Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Always a gentleman

In spite of a generally held public perception of former prime minister and president Arthur Napoleon Raymond (ANR) Robinson as “cold, aloof and arrogant”, I always had a completely different impression of Robinson, a man I knew personally for nearly 50 years.

To begin with, I found him to be always a gentleman, always polite, friendly and charming. During several interviews I conducted with him over the years, Robinson was always frank, forthcoming and generally willing to provide as much information as I required.

I began to take a lot of personal interest in Robinson when, as a then deputy to prime minister Dr Eric Williams, who was also founder of the People’s National Movement (PNM), he broke with Williams after the 1970 Black Power upheaval that had shaken Trinidad and Tobago to its core.

He had been the country’s first post-Independence Minister of Finance and later Foreign Affairs Minister under Williams.

But from things he told me at the time, I was under the impression that Robinson had disagreed with Williams’ handling of the Black Power unrest, which mainly involved declaring a state of emergency on April 21, 1970 and detaining most of the protest leaders.

After his break with Williams, Robinson returned to his Tobago roots. He had been born in Calder Hall, Tobago, in 1926 to Isabella and James Robinson.

He formed the Tobago -based Democratic Action Congress (DAC), which eventually won the two Tobago seats in Parliament in the general elections of 1976 and 1981.

He was also instrumental in creating the Tobago House of Assembly, which he chaired from 1980 to 1986. And he was also instrumental in helping to create the International Criminal Court.

In 1981, he got together with Basdeo Panday and the late Lloyd Best to form the National Alliance and later joined with the Organisation for National Reconstruction (ONR) to form the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR).

And it was as political leader of the NAR that he finally defeated the PNM 33-3 in the 1986 general election, thus bringing to an end 30 consecutive years of PNM rule. Dr Williams himself had died in 1981 and George Chambers, also now deceased, had taken over as prime minister.

Robinson was therefore Trinidad and Tobago’s third prime minister and he would go on to become the first active politician who was also appointed the country’s third President.

It was as prime minister that in 1990 he and his government became the targets of an attempted coup by the insurgent Jamaat-al-Muslimeen, a radical Islamic group, some of whose members said during the six-day coup attempt that they intended to form “an Islamic state”.

In testimony before a commission of enquiry into that attempted coup, appointed by incumbent Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, Robinson related how after he was ordered by one of the insurgents, Bilal Abdullah, to call off the attacking security forces, he shouted instead into the microphone placed at his mouth: “These are torturers and murderers. Attack with full force!”

He was then shot in the knee and Robinson told the commission of enquiry: “My medical advisers told me if the bullet had diverted about half an inch, I would have died in a short space of time.”

Perhaps the most moving moment of his testimony was when he related being handed an envelope by one of the insurgents (“from your wife”) and when he read the note it contained just three words: “I love you.”

Robinson testified “....that strengthened me, buoyed my spirits up tremendously because I did not know what was happening to her or to my children. My son was abroad but my daughter was with my wife”, Patricia, who subsequently died after a serious illness in 2009.

During his testimony, Robinson also denied being forwarned about the attempted coup, which former communications minister Gerald Hadeed only recently said he personally told Robinson about on the Wednesday evening before Friday, July 27, 1990.

Asked why he hadn’t given this testimony before the commission of enquiry, Hadeed said last Sunday because Robinson had not admitted to this in his own testimony, “and out of my respect for the man, I did not want to contradict him”.

Yesterday, Hadeed described himself as being “very sad” on learning of Robinson’s death at the St Clair Medical Centre, where he had been a patient for weeks. He was 87.