Last Thursday evening was the first time I listened to a full PNM public meeting. It was shocking. It went well beyond picong or even aggressive political debate. It crossed the line into political scapegoating and virtual incitement.
In his speech, astoundingly, PM Dr Keith Rowley was provoking deep hatred and perhaps even justifying extreme acts against the Opposition, in supposed “self-defence”.
In his efforts to deflect all blame from his Government, he instead accused the UNC of criminal acts of sabotage, treason, and posing an existential threat to Trinidad and Tobago itself.
The accusations reached absurd, fantastical levels. About the debacle at the opening of the Brian Lara Stadium, he astonishingly professed that the UNC took off their clothes and stuffed them down in the sewers to flood the boxes.
Deflecting from the incredible years-long mismanagement of the seabridge, he declared the UNC were flushing orange and grapefruit and jerseys down the toilet to be able to say that the boat wasn’t good.
He dramatically charged the UNC with burning out pumps and electrical panels in Bamboo Settlement #1 (where their own supporters live) in order to cause flooding. He asked, “Who stands to benefit if Bamboo #1 is flooded? It has to be the people who make a specialty of flood politics.”
With regard to the internationally embarrassing incident of British MP Steve Baker raising the issue of our stranded Trinidad and Tobago nationals in the UK Parliament, Dr Rowley hurled abuse.
Instead of acknowledging “our common humanity”, Dr Rowley elaborated a baseless, paranoid conspiracy theory, claiming “the UNC is in the British Parliament, at the backbench, lying on Trinidad and Tobago”.
The most incredible point in this fantasy tale was when Dr Rowley accused the UNC of cutting the wires on an aircraft, in an act of terrorism and attempted mass murder. And not a single shred of evidence was tendered for any of this.
It went even deeper than these absurd, slanderous accusations. There was a sinister demonisation running throughout Dr Rowley’s address.
Throughout the speech, he encouraged his followers to blame the UNC for every ill the country faces. He told them , “Try to figure out who and why... Who would benefit” from the country’s troubles? Presume guilt, and then (if at all given the chance) make the accused prove innocence.
He painted the UNC as domestic enemies, being “unpatriotic underminers of our existence”, being traitorous for thanking the UK MP for standing up for our citizens, and for trying to avert US sanctions on our country for the unilateral actions taken by the executive without parliamentary knowledge or approval.
Yet, ironically, for three separate issues in the same speech, Dr Rowley called upon the British to assist and intervene in the internal affairs of Trinidad and Tobago. He even spoke about giving foreigners the rank of Special Reserve Police to arrest nationals. His non-interventionism apparently applies only when convenient.
He accused the UNC of secretly having properties abroad, tax evasion, hiding ownership, and being “upper class” (ironic, when the UNC overwhelmingly represents the poorest people in the most marginal, excluded and remote areas of the country).
It was a conspiracy-level diatribe, feeding rumours, fear-mongering, division, suspicion, dissension; single-mindedly directing and stirring up resentment.
Ominously he quoted “an American president being called upon to declare war—where lives will be lost and blood will flow”, saying “The only thing to fear is fear itself.” What message was he sending? But this twisted attack was part of a speech in which it was announced that his Government would be raising taxes, rents (due to property tax), WASA rates, electricity rates, reducing pension payouts, and that these would be very hard times.
Here is where the strategy can be deciphered.
The frustration, rage, hatred and anger that these hardships would cause is to be directed at the “unpatriotic underminers of our existence”, the “sabotaging” UNC, painted by Dr Rowley as an existential threat to Trinidad and Tobago itself.
This is dangerous and reckless talk coming from our sitting Prime Minister. But it is frighteningly familiar ground.
In mediaeval Europe, during the bubonic plague which devastated and distressed millions, leaders blamed Jews for “poisoning the wells”. A frustrated, angry, scared population vented all their rage and fury on that scapegoated population, resulting in mass killings and pogroms.
In neighbouring Guyana in the 1960s, rumours by politicians that “Indians” were responsible for blowing up a boat led to mass murder, rape, looting, pillaging, arson and destruction of whole villages in Wismar and McKenzie.
Indeed, Dr Rowley turned the issue of local government funding into a racial one, when no such claim was made.
All this to avoid blame. Fine, the PNM may consider this part of the political game.
However, to foment hatred and suspicion of fellow citizens, to demonise and scapegoat them for all the country’s problems, to accuse them of being in traitorous collaboration with foreigners to bring down our country, of having foreign property abroad (not really being “national”), to falsely accuse them of sabotage and even attempted murder (!) of fellow citizens, is to cross every line of decency and acceptable political debate. It should be roundly condemned by all right-thinking people in this country, no matter what one’s political allegiances.
I call on Dr Keith Rowley to stop his dangerous diatribe and scapegoating. It will lead to nothing good.
Dr Kirk Meighoo is a political analyst/economist, author and broadcaster
—The Selwyn Cudjoe column returns