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Raffique Shah


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'Twas a year we'd rather forget

December 28, 2003
By Raffique Shah

REFLECT'NG on the year that's about to fade into history, most nationals of this country will no doubt remember it as one in which the criminal elements gained ground on the forces of law and order. We saw more murders and kidnappings than ever before, and violent crimes took a quantum leap.

As a people, we must not allow the government of the day to sweep this grimy side of Trinidad and Tobago under the carpet of celebrations that will unfold come Wednesday night, as we usher in 2004. But we must also not allow either the gun-toting bandits and murderers, or the seemingly impotent authorities, to cause us to give up hope, to even consider migration as an option.

On the positive side, the economy performed as expected, with several new oil and gas finds making the country's future secure-if governments use the expected bonanza wisely. in the past, having benefitted from about three oil booms, we found ourselves "broke", even broken. Who can forget ANR Robinson taking up office as Prime Minister in 1986 and declaring "the Treasury empty"? In fact, before him, George Chambers had fallen victim to a combination of corruption, his predecessor's penchant for grandiose projects (like the Mt Hope Hospital that to this day remains under-utilised), and a lack of vision as to how to use the oil dollars to foster sustainable development.

One can only hope that Prime Minister Patrick Manning and his Cabinet have learnt some harsh lessons from these experiences of the past and that they are putting into place measures that will see us survive, even thrive, if or when oil prices fall. Indeed, as Manning was himself a victim of low oil prices during his first term as PM, he more than anyone else should understand the need to save some, and to invest in ventures that would ensure we do not collapse with the "barrel".

There is no easy solution in this respect. The manufacturing sector has been robust over the past two decades or so, with some firms (like Associated Brands) finding lucrative markets in countries as distant as the Far East.

But with the coming of the FTAA, and the resultant opening up of our markets to all manufacturers in the Americas, the future of such companies becomes uncertain.

One cannot understand why the Government is so eager to have the headquarters of the FTAA sited in Port of Spain, a virtual 'Trojan horse' that will sit here and oversee the collapse of this once-vibrant sector. What is worse, it took a long time and many incentives to bring manufacturing to where it is today-leaders in the Caribbean. But when the FTAA rules kick in, these firms will need to compete with their counterparts in Central and South America where labour is 'dog cheap'. How can we expect our manufacturers to match prices with companies in countries where a daily wage of US$1 is the norm? Will our companies drop wages to that level? Or will they be asked to shift gear, to aim for high-end products that may put them out of the range of cheaper stuff that come from the competing countries?

In the finance sector, for the first time in decades the country was awash with money. Liquidity in banks reached almost crisis proportions, so much so the Central Bank was forced to "mop up" excess liquidity on several occasions. Both deposit and lending rates reached an all time low, but still people weren't borrowing-at least from the banks.

It is believed that because of the stringent lending policies of the banks, more ordinary people turned to non-banking financial institutions like the Hindu Credit Union. But while the latter may account for much consumer borrowing, what of investors? Why did we not see huge investors tap the banks for money? It's a question that must have the Government worried, especially since both governments and large corporations from other Caribbean countries borrowed from our market.

The year also saw government "taking the plunge" with respect to the future of the sugar industry. Caroni Limited was virtually shut down, its 9,000 employees paid off, and a new company was formed to run a scaled-down industry.

The move generated much controversy, taking on political overtones, since the major union that represented the workers was closely aligned to the opposition UNC. By July almost all of the workers had accepted their 'enhanced packages', and there was prediction of doom and gloom for towns like Couva, Chaguanas, San Fernando and Princes Town where many of the ex-workers lived or shopped. That proved to be partly true, although the Christmas period, like Divali two months earlier, saw 'business as usual'.

One would think that in the face of the demise of sugar, Government would focus on agriculture in general. That was not to be.

Like all its predecessor governments, the Manning Cabinet has so far paid little more than lip service to food security. A case in point was the plight of food crop farmers in Curepe who had utilised very fertile state lands in that district to grow and sell food.

They were unceremoniously removed to make way for houses-yet another case of our best soil type being covered with concrete and asphalt. But that's something I don't expect any government to understand. They are all dazzled by the prospect of mucho petro-and-gas dollars, so why not act as though we are the 'Sheikhs of the Caribbean', import everything we eat?

But it was runaway crime that dominated the news and attracted the attention, not to add engendered fear, among the population. Murders reached an all time high, kidnappings became commonplace-a new sport for criminals, and robberies did not even count because of other serious crimes. Government appointed a committee to look at crime and come up with strategies and solutions.

My understanding is that while some of the measures recommended were implemented, the officers assigned to do the job have not been given the resources.

Late in the year, well after Howard Chin Lee's neck was served up on a 'reshuffle platter', new Minister Martin Joseph complained about weaknesses in the 'intelligence gathering' methods used by the police and army.

Before any initiative is taken in any war, even one against crime, intelligence is an absolute prerequisite. That can be had for free if there were cooperation between communities and the police. But that option is not as easy it sounds because many people do not trust certain elements in the Service.

This latter dilemma is one that Government will need to address urgently through the Police Reform Bill.

Overall, though, for most citizens, it was a year we'd rather forget.