Sailing through rough waters on the 55th anniversary of independence

By Carlton Joseph


Trinidad and Tobago is today celebrating the 55th anniversary of its independence. But the news over the last few days from the government of Prime Minister Keith Rowley was no cause for celebration. Ships that were purchased to serve as the sea bridge from Trinidad to Tobago were delivered but they were not in working condition; the government had decided to shut down operations of the Government Information Services Ltd., putting 112 employees out of work; and the most disturbing development was the scarcity of public money – the state was borrowing money to pay salaries, to public servants and could not discuss any pay increases for them.


Gypsy’s calypso, The Sinking Ship, immediately registered and I found myself singing some of the lyrics:


 “Trinidad a luxury liner sailing the Caribbean Sea,

With an old captain Eric Williams for years sail on smooth and free

But sadly Eric Williams passed away and the ship hit rocky waters that day

Captain the skip is sinking, Captain the seas are rough

Shall we abandon ship or shall we sit on it

And perish slow, we don’t know

Captain tell we what to do.”   


Have we arrived at this juncture because since Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, none of the captains had the vision, the experience, or the competence to govern our country?  Here we are, a country of 1.3 million people with natural resources most large countries would envy, a country, the New York Times stated, where everyone should be a millionaire based on its natural resource wealth. People from the same government and opposition have been running the country since Williams’s death. But they blew it.


George Chambers, Arthur Robinson and Patrick Manning were members of Parliament during the control of the country by the  People’s National Movement  (PNM), the party founded by Williams. You would think that they understood Williams’ vision.  He had taken the country out of colonialism. He emphasized ownership or at least control of our natural resources. It was a “Peoples National Movement” A movement ” for the people by the people. ”


In 1986 the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) led by Robinson, won a landslide victory, defeating  the PNM.  This was the end of ” for the people by the people.”  Robinson decided that the country’s future was best assured when our colonizers and US capitalists controlled our resources and economy. The NAR government sold back the 51 per cent state control of the oil companies, sold off most of the productive assets of the country and devalued our currency.  The country had essentially returned to colonial status voluntarily.


This government had bought into the recycled Free Trade economic theory, and its nonsensical assumption: Winners will compensate losers, when income distribution changes sharply; unemployment does not exist; the cost of making structural shifts from one industry to another is zero; wages are based on individual skill and not the industry in which they work and trade accounts are balanced within a short time.


Sparrow’s calypso Capitalism gone Mad comes to mind:


“You got to be a millionaire, or some kind a petty bourgeoisie

Anytime you living here in this country, you got to be in skullduggery

Making money illicitly, to live here in this country

And like the merchants going outta dey brain, and the working man only toiling in vain

At last here in Trinidad, Capitalism gone mad, it’s sad and getting more bad

Capitalism gone mad.”


Things got so bad that in 1990 the Jamaat Al Muslimeen, a radical Muslim group, tried to overthrow the NAR government but it was unsuccessful.


By 1991, the PNM led by Patrick Manning won the election. Basdeo Panday was then leader of the Opposition. Many nationals of Trinidad and Tobago were hopeful that the new government would bring about positive change. Manning was a protégé of Williams and many felt that  he must have understood the vision of the PNM.  Instead, Manning put the NAR’s Free Trade economics on steroids and began selling off all of the remaining country’s assets.


In August 1995, I entered the scene and presented a TV series “Economic Strategies For T&T in the 21st Century” on one of the local stations. The Trinidad Guardian, one of the daily newspaper in the country ran a front-page article with the headline “Trinidad’s First Tele-economist.”  I was invited to give lectures all over the country.  Manning decided that his authority and power was being challenged. He called an early election which he lost  and Panday became Prime Minister.


When Panday took office, I was optimistic.  He was a labor union leader who had fought for wages and better working conditions for the sugar workers. But Panday did the unthinkable; he negotiated the closure of a major sugar company,  putting thousands out of work. This closure had a devastating impact on our food security and agriculture sector and the  rum and sugar industries.  Corruption took on a new dimension. Three members of the UNC government defected from the government and Panday lost the leadership of his party.


PNM won the next election and Manning returned as Prime Minister. Under his administration, income tax and Corporation tax  were substantially reduced. The Government also instituted free university education.  The economy grew apace, primarily due to high prices for natural gas and oil and to significant increases in natural gas production.   The government built hotels, government office buildings and other structures using government-to-government contracts with Chinese companies.  It also built thousands of incomplete houses that could not be occupied.   Manning called an early election and lost because of a series of scandals, and rising crime.   Then Trinidad and Tobago  got its first female Prime Minister – Kamla Persad-Bissessar.


Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar’s government implemented a number of infrastructure projects.  Most of these projects were necessary but some members of her government used their positions to enrich themselves.


Mr. Rowley is now in charge but has not presented a vision for the future of the country.  His administration has been accusing the old administration of corruption and mismanagement.  However, when your administration buys two boats that are not seaworthy, that smells of corruption and business as usual.


The governments have all had their problems but the citizens on this ship must change their attitude.  Every aspect of our country has been trivialized and bastardized.  Our culture has been reduced to “jam and wine”  and Trinidad and Tobago has been described as a major trans-shipment point for illicit drugs


This is the state of the nation on its 55th Independence anniversary.  My hope is that a new party, with a vision for the nation emerges, and people interested in the development of our nation get elected to serve.  I hope that Maximus Dan’s calypso that won 2017 road march is not a true forecast:


“ The treasury could fall down, we jamming still

The treasury could burn down, we jamming still

The economy could fall down, we jamming still”


If this attitude prevails, the nation will be in rough waters for the foreseeable future