April 06, 2003
By Raffique Shah
THERE was hardly a time in the politics of this country during which frontline politicians, whether they were in opposition or government, did not knowingly associate with "underworld" characters. It has been part of our political culture, this blend of politics and muscle. In the 1950s, for example, when Dr Eric Williams formed the PNM, his support base included some of the roughest characters in the "badjohn" world. Many of them became loyal disciples of "The Doc", and no one would dare ill-speak Dr Williams in their presence or absence.
Williams, shortly after he was elected Premier, brokered a "peace treaty" among warring steelbandsmen, and out of that emerged the Prime Minister's Special Works Programme, which would later undergo several incarnations, today's form being the URP.
People like Winston "Dr Rat" Bruce of Renegades, probably the least of the apostles of "rope", took place of pride in the Special Works and could be considered a PNM thug. That was unfortunate in the sense that he carried a tag that belied his character. It's' not that he was a saint. But he was all heart in many respects (I knew him personally), and his infractions against the law were minor. Still, "Rat", and many more like him, remained "PNM to the bone" long after Williams died, and even as he and I, someone who took up arms against the PNM, remained friends. Others would switch loyalties to parties like the ONR, NAR and UNC, wherever the grass was greener.
Not to be outdone, the leader of the first official opposition, Bhadase Sagan Maharaj, had on his permanent payroll a gang of some of the "baddest" men around at the time. Among them were the infamous Poolool brothers, Raffick and Joe, and a number of Afro-Trinis who had "reputations". Whenever he visited sugar workers (he led the All Trinidad union for many years), he walked with a gang of gunmen who would beat up anyone who dared oppose "Baba". And in the 1970 Black Power revolution, he stood on his Champs Fleurs lawn armed with shotguns, his gunmen around him, in a bid to intimidate participants in the "Long March to Caroni".
When I entered the union-cum-political arena as a young man, I could not understand why politicians would want "badjohns" close to them. I need add that I, too, "rode" with some of the roughest and toughest "badjohns" in the country. Some were my friends from boyhood days, and others I got to know later. But bad as they were, they never formed part of any "gang" I had. In fact, when I campaigned in the 1976 general elections, people at meetings would express shock when I turned up alone, at any hour, driving my car to some very remote parts of the country.
I hold the strong conviction that any leader who cannot walk alone in among his people, who needs thugs or "security" in whatever form to accompany him, is no leader at all. So in the midst of the current sugar crisis, with threats against me flying like cane soot, I visit scales from Barrackpore to Penal Rock Road solo. If I am pre-destined to die by a bullet nothing could alter my fate. And I will live and die by that creed.
If "badjohns" were political requisites in Williams's era, they seem to have become indispensable to today's politicians. It's almost a status symbol thing, harbouring these purveyors of violence, especially the "dons" of certain "turfs". To be fair to ex-President Ray Robinson, during his stint as PM, he had only the "A Team", comprised of loyalists like Joe Singh and Felix "Baldy" Hernandez, as his "security detail". But Basdeo Panday and Patrick Manning, seem to have fallen back into the old mould in which the bad and the ugly are glorified and the good made to suffer in silence.
Recently, Manning, in what he promoted as a bid to end the bloodletting in districts in and around East Dry River, admitted to meeting with "community leaders". What those men had in common was that they controlled or were in dispute-for-control of "turfs". Almost everyone had a police record or was suspected by the police of being involved in criminal activities. But the PM, in his wisdom, felt it necessary to meet with them in order to restore some peace in the "killing fields". But have the multiple murders stopped? If anything, the killing spree continues unabated. Which should signal to the PM that men like the recently gunned-down Mark Guerra live by no code of ethics. The only code they know is might is right, and their "might" comes in the form of a gun.
Even so, Manning seems to remain convinced that he has done nothing wrong. In much the same manner, Panday, when he was PM, glorified the very Muslimeen that he today condemns. How could anyone forget his meeting with the Jamaat at the Twin Towers days after he became PM? Or the appearance of known criminals on the UNC platform well before the 1995 general elections, and most definitely the "muscle" they provided him with during that and subsequent elections? Or that the same "dons" who today run the URP under the PNM were there, in high positions, under the UNC?
The more things change, the more they remain the same, it would seem. What message does that send to law abiding citizens of the country? Or to young children who are trying desperately to clamber out of the abyss of violence that surrounds them, only to see "dons" being elevated to "community leaders"? What makes this aspect of our political culture more deadly nowadays is whereas in days of old, the most one who opposed one party could expect was a "buss head", now it's a bullet to the head. The political culture of violence in which parties support gangs, and vice versa, is eating away at the moral fabric of the society.
It is way past the time when the PNM core should order Manning to distance himself from criminal elements, however innocuous his dalliances may have been. It's bad for the PNM, bad for the country. I don't know that the UNC core has any such influence on Panday, but I'd nevertheless appeal to them to do the same. Because the "gun talk" in politics that was comical yesterday could prove to be very fatal today. If these leaders do not desist from such association with the lawless, then I fear we are about to descend into a hellhole from which the society may never emerge unscathed.