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Raffique Shah


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Only the poor will survive

By Raffique Shah
October 19, 2008

Our economists, bankers, stockbrokers, manufacturers, multi-millionaires and politicians will argue and wrestle over the next few months over where Trinidad and Tobago's economy is heading. As a member of the lower-middle-income group (call us LMIGs), a sizeable portion of our population, I can only look on at what's happening globally. I see financial fallouts in which individuals and corporations are losing billions of dollars a day. That boggles the minds of those of us who have never seen a million TT dollars in paper, far less billions.

Still, those of us who manage to get by on relatively small earnings may yet enjoy the last laugh. We have lived all our lives very simply-eating bhagi and roti, bake minus buljol, blue food some days, pelau on better days-so much so our worries are minimal. True, as we face the grocery or market, we tremble as we face rising prices of basic foods. But we don't faint. We merely buy less of this, leave out that, cut out some things we like but cannot afford. We in the middle zone have learned to endure tough times because we have never really engaged in the rich-rat-race.

Pity the rich buggers, those who have amassed so much wealth by whatever means necessary or possible, who now face a future full of uncertainties. Really, when you cannot sleep at nights worrying about not being able to buy that new Mercedes, it could be punishing. Especially when you live in upscale communities and you know your neighbour across the street eased out of his driveway in a spanking new limousine last week. Or he bought one of those $8 million ultra-luxurious penthouses last month-cash, no loan!

You must have sleepless nights over what those who move in your 55-carat-circle would think of you driving around in that beat-up, three-year-old BMW.

You have invested millions in the New York Stock Exchange, made a pile, yes, but now you have lost it all, thanks to those greedy investment bankers who lured you with promises of heaven-on-earth. You think it's easy being super-rich?

If I may, take Jack Warner as an example-not because he's the wealthiest person in Trinidad, but because he is not shy in declaring his assets. I admire the man for that. He is so unlike others who fail to declare a piddling quarter-million-US-here, a condomiium in Miami, or some petty million-dollar gift from another of their wealthy friends. Jack, who was schooled under a carat shed (my classroom was metres away from his at college, so I write with authority), boldly stated he had ploughed $24 million of his personal money into our football team, and that only for 2008. How much more this rags-to-riches man spent in his 20-plus years of carrying local football on his shoulders is anybody's guess. He will tell you if you ask him, of course. Jack is not the kind of fella to hide behind curtains, but a good guess would be hundreds of millions. That should make the government ashamed, especially Sports Minister Gary Hunt and his predecessors in that portfolio. They sit on billions of dollars of state funds, but fail to spur the Soca Warriors in their quest to get to World Cup 2010.

I should add that while other multi-millionaires are wringing their hands in agony over financial woes that have hit them like a hurricane, Jack sleeps easy. He says that. It's not because he has some bottomless pit of money. Sure, he may hire a private jet to fly to Johannesburg and give his boss Basdeo Panday a ride. But Jack knows how to survive on mauby-and-rock, on bread-and-sap (pity that poor-man's delicacy died with Sanka), and most certainly on bhaji and roti. If ever he falls from grace, if he must live on little, he will survive.

Indeed, most LMIGs like me will survive the tough times ahead of us, however bleak a picture academics and politicians paint. The poor will rally through, too. When you do not know where the next meal will come from you don't need to worry if oil prices rise to US$200 a barrel or drop to $10. It makes no difference to your dire circumstances. You have always lived from day to day, matters not which party is in government.

As we watch the world crumble around us, as we look at Wall Street's billionaires lose weight overnight, we can take comfort in never having been rich. Or if, like Jack, we clambered out of poverty, then fall on our backsides, we know how to get up, dust off our kakhi pants, and head for the nearest mango or zaboca tree. Not to hang ourselves, but to get a wholesome meal.

There is a silver lining around this dark, global economic cloud. It is big and it comes from below, from among the poor and those just above the poverty line. We come from a breed that survived the Great Depression, world wars, famines and worse. We shall survive this crisis, too. It's the wealthy who would fall victims to their locusts-like greed.


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