By Raffique Shah
July 06, 2020
It is perhaps a measure of poetic justice that a People’s National Movement government is facing a rebellion by elements in the party’s core constituencies in the capital city of Port of Spain and its environs, that on the eve of an important general election when the party needs its members more than they need the party. But such are the vicissitudes of politics that test the mettle of leaders.
Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley and National Security Minister Stuart Young have said that intelligence reports suggest that politicians outside of the PNM are fomenting the unrest. I do not doubt that. Politics is a nasty game that is governed by no rules or ethics, in which the end—power and control of the State coffers—justifies the means. Even so, the fact that competing parties can infiltrate your bastion and use your own people against you must be cause for concern.
My “poetic justice” analogy comes from a personal experience. It dates back to the period 1973-1980, when the PNM government under the leadership of Dr Eric Williams, chose to bulldoze what was then called “Shanty Town” and backfill the nearby swamp and mangrove, and build an expansive new community which would later become Beetham Estate. As a member of parliament, I argued passionately for the government to halt the housing project because of its proximity to what was then known as the “La Basse”, its adverse environmental impact, and its affront to human dignity. Watching human beings wrestle with corbeaux for morsels from the mountains of household and commercial waste that were deposited there daily was not a pleasant sight, especially as the dump and the housing estate lay almost side by side at the eastern gateway to the capital city.
True, the people selected for the new community came mostly from the nearby “shanties” where a few pieces of wood and rusted galvanise passed for a “house”, and there were hundreds such structures there. So their elevation to small concrete homes was a big leap for them, and an achievement for the government. I did not like the idea of anchoring hundreds, maybe thousands, of poor people in a swamp in which drainage and sanitation would be problematic.
Moreover, the new Beetham would be adjacent to East Port of Spain and Laventille, urban districts that were already riddled with social and economic problems, communities in which crime thrived. I feared that in such geographic confines, residents would hardly see themselves making progress, far less enjoying upward mobility.
I remember the day I argued in Parliament for establishing new housing for low-income or no-income people in other, more hospitable environs, PNM’s Dr Cuthbert Joseph slammed into me, daring me, “Shah, you go tell them (Shanty Town dwellers) that!” And he was correct: they will have “eaten me raw” for trying to deny them houses close to the garbage dump, where many made their living.
In fact, at the time, the idea of urban renaissance, which is what I advanced without knowing the term, was alien to the PNM. They had rejected some marvellous prototypes of integrated living spaces from architects Alexander & Bacchus, and only came around to seeing the wisdom in such developments much later when they promoted a massive renewal of East Port of Spain-ironically, under Dr Rowley as Housing Minister, if my memory is correct.
It is from those urban concrete jungles that communities with a sense of hopelessness emerged. And while many families have defied the odds and done well, too many more have remained trapped in a vicious cycle of persistent poverty, doomed to be fodder for the hardened criminals who have muscled and gunned their way to becoming the godfathers of all they survey, including politicians from both mainstream parties.
Matters not which party is in power, this criminal elites are in control. And you thought the super-wealthy, the much-maligned “one percent”, were sole controllers of the corridors of power? Think again. While the protests against police abuse of power were probably spontaneous, justified reactions to the police killing three Morvant youths, there was little doubt that hidden hands manipulated the angry mobs. Placards magically materialised, gunshots suddenly punctuated the mayhem-level unrest. The stage was set for bloodshed that could have taken this country beyond a boundary that, for all its numbness to violence, has never crossed.
Police Commissioner Gary Griffith’s incendiary outbursts did not help. The police generally acted with restraint, using minimum force to bring the unrest under control. And when the PM intervened, albeit late, he restored some confidence among law-abiding citizens.
He also chose to call the general election and let the electorate decide his fate. It was a bold move. Sometimes, who dares, wins. In effect, he has chosen his date with destiny. I wish him well.