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Annals of rejoicing as Icon passes

By Lennox Grant

 Other people must have been breathing heavy sighs before opening the morning’s papers, but Gary Almarales signed on to that condition in a letter last week that the Express headlined “How much more can we take?”  The letter writer claimed “dread” about the headlines, but confessed that he is “addicted to the steady diet of lies, corruption and mismanagement”.

Last week, too, the destabilising effect from a pattern of news reports prompted Sebastian Kydd, published in Newsday, to seek divine intervention. “Almost every day,” he wrote, “there is a new story and a new allegation (of) inappropriate behaviour by our government ministers. What is really going on? Lord, lay your hand.”

In ways unexpected, Kydd’s Lord put a hand. Overnight, three dailies transformed from chroniclers of iniquities, actual or feared, into celebration sites for a hero and a heroic narrative, in both of which to rejoice.

Rejoicing is a counter-intuitive way of understanding the outpourings upon the death of Arthur Napoleon Raymond Robinson. With the flag, national spirit formally lowered to half-mast, but satisfaction was palpable over the rare and timely discovery of a figure to exalt with annals to consecrate. 

T&T is still not a place where obituaries, meaning attentively rendered mini-memoirs of notable lives, are raised to a literary form. Thus, the Robinson RIP “copy” has mostly comprised “comments” such as might fit on a testimonial plaque struck in hurried honour of the late great.

For me, who came to witting adulthood in the 1960s, “ANR” retained a mixed-up affectionate place in the heart, as a man who was always around, at best unobjectionably somewhere in public life, who rose eventually to Prime Minister, to President, and then to something like National Icon Nonpareil. By his arrival at President’s House, hardly anyone grumbled about his sovereign preference for the statelier “Arthur NR Robinson” over the too-familiar “ANR”.

 He also took silk, though his exploits as politician/statesman overshadowed those at the bar to which he had earlier been called. By then, his entitlement to such ranking pips was hardly challenged. T&T relished such conferment of homage on the last of its pre-Independence Oxbridge political eminences, who also looked the part.

Relatively late in his own career, economist Dennis Pantin discovered, and voiced admiration for, the Robinson 1971 book, The Mechanics of Independence.  Its republication in 2001 occasioned a flashback to the years when, as Finance Minister, he bestrode the T&T world of government and the economy.

Decades later, as Prime Minister also holding the Finance portfolio, he delivered the 1987 Budget that proved economically ground-breaking and politically infamous. “Gold and silver have I none,” quoth PM Robinson. It was one much-infuriating sound-bite, in defence of bitterly received austerity measures he adopted as bust conditions had    befallen T&T after the collapse of the preceding oil boom.

For the economic debacle, there was the international oil market, and PNM misgovernment, to blame. In the coalition politics that rapidly came unstuck, NAR leader Robinson proved helpless as, for a second time in his career, Indo-Trinidadian allies progressively “alienated” themselves, and regrouped under Basdeo Panday as the UNC.

“History would not be as kind to Mr Robinson as I had been to him,” said Mr Panday in his anti-eulogy “comment” last week. Despite initiatives at cohabitation, the two never got along, or not for long. In a combination that again ended badly, it was Mr Panday, who enabled the unprecedented rise of Mr Robinson, after the NAR’s 1991 electoral wipe-out, to Minister Extraordinaire and, shortly, to President.

T&T can pick and choose from the long Robinson career chapters and highlights to esteem or to condemn. Regionally, recollections will highlight the 1989 West Indian Commission he inspired for advancement of the integration project. Internationally, active advocacy in the name of Robinson will forever be identified with formation of the International Criminal Court.

 Among last week’s requiem “comments”, however, what stood out was a single, evocative, sound-bite. As principal hostage of the July 27, 1990 insurgents, the Prime Minister was ordered at gunpoint to call off the forces then encircling the Red House. Instead, he uttered into the telephone mouthpiece: “Attack with full force.”  

Immediately, his captors shot point-blank into his kneecap. He cursed them as “murderers! torturers!”, before they shoved a gun barrel down his throat to bring the man close to choking on his own vomit. The orgy of ill-use included pistol whippings, kicks, cuffs, Russian-roulette gunplay, sleep deprivation, interrogations, and yellings; and the hog-tyings of the Prime Minister and other Ministers left to lie in their own wastes. 

As the historical record confirms, the T&T public and the judiciary have had no heart to denounce, let alone punish, Robinson’s “murderers” and “torturers” as unmistakable perpetrators of evil, and no mind to recognise their acts as early expressions of jihadist terrorism. In the still-influential consensus, 1990’s bloody eruption marked condign punishment for the “insensitive” and hurtful economic policies of the Robinson NAR. 

What that says about T&T easily overshadows in my mind the heromyth of the celebrated Robinson soundbite that, as given by the Lord last week, made for a rare positive story, even as He taketh away the Icon.

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