He came into office on a high on March 19, 2013, famously declaring in his inaugural address, “The powers you think I have, I do not” and, “The powers you think I do not have, I do.”
Those assertions, delivered before a capacity audience at the Hasely Crawford Stadium, Port of Spain, was, to many, indicative of an activist-type leadership he desired to provide– one perhaps removed from what citizens had come to expect from the presidency.
But now, as he demits office after a five-year term, to make way for retired Appeal Court judge Paula Mae Weekes as the country’s sixth President, there are mixed views to Anthony Thomas Aquinas Carmona’s stewardship as Head of State.
Weekes is expected to be sworn in as the country’s first female President, tomorrow, at the Queen’s Park Savannah, Port-of-Spain.
While some observers suggest Carmona simply followed the dictates of his office, given its ceremonial nature, others said his presidency had fallen terribly short of expectations.
Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley appears to subscribe to the latter.
Asked his views about Carmona’s tenure at Thursday’s post-Cabinet news briefing, Rowley said cryptically:
“We survived. I wouldn’t want to be the person marking the paper on that. I don’t think it is something I would want to engage in.”
The PM was asked about Carmona’s performance as he gave the Government’s position on the controversy surrounding Chief Justice Ivor Archie’s decision, days ago, to embark on 35 weeks of accrued vacation leave to attend the Federal Judicial Center, Washington DC, US.
However, it was reported on Friday that Archie has decided to reduce significantly his vacation leave to six weeks, his current leave entitlement.
The CJ had earlier sought a six-month sabbatical to “rest, reflect and study” at the institution - a move sanctioned by Carmona, reportedly based on the provisions of the 98th Report of the Salaries Review Commission.
Rowley has instructed Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi to ask the court to rule on whether judges are entitled to sabbatical leave.
Dr Indira Rampersad, lecturer in Political Science and International Relations at the St Augustine Campus of the University of the West Indies, said Carmona, in her view, was the country’s most controversial president.
‘A crowning fiasco’
“Apart from President (Arthur NR) Robinson, who was not willing to appoint losing candidates as senators under Basdeo Panday but eventually did, I think Mr Carmona had more run-ins with the government of the day, whether it was the (People’s) Partnership or the PNM,” she told Sunday Newsday.
Rampersad regarded Carmona’s decision to grant Archie vacation leave as “his crowning fiasco.”
“Because, my understanding of it is that he has the permission to give authority to leave the country only and not permission to approve leave.
“I don’t know if he just gave permission or approved the leave but in any event, the sabbatical leave is now under question and so is the vacation leave.”
Rampersad said the developments have reflected negatively on Carmona’s leadership.
“Certainly, he looks very bad in this whole thing because the Chief Justice decided he is no longer going on the sabbatical leave, which was agreed to by the President and he is going on vacation leave, which we don’t know was agreed upon by whom. That is another controversial issue there.”
Saying Carmona was leaving the office in disgrace “with respect to this issue,” Rampersad said the development “also leaves the country in a terrible mess.”
Outside of the Archie debacle, Rampersad noted Carmona was one of two presidents who did not get a second term (the other was Robinson).
“That speaks volumes because it doesn’t matter if governments change. Sometimes a government can retain a president if they are doing a good job,” she said.
“So, clearly the current administration was not pleased with his performance. There was not even a discussion on retaining him. That was never in the public arena and he never got the support of the Opposition either to go back because they had other candidates in mind.”
Rampersad also regarded Carmona’s inaugural address as controversial.
“That was a bitter consternation because people were surprised he was making that kind of statement’s about ‘powers’ in an inaugural speech.”
She said much of the speech also seemed to be an attack on the Partnership, which had selected him for the office.
“It set a sought of distance between him and the government from the start. That relationship was not as cordial as it should have been throughout his term in office while they were in power.”
Rampersad said Carmona also did not appear to understand fully his role and “people started to look on with bemusement than anything else because they were wondering, ‘What next?’”
Call for youths to serve
A former High Court judge with a stellar record on the bench, Carmona was the United National Congress-led People’s Partnership’s pick for President in 2013.
The father of two replaced George Maxwell Richards, a chemical engineer by profession, resuming the tradition of lawyers becoming heads of state.
In his inaugural speech, Carmona suggested while he may not have had a “magic wand” for all of the ills plaguing the country at the time, his role was not powerless.
“Under the Westminster form of governance, there are parameters within which I must operate. Powers you think I have, I do not... The power you think I do not have, I do.” And while Carmona outlined clearly, the remit within which he was required to operate, he used the office to push for a more aggressive approach in tackling crime, climate change, issues affecting the disadvantaged in the society and the advancement of young people.
Months into his term, he called for young, deserving people under the age of 25, to be appointed as senators - a suggestion which was well-received in some quarters.
He also insisted repeatedly that students be part of the decision-making process. With this in mind, Carmona often invited students to witness the presentation of letters of credence from ambassadors accredited to TT.
It is said the ambassadors and High Commissioners have written to the governments in the respective countries, calling for such exercises to be implemented.
Carmona also has visited schools– most recently the Cedar Grove Private School–with the intention of encouraging and motivating students.
He also was a passionate advocate of the Carbon Zero Initiative of Trinidad and Tobago.
Political commentator Dr Winford James said while Carmona did initiate several commendable efforts, he never lived up to the citizenry’s expectations of him, particularly after his inaugural address.
“He set us up for novel decisions on his part and I am still awaiting such novel decisions from his inaugural speech,” he told Sunday Newsday.
“I don’t know that over the course of his tenure that he demonstrated that he had the powers that we probably think he didn’t have or he did not demonstrates powers that we thought he had.
“I can’t think of any decision that he made that would have fallen in relation to that statement he made.”
James said Carmona had brought the Office of President into disrepute by the manner in which he handled the presidential wine issue and his $28,000 housing allowance budget.