Corruption’s demonic face

By Raffique Shah
April 23, 2024

Raffique ShahIn the 40-odd years that I have been writing a weekly newspaper column, I admit that much of my work has been dealing with politicians and corruption. Over the years I have tried to address other issues such as the economy, our education system, crime (how can I not write about crime?), and so on. But I always seem to return to base, in a manner of speaking—meaning politics, politicians and corruption.

It takes a lot out of me. I expect my columnist colleagues would agree on this: it’s tough trying to deal with one or the other and not end up dealing with both. They go hand in hand, it seems.

Not long ago my son, Camilo, attended a function at a friend’s home. He observed one guest stealing glances at him every so often, perhaps gauging to see how approachable he was.

Minutes later, they were in deep conversation where he told him that he was from the business sector but he had served in public offices such as directorships in State-owned companies. He intrigued my son with a mass of information on a level of corruption that sounded alarming, which he was privy to when he served.

Apparently he had hoped to talk with me, as he regarded me as someone who was never afraid to write out against those who plunder the public purse, who enrich themselves, their political allies and even their spouses.

I must confess, with Parkinson’s taking its toll on my body and, believe it or not, whatever mind or brain I have left, I find it very difficult to engage in discussion or debate over the high and mighty and corrupt.

In the 1950s, when I was but a boy of five to eight years, I recall my father and his friends talk about corruption—what else?—in some major expansion the colonial government had undertaken. They often laughed and cussed when they referred to contractors, state agencies and downright political thieves.

Names that elude me now were busy grabbing state lands as the country moved into transition from a British colonial outpost to something resembling power.

Had my father and his friends enjoyed the benefit of hindsight, they would have learned exactly how the big names in politics in those days teamed up with British and other foreign business interests seeking to capitalise on the expanding oil industry and general development. Many of these bandits would later be hailed as heroes, so corruption embedded itself in the DNA of politics in Trinidad and Tobago.

In 1950, Albert Gomes’ party swept the polls and gave him the equivalent of power in a typical colony of that era. By the time Dr Williams organised the PNM and faced the polls in 1956, he had made a buffoon out of Gomes, whose avoir du pois didn’t help him any. The population believed Gomes had stolen the treasury (not from the treasury, but the whole treasury). By 1956 he was a shadow of himself.

As the PNM moved towards independence, its supporters and the nation hardly noticed that Gomes was replaced by John O’Halloran, who was the spitting image of Gomes, that came with a bonus.

Cockfighting was an illegal gambling game that invariably ended with one cock being fatally injured while patrons enjoyed the bloodletting. The police hardly intervened. Why? Because O’Halloran was D’Cock-Master General of the Caribbean.

He was also the reputed Corruption-Master-General. He was seen as the man who ushered in a new era of corruption in this country.

By the time the PNM was voted out of office in 1986, O’Halloran and party chairman Boysie Prevatt fled Trinidad and took refuge in Panama in order to escape prosecution on any number of charges—who knows? His estate in Canada would later face corruption charges in that jurisdiction. They were fined heavily and, I believe, some of their properties were seized by the state.

Knowingly or unknowingly, O’Halloran and several top PNM officials had known about or engaged in corrupt practices. It is believed they syphoned tens of millions of dollars or more from the treasury.

When the PNM fell from office, the NAR hardly had time or resources to pursue a number of leads they had claimed to be following. Nothing ever came out of them. Soon, however, Basdeo Panday and the UNC stormed the capital city and corruption took on a different, almost demonic face.

More on this next week.

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