Jerlean John

UNC’s coordinator for the La Horquetta/Talparo marginal constituency seat Jerlean John.

UNITED National Congress (UNC) deputy political leader Jearlean John has challenged Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley to leave the comfort of his safe seat and challenge her for a marginal seat in the East-West Corridor.

Asked whether she was going to join electoral politics and contest the La Horquetta/ Talparo seat, she responded: “Rowley talks so much; he sits down in Diego Martin, which is a safe seat. He needs to come and run along the Corridor. I want him to come and run in St Joseph or Tunapuna. Once Rowley going up in a marginal, I prepared to fight him, for every vote.”

She is also denying the UNC is sweetening up gang members to enable the party to win the 2020 general election.

John is the UNC’s co-ordinator for the La Horquetta/Talparo marginal constituency seat.

She’s also the person behind the party’s “One Corridor” movement, which aims to wrest the People’s National Movement (PNM) stronghold into the fold of the UNC.

With the 2020 general election mere months away, John sat with the Sunday Express last Thursday at the UNC’s strategy office in Brazil Village, in the La Horquetta/Talparo constituency, for this interview with senior political reporter Anna Ramdass.

National Security Minister Stuart Young has declined to be interviewed by the Sunday Express.

Q: UNC political leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar appointed you as co-ordinator for La Horquetta/Talparo, and you are also instrumental in the party’s “One Corridor” movement. What does this function entail?

A: That was a great honour and I didn’t take it lightly because this Corridor is really the spine that joins the country, from north-east to northwest, and along this Corridor is what they call the battleground seats. One Corridor is not about geography. I see the Prime Minister getting his knickers in a twist about it.

I want that people will be attracted to this unifying force, and it took off because people want to be engaged. We were able to attract a very young team; we have engineers, young lawyers walking with us. We have a high-quality education product, we have a lot of bright people.

There should be a programme where they give back, spend four hours at a homework centre after-school programme. They will see themselves more as part of the nation-building. Nation-building is not a word, you can’t inject it into people.

It can’t only be when they wining to “Savannah Grass” that they feel good about themselves. It has to be something inside you so strong that it gives you purpose. There is a disconnect in terms of young people and understanding where they fit.

You spoke about the UNC having a number of youths on its team. Does this include soliciting the sup­port of young gang members?

No, that is madness! Whatever gangs represent, I frown on it. If a young person is not in school and engaging in illegal activities ,you can’t support that. There’s no way I know someone is like that and encourage them in our campaign. That is a deal breaker. But nobody comes and tell you, ‘I belong to a gang’.

How do you respond to people who say the UNC is working with criminal elements?

Listen, when a Government is voted in, the people are hopeful and you expect a Government to do something that makes sense within the five years. This Government decided that they were in a reality show, they decided they were not going to work. These people busy, didn’t do any work and people are not stupid; you could come with some kind of song and dance, but ultimately, work shows.

Every time you ask them hard questions, they will pivot on a ’Nansi story, and that is just the latest ’Nansi story as far as I’m concerned. I find that is so ludicrous. I believe in my heart that everybody who offer themselves to serve this country, whichever party they belong to, are patriots of this country and their intentions are good.

Crime to me shouldn’t be politicised because it’s a social problem. I cannot understand how someone can make that kind of allegation, to be quite honest.

What are some of the social issues behind crime?

We need to ask ourselves where did we go wrong. How could we have a (St Augustine Girls’ High School) and right up the road existing with Success Laventille. How Sat (Maharaj) could have such a vision that Lakshmi Girls has 40 scholarships in one year? That’s an extraordinary achievement. We don’t have to go New York or Singapore to find the answer, it’s right up there by Sat. Before Sat died, we should have put him in charge of the schools in Laventille.

Business people, a lot of them are doing very well; we should have some system where they come together and give back. I’m going to sponsor this homework centre in this area for these children. Crime affects everybody and to me, the money that is spent on bigger guns could be applied much differently to the police, in terms of training, technology and better pay.

You look at every area of this country and you see nothing that connects and says this Government has taken the country forward. From Eric Williams to Chambers, Robinson, Mr Panday...there was a vision, but this one is just a mess.

How much of your time do you devote to this constituency? How long have you been working the ground?

About two years now. We meet very regularly because I like people to understand our vision. For people to work with you, they have to trust you and believe what you’re saying. You have to be on the ground with them because that’s the only way I can understand what people are saying. We do a lot of listening, and more and more people are coming.

What are the people saying? What’s the feedback?

Over the last two years that I’ve been walking, no one on that road has asked me for a dollar; they want jobs. People are not in crisis, they are in chaos. There are no opportunities anywhere.

Sometimes, they tell you they get a little CEPEP (Community-based Environmental Protection and Enhancement Programme) and you happy for them, but how do you move from CEPEP because it does not meet the needs. Jobs and crime are the two big issues. People feel so unsafe, people are petrified.

What is the vision of the UNC to create employment, particularly in the East-West corridor?

We talk about having businesses that are centred on the community because things have to be linked. Create economic zones. You build industries that people don’t have to go too far because of the traffic. Sometimes, you see children at the back of cars five o’clock in the morning and at four in evenings, they going back home.

We have to bring jobs into the community. We have a number of areas to generate growth and employment. Part of what ails us with crime is the breakdown in family life. You have a lot of single mothers, particularly in the Afro-Trinidadian community.

Why is that?

I honestly don’t have a clue. I’m a single mother, but stuck with my family. My mother lives with me forever, so when I was out working late, she was there looking after my daughter. For job opportunities, leaders need to look at things that are not traditional to Trinidad and Tobago—augmented reality, coding.

Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, in an interview with CNN, said there are 2.5 million jobs for coding. All this GATE (Government Assistance for Tuition Expenses pro­gramme) we are doing, we teach specific things. It’s amazing the mismatch we have in our community. We have a lot of people doing management and those sort of things while we don’t have anybody in the Forensic Sciences Centre.

We have to offer different job opportunities to our youth because that 18 to 25 age is where the trouble lies. We have sport, music, we need people like Machel Montano. A few years ago, I did a small project with him and I’ve never met anybody so professional in my life. He’s a national treasure, but we overlook these things. We need a database of the people and the skill sets needed.

If you are better trained, you earn more, and that is how you work people out of the dependency. If you earn at your potential, you’ll be able to save your ten per cent, go to the bank and pay down on a house on your own.

There are a lot of murders and crime in the Corridor. Earlier this month, three were killed in Arima. Are you concerned?

Yes, of course I’m concerned. Crime affects all of us, nationally. We have all these young men—they’re not hiding, all of them in white vest on the corner—they’re there smoking marijuana on the side of the road. I wonder what the hell this big, hard-back man in the hot sun doing?

I’m intolerant of this kind of behaviour. They want a job. What can you do? You have to go back to school and get some kind of training. We can’t have people sitting at the side of the road just doing nothing.

Independent Senator Paul Richards had raised the issue of what happens to pupils who do not perform well at SEA (Secondary Entrance Assessment) and are left behind. Do you think this is part of the problem?

We should have a database of those children; where are they going? We need the parents to be involved in their children’s lives. You have to ensure that when a child goes to school, a parent turns up to PTA (parent–teacher association); business sector, you have to allow that mother to leave early to go to the PTA. Parents who do not show need to be called and asked why aren’t you here?

You can’t allow children to be roaming around like sheep. The political leader had said she will enact a policy where any child found on the street during school hours will be picked up. We have to manage the situation and not be praying to Jesus to fix it. You have to get into the thing, go into the schools. A prime minister who came from humble beginnings needs to go up into Laventille and read “Dixie the Donkey” to the children.

If I missed school, my mother would beat me, or if I go home with a pen l couldn’t account for. These are the values you teach from early, that life is sacred. How could somebody just see somebody and just take their life? It is shocking in this country that used to be so nice.

National Security Minister Stuart Young has said sitting MPs are being investigated by the police. Anita Haynes (UNC public relations officer) said the Government is moving to arrest Opposition members before the election. What about you? Do you feel targeted?

Targeted for what? This is not a crazy country; I walk the road and talk to people. I’ve never been in illegal activities. I grew up in a home with my brothers and, as a matter of fact, in 1990 when they had the coup, we lived on the Eastern Main Road; we had a small business. My mother is the head of our household and she had young boys, and she came out with a rolling pin. That was a weapon of mass destruction, and she touched each of them and said don’t bring anything here that belong to anybody. That is leadership.

What about corruption claims with Eden Gardens?

That is rubbish. The Prime Minister loves to keep that going. I’m very decent and very proper in my work. The approval to do that project went from the board of (Housing Development Corporation) to the Cabinet. The Cabinet approved that project, not me. You have a Prime Minister just peddling conspiracies and foolishness.

You can say without fear that your integrity is intact?

Beyond intact. You think if (PM) Rowley had something on me, what Rowley would have done now? For some reason, he just hates me. I don’t understand it. He came into office and gave orders. I was gone from the HDC for no reason.

You had taken legal action against the HDC for your dismissal. What’s the status of that?

There should be a decision at the end of April this year.

Prof (Selwyn) Cudjoe walked with you in “Gaza” recently, and he made some comments about the black youth at risk and also the lack of Afro-Trinis in key positions in the Cabinet. What are your thoughts?

The PNM support is in the African Trinidadian community, so basically you want to see yourself reflected in some meaningful way. The young MP from Point Fortin got the job as Energy Minister (Nicole Olivierre), but she was just a placeholder. That happened with Hinds, too; he was Minister of Works but he was just warming a bench. The PNM over time would have built up a deep bench of talent, that happened up to Mr (Patrick) Manning.

When you’re a man who is confident of your talent, you’re not afraid of people who are brighter than you because you want the best to run a country. You have to train and lead your team. You there batting with them and calling them Sobers (referring to Stuart Young) and so on and the country going down in flames, and you don’t have the maturity as a leader to change course.

The Prime Minister said the former People’s Partnership was the most corrupt Government?

Corrupt? Could you believe after five years, they have not up to now activated this procurement legislation, which was put in place to give people that sense and assurance that whatever was taking place was transparent? When the People’s Partnership was in government, you had process. What you think they investigating? Process.

He could bring in all these fat cats from the audit firms, who made tremendous amounts of money watching all the paperwork and so on. When they gone, it have nothing to see. He just points and says buy that. I cast no aspersions but look at what is happening. Why are things not going out for tender? This gentleman sat down in Tobago and tell us I told them to get some boat and when I come, we’ll ratify it in the Cabinet. What are we doing? Instead of going forward, we are going backwards.

Listen, my answer to that is be sure your sins will find you out. The Prime Minister believes that if he shouts hard and he shouts loud, that means credibility. He’s just a nuisance. Party done. It’s time he shows what he’s been doing, people fed up. Stop talking rubbish. He is going to lose the next election because the people are not foolish. We are going to them and telling them why we are better at running the country.

People over Rowley, they got into Government with a lie. They are out of touch with the people. You know Martin Joseph and Edmund Dillon use to walk Chancellor alone and say ‘hi’ to everybody? This fella (Stuart Young) in he ivory castle. They enjoying perks of office without working for it. People not stupid.

How confident are you that the UNC is going to win the election?

We are working hard. The people are comparing like with like, okay? They know when Kamla Persad-Bissessar was in office, Petrotrin was there. The people in Port of Spain didn’t believe that Petrotrin would have affected them, and why we not getting foreign exchange is because there is no Petrotrin.

The whole middle class that came from San Fernando, Point Fortin, La Brea, all the way into Couva, into Port of Spain, they are no longer working. Petroleum engineers selling clothes and salads now. They are waiting to tell Rowley, you gone, gone, gone. People are not foolish. We are working hard.

When Mr Manning was in office, a PNM prime minister, every man, woman and child who wanted a job could have found a job. You have Kamla coming after and every man, woman and child could have gotten a job, a quality job, a diverse job. There are no jobs now. Look at where crime is.

At least when Kamla Persad-Bissessar was in office, she worked with her minister of national security and commissioner of police and she resourced these agencies. Yes, you had crime, but people had hope that somebody was concerned about it. We were people-centred.

We were building all these new hospitals to provide quality health care, now people are back to sitting down five days in a chair and dying. This can’t be my Trinidad and Tobago, everywhere is so filthy. Look around, all over is a mess.

As UNC deputy leader, can you say what changes there will be, if any, in the future with the party? Are we going to see new faces?

The leader has been very clear: she’s going to marry experience with young faces. The UNC is not short of talent. It’s an extremely talented party, with people of different ages and races, all the mix, and they bright and talented, whatever the age. The leader will have a hard time making her choices because you have a vast array of talent.

At her public meetings, she has been rolling out our manifesto. Even her response to the budget was the best I’ve heard. It was a plan detailing what we going to do and how we going to achieve that.

People want jobs and know that Kamla Persad-Bissessar is credible and has a good team of accomplished people. The senators are young and bright. We work and we will create work. When they are sleeping, we are working and working hard.

We don’t need no underhand nonsense to win an election; we just take the message to the people and they are receptive.

Are you going to join electoral politics and contest the La Horquetta/ Talparo seat?

Rowley talks so much, he sits down in Diego Martin which is a safe seat. He needs to come and run along the Corridor. I want him to come and run in St Joseph or Tunapuna. Once Rowley going up in a marginal, I prepared to fight him for every vote.

For the local government election, the PNM wasn’t on the ground; they were in the air spending money. People just tune them out. They fed up hear them talk about Kamla; they don’t have a message of their own.

As a Tobagonian what’s the sentiment there?

They will vote out Rowley! Tobagonians are very decent people. This gentleman is the head of the Government and he couldn’t give the people a proper boat. That boat wasn’t a Jolly Roger cruise, you know, it was the lifeline of the island.

He’s gone from Tobago. They’re going to lose the general election and they’re going to lose the THA (Tobago House of Assembly) election as well. Right now, they can’t even finish counting their votes. A little place like Tobago, they cheating their own self. People are tired of this Government.

What message do you have for the people, for the youth?

Whether black youth, brown youth, whatever, people are just people. We cannot avert our eyes. We have to see this as a national emergency as it were and we all have to get involved in it.

We have to teach black boys confidence, and being an aggressor is not about confidence. We have to encourage them in education and training. I’m sure there are other sociologists and so on who will know what is creating this anger and this sense that have them thinking it is okay to take people’s life.

Trinidad is a small place, we have not gone too far. We can change things around. We have a plan; we will provide jobs and opportunities to take this country forward.

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