February 02, 2003
By Raffique Shah
THERE is every reason for civic-minded citizens of this country to be upset over wild allegations abroad that Trinidad and Tobago is among countries in which Muslim terrorists pose a risk to visitors. The government, however, seems to be over-reacting to what may well prove to be the work of mere mischief-makers rather than Islamic fundamentalists. Sending senior officials to the USA and the UK might not have been such a good idea when one looks at the treatment meted out to Foreign Affairs Minister Knowlson Gift in Britain. The Tony Blair government predictably refused to lift its travel advisory, and we can assume that other officials sent to the USA and elsewhere would encounter similar responses.
Prime Minister Patrick Manning must feel like a man under siege, with the "terrorist" tag being only the latest of a series of negatives to have hit his government. Last week I referred to the crime spiral that seems to defy every strategy put in place by the security forces. I shall not dwell on crime, expect to say that had the UNC or any other party been in government, the situation would have been no different. In fact, former Prime Minister Basdeo Panday seems to forget that less than two years ago, he, in his capacity as National Security Minister, publicly expressed frustration with not being able to cope with crime.
Panday will also not support any of Manning's initiatives against crime, and that's because the former is foremost a political animal, meaning he would do (or refrain from doing) anything that will make him look good and make Manning look inept. The only code that Panday the politician lives by is that of "survival of the smartest". Patriotism counts for nothing for someone who has tasted the bountiful fruits of power and who will do anything, matters not how harmful it is to citizenry or country, to regain power, to enjoy its trappings.
But it is not Panday who is in the hot seat, and when Manning won the elections last year he should have known that. He assumed office at a time when crime was on the rise, so he should have anticipated its escalation and had in place measures to deal with it. Today, as bandits and murderers run amok in the country, he's fishing around for solutions-and drawing fire from all quarters over his government's incompetence. People also point to the impasse in Caroni that had its roots in in-built inefficiencies injected into the sugar industry many moons ago.
Few will admit that Panday, who came from the bowels of sugar, had six years in which to right the perceived wrongs at the state-owned company in which he had a vested interest, but he did nothing. Now Manning has to take "stick" for implementing measures that were developed under Panday's stewardship. It was Panday's Cabinet that, back in 1997, approved the decision to purchase farmers' canes on the basis of quality as part of the proposed restructuring of the industry. Indeed, Panday was almost at the point where he would have been forced to bite Jerry Hospedales' bullet that called for the immediate closure of Caroni.
Today, the task of salvaging sugar is left to the Manning government. And, as in any other instance where the jobs of thousands of workers are concerned, he will face flak. Clearly, in his government's bid to fast track Caroni's restructuring, Manning intends to move with haste, since more delay will mean more losses, more cost to taxpayers. But his Ministerial Committee has failed to come up with any plan for the re-deployment of able-bodied workers who will be separated from Caroni in the process. Nor, for that matter, has BWIA offered alternatives to the 600-odd employees it has retrenched in its bid to cut losses.
In an environment of relatively high unemployment, and more so against the backdrop of an economy that's performing quite well, what with promises of a more bountiful future, government cannot afford to put more people on the breadline. It will take little to develop a "skills bank" of separated workers at Caroni, BWIA and elsewhere, and work assiduously towards offering them alternative employment as opportunities arise in the rapidly expanding oil and gas sector. Or to direct those who are so inclined towards involvement in business through existing agencies that should specifically target workers who have lost their jobs.
Look, I am disturbed when my colleagues in the trade union movement resort to playing politics with the future of certain critical industries and services, driven only by their instinct for survival as opposed to what's good for the enterprises or the country. And I am equally disgusted when someone in government as senior as Minister Ken Valley casually dismisses the plight of separated workers with the wave of a hand as though hungry bellies mean nothing to him.
In the midst of these real challenges that both the government and people must rise to deal with, up come some mimic men, plastic Osama Bin Ladens, who, in their bid to attract attention to themselves, do untold damage to the country's image. Whether or not they are to be taken seriously, the point is that by threatening US and British interests here, they are opening the door for the very countries they dislike to take harmful action against little Trinidad and Tobago. Because Bush and Blair, two warmongers-without-a-cause, will do anything to make the "terrorist" threats look real.
And if there are some make-believe-Mullahs in a tiny black speck called Trinidad making the right (or wrong) noises, that's added ammunition for them. By issuing advisories that there are "terrorists" in this country, they strengthen their case that terrorism is on the rise worldwide, even on their doorstep in the Caribbean. Which, of course, also strengthens their hand in their obsession to get at Iraq. Because the war that's coming there has everything to do with control of that country's proved reserves of 113 billion barrels of oil, the second biggest in the world, and not with Saddam Hussein. He's merely an obstacle to their goal of having almost total control over the world's hydrocarbon resources to meet their insatiable appetite for oil.
So when two-bit jokers here engage in make-believe terrorism, they end up giving more ammunition to Bush and Blair. And they damage this country's image, something we do not deserve. The government should stop griping, forget "damage control" abroad, and move to lock up those who are playing with fire to the detriment of the national interest. Those who can't hear must be made to feel.