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Raffique Shah


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In the lions' dens

March 28, 2004
By Raffique Shah

OVER the past two weeks I made a deliberate decision to accept invitations from two Indian radio stations to appear on their evening talk shows. I was warned by friends and cane farmers who remain loyal to me that I was "setting myself up" for blows from "frequent callers" to these programmes who believe that I am the Devil incarnate, the ultimate "neemakharam". But the soldier that I am (and always will be), I felt I not only needed to enter the lions' dens, but to go there and savage the savages.

The experiences were enlightening. I should add that the stations' hosts were genial even as they fired questions at me that they will have heard other guests or callers refer to repeatedly. And they did fend off many "frequent callers" who attempted to be abusive. Let me allow my readers, most of whom will never tune in to any "talk show" on any station, a peep into that world. After all, it's a microcosm of the wider society in which we live, and from a philosophical viewpoint, it exposes why, after 40 years of independence and 100-plus years as an oil producer, this country remains mired in cow-dung.

While the hosts expected us to discuss the current sugar crop, which, incidentally, is as close to chaos as one can get, the callers had other things on their minds (or in their "craw", as Trinis say). Several of them felt I was an ignoramus who knows nothing about sugar or any other subject. These are the same people who swear that Caroni Limited never went bust, that it was the wicked PNM government, ever-anti-Indian, that chose to scale it down in order to get at the UNC. Even if one were to take the votes of the 15,000 ex-sugar workers and the remaining cane farmers and multiply that by five (for each household), that's a mere 75,000 votes. These votes are concentrated in constituencies that the UNC controls by very wide margins. So to suggest that the scaling-down of the industry will negatively affect the UNC is utter rubbish. And by the way, is it that the ex-sugar workers will be disenfranchised, that they will no longer be able to vote?

When one tries to tell these people-and I have been saying this for close to 20 years-that the sugar industry, once it remains focused on producing raw and white sugar, is doomed to disappear, they do not seem to understand. Trinidad is fourth among high-cost producers worldwide. Right next door in Guyana their cost of production is much cheaper than ours, and still they, too, are losing money! What can one say, then, about ACP countries where labour is "dog cheap"?

To put it in perspective, our cost of producing one tonne of raw sugar in 2002 stood at US$679 while ACP countries averaged US$374 and the 10 lowest cost producers US$271. With free (though not fair) trade sweeping the world, and countries like Brazil and South Africa snapping at the WTO's heels regarding the preferential prices countries like ours enjoy in the European Union, one has only to look back at the fate of Caricom's banana producers to understand where we are headed if we do not change our mindset, if we do not have a vision beyond raw sugar and beyond 2007.

But no facts could alter the thinking of mindless sycophants. Of course, I was accused of being the biggest PNM stooge in the country. One person called to say that I was rewarded by the PNM with a cushy, $15,000-a-month board position at Plipdeco! I immediately "corrected" him: it's $50,000 and a Mercedes car! Board members get no more than $2,000 a month, no perks, and lots of blows from shareholders, managers and employees. The fact, too, that the one time in my life I voted (or appeared on a political platform) was in 1976 with the ULF, is of no consequence to them. Worse, that I was prepared in 1970 to put my life (and those of my men) on the line against the PNM government, does not count to those who run scared when they see a balisier flower!

With respect to this latter point, I am also accused of "trying to overthrow the government" back then. Of course, in 1976, when I stood at Basdeo Panday's side, and with '70 still fresh in people's minds, I was every ULF supporter's darling: the rebel soldier! Later, when I had the guts to stand up to Panday, the act for which I was lauded suddenly turned into a "dirty deed". In 1974, when I fought (alongside people like Winston Lennard, Boodram Jattan) and was jailed for fighting to move cane farmers from $14 a tonne to $24 a tonne, pujas were held in my honour. But the day I stood up against Panday, pujas of other kinds were probably held to put a curse on me.

Really, that's what it all boils down to: as an Indo-Trinidadian, my big sin was to have turned my back on the Great Bas. It is that one act, and the fact that I have never repented (who the hell is Bas, God?), that has turned hordes of Indians, even my relatives, against me. You should hear them sound off on those programmes and on others I listen to from time to time. But I remain unfazed by their venom, unaffected by their vulgarity, although I am amazed by their ignorance.

But therein lies a lesson for us all. This kind of venom from diehard UNC supporters is little different to what flows from the mouths of PNM-till-ah-die supporters. For them, Larry Achong was "we boy" until he had the temerity to resign from Cabinet. PSA president Jennifer Baptiste was "we darlin'", even branded a PNMite in the run-up to the 2001 elections. Now that she is slamming Prime Minister Patrick Manning, she has "an agenda". In other words, blind loyalty to political leaders who are at best mediocre is deemed by the damned as a virtue. Fierce independence in the face of live fire is worse than a vice: it's a cardinal sin.

It is said that a people get the government they deserve. The average Trinidadian is so steeped in partisan politics, in the culture of handouts, in racism and corruption, he or she cannot distinguish the trees from the forest. Which is why the "model nation" Sparrow envisaged in 1962 remains an elusive dream for the patriotic few in the society who will never compromise, never surrender.