………and the criminal abuse of public funds
By VASANT BHARATH
Angry street protests are currently sweeping the world.
From Haiti to Lebanon to Iran to Chile to Hong Kong to Spain to Ecuador to Cameroon to Egypt, and other countries, conscientious nationals are rising up against the authorities.
The protestors are blocking roads, confronting the police, storming Parliaments, hurling slogans and engaging in other boisterous activities to transmit their respective strong objections.
Do these global protests have any relevance to Trinidad and Tobago?
And, if so, could we anticipate the wave of international dissent spreading to our country?
First, we have to understand the common themes of these uprisings and then seek to apply them to T&T.
All the protests have at least one universal denominator – corruption – which the dissidents want eradicated and replaced with good representative governance and prudent use of the public’s funds.
The particular political systems in each country have failed the people, according to all the militants, and they urgently want radical and progressive reform.
The protestors tell of political fat cats enriching themselves at the expense of the downtrodden, many of whom live under the poverty line and could barely afford to put food on the table.
Amnesty International said: “The abuse of public funds through corruption is not only a criminal concern, (but) it’s also a human rights issue.”
That is because white collar crime “often results in the diversion of funds away from essential services.”
In T&T corruption remains a critical national issue
In T&T, corruption remains a critical national issue, especially with the purchases of big-ticket items without transparent procurement processes.
For example, ferries have been bought for more than $1 billion through the say-so of Prime Minister Dr. Keith Rowley and a ministerial team, and without the involvement of maritime and engineering experts.
In Britain, London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan has admitted that vessels purchased at a cost of more than TT $200 million for the Woolwich Ferry “are not good enough.”
The vessels have been plagued with technical problems, and have been in service for only a fraction of their scheduled sailing times. The faults have led to staff going on strike.
Khan conceded that “hands up, we have dropped the ball” on the issue.
In T&T, Prime Minister Dr. Keith Rowley has ridiculed objectors of the sloppy inter-island ferry service, even though it has cost hundreds of millions of dollars and led to the shutdown of scores of Tobago businesses and displacement of thousands of commuters.
“The ferry, the ferry, the ferry,” Rowley mocked, instead of apologising for the huge economic and social toll of the haphazard, but costly, service.
The Tobago House of Assembly remained silent, and elected representatives of the sister isle seemed to have lost their voices.
At an earlier time, the MV Su was purchased for $25 million. The vessel never sailed a day. Twenty-seven million dollars more was spent on repairs after it was bought.
Some TT$4.1 million was paid to transport the MV Su from Turkey to St Thomas and another TT$3 million to tow it from St Thomas to Curacao, where it underwent repairs.
In Curacao, millions more were spent to repair the MV Su…and it still could not sail.
From 2008 to 2011, a total of TT$6.9 million was paid to Inter Isle Construction Co Ltd for berth and additional repairs to the MV Su.
The vessel was later declared to be only of scrap value resulting in losses of over $70mn to taxpayers. No one took responsibility!
In T&T thousands more have slipped into poverty
Global protestors are also fuming against income inequality and the high cost of living, which have forced some governments to suspend planned increases in the cost of public transportation and other services.
In Ecuador, a youth leader said the protest was not only about a hike in metro fares, but also “an outpouring for years of oppression that have hit mainly the poorest.”
In Lebanon, plans to tax WhatsApp calls sparked student street uprisings.
“We are not here over the WhatsApp,” a protestor in Beirut said.
“We are here over everything; over fuel, food, bread, over everything.”
In Chile, income inequality ignited uproars over government policies, and in Ecuador, the decision to end fuel subsidies set off street demonstrations, leading the authorities to back down on an austerity package.
In Trinidad and Tobago, thousands more have slipped into poverty in recent months, as a result of growing unemployment and under-employment, lack of opportunity and a continuously contracting economy.
Yet, trade unions and other stakeholders have essentially remained muted, even disinterested.
Higher fuel, transportation and food costs in T&T are compounded by declines in virtually all economic sectors, including the lifeblood energy industry.
Manufacturers are struggling, capacity remains idle and the Rowley Government has not made any attempts at economic diversification despite repeated manifesto assurances.
Political freedoms and climate change are among other issues prompting international agitation.
In Spain, India, Hong Kong and elsewhere, people are marching and speaking out about oppression, curtailment of rights and high-handed laws.
No public outpourings in T&T
Note that in T&T, the use of the obsolete sedition law was sanctioned by Rowley, and hardly provoked a murmur from the society.
A politician has been charged for an inflammatory remark, leading to legitimate fears that there would be further litigation during the tension-filled election season.
Youth activists, like Swedish campaigner Greta Thurnberg, have been advocating the urgent problems of climate change, but there have been no public outpourings in T&T, in spite of our carbon footprint, along with coastal erosion and other effects. Trinidad and Tobago has the sixth-highest per capita ecological footprint in the world. If everybody on earth were to live like a Trinidadian or Tobagonian, we would need 4.64 planets according to data from the Global Footprint Network!
The common global thread is that idealistic youths and others are demanding improved governance, leading to a better quality of life and a more secure future.
The core issues are relevant, in varying degrees, to tiny Trinidad and Tobago, with corruption and poor governance being of urgent and crucial concerns.
But unlike the countries of mass protests, malaise and apathy are dominant in Trinidad and Tobago, with lethargy overwhelming the land.
Our youths remain indifferent to the fundamental issues, which is a drastic change from what prevailed a generation ago when university students fuelled the 1970 protests for economic equality.
The formal political Opposition has not been able to mobilise popular support
The formal political opposition has not been able to mobilise popular support for demonstrations against criminal dishonesty, nepotism, financial wastage and an overall weak national administration.
There have been no rallies against the virtually collapsed public health sector, including the mishandling of the H1N1 viral outbreak.
The education sector, crime crisis, traffic nightmares, increasing joblessness, our lack of global competitiveness and the worsening public utilities are in the long litany of issues of mal governance.
Why aren’t there similar public demonstrations on these vital national issues?
Is it because of the ethnic cleavages that still dictate public affairs?
Is it the absence of forceful and inspired opposition leadership?
Is it that citizens believe that they will be victimised?
Or is it, as Sparrow sang a generation ago, “we like it so”?
Whatever the reasons, Trinidad and Tobago, which was once the economic envy of the Caribbean, is being left behind, as citizens around the globe rally toward a common goal.
Those nationals are demanding – and getting – reform, such the package implemented a few days ago in Lebanon which could unlock $11bn in Western donor pledges and prevent economic collapse.
Only committed and sustained people’s action would achieve the economic restructuring and effective leadership that is both fundamental and urgent in this country.
We demand more. We deserve more!
It is time that we all put T&T first.