Thursday, January 21, 2010

Trinidad & Tobago: Mr. Manning & the Silver Fox (Life in Trinidad)

By Nicholas Stix

Trinidad Series, Part III
Toogood Reports/A Different Drummer
October, 2000 (exact date of publication unknown)

“He’s a wicked man, and must suffer. He start tellin’ lies at 4 o’clock in the morning, and tell lies until he go to sleep at night.”

The speaker, an Indian Trinidadian man, is talking about Patrick Manning, the once, and possibly future prime minister of the Republic of Trinidad & Tobago. The Indian is a supporter of the Indian party, the United National Congress. In a common phrase (“He start tellin’ lies ... “), he summed up the feelings most Trini Indians have for Manning, who is conversely a hero to Trinidad’s Negro population.

Patrick Manning is the leader of TT’s black party, the People’s National Movement. It’s as simple as that; one party for Negroes, one for Indians, and never the twain shall meet. Each group makes up approximately 40 percent of the two-Island nation’s 1,250,000 citizens; the rest derive from East Asian, Portugese, and Spanish populations. (The UNC also has a prominent Chinese member, Finance Minister Brian Kuei Tung). [The Indians enjoy a plurality of perhaps three points over the Negroes.]

A longtime PNM stalwart, Manning was the official heir to T & T’s first prime minister, Dr. Eric Williams (1962-81). Shortly before his death, however, Williams saw a vision of one of his deputies, George Chambers, sitting in Williams’ chair. Thus it was decreed that Chambers would succeed Williams, even though Manning was legally next in line.

People put a lot of stock in visions here.

Shortly after becoming prime minister, George Chambers visited New York, where he had some fun. An infrared camera caught him frolicking in his hotel room with a young woman who most certainly was not his wife. That cost Prime Minister Chambers his government, his wife, and through her, all he owned.

New elections were called, which were won by the PNM with Manning at its helm, and he ascended to the head of the government, though not for long.

Although it has never been proved, many Trinidadians have always believed that Patrick Manning set Chambers up for the fall.

Politically, the PNM is similar to our Democratic Party, prior to the introduction of Bill Clinton’s third-way, New Democrat spin: The government’s job is to “manage” the economy, and engage in “job-creation” through incredibly wasteful, state-owned businesses and assorted boondoggles. TT’s PNM-led history has caused a great many Negroes to see the government as the employer of first resort. In other words, what Bill and Hillary believe, but won’t say, is here trumpeted openly.

The UNC more closely resembles our Republican Party, in that it routinely calls for the shedding of state-owned businesses, and for fiscal conservatism. In practice, it is also, like the Republicans, a job mill for its supporters. The UNC has continued, as well, the all-party, TT tradition of collecting oil companies. No businessman in his right mind would ever sell a successful concern to the government, and no sensible politician would want to be saddled with the responsibility of running a business.

The UNC has also assiduously avoided the Caroni Problem, which is the Third Rail of Trini politics.

The sugar company, “Caroni (1975) Ltd.,” is the nation’s biggest agricultural concern, and largest “private” employer. The problem is, Caroni is private in name only. The parenthetical “1975” refers not to the founding of Caroni, which has been around for a century, but to the year that the government began subsidizing it. Caroni has since become the nation’s biggest patronage mill, lousy with highly-paid “managers” with nothing to manage. While the average farmer who sells his sugar cane crop to Caroni may work like an animal to live at subsistence level, the typical Caroni manager’s “work” consists merely in showing up in the morning at the office.

At election time, there is always talk of reforming Caroni, but it remains just that. The reason, as one of my in-laws, who works there, pointed out, is simple: One out of five Trinidadians either works for Caroni, or is an immediate family member of a Caroni employee.

Last year alone, Caroni burned up $301M TT in subsidies. At $48m US, that might not sound like a lot, but consider that the US is over 200 times the size of TT in population (270 million to 1.25 million), and America’s economy is almost 1400 times the size of TT’s ($7.8 trillion GDP to $5.6 billion GDP, in 1997 US dollars, according to the UN). Whereas the fiscal year 1999 US budget totaled $1.703 trillion US, the 1999-2000 TT budget totaled $2.1 billion US ($13b TT). That means that Caroni ate up 2.3 percent of the entire TT budget. An equivalent portion of the FY 1999 US budget would have been $39.1 billion US. Imagine the U.S. government giving agricultural giant Archer Daniels Midland an annual gift of $39.1 billion?!

In theory, reforming Caroni is simple: just cut off all state subsidies, forcing Caroni’s executives to choose between firing 70 percent or more of their managerial cronies and relatives, or shutting down altogether.

That’s a lot of kid brothers and cousins out of work, angry, desperate sisters-in-law and cousins, and hungry nieces and nephews.

Withdrawing state support from Caroni would consitute political suicide. The only way to do it, would be through implementing a well thought-out plan immediately following a convincing re-election victory, in combination with an aggressive program for increasing the confidence of businessmen, and attracting foreign capital. And yet, Trinis’ lack of confidence in their ability to attract foreign investment; the PNM-founded tradition of making TT less than welcoming to such investment; and the radical racism that oozes out of the Port-of-Spain campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI), and which opposes all foreign capital, because it invariably comes from whites, combine to make an aggressive economic reform program unlikely to succeed. Note too that in TT’s British-style parliamentary system, sufficiently deep discontent may force early elections.

In an example of the prevalence of such anti-market economics, on August 27, on the eve of Finance Minister Brian Kuei Tung’s unveiling of the 2000-2001 budget in Parliament, three economists appear on a TV panel: Former PNM finance minister, Selby Wilson, UNC-leaning Dhanayshir Mahabir, and Lloyd Best, who, dissatisfied with the insufficiently radical PNM, once sought to start his own, TAPIA party -- but “no one would stand for him” (agree to be a candidate).

Selby Wilson is content to take a couple of cheap shots at the UNC, claiming to have been “part of the team that originated the idea of fiscal responsibility,” and denouncing “people [who] are riding a wave that they didn’t create.” “People” refers to the UNC, and the momentary prosperity, created largely through the rise in oil prices, and the production and export of government oil.

Lloyd Best is given to statements of a strangely metaphysical cast for an economist: “The central problem is that the people who live here never belonged, the land never belonged to them. We must settle the people... Why is it that the people don’t belong here.”

At this point, I need a translator. Who are these people who do or do not “belong here”? My father-in-law, a retired contractor, explains that Best is talking about (white) foreign industrialists, whom he would throw out of the country, and whose businesses and property he would steal, er, nationalize. “Put he to do it, and he can’t even build a shoe!”

Lloyd Best continues, “You have to identify who are the entrepreneurs, where are you going to find the money to support them... and therefore, you must transfer resources.”

A real economist would observe that one can easily identify entrepreneurs, because they are the people making the most money WITHOUT GOVERNMENT HELP, and that the best thing government can do is to leave them alone. Requiring government support is the sure mark not of an entrepreneur, but of a failure. In Lloyd Best’s bizarro world economics, the government steals (“transfers”) from some, to give money to incompetent, political cronies. It sounds like something out of the Robert Mugabe School of Genocide Economics.

The only one here who seems to know anything about economics is Dhanayshir Mahabir, who alone came with a sheaf of facts, figures, and program proposals, and who is clearly a flaming libertarian: “I don’t trust government—it will always be captured by special interests. We must expand the private sector.... We need to de-emphasize the role of the finance minister.... Caroni is not an economic issue at all; Caroni is entirely a political issue.... The state is hemorraghing to support Caroni. Caroni is a bullet lodged in the body of Trinidad & Tobago. I think [political leaders] will just leave it.”

For Lloyd Best, Caroni is not a significant factor, and that is good enough for moderator Diane Seukeran, who from the start shamelessly sucks up to the pixilated Best: “The ever-eternally open Lloyd Best ...” “Do you, Lloyd, as a deeply committed Trinidadian ...”

At least Seukeran, whose shameless partisanship is no worse than Ted Koppel’s, does not pretend to be a journalist. A well-connected lawyer, she is the daughter of Lionel Seukeran, who was a member of Parliament as an independent, and then as a member of the now-defunct People’s Democratic Party. In a political deal prior to the ascension of the UNC, Diane Seukeran’s brother-in-law, Lennie Saith, borrowed $13.5 million TT ($2.17M US) from the TT First Citizens Bank, but was permitted by his governing cronies to write off the debt under “debt-forgiveness.”

Seukeran, while Indian, clearly does not care for Indians. When she isn’t washing Lloyd Best’s feet, she is trying to put Best’s words into Dhanayshir Mahabir’s mouth, steering the conversation constantly to issues of the state “managing the economy,” and engaging in centralized planning (via the euphemism, “strategic planning”). She also baits Mahabir into saying of his thinking, “It’s not laissez-faire” (a market economy), when that is exactly what he is talking about. In agreement with Best’s call for intensive, high-tech education, Seukeran proclaims that TTers are no longer content to be “a nation of hewers of wood and carriers of water.” By the way, she also explains economics, speaking of “a history of a lack of assertiveness, of laissez-faire—a budget is an assertion.”

So, a real government takes over the economy!

Seukeran’s demagoguery is positively Clintonesque: In TT, the largest employment sector is still agriculture, specifically, the growing and processing of sugar cane. TT is indeed “a nation of hewers of wood and carriers of water,” and has no reason to be ashamed of such status. America, on the other hand, is a progressive nation of high-tech, college-educated, glorified clerk-typists—the cyberspace equivalent of “hewers of wood and carriers of water.”

Seukeran reminds me of the well-to-do actors in American TV ads for CISCO Systems, whom we are to believe are typical citizens of “third world” countries. Representing communist China, a nation where hardly anyone has even HEARD of e-mail, an actor says, “Now we have visual mail, instead of e-mail.” And then he challenges his American viewers, virtually all of whom actually HAVE e-mail,

“Are you ready?”

My father-in-law explains the demagoguing of Best, Wilson, and Seukeran, with a Trinidadian expression: “In all countries, the wise live off the fools!,” adding,

“That is three PNM fanatic.”

The gap between rhetoric and reality notwithstanding, under Prime Minister Basdeo Panday’s leadership, the UNC has shed scores of formerly government-owned businesses.

For the first thirty years of TT’s electoral history (1956-1986), blacks ran things politically through the PNM. (Early on, many Indians, especially in the Deep South, did not know English, the official language, and the only one used in voting.) In 1986, the National Alliance of Reconstruction (NAR), created through a merger of the former Democratic Action Congress (DAC) and United Labor Front (ULF), finally wrested control from the PNM. The NAR was disturbed briefly in 1991, by an attempted coup by revolutionary Muslim leader, Abu Bakr. It wasn’t until 1995 that the UNC, led by Basdeo Panday, finally had its day in the sun.

The NAR is the only influential political party that is not race-based. It numbers Negroes, Indians, Chinese, and other ethnic minorities among its leaders and followers. Although the NAR’s leaders criticize race-based politics, they are able to taste power only through coalitions with race-based parties. Its situation is not unlike that of Germany’s Libertarian Party (“Die Liberale Partei Deutschlands,” which in contemporary terms translates into not “liberal,” but “libertarian.”), whose principles are in conflict alike with the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, but which since 1966 has always had to join coalitions with one, the other, or in one case (1966-69) both parties, in order to be a “player.”

Although NAR members are still in Panday’s cabinet, he presently does not need them, in order to rule.

At least one NAR cabinet member, Minister of Tobago Affairs, Dr. Morgan Job, has signaled a readiness to jump ship to the PNM. Last month, in an interview with Clevon Raphael of the PNM newspaper, The Independent, marked by open hostility on both sides, Minister Job refused to endorse Prime Minister Panday’s government in the coming elections:

“I believe in freedom of choice and in democracy and I don’t want to prejudice people’s choices. I must go to Tobago and make sure the people of Tobago East think they should re-elect me to represent them. That is my primary responsibility. With respect to how people vote in Trinidad I don’t want to get involved in this ethnic politics.”

Translation: As an NAR leader; a black man whose heart never left the PNM; and as a Tobagonian, who expects to be financially supported by Trinidadians, but feels no obligations to them, Dr. Morgan Job feels little sense of loyalty to anyone. When Clevon Raphael (himself black), asked Job if he is a “neemakaram,” a Hindi word understood by some blacks to describe an ingrate, Job sought to twist Raphael’s words.

Job: “If Panday says I am a neemakaram.”

Raphael: “He never said that about you, it is I who just said that.”

J: “In reference to me as one of the neemakarams?”

R: “No. I said it is I who just told you that.”

J: “Well, perhaps that is his judgement and if that is his judgement what you want me to do? If Mr. Panday judges me as a neemakaram I cannot tell him how to judge.

R: “Dr. Job I am saying it is I who is telling you that, using it in a general way.”

Prime Minister Basdeo Panday, aka “the silver fox,” is fighting to hold onto his parliamentary majority. The nickname refers both to the 68-year-old Panday’s mane of thick, white hair, and to his legendary cunning. Last year, he had promised elections, but then forgot about them. Now it looks like elections will be held at the end of February.

Patrick Manning may not be an angel, but Basdeo Panday is no choir boy, either. Prior to being elected prime minister, Panday left his late, then-ailing wife of forty, childless years for a mistress (the present Mrs. Panday) young enough to be his daughter, with whom he sired a child, but without bothering to divorce his wife.

One Indian woman says of Panday, “He must suffer. When he was younger, she wash his clothes, and iron his clothes, like a slave, and he cheat on her. He have no reason to do that.”

The critic grants, however, that hers is a minority opinion, and that most Indians have long forgiven Panday, if they ever condemned him.

Panday did not carry on in public at the time: “The Indians are more private,” notes his critic, “the Negroes are more that way.” But Trinidad is a small country, and people do talk.

Panday’s political opponents complain of a $20M TT payout the government had to make to a ferry operator for a deal that went sour, that was to have provided additional service between Trinidad and Tobago. More dramatically, they point to the new, as yet unfinished airport terminal in Port-of-Spain, whose planned cost of $769M TT is now projected at $1.3B TT (and will likely come in at closer to $2B TT, ultimately). Such boondoggles make any distinction between PNM and UNC (and NAR) “economics” difficult to draw.

Critics cite, as well, the August taxi drivers’ strike. While refusing to pick up passengers, the drivers blocked the Point Fortin road in the south, by driving back and forth en masse at five mph, to protest the road’s condition of disrepair, in which entire strips of asphalt were gone. The critics note that such conditions are pervasive throughout Trinidad, the one nation in the world with its own pitch (tar) lake, in southwestern LaBrea.

Though Panday has a firm parliamentary majority, politicians in modern democracies—whatever their party affiliation—always feel the need for dramatic re-election initiatives.

Radical multicultural American academics identify TT as a “developing” nation, which is their way of saying that they are too lazy to bother studying the place. Just as tenured, American professors project their fantasies onto other countries, foreigners variously project their fantasies onto America, or adopt the slogans of American politicians. So it is with Prime Minister Panday, who peppers his speeches with phrases from the likes of Harry Truman (“The buck stops here”) and Winston Chuchill (“We shall never surrender!,” from his August speech on the war on drugs). As we shall soon see, however, in desperately seeking Negro votes with which to lock up the election, Panday is ready to go beyond slogans, and transform TT’s competitive, merit-based educational system into a “progressive,” American-style system marked by continuous dumbing-down, social promotion, and escalating, counter-productive expenditures that may ultimately make Caroni’s subsidy look like so many nickels and dimes.

Ain’t progress grand?

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