By Raffique Shah
July 20, 2020
I had no intention of intervening in the campaigning for the general election, which is due to be held in three weeks. It is well established that politicians say the darndest things in normal times, and they become outrageous when they are soliciting votes from the electorate. They not only lie, they make promises that they and the voters know they can never keep. . But there is a tacit understanding between the combatants that allows the candidates to peddle lies, to promote the impossible and not be held accountable for it.
Because I see my role as being more than a mere commentator in a wrestling match, I feel compelled to point out to people the more bizarre promises that are being hurled at them, just so they know what the facts are. Not that knowing the truth will influence them to make wise choices. Far from it: most electors have long decided whom they will vote for, and the truth will hardly cause them to vote otherwise.
I was shocked when I read last week that Kamla Persad-Bissessar proposes to resurrect the sugar industry should she steer the United National Congress to victory at the polls. Many of us who have been involved in that industry are aware of its multiple inefficiencies, of why it was near-impossible to save it when the Patrick Manning government shut it down in 2003 (it actually ground to a halt in 2007). If we could not prevent its collapse then when it still had a thing or two going for it, by what stretch of even the most fertile imagination can one argue for its resurrection today, when not only has its corpse been reduced to dust, but its skeleton to ashes?
To even think of such a backward step when the post-Covid narrative is about diversification of the economy, about information technology, renewable energy, hydroponics and so on, suggests that Kamla and the UNC are trapped in a time warp, which is frightening. For numerous reasons, which I cannot detail in this short space, the revival of sugar as a major plank in the new economy is wholesale sewage.
Where is the land for such misadventure? Don’t tell me about former Caroni sugar cane fields that have been carved up and shared among friends, thieves and squatters. Where are the labourers who will do the hard work that is synonymous with sugar production, from slavery through indentureship and up until the closure of the industry? Mechanisation is limited, and part-time labourers, URP-style, won’t cut it.
The more I think of Kamla raising the spectre of restoring sugar, the more bizarre I find it. I served on several committees that sought to save the industry when there were two functioning factories, a refinery, some field equipment and other rolling stock, and a number of managers, workers and farmers who were willing to give it a shot. But the hurdles were numerous and insurmountable, so we abandoned sugar as a cursed legacy of colonialism, one that we should cleanse from our bodies and souls, and move on.
In the fields, yields per acre averaged between 15-25 tonnes when upwards of 30 tonnes, and often 40, were the norm by major producers (Brazil, India). Then the quality of canes was generally poor, their conversion rate (tonnes of cane to tonnes of sugar) worse. Unplanned fires wreaked havoc in both farmers’ and estate fields, a situation that worsened when squatters occupied nearby lands. The work ethic in all aspects of sugar production declined to URP levels. And when preferential prices for raw sugar exports to the European Union ended with the expiry of that Protocol, we were simply a high-cost producer that could not survive.
In other words, it was cheaper to import raw or refined sugar on the world market than to produce it locally. Some people argue that we should continue production and export, if only for the foreign currency we could earn. That would be akin to buying US dollars at way above the official exchange rate because it was available.
The statement by Kamla that if the UNC wins the election on August 10, it will revive the sugar industry, has sentimental value only to a small number of older, ex-sugar workers. It means nothing to younger people in what used to be called the “sugar belt” since they will have no interest in working the fields. And it will not stimulate interest elsewhere in the country. Ever since Caroni Limited was shut down in 2007, sugar has been imported without a hitch, and that is what concerns consumers.
The UNC’s position on reopening the oil refinery at Pointe-a-Pierre as a state enterprise, whatever the cost to taxpayers, similarly has no appeal to the average citizen. Kamla is best advised to start campaigning on the real issues before the race is over.