Two distinctly un-Caribbean political shocks occurred in the region in my lifetime.
One was the October 1983 execution of Maurice Bishop, who’d been ousted as prime minister of Grenada. The other was the armed invasion of the Trinidad and Tobago Parliament by Jamaat-al-Muslimeen militants in July 1990. Twenty-four people were killed in the attempted coup.
Late July 1990, and I’m about to return to Guyana after a broadcasting course in Jamaica. My news editor told me to stay and cover the Caricom summit. Events in T&T had given the meeting added importance. Prime minister ANR Robinson had been wounded and held hostage in the parliament building. He obviously couldn’t attend. Foreign Minister Dr Sahadeo Basdeo represented T&T in Kingston.
Here, there was uncertainty and dread. A state of emergency. Flights cancelled. Reports of looting in part of the country. It was a collective trauma, partially alleviated for some in true Trini spirit by “jamming still”, inside. For others, the insurrection left a psychological scar.
Leader of the Opposition Kamla Persad-Bissessar has drawn parallels between the pandemic-induced economic hardship in the country, and the events of 1990. She said: “A virus of poverty is also sweeping our nation with no plan in place to resuscitate our economy. Rowley must accept help from stakeholders and make changes to his failed team. We cannot have a 1990 repeat.”
Criticism from the government side was heavy. The more dramatic voices said “sedition”. Independent Senator Dr Varma Deyalsingh argued in the Opposition Leader’s defence in the T&T Guardian that a number of reputable and scholarly studies have been done on social unrest resulting from sudden economic pain caused by the pandemic.
But Persad-Bissessar didn’t even try to make a comparative analytical link between socio-economic fallout from Covid-19, and the causes of 1990. Broadly, she’s right in suggesting that more people have fallen into poverty and that could cause instability. Increasing joblessness and poverty are fuel for crime. Why not make that case?
Prominent businesspeople had confided to CNN’s Anthony Bourdain three years ago and well before the pandemic, that civic/social unrest was one of their biggest fears. Anecdotally, home invasions seem to have risen. Persad-Bissessar missed an opportunity to properly analyse all of this. She concluded in effect that one-plus-two-equals-five, and too-easily summoned the scariest jumbie she could find—the 1990 insurrection.
While no reasonable reading could interpret her words as a call to arms, she should have been aware of how they’d land. Yet the issue of unrest fuelled by poverty warrants examination. There are many examples of families struggling financially. Challenge the Finance Minister on the strength of his social safety net. Offer solutions. Offer thoughtful, strategic opposition.
A number of parliamentary colleagues came to their leader’s defence, in what felt like coordinated damage limitation. They should give their leader frank feedback, and tell her that it was political malpractice to find herself on the back foot after the bad week the government had; and a May that had brought stratospheric, scary figures on Covid-19 deaths and infections.
The government had overseen a halting and sometimes problem-plagued pandemic response. They’d fumbled the national rollout of first-come-first-served vaccination. Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley had felt the need to apologise, and to shield his under-fire Minister of Health Terrence Deyalsingh. Dr Rowley’s bad week should have been an easy layup for Persad-Bissessar.
Some on Team Yellow manage smarter opposition. The social media pages of the younger MPs—Chaguanas East and Tabaquite for example—regularly and helpfully relay to their constituents Health Ministry information about pandemic policy changes, vaccination reminders and the like. But in parliament, they don’t pull their punches on pandemic response.
Ex-MPs Suruj Rambachan and Dr Tim Gopeesingh publicly sought to negate suspicions about the Sinopharm vaccine, in contrast to Gopeesingh’s good friend, Dr Roodal Moonilal, who has cynically swum against the science.
Rambachan didn’t hold back. “Now that the WHO has cleared the Chinese vaccines why is the Opposition still opposing its use?”, he asked. “To advance your political goals by creating doubts that could affect lives is criminal.” Team Yellow’s young guns and retired elders manage to separate opposition from opportunism.
Opposition MPs don’t need to score using public fear, when the government regularly presents them with an open goal. Two Sundays ago the Ministry of National Security issued two news releases about a small gift of Pfizer vaccines from the US. They lacked essential detail and context, and caused the US Embassy to respond with its own poorly-crafted one aimed at filling in the omissions.
All they succeeded in doing was inviting international ridicule of a donation of 80 vials to a country of 1.4 million. But the US had made a much bigger commitment to the hemisphere, and T&T’s share would surely be significant. The arrangement involving the Embassy and National Security was not a part of that. Why didn’t anyone point that out? And why couldn’t anyone write a decent press statement about it?
Ham-handed handling of the information made it a bigger issue than it needed to be. Chief Medical Officer Dr Roshan Parasram tried his best not to step on any toes, but the co-ordination gaps were clear. And despite the PM’s nothing-to-see-here declaration, the issue did show some disjointed planning. That has been a criticism of pandemic management.
To keep the government on its toes, the country needs a smarter opposition that takes better shots.
• Orin Gordon is a media
and communications consultant