ON the first night of the 1990 attempted coup, thousands of people were glued to their television sets watching the unprecedented events unfold. The Jamaat al Muslimeen insurgents had interrupted television broadcast when they seized state station TTT, but viewers in Central and South were still receiving news footage that fateful Friday night. Among those citizens was business owner. Mary (not her real name), who watched live on television as her family business burned to the ground.
“It was sad watching it burn. And frightening to know this happen in this country.”
She was one of scores of business owners affected by the looting and violence of that tragic week, which left more than 4,000 people jobless. Minister of Industry, Enterprise and Tourism Bhoendradat Tewarie estimated damage in the city at $300 million and in a subsequent article said it would cost about $2 billion to rebuild the city.
The first day of the attempted coup saw the most devastation, with more than 40 buildings destroyed, including department stores, banks, electronics, fabric and shoe stores, restaurants and barber saloons (see full list at end).
Dozens of businesses were looted and burned in downtown Port of Spain and along the Eastern Main Road. Mary’s business was one of a number of buildings on Queen Street that was destroyed by fire.
“We never will forget that episode with (Jamaat al Muslimeen leader and coup mastermind) Mr (Yasin) Abu Bakr.”
She recalled that members of the Muslimeen had come into her business twice before the attempted coup and just stood and stared at the staff for about 15 minutes, possibly as an intimidation tactic.
“It was petrifying. The staff was so scared.”
Mary was afraid to return to Port of Spain on Friday July 27, the first day of the attempted coup.
“I could not come to town with so much people want to kill you. It was horrific.”
In a newspaper report, another affected business owner, Joe Elias, managing director of Nagib Elias and Sons, estimated the damage to his company at over $1 billion. Elias said in a subsequent story that he was hesitant about rebuilding in the city because of “an element of lawlessness,” and his concerns were echoed by George Aboud of Patrick’s Fabrics and Georgio’s. Aboud reported he had also lost two businesses during the Black Power protests of 1970.
Mary also had her own experience during the Black Power demonstrations. She recalled an incident when a group of men came into her store and demanded money. She will never forget the “clickety clock” sound of their wooden shoes (likely clogs).
But despite the experience of the Black Power movement and July 1990, she rebuilt her business in Port of Spain, though she wanted to keep her name and location secret as she feared retaliation from the Jamaat al Muslimeen. Some of the staff with her today were with her during the attempted coup.
“They have horrific memories (from 1990). We usually talk about these things. But life goes on.”
John (not his real name) worked at Photo Sonny, a photo studio on Independence Square at the time of the attempted coup. The business had opened just six months before, and new equipment had been brought in around that time – film processing and dark room equipment – and paid for with a loan.
Photo Sonny did film processing, portraits and framing, and John recalled it was doing “okay business.” On the day of the attempted coup, the employees heard about gunfire at the Red House that afternoon.
Within an hour they had closed up the store and left.
At about midnight an employee who lived in Beetham telephoned the owner and said the store had burned down.
John and the other employees returned to Photo Sonny the following day.
“Everything was flat on the ground. What they didn’t thief they burn.”
Photo Sonny was in the same building as the Double A Electronics store (still in operation) and a drugstore, both of which also burned down.
Abu Bakr, in his first televised message on the captured state television station TTT urged citizens not to loot, but many took that as an invitation. John recalled seeing men looting and running around with televisions and other appliances on their backs. There were police officers around the city but John does not believe they were enough to curb the widespread lawlessness.
“I don’t think they could have controlled town.”
John recalled a lot of police shooting in the air by the Cipriani Statue roundabout on Independence Square. He was not worried, though, as a lot of people were cleaning out their buildings, which had burned in the night and been reduced to rubble.
When the unrest first started John thought the looting would be the worst of it.
“I never thought it would get to the extent where they would burn down stores. It was a terrible thing. But the (looting) wasn’t done out of anger but mob behaviour with the people in the coup. And they accomplished nothing in the end.”
The photo studio building was the only one John knew of that was burned down on that block, but he recalled all businesses were affected.
“Everything here was looted. Items were out in the road. Next door there was an appliance store. There was real looting. People was on the second floor throwing down items for people at the bottom.”
In the days after the attempted coup there were a number of looting-related advertisements in the newspapers, mostly related to apparent attempts by people to sell their looted items. The supermarket chain Hi-Lo warned about people selling looted pet food, peas and beans, paper products. Another Hi-Lo ad asked for the return of abandoned shopping carts. Department store Bathrooms Plus asked people to return stolen goods with “no questions asked.” Wholesale Distributors Hand Arnold warned people not to buy goods stolen from them. A company called Spot Cash said people must provide proof and authentic ID when bringing items for sale.
One report said the buy-and-sell second-hand store Dollar Rescue, which heavily advertised to people in financial distress, was seeking a financial rescue of its own after heavy looting and estimated losses of $30 million.
“They took out every living thing. And what they didn’t take they mash up,” owner Sheik Sajard said in the story.
The financial impact on businesses, however, was not limited to destroyed buildings or lootings. A state of emergency was implemented which included a 6pm-6am curfew. A newspaper reported on August 17, more than two weeks after the attempted coup ended, that restaurant owners were complaining that curfew hours were taking a heavy toll on their business.
Following the devastation of the all shootings, explosions, fires and lootings, citizens described Downtown as “Beirut”, the capital of Lebanon which at that point in the final months of a 25 year-long civil war.
NO COMPENSATION, NO ASSISTANCE
Mary estimated that she and other business owners suffered millions in losses. And what about compensation? She received none for her business and she never tried to apply for it. She added that in cases of riots and civil unrest, insurance companies did not pay claims.
“You keep on trodding (sic). You don’t take on things like that. What happen happen.”
John also said Photo Sonny owners could not claim for insurance because of the civil unrest.
The Association of TT Insurance Companies (ATTIC), in a statement after the attempted coup, said losses occurred due to looting would not be covered under insurance and might fall within standard policy exclusions. The Downtown Owners and Merchants Association (DOMA) had expressed plans for jointly funded test cases against insurance companies that failed to settle claims against losses. DOMA said it would gonall the way to the Privy Council. In the same article ATTIC said the group welcomed the issue going to court.
And what about assistance from the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) government? John said after the attempted coup no one from the government ever visited or offered any assistance.
“They just creeped (sic) until they were back on their own two feet.”
Then finance minister Selby Wilson told Newsday, however, that assistance was offered to the affected businesses. A newspaper report said downtown Port of Spain businessmen, fearing they would receive no compensation from insurance companies, were seeking help from the government and city mayor Augustus Williams. A subsequent article had DOMA threatening to sue Attorney General Anthony Smart if he failed to float a $250 million disaster fund related to the attempted coup.
30 YEARS LATER
Asked how she felt about the 30th anniversary, Mary spoke about those who took part in the insurgency.
“It doesn’t pay to be like that. You have to grow up and come out of that nonsense.”
She does not believe another such incident could happen, because of current Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith.
“With Gary I eh think nothing happening. I feel contended.”
She still thinks of the experience, Abu Bakr and the men who were with him.
“They felt they could do anything and get away with it.”
Asked if he was worried another attempted coup could take place, John said he does not think about that, but he is concerned currently about crime and security in the capital city.
“Town kind of in a state a long time.”
John said before the attempted coup a lot of outsiders would come to shop in Port of Spain, including from Chaguanas and Couva.
“Nobody from outside comes and shops any more, only people who live in Morvant, Beetham and the environs. Most of the people who work in banks don’t shop in town, because they don’t feel safe. And there is nowhere to park as well. And you have people picking pockets and snatching purses.”
He believes the city does not have enough police presence.
“If you see a police officer on every block or every two blocks, then it would stop a lot of things and make Port of Spain feel safer.”
Photo Sonny Photo Studio moved to lower Independence Square and where the studio was previously located there is now a Royal Castle outlet. But John said a lot of stores destroyed during that time never reopened.
Businesses destroyed on Friday July 27, 1990 according to a Trinidad Express report, were:
• Allum’s Supermarket
• Central Trading Post
• City Gate Restaurant and Bar
• San Chong and Co.
• Miramar Nightclub
• Young Brothers
• Anjoda Paper Enterprises
• Dollar Rescue (Port of Spain and Mt Hope)
• Ken Johnson
• Double A Electronics
• Photo Sonny Ltd
• Lumkin Drugs
• Del’s Travel Agency
• American Hotel
• Yale Barber Saloon
• Afro Shoe Dom
• KS Abraham
• Patrick’s Corner
• Texelina Ltd
• Narwani’s (a shoe store) (Queen Street)
• City Fabric (warehouse and store)
• The Man Hole
• Lukin’s Garnet House
• Sun Wai Association
• Miguel Moses
• Sim Kint Trading
• Mike’s Electronics
• Men’s Fabrics
• El Hombre
• ANSA House
• Mansoor Brothers
• Galaxy Fashions
• Superstar Building
• Modern Business School
• Master Cobbler
• Bank of Nova Scotia
• Chung Hua Co
• Windsor Building
• Bank of Commerce
• Winston General Store