July 22, 2001
By Raffique Shah
I OFTEN wonder why so many people seem to be surprised at the widespread allegations of corruption that have dogged the UNC Government, almost from the moment it first took office in 1995.
It's as though it's our first encounter with graft, kickbacks, with demands being made of big foreign corporations seeking to do business here. Okay, I concede that over the past few weeks we have been swamped with allegations of impropriety and by the suspension from office of senior officials at several institutions. Media exposure and coverage of the incidents might lead many to conclude that we are trapped in a bottomless pit of filth from which none will emerge untainted.
But the truth be told, this country has been mired in a culture of corruption for as long as we have had politicians and governments. And I dare say that while many insist that "a fish starts rotting from the head", I disagree: in our case, corruption begins from below. I make this bold statement on two bases. Firstly, it is we, the masses, who vote into office people who have demonstrated that they view the public purse as their private wallets. And secondly, we encourage their thieving ways by ourselves offering bribes-in various forms-even before public officials make their demands.
In the past, I have written repeatedly about corruption under the "old PNM" government. I make this distinction between the pre-1986 PNM and its later reincarnation only because there were few allegations of corruption when the party returned to power under Patrick Manning in 1991. Two come to mind. The party's chairman, Lenny Saith, had a million-dollar business that went bust, and he had a $3 million (or thereabout) debt forgiven by the state-owned First Citizens Bank. Saith was not the first delinquent debtor to have a huge sum written off. But because he was chairman of the then ruling party and a minister in Manning's government, he was made to pay the price of holding public office.
There were others who gouged out money from the banks, especially during the early oil booms, and walked away with their pockets full and their hands swinging-instead of being in handcuffs. One senior attorney committed one of the most shameless acts of impropriety in this respect, and not only did he hobble away laughing, but he also threatened the media with lawsuits when there were attempts to expose his culpability. The other instance was an allegation that Manning had sold a tax-free car he had bought to Dole Chadee, the notorious drug lord. If there was anything amiss in that transaction, it was the timing of the sale, and the fact that it was sold to someone (not Chadee) who was not exactly 'kosher'.
In its earlier incarnation, though, the PNM was haunted by allegations of corruption as serious as those that are today leveled at the UNC. Ironically, Dr Eric Williams led the PNM to victory in 1956 riding on an anti-corruption platform, much the way the NAR would annihilate the PNM 30 years later. For the benefit of those whose memories are trapped in their party jockey shorts, I shall recall some of what Williams had to say about his predecessor, Albert Gomes, in the run-up to the 1956 general election.
In outlining a case for party politics in Trinidad and Tobago at Woodford Square on September 13, 1955, Williams said: "We, the people of Trinidad and Tobago, are the sick man of the Caribbean. Our principal handicap to recovery is our doctors. Five years ago we called in a new team of doctors to look after us. For five years they have neglected us; they have been too busy growing rich in private practice, and in having tea in the House of Commons, sightseeing in Scandinavia, and not sleeping a wink in Montevideo." And then: "The dishonesty and immorality of public life in Trinidad and Tobago are now a byword. The population is tired of graft and corruption, sick to death of broken promises, fed up to the teeth with the squandering of the taxes for which (it has to) dig deep into its pockets. The situation daily gets worse.....The disease is rapidly spreading to the Civil Service....The poison is seeping through the entire body politic."
Uncanny, eh? Williams's speech has a familiar ring today, 46 years after he delivered it. He was at the time referring to Albert "Big Bertie" Gomes, Victor Bryan, Norman Tang, Ajodhasingh and Roy Joseph who had teamed up with the Governor to form a government that was characterised by Gomes's creed: in politics, anything goes! Butler, whose party had won six out of the 18 seats it contested, was left out in the cold. Of course, Williams targeted the regime's incompetence and its penchant for corruption, promising to bring morality into public affairs.
In short time, though, his government was tainted with the brush of corruption. Early in its first term of office the "Lockjoint scandal" hit the fan. As I recall it, Lockjoint was a foreign firm that was contracted to upgrade the sewer system in Port of Spain. It was alleged that ministers in Williams's government took bribes from the company. Hard on the heels of that mess came the "gas stations racket", which brought to the fore an unsung heroine of this country, Jean Miles.
At the time, the establishment of gas stations was strictly controlled by the central government. Anyone wanting to get into the lucrative business needed government's permission. Miles, a glamourous civil servant (as they were called back then), stepped out of her high-caste crease to cause a furore by publicly accusing high PNM officials of being corrupt. There was an inquiry into the allegations, at which she gave damning evidence.
From that moment, not even her relationship with the notorious John O'Halloran could save her from the might of the PNM. Miles died in the 1970s, a virtual vagrant, pauperised and made an outcast by the same Williams who had attacked corruption with full force-before he came to power!
If what I have written so far sounds familiar, it bears out what I wrote at the beginning of this piece: while corruption may indeed start from the head, the tail (meaning the masses) is as culpable in allowing it to thrive. Because the PNM went on to be re-elected to office for six consecutive terms. In fact, it became more popular with every election-until the 1970 Black Power Revolution shook its foundations.
Copyright © Raffique Shah