echoes Homer and some of the main characters in The Iliad.

BONUS: Brian Lara, one of the world’s greatest cricketers of all time, is Trinidadian. Lara holds several cricketing records, and is the only batsman to have ever scored a hundred, a double century, a triple century, a quadruple century and a quintuple century in first class games over the course of a senior career.

Probably if Uganda were governed the way Trinidad and Tobago is, it too would be importing, not exporting, health workers.

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