Trinidad and Tobago


What’s our Gocking problem?

May 2, 2001

IN the conduct of domestic affairs, developing countries often face awkward surprises. And on the evidence, sheer frequency of these experiences is no guarantee each next solution will decrease in complexity.

One such situation is the unpredictability of having to make sudden (but durable) decisions about who or what to allow onto their territories and on which premise. There have been costly errors.

For decades after achieving political independence, Trinidad and Tobago engaged a number of devices to boost local efforts. First there was industrialisation by invitation and when that failed, an equally absurd and shortsighted protectionist regime, to shore up intrinsically weak local economic, social and even religious interests.

Government introduced and constantly enhanced an unwieldy negative-list, prohibiting just about everything made elsewhere. Corn oil could only be imported on the basis of a medical certificate, saying the applicant’s body rejected indigenous alternatives like that derived from the coconut.

But those postures were riddled with contradictions. Requests for State recognition from predominantly African-oriented religions like Orissa and Shouter Baptists were put on hold and Trinidad-born black activist Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) banned outright, while a white bible-thumping pervert called Jimmy Swaggart milked us for millions.

Anti-dumping regulations sprang up even within the Caribbean Free Trade Association (Carifta), after Guyana in 1971 proved it could manufacture, ship and deliver paper bags to retailers here at a cost far below comparable containers made in Trinidad. Despite vigorous consumer protests about sub-standard products, we were forced to purchase locally assembled motor vehicles.

In the same scenario, sales of foreign music flourished, while calypsonian Brother Superior was forced to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, going all the way to the Privy Council, in his bid to open a radio station dedicated to local songs.

By meticulous application of these contrived restrictions, we hoped to thwart trade deemed disproportionately advantageous to foreign suppliers. People went to jail for tampering with documents, in order to get more US dollars than the Central Bank was willing to approve.

Then, one day, thinking ourselves up to the task (not without a nudge from Big Brother), we disbanded the dreaded list and subsequently freed consumers from foreign-exchange curbs and restricted choices; settling for the comfort of laws designed to safeguard our larger interests.

Cars of all varieties were rolling onto ships elsewhere and rolling off at Port of Spain and whole new industries sprang up, among them one converting The Bamboo to a status of hallowed ground, after years of that area being seen in quite a different light.

We sailed along smoothly until these two Gocking boys, Troy and Clint, returning nationals who, well in advance of their repatriation from New York, sent two sports utility vehicles (SUV) home.

Mark you, from descriptions released to the press, these were not normal vans decked out for mere fun or flash. Reports indicate that the SUVs were customised for an extraordinary level of protection.

Armour-plated doors, bullet-resistant glass, super-gun holster and a smoke-generator are not your standard optional accessories on vehicles designed for personal use, although no law clearly prohibits such adventures.

The 1998 model Lincoln Navigators arrived here on March 17 and lower-level customs officers approved entry by April 5. The Gockings were called upon to pay relevant charges and complied, but when they attempted to remove the vehicles, police intervened, preventing delivery.

The same Customs department that earlier freed the SUVs subsequently invoked Section 45 (1) of the Act covering its operations to declare the vehicles prohibited goods. Clearly, there is more in the mortar than the pestle.

But no one in authority has suggested that these two Gocking boys are suspects in any crime. No one said either of them was detained at an airport anywhere, or were under scrutiny by the special branch at any time. Their mother has denied the SUVs came from Libya and the boys have sworn they are no terrorists. What then is our problem with the Gockings?

A quick browse of the Internet will show dozens of websites offering enhancements to Lincoln vehicles purchased in the US. One of those sites, will price the improvements as you go along, so the exercise is reduced to a matter of what the purchaser can afford.

In any event, it remains unclear whether the Customs Division or police have ever stopped from entering the country, do-it-yourself kits that offer from level one (flat-tyre prevention) to level five (bomb-proofing) protection; or do precisely the same things the Gockings vehicles now boast. Add to that, the sale of armoured vehicles by local security companies upgrading their rolling stock. Two such trucks were sold within the past month and we have no idea who bought them.

The policy, therefore, must be a little more transparent, to ensure that lapses and loopholes are visible long before the issue hits the fan and gets to the stage of litigation. We need to know exactly why these SUVs are prohibited or in lieu, what’s our problem with the Gockings.

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