By Raffique Shah
August 01, 2022
I do not believe the people of Trinidad and Tobago, least of all those whose votes matter in a near-evenly-divided electorate, are ready for a leader who has the fortitude to take the resource-rich though now declining economy out of the cycles of poverty, stagnation and prosperity, to put it firmly on track such that it steers as close as is possible to an equitable distribution of its wealth—or suffering—and in the painful process deliver us from the evils of free-wheeling capitalism and neo-liberalism that coagulates into one of the filthy-rich, dirt-poor extremities that are imploding across the world, their populations equally stripped of all hope as ours is, the only difference being this time we go down with the ship since there are no alternative options.
Then, again, maybe it is I—not the free-wheeling charlatans and crooks who parade up and down the country, claiming they are the solutions to our myriad problems—who is mad. The “fire-starters”, who see the solutions to poverty, unemployment, pot-holed roads, declining production of hydrocarbons, and a million other manifestations of poor management of both money and manpower embodied in their brains or whatever matter or absence thereof, exist in their heads. After all, many world leaders who were lauded in their day, were clinically insane, so where others have failed, why not try a madman instead?
I do not believe that Dr Keith Rowley is any less of a leader than others who are competing for office. True, he did not make any dramatic changes to the direction the country had taken under all previous prime ministers, a course that may have been decisive in changing the fortunes of T&T—we shall never know. Previous PMs have basically stuck to their parties’ policies and programmes although the few changes some made were dramatic enough in terms of our fortunes to warrant their implementation.
We saw it, for example, in the switch of emphasis to natural gas and petro-chemicals that impacted positively on the economy at a time when the oil industry had stagnated. Because its hold on office was so strong, not to add long, the PNM under Dr Eric Williams, Mr George Chambers and Mr Patrick Manning worked with visionaries Dr Ken Julien, Trevor Bhoopsingh, Kerston Coombs and others from a shortlist of pioneers who put us ahead of countries bigger and better endowed than ours, in exploiting hydrocarbons, from upstream to downstream, into becoming the biggest producer of ammonia, feedstock for nitrogenous fertilisers, and methanol, a base material for a wide range of products used in the auto industries. We had the first LNG plant in this part of the world.
But just as new revenue sources enriched us, they created a breeding ground for corruption that saw a new super-rich class, driven by greed, siphon billions of dollars into their “first circle”, leaving only the crumbs from the national patrimony for the wretched of the land. And to pacify the masses, to satiate their greed—yes, we all had degrees of greed—governments used generous subsidies amounting to billions of dollars a year in products ranging from food to fuels, prayers to fetes. The income gap between the wealthy and the ordinary, not to add, the poor, was widening while the population was “wining”. Governments lost not just the will, but the moral authority to rein-in the madness.
That is the challenge that any leader who wants to save this country from seemingly inevitable doom, must meet head-on, sooner rather than later to bring us back to reality. The dependency syndrome in the population, subtracted from whatever achievements came our way. In other words, there was nothing wrong with government passing off some earnings from oil and gas to the average citizen, in particular the poor. Instead billions of dollars were channelled into unproductive institutions such as URP, DEWD, CEPEP, etc. They became entitlements. Along with a national work ethic that was painful to watch and free-wheeling corruption at every level of the society, left us with the monsters that are draining us into poverty.
Only ANR Robinson and his aide Selby Wilson dared to tamper with the “freeness”, and they acted under instructions from the IMF. Every other person of influence or prime minister kept topping up the feeding trough and the corruption continued. Additionally, the neo-liberal political and economic systems that were fashionable worldwide found favour in this country. Together they created billionaires, scores, maybe hundreds of millionaires and multi-millionaires, and widened the gap of income earnings among the very rich, the rich and the working poor.
Everyone knew about it. Those who benefited from the rape of the treasury and the contract system displayed their wealth in opulence, living in mansions, driving expensive vehicles and generally living high and wealthy off what should have been the national patrimony.