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The trickle down effects of corruption

July 29, 2001
By Raffique Shah

ECONOMISTS and politicians who swear by the creed of unbridled capitalism often refer to the “trickle down” effect of capitalist economies. What no one has addressed, though, is the “trickle down” effect of corruption. Ordinary citizens learn that in a society that is riddled with corruption, their survival is dependent on collaborating with the corrupt.

So the $20 (no less than $100 nowadays, I imagine) bill slipped under the counter, or the bulging envelope left on the desk of some senior official, became the norm from the early days of PNM rule.

In my column last week, I highlighted a few major incidents of corruption under the PNM. I don’t intend to dwell on the seedier side of PNM rule except to add two dimensions that have filtered down to today’s free-for-all under the UNC government. Some time ago when I touched on this topic, John Eckstein, a former PNM minister, took me to task by suggesting that for all the allegations against his party, only John O’Halloran was guilty of corruption in 30 years of PNM rule. Eckstein had to be naive to think that by offering O’Halloran as the sacrificial “black sheep”, others who were equally guilty of plundering the treasury would have their souls cleansed.

Who were the people who benefited from the Sam P. Wallace scandal? How many got their “seed capital” from the Caroni Racing Complex, that $100-million misadventure that I had crusaded against? Wasn’t the procurement of aircraft for BWIA riddled with allegations of “kickbacks”? The highly touted Point Lisas Industrial Estate was carved out on a core of corruption that seems to haunt it to this day. People whose memories are typical of Trinidadians should look at certain persons who rode high during the “old PNM” era, some of them ministers, others middlemen and businessmen, and try to explain how they got so rich on “scrunting” salaries.

Corrupting the citizenry may have begun as far back as during the colonial era. I was not around, and there are few records of the misdeeds of Albert Gomes and company. But I know for a fact that under the PNM it was (and continues to be) rampant in government agencies like the Licensing Department, which I’m using as an example. I heard the Transport Commissioner on a radio programme recently saying that incidents of corruption in his department were few, and often exaggerated. I ask the gentleman to simply stand by the roadside, look at heavy vehicles belonging to fleet owners, many of which are visibly defective, but they carry certification from his department. Maybe he’d like to explain how they passed inspection by his honest, highly qualified officers.

It is common knowledge that if one wants a driving permit or vehicle certification, and one does not want to go through the stipulated process, one simply “runs something” to officers via middlemen or touts. Indeed, in this and other government agencies where bribery has become an accepted part of the process, few people bother with going through the rigours of the latter.

Corruption has permeated the society to the extent that when the average citizen encounters incorruptible officials, they don’t know how to deal with them. That is the sorry state that officially sanctioned corruption has reduced the citizenry to.

The “new PNM” has not been tarnished by the sins of its earlier incarnation, at least not thus far. Bear in mind, though, that Patrick Manning held power for a mere four years. We don’t know what might have happened had he survived the 1995 election and found himself in office when oil prices rebounded shortly thereafter. Manning does not strike me as someone who is corrupt or who will condone corruption. But, as my late father used to say, trust only he who has hair on the palms of his hands.

Which brings me to Basdeo Panday and his regime that is perceived by the majority of people as being more corrupt than the “old PNM”. Panday and I stood on many platforms “pounding” the PNM during the first oil boom (1974-77) for unbridled corruption, for suspicious “cost overruns” on multi-million-dollar projects, and more.

We condemned Eric Williams for condoning such acts by ministers under him, and by other PNM underlings. In Parliament, we assailed the regime for the DC-9 scandal, attacked it for allowing its financiers and friends to enrich themselves at the expense of the people who should benefit from the nation’s wealth.

And Eric’s standard response: bring me the evidence! Again, this has a very familiar ring, doesn’t it? But we couldn’t unearth the evidence. We were in opposition.

We didn’t control the police, the Fraud Squad. We didn’t have access to confidential documents. Worse for us, there weren’t as many media houses as there are today, and of those that existed, the Guardian, all the radio stations, and the lone state-owned television station unashamedly supported the government. So except for a few probes by the Express, the PNM had a free run. And boy, did they run!

When PNM rule came to an end in 1986, it was not because of corruption. Eric had departed, George Chambers was a fairly decent-but-lacklustre leader, and worst of all, oil prices had dipped to under US $10 a barrel. It was the resulting cuts in public expenditure by the Chambers government that sent the population screaming, and the emergence of a seemingly united amalgam in the form of the NAR did the trick. In the ensuing nine years, two governments had little money to “play” with, too little to judge them by.

And then, enter the dragon, a man who had campaigned long and hard against the PNM and the NAR. One will need to scour the newspapers and Hansard between 1974-95 to get an idea as to just how Panday made corruption, not harmony among different races, the prime focus of his political platform. I shall refer to his Independence Day message in 1988.

He said: “How can those who have the physical things of life ever be free in a society rampant with crime that emanates from the poverty and destitution of those who do not?

When we discriminate in business activity, do we not deprive others of the chance of getting a job? And when we give jobs and contracts on the basis of patronage instead of merit, do we not reduce the productive capacity of the society....The time has come to face the truth. What really matters is not ‘who rules’ but ‘how they rule’.

Prophetic words? Again, much like Eric’s in 1955, when he blasted Gomes.


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