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Raffique Shah


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The more things change...

By Raffique Shah
April 22, 2012

Fifty years after Trinidad and Tobago was granted independence, the tragedy of our politics is that it still revolves around the PNM, the party that took the country from colonialism through self-government and into independence. Indeed, the fact that the PNM remained in office for 36 of those 50 years is itself an indictment against the electorate. Worse than that, though, the three other concoctions that broke the PNM's stranglehold—the NAR, the UNC, and now the UNC-dominated People's Partnership—all had as their common bond, their raison d'etre, one mantra: we are against the PNM.

In other words, for 50 years, all the people of this country could come up with by way of ideological options, political discourse and policy decisions, are the idiotic "ah is PNM till ah dead" and "ah against de PNM till ah dead". That is why a country with such potential, such glorious possibilities, remains stagnated, struggling at the bottom of the ladder in every global index. It is why we watch with envy as our smaller, less-endowed neighbours like Barbados and the Bahamas offer better standards of living to their citizens, or we gape with wonder at once-debt-ridden Brazil rising to take its place among the elite developed club, and population-hamstrung India and China rise amidst rubble to claim world leadership status, whatever their contradictions and weaknesses.

It is not that the PNM in its various incarnations did nothing for the country. People who claim as much are being less than honest. That party in government focussed on education that so many ordinary people benefited from, especially in its early years in office. But later, it failed to fix the flaws in the system that saw it degenerate into the mess it is today, churning out hordes of semi-literates. The PNM transformed a stymied oil sector into a model, downstream-energy, industrial complex that was ahead of its time. But it failed to see the limitations of our dependence on hydrocarbons, to further diversify and modernise the economy.

I can go on in similar vein looking at the health system, our roads networks and utilities, housing, higher education, social services, crime and more. I could point to megalomania among some of its leaders, wanton corruption and wastage of public funds, and worse. I can sum up the PNM's stewardship, post-independence, as some good, much bad and a few very ugly traits.

The PNM does not look as bad as it may have been when one compares it with the concoctions—I use this word deliberately—that displaced it. When the NAR swept into office in 1986, obliterating the PNM 33-3, it should have been last post for the PNM. That the latter could rise from the ashes within five years and reclaim the throne said more about the NAR and its disparate constituent parts than it did about PNM resilience.

Although it portrayed itself as a monolithic party, the NAR was an alliance of convenience—Panday's ULF, Hudson-Phillips' ONR, Robinson's DAC and Best's Tapia. The lone common denominator among them was dislike of the PNM. Some might add that they also had a lust for power. And very propitious for them, Dr Williams was dead and forgotten, hard economic times had taken its toll on the working and middle classes, and a large number of people stained their fingers hoping to bring about some kind of national unity.

The NAR had no policies or programmes that were different to the PNM's. Its principals were telling the electorate that they could manage the estate better than the PNM did. To be fair to them, maybe they really could. The PNM was hard-pressed then, and later, to explain why, after two or three oil booms, basic infrastructure and amenities remained in woeful condition. It was amazing how, in this small but prosperous country, there were (and still are) scores, maybe hundreds of wooden bridges, excuses for roads, large swaths of the country without pipe-borne water, and so on.

It does not require genius to attend to people's basic needs even if one does not have the vision to transform the society in fundamental ways, to alter the socio-economic structure, to forge a more just and equitable order. But the NAR inherited an economy in near-crisis. Oil prices, which had been below US$2 a barrel prior to the 1973 "oil shock", had risen rapidly to $13 (1976), $30 (1979) and $36 in 1980. Between 1986 and 1989, however, it had slumped to between $14 and $18.

With people's expectations heightened by extravagance during the years of plenty ("Money is no problem," Williams had said in 1976), George Chambers, and later Robinson and the NAR, could not cope in relatively lean times. The NAR was forced to go to the IMF, which imposed harsh "conditionalities" for loans extended.

By 1988, too, the fragile political accommodation had collapsed. Panday had taken his Indian political marbles (most of them, anyway) and walked. Robinson and those who remained with him had to face the rising chorus of discontent among the populace. Hudson-Phillips and Best stayed away from active involvement in the government, although many of their lieutenants held ministerial positions.

When the 1991 general elections came around, the NAR was a pale shadow of the giant that had thumped the PNM in 1986. It garnered almost 25 per cent of the votes cast, but won only two seats (in Tobago). The PNM returned to corner 45 per cent and a winning 21 seats, while Panday's UNC was restricted to 29 per cent and 13 seats. Therein lay a lesson for groups whose only glue is being anti-PNM. But will they ever learn?

Part I

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