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Raffique Shah


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Stealing the soul of the nation

By Raffique Shah
June 05, 2011

Bribery and corruption are a global phenomena that permeate almost every country in the world. The only variant is the level or intensity of such malpractices, and the amounts of money involved, as they vary from country to country. Forget Transparency International's Corruption Index, which addresses the perception of corruption, not the reality. Think real. Think Trinidad and Tobago, where from the ordinary citizen seeking to get a driver's permit or a job, to a big contractor making a legitimate bid for a contract with a government agency.

In both cases, even if the decision makers do not hint at, or openly ask for, bribes, people feel they are duty-bound to offer an "inducement".

What is worse in our case is that corrupt officials and conmen are seen as folk heroes. In the late 1950s, an American singer named Sam Cooke was topping the music charts with hit song after hit. A Trini "smartman" named Valmond "Fatman" Jones saw an opportunity to cash in on Cooke's popularity here. He announced that he was bringing Cooke to stage a show at the Globe cinema (I think), and with promotional posters plastered across the city, not to add ample media coverage, "Fatman" sold tickets aplenty.

Of course, Cooke knew nothing about any appearance in Trinidad. But in those days there was no Internet or Facebook, so he was unaware that "Fatman" was running a scam in his name. Predictably, Valmond fled the country, boarding a boat headed for England—where he would end up staying until around 1970. When people realised they had been scammed, instead of calling for Fatman's head, they virtually applauded Valmond. In fact, one music band (I think it was Cyril Ramdeo's orchestra) made a hit song, "Bring Back The Fatman".

There would be many scams before and after the Fatman-caper. PNM minister John O'Halloran stole public funds almost from the moment he joined the Eric Williams government. Francis "Boysie" Prevatt, PNM chairman, was another who dipped his hands in the till. Bhadase Maharaj, leader of the Maha Sabha, the opposition PDP and the sugar workers' union, was steeped in corruption (I have proof—yes, I do!).

All these men, and hundreds more like them, were heroes in this country where corruption is part of our culture, much the way Carnival and Phagwa are. And the corruption "gene" knows no race, much like Black Stalin's "Sufferers".

Shortly after I started organising cane farmers in 1973, and my meetings grew in numbers, I had a rather disturbing encounter—for me, anyway—with an older farmer. After a meeting in Barrackpore, when the crowd began dispersing and small groups engaged in discussions, this man took me aside. "Beta (son)," he said, "I know you could help we. I also know you would take money like Girwar...but leave something for we, nah!"

I was stunned. I was all of 27 years young, full of idealism coming out of the Black Power Revolution of 1970. In my defence speech at the Court Martial I had faced in 1971, I condemned corruption in the Regiment and in government. I dreamed of a new, non-corrupt society, nourished by the lofty ideals those of us from that glorious period held. But here was this man, accustomed to having leaders who were inherently corrupt, assuming that I, too, would be like those who went before me.

Sadly, my idealism, and those of others like me, meant nothing in a society driven by bribery and corruption. I would see it thrive when I became an my own party, too! One day at the Red House, a PNM minister and I found ourselves on the balcony overlooking Knox Street. We struck up a conversation, in the course of which he said to me: "Raffique, now that you are an MP, make sure you take care of yourself and your family!"

Again, I was stunned. That he had the gall to suggest I seek my personal interest was an affront to all I stood for. I said nothing in response. I just felt saddened. And I realised Parliament was no place for me. I would end up living in a wooden shack, bringing two children into the world, and subjecting my wife and them to harrowing conditions until I was age 55. It was only then I was able to afford to build and own a reasonably good dwelling. I refused to bend, to bow—or to be corrupt.

I reflect on this darker side of the country and society I live in and will love to my dying day as I look around and see no change in the hero-worshipping of dubious characters. While a few high-profiled persons have been brought before the courts to face charges of corruption, not one has been jailed or made to pay for his or her sins. If anything, they wear their transgressions like halos above their hero-heads.

It pains me when I see my brothers of yesteryear condone today what we all condemned at another time, in other places. It makes a mockery of what we shouted from the rooftops. Then, we slammed Eric Williams and subsequent PNM governments for engaging in corruption of the worst kind. Eric was a black man.

So, too, was Prevatt. Their colour of skin did not matter. It was what they did that mattered.

Has this nation lost its soul? Do decent values count for nothing? Dare we point fingers at the generation that's haunting us today at gunpoint?

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