Balisier House has some merit as architectural heritage. But it is terribly inadequate as the seat of a modern political party. Since the early 90s, there was talk of reconstruction. I know; I was there. Nothing happened. Even as it retained some of its present character, it should have been transformed into a modern headquarters with administrative offices, auditorium, library, archives, conference rooms, party school and even a restaurant for conviviality and discussion of national affairs; a place alive and for all to visit, including children and foreigners, to learn of the country's oldest party and further understand the nation's history. Such a Balisier House would have provided inspiration to the PNM in its present condition. It may even have prevented its 2010 disaster.
Rienzi Complex is another story. That building belongs to the sugar union. The UNC is a squatter there. This party does not yet have its own place! Shame! It could be booted out any day! I was there also, so I know that the party's executive met in some poky room downstairs; whilst larger meetings were held in an airy half-walled upper floor, accessible to traffic noise from the McBean Stretch outside.
Imagine having a meeting punctuated by trucks roaring like hoarse dinosaurs through your discussion. Today the building looks old, weather beaten. Rienzi Complex is a decidedly uninspiring structure, architecturally tasteless and bereft of beauty.
Thanks to Basdeo Panday who once led both union and party, the UNC found shelter there. But it should have had its own space. Not in Port of Spain as three infamous financiers suggested after 1995, to "widen the party's national appeal''. So shallow! That suggestion is a philistine dismissal of history, typical of the intellectual proletariat in this country. The UNC headquarters should be constructed where the party was born on the Caroni/Naparima plains. Its accessibility must be a function of vision, principles, policy and legacy; not just location. The message must bring the masses.
It is scandalous that both headquarters are so shambolic. Balisier House looks dignified from the outside, but diminished by that disproportionately huge and garish billboard, incongruent on its small front lawn. Inside is cramped, almost claustrophobic, with inadequate office space, narrow corridors, near primitive bathroom facilities and an unconvincing staircase leading to an open hall upstairs.
Archives apparently constitute a few old photographs hanging here and there. To a passerby, the building appears lonely and disconnected. Indeed, Balisier House is alive only when the politicians are present. I remember in the 70s, asking directions to get there, certain it was one of the best known places in Port of Spain. Most folks couldn't help. They knew how to get to the Hilton and now the Hyatt but not the headquarters of the party that advanced democracy like no other in Trinidad and Tobago. Love or hate the PNM, Balisier House should have been a landmark, a beacon; a place of respect for what it means in the nation's development. But it is all fading fast.
We cannot afford such negligence. Whether they endure or disintegrate, these parties already have deep historical significance; the PNM founded in 1956 and the UNC in its third incarnation since the DLP. They originated as vehicles for the deliverance of formerly dispossessed peoples. They have been the two most important institutions in this country, providing governance, however imperfect, since 1956.
Both are responsible for much of the good, bad and ugly of the past 50 years in Trinidad and Tobago. Some argue that most of both credit and debit goes to the PNM's account since it ruled for the majority of that period.
But the present state of Balisier House and Rienzi Complex speaks volumes of use and abuse of the PNM and UNC. Eric Williams and to a much lesser extent, Panday, deserve some exoneration. Williams founded the PNM with philosophy, principles, constitution and structure. He established Balisier House. But it is under him, the PNM stopped being a movement, morphed and remained an election outfit. The focus became government, not party; power, not politics. "And not a damn dog'' dared bark without consequences.
Similar strains in the UNC. After Panday became prime minister, his life's ambition, the passion for "struggle'' disappeared. He now consorted with the very "parasitic oligarchy'' against whom he had rallied. He took up golf; he became more socialite than liberator.
Like Williams, he turned a blind eye to thievery in his administration, ignoring three ministers who resolutely called for a commission of enquiry into corruption until his government collapsed. Panday failed to save his prime ministership. He left with the UNC still squatting at "Rienzi''.
Since the Williams and Panday eras, commitment of the political top brass to the parties have been largely ritualistic. That still obtains and today the passion survives mainly among the rank and file who continue to see these outfits as instruments of individual and tribal deliverance.
Poor people and their PNM and UNC: forever "young ambition's ladder'', "the base degrees'' by which politicians, their friends and family ascend to feast and fatten; and sometimes scatter, from on high, baubles and crumbs to the gaping multitudes below. Sad.
Our political parties have been derailed by our very politicians. After noble birth, they became mere machines, revved up for elections, but "morgues'' afterwards, footstools of maximum leadership, with no independence; never able to cry halt to 50 years of glaring corruption from Lock Joint to Piarco Airport; or prevent Section 34, or hold accountable, even now, those responsible for its passage and proclamation.
Didn't Kamla and Keith agree to set the accused free? And have we heard a peep from either PNM or UNC? No wonder Balisier House stands sepulchral and Reinzi Complex still has a squatter.
• Ralph Maraj is a former