Arthur Napoleon Raymond Robinson was already established as a senior Caribbean and International Statesman when he became, on December 15, 1986, the third prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago.
Less than four years later, today, on August 1, 1990, a public holiday for Emancipation Day in Mr Robinson’s Trinidad and Tobago, “the national community is now confronted with the necessity for a total re-examination of itself and its relations with the outside world.” The quote is from Prime Minister Robinson, not in 1990, but in 1987, in a lecture on Transition and Reconstruction in Independence.
In a very prophetic passage in that lecture Mr Robinson spoke about the consequences of revolution in our society. He said, “In transition by revolution or by military coup the attempted solution would be simple and physical—liquidation of some and intimidation of the rest, as the French would say ‘pour encourager les autres’. In the contemporary world that pattern is the rule rather than the exception. Clearly if this solution is not to be adopted then the alternative must be one based upon accommodation and compromises. The difficult question to answer is: How far must these compromises go? Here I venture to suggest that three essential elements in the resolution of the difficult question are faith, judgment and commitment.”
Today, with members of Parliament held hostage by black Muslim fanatics, himself shot and a captive for days, Mr Robinson faces the acid test of his personal beliefs and philosophy of national development. How he stands up to it, what he does, are dependent largely on who he is, what he is and what he is made of, his faith, his judgement and his commitment.
His life and record for practising as he has preached in political matters are remarkably consistent. This consistency might be a result of the formative influences of his upbringing in a Methodist household (his father was a village headmaster and lay preacher), life in a small, rural Tobago village and the need to single-mindedly pursue his education in order to aspire beyond the confines of the village of Castara.
There is an almost puritanical streak in his sense of justice and calling. In 1970 he stood up for his principles and beliefs, against our first prime minister, the autocratic Dr Eric Williams, wandering the political wilderness rather than taking the easy way out by collaborating in suppressing the aspirations of citizens towards a better quality of life.
There are many who would now draw a parallel between the events of 1970 and the events of 1990. Political scientist, Dr Selwyn Ryan, had predicted in 1988 that “The main preoccupation of the NAR in the next five years would therefore have to be with ensuring that losses are allocated in such a way as to abort the possibility of the sort of violence which has become endemic in urban Jamaica or the Guyanisation of the economy.”
In 1970, Robinson came face-to-face with the violence produced by frustrated expectations and relative deprivation. By that time he had sought as minister of finance of Trinidad and Tobago to reform the national tax structure. He was replaced as minister of finance, defeated by a powerful lobby of business and political interests within his own party, the ruling Peoples National Movement (PNM).
Yet, his commitment to his nation never wavered. On August 29, 1970, four months after the Black Power Riots, two days before the eighth anniversary of national Independence, and a month before his resignation from the PNM, he gave as his message, “Our country cries out for men and women who cannot be bought and sold; men and women who are prepared to put principle before personality, country before self, morality before power.”
In the 20 years following that statement of belief, his fortunes have wavered. While he developed his reputation as a Caribbean man and his interests in international law and justice, his political fortunes ebbed and flowed as Dr Williams tightened his grip on a society which had more wealth than it could manage.
Mr Robinson, returning to his native Tobago, became first one of the representatives of that island in the national legislature, and later, in 1980 the chairman of the first House of Assembly, the Local Government body of the island.
After the death of Dr Williams in 1981, the PNM, under its new leader George Chambers, still coasted along on the euphoria of its exhausted oil wealth. As the realisation of the need for change became more and more apparent there emerged a gradually deepening perception of Robinson as the leader to take the country out of the economic and social morass. His consistency, and commitment had finally earned their just rewards.
When his party won the elections and he became prime minister, Mr Robinson was fully aware of the precariousness of his position. In February 1987 in an address entitled, “Perspectives on Development: Lessons from the Past” he said, “Clearly the future is full of both dangers and opportunities, balanced like human nature itself between good and evil. And we, as planners, must consciously decide now what kind of society and what kind of world we intend to build.”
Six months later, on the 25th anniversary of the Independence of Trinidad and Tobago, his analysis of the situation was, “This indeed is the great paradox of our times—want in the midst of plenty, shortage in an ocean of surplus, idle resources side by side with unsatisfied demand, poverty next door to extravagance and waste.”
Now as we once more approach the anniversary of national Independence, Mr Robinson faces the greatest test of his faith, justice and commitment. There is no question that what he does over the next few hours or days will be consistent with what he has stood for over the course of his life.
The best distillation of his core beliefs powerfully echoes Martin Luther. He said, in August 1970, “Here I stand. I am committed with everything I have or shall have to the future of this land, and I declare my determination to join with all our citizens of whatever class, race, creed or religion who wish to see respect restored for their fellowmen, who desire honesty and decency to have a place in our public life, who wish to preserve our national community and our democracy, and who are prepared to strive for an equal place for our sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters, our mothers and fathers, of whatever age, class, creed, race and previous condition.”
ARTHUR NAPOLEON RAYMOND ROBINSON
Short biographical summary
1. Born December 16, 1926 at Calder Hall, Tobago.
2. Childhood in the small Tobago village of Castara.
3. Attended the Castara Methodist School and was awarded a Bursary to Bishop’s High School, Scarborough, Tobago.
4. At Bishop’s High School won a Junior House Scholarship and two Cambridge Higher School Certificates.
5. Worked as a Clerk in the Public Service.
6. Studied privately for a law degree as an external student of the University of London.
7. In 1951 he went to England to further his studies. He qualified as a barrister at the Inner Temple, London. He then entered St John’s College, Oxford, where he read for a degree in philosophy, politics and economics. At Oxford he was involved in the Oxford Union (Debating) Society, was president of the West Indian Students Society and Secretary of the Oxford Political Study Circle.
8. He returned to Trinidad in 1955 and joined the chambers of top local barrister, Sir Courtenay Hannays, setting up a practice in Port of Spain and Tobago.
9. He joined the fledgling Peoples National Movement in 1956, became the party’s first treasurer, contested the elections as a PNM candidate in Tobago and lost.
10. In 1958 he contested the federal elections (for the now defunct West Indies Federation) and became a member of the Federal Parliament (1958-1961).
11. In 1961 he won the Tobago seat in the national general elections and was made minister of finance.
12. In 1962 he became the first minister of finance (1962-1967) of the newly independent nation of Trinidad and Tobago.
13. In 1966 removed from the Ministry of Finance, was made deputy political leader of the PNM and minister of external affairs (1967-1970). Also acted as attorney general and prime minister.
14. From 1966 spearheaded a move for internal reform of the PNM.
15. In 1970 he resigned from the cabinet, critical of the PNM’s handling of the 1970 disturbances.
16. Resigned from the PNM in protest of the Public Order Bill on September 20, 1970.
17. Assumed the leadership of an informed group of citizens call the Action Group of Dedicated Citizens (ACDC).
18. The ACDC merged with the fundamentally hindu-based Democratic Labour Party for the 1971 Elections. Robinson, distrusting the PNM and its voting machines, called for a boycott of the elections. The PNM won all 36 seats in the national legislature with 28% of the registered votes. The merger with the DLP broke down. In 1971 he wrote The Mechanics of Independence. Also wrote the article on Trinidad in the Encyclopedia Brittanica (1974).
19. Robinson’s group evolved into the DAC (Democratic Action Congress) which contested the 1976 general elections and was defeated by the PNM in a Trinidad which was now reaping the windfall oil wealth. However, Robinson won the two Tobago seats.
20. 1980 Robinson gave up his seat in Parliament, contested the first Tobago House of Assembly Elections, and became the first chairman of that Body.
21. From 1976 Robinson collaborated with the United Labour Front of Basdeo Panday and this led to an alliance of parties in 1981. Although soundly defeated in 1981 the Alliance was successful in Local Government Elections in 1983 and House of Assembly Elections in 1984.
22. This led to the formation of the National Alliance for Reconstruction and Robinson was elected political leader on September 8, 1985.
23. On December 15, 1986, the day before his 60th birthday, Robinson’s NAR defeated the incumbent PNM of George Chambers by 33-3.
24. On Friday July 27 1990 Mr Robinson, members of his Cabinet and other national parliamentarians were held hostage by an armed group of black Muslims as part of an attempted coup headed by the self-styled Imam Yasin Abu Bakr, a former police constable named Lennox Phillip. Mr Robinson was shot during the takeover of the Parliament building.
25. Mr Robinson was released on Tuesday July 31.