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Speaking with Forked Tongues

July 15, 2001
By Raffique Shah

FOR generations that grew up on an entertainment diet of old "Western" movies, the "Indian" saying, "White man speaks with forked tongue" had a special meaning. It denoted the deceit of White settlers who often lied to the indigenous people as they tricked them out of their valuable lands and ultimately decimated them as a people. Centuries later, we have seen and heard enough from our own, politicians in particular, to rephrase the saying, "Black man, too, speaks with forked tongue".

Last week the Express broke the news story that a Cabinet-appointed committee (Working Group for the Restructuring of Caroni Limited) had recommended to government that the sugar industry be shut down by October of this year. The story spoke of a draft report to Cabinet, dated May 25, which stated in bold terms in its first few paragraphs: "An objective analysis of both the internal and external environment confirms (sic) that the local sugar industry cannot become financially viable.....a total shutdown of the industry is inevitable."

Later in its final recommendations, the Working Group was clear in its conclusions: "Sever all Caroni Limited employees in 2001...rehire 3,500 employees on contract for nine months...sever all contract employees by June, obligations to farmers contracts (sic) on a phased basis." I shall not go into a detailed account of the Group's report, except to say that it includes detailed breakdowns of what sums of money government would need to expend over the next four years to rid itself-and the country-of the sugar industry.

On the day the story was featured in the Express, Caroni's line minister, Mervyn Assam, confronted by reporters on the matter, said the story was "false, erroneous, scurrilous and must be totally disregarded". Finance Minister Gerald Yet Ming was more circumspect, saying the story was "not entirely true". And then came the Chief himself, Prime Minister Basdeo Panday, who said he was "quite surprised that all this nonsense is being published about Caroni". He continued: "Cabinet has taken no such one has ever spoken in Cabinet about the privatisation of Caroni." He then alluded to Caroni being a "management nightmare", but he felt "private sector involvement would make the task easier".

The initial story, for those who did not read it, began this way: "A Cabinet-appointed committee on the future of the sugar industry has advised government to sever all of caroni's 9,697 employees by October this year, and to shut down the company's operations." The report was very specific about the committee "advising" government to shut down Caroni. It did not say that the Cabinet or government had heeded the advice or taken any decision on the committee's recommendations.

So when Assam said the report was "false, etc.", did he mean that the report did not exist, that the committee (Working Group) was a figment of the media's imaginations? Or was he saying that the Group's recommendations, as reported in the story, were untrue? Because if he does, I can say most emphatically that he is speaking with a "forked tongue". The very first paragraph of the report refers to a meeting between the Group and ministers Yet Ming and Assam on May 15. It said that "after discussion" it was agreed that, inter alia, "a total shutdown of the industry was inevitable".

Is Assam denying that he and his colleague met with the Group? Or that when the group suggested closure of the industry he had taken leave to visit the toilet? Yet Ming was more forthright. He spoke of "several versions of resolutions to Caroni's problems", and added that a final solution was being "fine tuned". With regard to Panday's denial of government's bid to privatise Caroni, let me remind the Prime Minister as far back as on April 8, 1999, government had agreed to "prepare an implementation plan for the phased private sector participation in the operations of the subsidiaries of Caroni". What is the difference between "private sector participation" and "privatisation"?

I guess the Prime Minister will argue that one suggests government retaining control of the enterprise while the private sector will control minority shares (the original plan). He needs, though, to tell the nation why the Rum Distillery has not yet been divested to Angostura. My understanding is that Angostura now wants not 49 per cent, but the "whole hog", as Trinis say. And he needs to explain why an offer by several unions to pay more than Angostura for 49 per cent of the distillery was dismissed without consideration. Worse, and what Panday is afraid to tell his brethren in the sugar belt, is that no sane company, local or international, is likely to be interested in Caroni's sugar operations.

What well-heeled investors are interested in, though, is Caroni's vast landholdings, which stand at around 60,000 acres. And therein lies the true story of the divestment of Caroni. Look, I was born in sugar (less than half-mile from the Brechin Castle factory), my father laboured for his entire life there, and I was fated to return to the cane fields to lead cane farmers from 1974 to this day. So no one-not Panday, not Assam, not any ill-conceived Working Group-can tell me about sugar, about what needs to be done in order to turn around the industry.

Panday must tell the country that we both sat on the Tripartite Committee set up by the Patrick Manning regime in 1992. I argued that Caroni be reconfigured so that the cane growing function would be passed on to workers and farmers, and the company would confine itself to milling operations. Panday opposed that, saying: "Raf, you want to lick up my union!" To which I responded: "My concern is for the people in the industry and for the country, not my union or yours. I will willingly sacrifice my union and allow yours to represent everyone!"

The compromise made in that committee's report (60:40 farmers/estate growing of canes), and the Manning government's lack of will to implement its recommendations have led us to this sorry pass. Panday was always part of the problem, since for him it was his unchallenged leadership of sugar workers first, and later for the viability of the industry or the interest of the country. Today, his self-serving role over the 20-odd years he led All Trinidad has returned to haunt him. He has found himself in the unenviable position of being pushed into taking drastic action on Caroni, which, if implemented, would earn him the title of "neemakharam supreme". But that is what karma is all about. And no one knows that better than leaders who wear the yellow "rakhi" around their wrists.

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