IN one of the many striking scenes in HBO’s hit series Chernobyl, frustrated Soviet state apparatchik, Boris Scherbina, is desperately attempting to explain to his superiors in Moscow, via telephone how grave the disaster has been at Chernobyl. Realising that nothing he is saying is making a difference, he loses his temper, begins insulting his superiors and proceeds to smash the telephone to pieces. Walking outside to greet his comrades, Scherbina regains some composure and then wryly informs them, “the official position of the state is that global nuclear catastrophe is not possible in the Soviet Union.”
This one scene captures what the Chernobyl catastrophe was all about and perhaps illustrates what it’s like working as an economist for Finance Minister Colm Imbert. Chernobyl is a lesson in what occurs when authoritarian regimes naturally become so disconnected from the truth that they believe they can bend reality to suit their narrative. Trinidad and Tobago may not have nuclear power plants or uranium, but we do enrich a substance that is far more dangerous—incompetent public officials. I hope Prime Minister Keith Rowley sees Chernobyl because it may help him realise his own Government appears to be in complete meltdown.
Despite the seabridge collapse, the fake oil scandal, the failed Sandals resort deal, the failed Dragon Gas deal, the Attorney General’s State rental deal, the failure to address the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, to the recent attempt to muzzle the Freedom of Information Act and more, Dr Rowley wants us all to believe that his Government is functioning normally and to disregard the fact that he and his ministers are emitting a vibrant green glow.
Of course all governments lie and spin the truth to suit their interests. That’s as normal as the sunrise or a daylight shoot-out in Port of Spain. But when governments, driven by their own narcissism, don’t simply lie but believe that they themselves can’t possibly be capable of mistakes, that’s where things start to become radioactive. Officials in the former USSR waited an entire 24 hours to even accept that the reactor at Chernobyl had exploded and a full 36 hours to issue an evacuation order to the neighbouring town, which in their defence, is still more than the ODPM did during the floods last year.
The failure of Moscow to initially accept the scale of the disaster is somewhat similar to our own Government refusing to accept that for the past four years we have been in the eye of a huge refugee storm. Hence they never crafted a proper policy other than National Security Minister Stuart Young having to stand outside the Oval and scream at crowds of refugees through a bullhorn. In the case of the USSR, they didn’t want to admit technological inferiority to the United States. In the case of Dr Rowley, he didn’t want to stop receiving conga line dance invitations from Caracas. And of course Dragon Gas.
Another area where Dr Rowley’s Government exhibits an uncanny resemblance to the former overlords of the Soviet states is the general attitude both display to professionals in their fields. In another great scene in Chernobyl, when scientist Ulana Khomyuk presents the full horror that is unfolding near the reactor, she is rebuffed by a party official with the words: “I prefer my opinion to yours.” Well at least he didn’t say, “I didn’t come here for any sterile and academic debate”.
You would expect the Prime Minister to attempt to delegitimise the credibility of the Opposition in their critiques of his policy. But it hasn’t stopped there. Tobagonians who complained about the seabridge were accused of “bad talking Tobago”, environmentalists against the shady Sandals Resort deal were dismissed as “saboteurs”, and economists who question the Government’s continued excessive borrowing were told they were “naysayers”. For Dr Rowley the only people qualified to express an opinion on his policies are those who attended the University of Balisier House.
In 2006, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev described what still remains as the worst nuclear accident in history as a “turning point” for the USSR. “(Chernobyl) opened the possibility of much greater freedom of expression, to the point that the system as we knew it could no longer continue,” wrote Gorbachev. Chernobyl’s deadly radiation didn’t just kill thousands of people, it also weakened the propaganda reality the Soviet state had maintained with an iron grip for decades.
Similarly as the Government looks to pass amendments, adding red tape to the Freedom of Information Act, Dr Rowley may find that the public has little taste for the secretive authoritarian politics of old. Just like the apparatchiks at Chernobyl, the Prime Minister may dismiss his Government’s blunders as no big deal, but he is likely ignoring a chain reaction he can’t now stop.
— Darryn Boodan is a freelance writer