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Raffique Shah


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Beyond Duprey

By Raffique Shah
February 08, 2009

Up to ten days ago, Lawrence Duprey was one of most admired businessmen in Trinidad and Tobago. He was not self-made, as some of his peers and predecessors were. He inherited the biggest and strongest insurance company in the country founded by his uncle Cyril. But having taken over the reins of CLICO, he quickly moved to diversify the insurance giant's vast resources, to venture where no other local entrepreneur had, into the downstream energy sector.

It was that move that put him on the Caribbean business radar. His daring was matched by good luck: Shortly after his first methanol plant became operational, the commodity price almost doubled. Fortuitous circumstances propelled him to acquire the lone state-owned methanol plant, and from there on his was the classical case of success breeding success. I shall not list his other bold moves, except to mention a few-the acquisition of Angostura and later a global alcohol empire; he expanded in insurance, branched off into finance, made substantial investments in upscale housing, and was soon jetting around the world looking for new opportunities.

Two Fridays ago his global empire imploded, a mere four city-blocks away from where it all started. The nation sat in shock as the affable businessman, defeat etched on his face, surrendered much of his $100 billion empire to the Government. He said little and sat wearing a stoical expression as Central Bank Governor Ewart Williams spelt out his conglomerate's cardinal corporate sins. He hung his head as Finance Minister Karen Tesheira revealed some of the terms his core companies would be subjected to if Government was to bail him out of a $6 billion-plus hole.

While many people may have savoured the moment, watching a titan tumble, there was something very tragic hovering in that suite where the collapse of CL Financial became a public spectacle. This country is woefully short of heroes, of exemplars, of leaders, of men and women of honour. Except for some of our sportsmen, artistes and scholars who do us proud, there is precious little for our young people to look up to.

Whatever he may have done wrong, and I have no doubt he and his executive managers committed serious corporate sins, Duprey blazed a trail that generated pride among many. His empire's demise showed that even the gods among us have feet of clay. And if it triggered a crisis of confidence, that applied not only to our financial system. This crisis extends to politics, business, government, education-hell, just about everywhere you look.

Duprey's demise is not just about whether depositors and investors in his finance houses will get their money. Based on assurances given by Government, I don't think those people need fear they would lose their savings or investments. The CL fiasco has put us in the unenviable position of not knowing whom we can trust. Nowadays children cannot even trust their parents or guardians. How often have cases of child abuse or incest shattered their faith in adults? Do students have confidence in their teachers to offer them the best education? How can they when so many teachers insist that their students attend (and pay for) "extra lessons"?

Time was when the trust that existed between shopkeeper "Chin" and his many village or street customers was based on their word, their honour. Few records were kept, but both knew what was owed and had confidence that it would be paid-barring some misfortune. That trust has disappeared. People live on the same street, sometimes in the same apartment building, but they don't know each other. How can trust exist in such environment?

As for the politicians, and I mean all politicians, people have lost confidence in them, the whole lot. Prime Minister Manning may assume that because he won the last general elections handsomely, he commands the confidence of those who voted PNM. He'd do well to disabuse his mind of that notion. Too many people I meet, ordinary supporters of the ruling party, are sorely disappointed in his betrayal of their trust. They voted for a better life, not for death occasioned by a sadly defective health system. They voted for better roads, adequate water, for protection from criminals and security in their latter years.

Instead, they see wanton wastage of public funds on prestige projects from which they reap no benefits. Lest Basdeo Panday feels he can fill the breach, that he enjoys the confidence of the masses, he deludes himself. Like the PNMites who whisper their concerns to me (why me? I often wonder), so are UNC supporters asking: when will he go? Except for the diehards who do not know better and others who would do anything just to hold some petty office, the majority want him to leave in peace, well before his mortal remains are consigned to the Shore of Peace.

Duprey must have disappointed many proud Trinis. But his case is symptomatic of a wider malaise in a country that's simmering like a volcano about to erupt. I don't want to be around when the lava consumes those who have failed the people. Black Stalin may be here to "bun dem".

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