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John must be joking

January 20, 2002
By Raffique Shah

WHEN, last week, EBC commissioner and Chamber of Commerce president Raoul John, summoned a media conference to speak about the alleged negative impact the current political impasse is having on our business and investment climate, I muttered to myself: 'Lord, like dey send him for we!" Because really, ever since this man was foisted on the country by whoever decided to make him spokesman for the EBC, he has become the proverbial pain-in-the-you-know-where for most intelligent people. It is disturbing that a professional in the type of business that is known for its aloofness from controversy would end up sounding like a mindless politician for whom simple reasoning is alien.

John's latest gripe-and he claims he is supported by some 30 CEOs-is that the "political gridlock is discouraging investors". Listen to John "ramajay": "Even if Trinidad and Tobago could have weathered the storm (presumably the global economic downturn) for sometime, the current political crisis has compromised that position. Foreign investors, faced with global risks in a more uncertain world, are now reluctant to face additional local risks and have been adopting a wait and see approach." Asked by alert reporters who exactly were these "reluctant investors", neither John nor his Chamber colleagues ventured to name one.

I suspect they couldn't because there are no such companies. Or if there are, it's the slow down of the economy, not the political impasse, that's responsible for investors' reluctance to invest or expand their interests in Trinidad and Tobago. Maybe the Chamber's leading lights believe that they have a monopoly on information about, and knowledge of, business trends. That may account for them resorting to alarmist statements when it suits their political whims. Interestingly, they remain suspiciously silent when corruption, not the state of party politics, drives investors away from our shores.

This is not to argue that the so-called "political gridlock" we are in is not making life uncomfortable for many citizens, be they businessmen or workers or priests. Clearly, we cannot continue for much longer with a government in place that does not have the numbers necessary to summon Parliament and conduct that side of the nation's affairs. Prime Minister Patrick Manning must be aware that his is a kind of interim government, whose mandate, besides overseeing the day to day affairs of the country, is to take us into another election with, hopefully, a more reliable list of electors. I wholly agree with those who say that Manning must not be seen to act as though he won the last general elections, and with a big majority at that.

Nor, for that matter, can we continue to tolerate Basdeo Panday and his nightmarish antics, which, to me, appear to be an orchestrated attempt to make the country ungovernable-unless he has his way. He parades up and down the country crying foul over President Robinson's decision to name Manning as PM. He and his minions argue that since Manning does not command majority support in the House of Representatives, then President Robinson acted outside the boundaries of the Constitution. But Panday, too, does not have a majority, so how could he have been appointed PM?

But back to Raoul John's charge that the political impasse is "bad for business". John ought to know that the biggest investors in this country are international conglomerates in the energy sector. These global companies, most of whose budgets are bigger than those of the countries in which they operate, are hardly concerned with internal political strife of the type we are experiencing.

Nigeria, for example, is a nation in perpetual crisis. From bloody coups to tribal and religious strife, that country hardly enjoys more than a few months without bloodletting and political convulsions. Even as I write, there is a national strike underway and before it's over, scores of Nigerians will be dead and many more jailed. But Nigeria is also a big oil producer. Most global oil companies have huge investments there, in exploration, exporting and refining crude oil, and in downstream activities. They have weathered decades of political turmoil, seen presidents and prime ministers assassinated, governments changed by the barrel of a gun over and over again-and they have remained, doing business as usual.

In Indonesia, as in post-communist Russia, where near-chaos reigns on a permanent basis, these global companies are expanding their investments, not pulling out. Those who really believe that America's intervention in Afghanistan had anything to do with hunting down the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, are sadly misled. The war there has to do with control of the biggest oil find within recent times in the Caspian Sea. The conglomerates need safe routes to run miles of pipelines to get the oil out, either for the Far East markets, or the West. So the US military-industrial complex goes in to clear the Taliban-and the way-for the companies to use Afghanistan as a conduit.

I can point to 20, 30 countries that are mired in deeper political crises than ours, but where investors have not blinked when it comes to doing business, to raking in profits. It's the bottom line that attracts investors-not some piddling 'scratch-and-dent' fight between Manning and Panday. If John and his Chamber accomplices are referring to investors in the service sector (fast food franchises, retail business), then they should question why these companies are moving into regions like the Caribbean, and why they may waver on committing themselves. The answers lie in stiff competition in their domestic markets, in woeful mismanagement, even the collapse of some businesses.

But let me dig a little deeper. Were John and his colleagues in dreamland when Mr Panday, as Prime Minister, was running around the country like a raging madman, attacking from President to crook with full force? Have they questioned Mr Panday about the "pullout" of a Malaysian company that was said to be coming here to invest in a 1,000-room hotel and PGA golf course on Caroni lands close to the Brechin Castle factory? Whatever happened to the Norsk-Hydro billion-dollar aluminum smelter plant for which Mr Panday, as PM, turned the sod about two years ago?

So John should not try to baffle our brains with bull-dung, not again. The country is entering a period of economic stagnation that is cyclical, but one from which, if we use our heads-and if we aren't saddled with thieves at the top-we could emerge much better off than we are today. John should stick to crunching numbers and his colleagues to selling "chamber pots". Leave politics to the politicians, and warring politicians to the masses.

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