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Talking From Both Sides of Her Mouth

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
September 23, 2010

A few days ago the Honorary Prime Minister, Kamla Persad Bissessar addressed the United Nations General Assembly. Among other things she recognized that "the passport out of poverty is through education, community empowerment and social entrepreneurship." She also acknoweldged that 16.7 percent of our people still live below the poverty line; 11.7 per cent are considered working poor whereas 9 per cent are deemed vulnerable. The goal, she says, is to reduce poverty by 2 per cent per year.

These are noble goals. I suspect one way to get these people out of the poverty trap is to encourage them to work harder, plan better and respect what they do since small businesses are always the engine of employment and one way out of poverty. Yet, as in so many things, Prime Minister Kamla seems to say one thing while her ministers say another. Too many of her ministers are willing to defame anyone who seems to be doing his job in a conscientious manner.

Such behavior is becoming lamentably familiar. Justice Minster Herbert Volney besmirches the character of the Chief Justice. The Prime Minister describes his utterance as over enthusiasm and excuses his utterances as his "personal opinion (that is) in no way is the official position of the Prime Minister or the People's Partnership Government regarding the perception, attitude or policy concerning the judicial arm of the state and, indeed, the honorable Chief Justice."

One is hard put to understand the distinction. Usually a minister of government speaks for and on behalf of his government but now we are told it is not so. His opinion belongs to him. Under the circumstances, it would be helpful if the Prime Minister can tell us how to distinguish between personal opinion and party position and who makes the determination about same.

A similar thing occurred when Anil Roberts attacked Matthew Cassetta, Public Relations Officer of the Unites States Embassy on how visas are given to citizens of Trinidadians and Tobagonians who wish to visit the United States. When he was alerted by the Embassy that there is an official/diplomatic channel through which these matters are conducted his attitude seemed to suggest that his only consideration was what is in the best interests his constituents.

It was not really important to Roberts who his outbursts offended. Nor for that matter did he seem unduly concerned whether his outbursts affect bilateral relations between the two states (Trinidad and Tobago and the United States) or whether this is how one initiates discussion between two sovereign entities. It was left to Cassetta to remind him that these things are done better through diplomatic notes and exchanges and respect for representatives of countries.

In other words, respect for others matters. It something the Jamaica Gleaner reminded Justice Volney of and what the Public Relations Office of the US Embassy sought to convey to Minister Roberts. This brings me to a similar unfortunate outburst by Education Minister, Tim Gopeesingh, when he made his contribution to the Budget Debate in House of Representatives last week. His target was the caterers of the School Feeding Program. According to Gopeesingh, the PNM Government spent 1.56 billion dollars on the program between 2001 and 2010. He says "there are 75 carters currently operating the program...These caterers currently make a total of $20 million...All of their friends, all their party supporters and all of their party financiers. These same people who came and cook food and gave it to the CEPEP workers" who had assembled in Woodford Square when a no-confidence motion was brought against former Prime Minister Patrick Manning.

I am sure that Minister Goopeesingh is correct when he says that big suppliers such Kiss Baking, Arawak Chicken, Jaleel and Company and national contractors made a lot of money from the program. I am not too sure he is correct when he seeks to convey the impression that the caterers are Africans, supporters of the PNM and involved in skullduggery. More than half of the seventy five caterers to whom he refers are East Indians and one would like to think that they are just as industrious, honest and hard-working as the other caterers.

Many of these caterers are small entrepreneurs who are trying to make a living. Most kitchens evolved over the years from small two-pot kitchens to large commercial establishments all of which meet HAACP standards under the direction of the National School Dietary Services Ltd. Most of these businesses are open to any entity that is willing to pay for their services, be they political parties, social groups or private entities.

So that when Dr. Goopeesigh seek to paint all of these caterers as party hacks it would be helpful if he could tell us if these caterers were paid for their services, whether their payments were extravagant and whether or not they should have turned down these business opportunities. It might also be helpful to tell us to whom all of the caterers (not just a selective few) sell their services and whether this is how business people conduct their business.

So that when Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar goes to the UN and declare to the world that her party has established a Ministry of the People to deepen the partnership between the Government and the people it would be helpful that she tells the world that her party is concerned about defending the rights of all of her people and is not given to denigrating any group within her society especially those who are trying to rise out of the poverty trap.

The school feeding began as a voluntary program by Audrey Jeffers and the Coterie of Social Workers (which she established) that fed poor children for free before they moved to charging a fee of twenty five cents per meal. The little people who follow in her stead are just trying to make a living, something that Dr. Gopeesingh and the PP should understand. They follow a noble tradition that such be supported.

When Minister Gopeesing and the PP try to demonize these people they must remember that it was the first thing that UNC did when it came into power. It would be unfortunate if the PP, a transformed UNC, made this resurgent demonization of African people their first order of business. It is the last thing it would want to do.

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