Weapons down, amnesty for all
By Raffique Shah
WE would hold Teteron Barracks for ten tense days.
By the evening of Day One, a ceasefire agreement had been reached between Lt Commander Mervyn Williams and the rebels, and the basis for talks between the Government and us were laid down. I have heard it said afterwards that Williams had no authority to initiate talks with us.
Indeed, when he decided to walk into Teteron on the afternoon of Day One, he was deemed a "madman" by his colleagues and superior officers, some of whom had taken to hiding themselves behind Gasparee Island even after the battle on the hillside.
But Williams's initiative was obviously treated seriously by Dr Eric Williams and his Cabinet, because by Day Three, a team headed by Attorney General Karl Hudson-Phillips came down to what was then the Chagacabana Hotel to hold talks with our representatives, who were led by Rex Lassalle.
I do not now recall all the demands we made (Karl has the original, hand-written document), but I know they included the firing of the Commanding Officer, Col Johnson, and the re-instatement of Col Serrette. Other demands included the termination of the services of all Short Service Commissioned officers, the removal of the Regiment HQ from Teteron to another more strategic location.
They may also have included the promotion of Rex and myself to company commanders (which will have been part of the restructuring of the army following the departure of the SSC officers). The main political demand was the immediate release of all political detainees. And finally, we demanded amnesty for all those who were involved in the mutiny.
Johnson was fired within days. By Day Five, Serrette had been confirmed as the new Commanding Officer (his first trip to Teteron was on Day Four), and Johnson was posted to this country's embassy in Washington.
Soon afterwards, it was announced that not only was he dismissed from that job, but, in an unprecedented move, the Government stripped him of his rank (officers of the rank of Captain and above are entitled to carry their ranks for the duration of their lives).
More than that, Johnson, who will have been key to the prosecution's cases that came afterwards, was never called as a witness. To this day, no one can say whether or not he's still alive. Serrette's re-instatement proved to be critical to events that would follow, especially in the first of three Courts Martial that tried the officers and men.
Regarding the talks between the rebels and the Hudson-Phillips team (which included senior public servant Doddridge Alleyne and Jim Rodriguez of the Police Service), they were as cordial as could be expected in such a situation. There are rumours to this day that the rebel soldiers "roughed up" Karl; indeed, another senior public servant, long retired, J O'Neil Lewis, asked only last week if it was true that the troops interfered with Karl's "jewels".
Nothing was further from the truth.
What happened was there was an agreement that all parties who were to sit around the negotiating table would be unarmed. Our representatives were. But when one of the others was searched (Rodriguez, I believe), a pistol was found on his person.
Our escort soldiers then insisted on body-searching everyone, and Karl, like the others, was thoroughly frisked. He was never abused. While our positions taken at the talks were done in good faith, clearly the Government was seeking to buy time until they could arrest and charge us. But that was still seven days away, during which time, as follow-up to the talks, Serrette got us to release the heavy weapons.
I supervised that operation, during which I had the firing pins from the GPMGs and the Carl Gustavs removed (except from the few I kept at Teteron). Years later, Tony May would say that the soldiers had machine guns that did not carry firing pins: if any firing pin was missing, it was the one in May's head.
Tension eased as the days went by, but I need to make reference to a few important incidents that took place outside of Teteron.
On Day Two, two of the main buildings at Camp Ogden were burnt to the ground, presumably by soldiers who wanted to identify with the rebels. That fire, which was not ordered by Rex or me, showed that while we were the leaders of the mutiny, discontent in the Regiment ran so high, men risked their careers and lives to commit acts of arson. Although several soldiers from that camp were detained for a few days, none was ever charged.
Also, by the evening of Day Two, the authorities had issued police shirts to the men who manned the Chaguaramas main gate under Captain Spencer, and who were deemed the "loyalists".
That mode of dress was meant to differentiate between the "loyalists" and the rebels. Within 24 hours, the men stripped off the shirts, piled them in a heap, and later set fire to the pile, saying, "We are soldiers, not policemen!"
And even after they were furnished with weapons that came from the Venezuelans, Spencer had indicated to us and to certain journalists that should the Venezuelans or any other foreign power intervene in the impasse, they would be confronted by a united Regiment, if not a re-united Defence Force.
Copyright © 2000-2003 Raffique Shah