DR GABRIELLE JAMELA HOSEIN
IT’S WELL recognised that Trinidadians/Tobagonians are natural innovators. Diversification is what we do. We play it, sing it, bottle it, photograph it, lyrics it, design it, craft it, mix it, name it, plant it and sell it every day, everywhere, across the country and internationally.
In that context, it’s bizarre that the PM would have blamed citizens for the Government’s failure to sufficiently diversify the economy, a failure that has defined much of the PNM’s decades of rule.
I’m not being anti-PNM, I’m describing a reality where agriculture has been systematically undervalued, where “downstream” is as much as diversification is imagined to be, and where the environment, including our marine ecosystems, and their value mean nearly nothing.
The PM’s attack shows deep disconnect between those holding power and those surviving, even in a pandemic, in the most creative ways. It shows vast misdiagnosis of why we are in the economic collapse we find ourselves, which predated the pandemic. It shows sheer irresponsibility, for clearly we are not all in this together when there are only others to blame. It shows a dangerous and deliberate willingness to misrepresent the truth, which is exactly why citizens are as sceptical as they are, and so easy to throw back words full of disrespect.
Finally, it shows how quickly deep authoritarianism reveals itself, for the only message could be that it is wrong and foolish to question a government, and should you suffer for it, that’s on you.
First, the Alcoa and Alutrint smelters. If anyone remembers 2009, Calder Hart was in (and out of) control. Riot police in military gear would show up at any citizen gathering. PM Manning had lost touch, particularly with another generation. As Williams did in 1970. As is happening now.
Widespread citizen challenge to the smelters was a powerful example of ordinary people demanding a government speak with them in a way they deserve.
The High Court ruled that the decision of the Environmental Management Authority to grant a Certificate of Environmental Clearance was illegal. Other aspects of the project – such as the port – had not been included in the application. No one could present a cost-benefit analysis.
It was unclear what would happen with the solid waste and waste water generated or the implications for the aquifer on which the Alcoa smelter would be built. Remember, we are a country that is abysmal about waste disposal and hazardous leaks that contaminate the environment.
There was a debate about health concerns, and Alcoa itself had a history of environmental violations. It was also part of a US war machine with close ties to the Republican Party. Pentagon contracts for combat vehicles and missiles were fuelling its search for aluminium and its outsourcing to countries with poor environmental standards.
Add to that secrecy about the selling price for the natural gas that would be required to produce electricity to run Alcoa’s smelting process. Economists at the time talked endlessly about the smelters as another example of the offshore economy; in other words, yet more dependence on heavy industrialisation and non-renewable fossil fuels.
What was the plan for sustainable onshore economic activity including livestock (buffalypso) rearing, honey production, IT services, light manufacturing, ship repair, pan building and so much more?
These were legitimate questions to ask and it’s to the credit of the nation that answers were demanded, and high-handed buff-up rejected.
The truth is that insufficient transparency and accountability, and ignoring of citizens’ real concerns, destroyed support for those smelters, and that’s on the party that rules us today.
It wasn’t so different with Sandals, a more recent example for those of a younger generation who don’t remember 2009. Stuart Young described bad publicity by a "handful of people."
More untruth. A claim had to be filed to challenge the secrecy involved. Sandals Resort had squabbled with Antigua and Barbuda over agreements for 25-year tax holidays. Here, questions about economic feasibility and tax concessions were insufficiently answered, particularly as the costs would have been borne by taxpayers. There were environmental concerns regarding the Buccoo Reef Marine Park.
As an aside, all-inclusive resorts are renowned for contributing less to economies than they gain, for bringing dead-end, low-wage jobs, and for intensifying sex tourism.
We have never been against diversification. We are against poor governance and questionable decisions. That’s a strength that a national leader should champion, not impugn. It’s one we should defend without apology.
Instead of gaslighting, the PM needed to set an example of taking responsibility.
Diary of a mothering worker