While aggression is often required in politics, permanent pugilism is counterproductive.
Very early in his career, Dr Keith Rowley was nicknamed “Rottweiler” for his unrelenting aggressiveness in the political arena. He needed to refine that combative propensity on becoming prime minister. Unfortunately, he didn’t. The nation has had to endure much coarseness from its leader.
The abrasiveness has reached the country’s international relations. Normally, if a prime minister is dissatisfied with the actions or utterances of an ambassador to his country, he would instruct his foreign affairs minister to call in that envoy and have an appropriate conversation. I was instructed to take such action myself during my ministerial tenure, and it was done firmly, politely and effectively, with no public embarrassment to anyone. The same is the practice with the head or any high official of multilateral organisations like the UN or OAS. The foreign minister activates his accredited ambassador to deliver the prime minister’s concern in an appropriate manner.
But diplomatic norms apparently do not suffice for Keith Rowley. In 2016, OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro termed Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro “a petty dictator” for refusing the recall referendum after fraudulent elections. But T&T was then pursuing Venezuela’s natural gas and Rowley publicly jumped to Maduro’s defence, crudely calling for the removal of Almagro for making “very derogatory” statements about his friend. “Rottweiler diplomacy had arrived,” I said. In the process, Trinidad and Tobago abdicated leadership in Caricom. The US started talking to Jamaica on the Venezuela issue. We were relegated to irrelevance on a matter taking place on our very doorstep.
Our relationship with the United States is particularly important. This is the world’s super power, our most powerful democratic ally, largest trading partner and main source of foreign direct investment. Whilst maintaining our sovereignty, we must also preserve that relationship. It was damaged by Rowley during the Donald Trump administration. Defending his approach to Maduro, Rowley went on the excessive offensive, thundering in Parliament, “I take umbrage. I take umbrage at the United States Ambassador making a public statement criticising the actions of the Government of Trinidad and Tobago. And as far as taking instructions from the US Embassy on Marli Street, leave the PNM out of that!”—supported by PNM MPs jeering, “What Trump could do we?!”
Rhetoric and reaction for a political rally at Piggott’s Corner, not the diplomatic arena!
And now there is the T&T mess created over the offer of vaccine donations by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on January 20 under his “Vaccine Maitri” (friendship) programme. Almost all Caricom countries immediately took up the offer, along with nations from Africa and Latin America, writing to Modi and receiving swift, positive responses. Between January and February, India donated 495,000 vaccines to ten Caribbean countries.
But Rowley claimed not to have known about the Indian initiative even though this region’s prime ministers along with West Indies cricketing greats Sir Vivian Richards, Sir Richie Richardson and others were issuing public statements thanking Modi. Rowley also profusely thanked Barbados PM Mia Mottley for her donation to Trinidad and Tobago of 2,000 vaccines from the very gift received from India! And he didn’t know of the Indian initiative?
Worse, in customary fashion, he publicly went on the offensive against the Indian High Commissioner for not communicating with the Government about Modi’s vaccine initiative. When asked to respond, the envoy said it is not “in the pale of diplomatic decency to personally attack a resident High Commissioner”. Why was the public assault necessary? Why wasn’t the envoy called in for a discussion, as happened after the imbroglio?
Instead, Rowley went further to make one of the most disastrous statements in the annals of international relations. On March 19, he said, “Our Caribbean neighbours have got gifts. But when you go asking for a gift, that’s not a gift; you’re begging. There is no arrangement for Trinidad and Tobago to vaccinate the population by begging.” Astounding! Was Rowley saying his colleague leaders who tapped into the Indian facility were beggars? As Orin Gordon wrote in the Express, “If your child needs an urgent kidney transplant and you approach organ donors, that’s not begging.” Besides, Rowley had himself written to Modi on February 23, seeking a donation. Why was he suggesting it was demeaning to seek help from India’s vaccine friendship programme? Utterly disgraceful behaviour. After his assault and after India promised 40,000 vaccines in response to his request, Rowley perfunctorily expressed “sincerest appreciation and gratitude” to Modi. But the damage had been done,
Compare Rowley with Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit of Dominica, who had written to Modi on January 19. He said, “I did not imagine the prayers of my country would be answered so swiftly. One would have thought that in a global pandemic like this, a nation’s size and might would have been the primary consideration. But to the credit of Prime Minister Modi, the equality of our people was recognised.” Profound and refined! So different from the chronic coarseness this country must endure from its prime minister.