Chasing shadows in the dark

By Michael Harris

Ever since I began writing this column in January of 2008, I have tried, in my last article of every year, to give some sense of what I could discern ahead for our country in the coming year. In so doing, notwithstanding how difficult things were in the country, I was always able to offer to my readers reasons for hope in the signs and portents that I could see.
Today, as I try to look ahead to the coming year, two things stand out. In the first place much of our future is impenetrable. The darkness is pervasive. This, in itself is not unexpected. I have argued before that as the chaos gets progressively worse it would become much more difficult to make any sense of events or even simply to anticipate such events.
But as uncomfortable as it is to view the darkness ahead, contemplating the shadows cast by that future darkness into our present is infinitely more depressing. It is not that there are no signs pointing the way ahead; rather, it is that all the signs tell a tale of unrelieved gloom in which hope lies dying.
In terms of our politics it is certainly a case in which, in the words of the poet, “the worst are full of passionate intensity”. This People’s Partnership administration, led by Kamla Persad-Bissessar, has succeeded in reducing the practice of government in this country — which was never something we could be proud of — into an unseemly orgy of greed, corruption and venality without conscience or limits.
As we enter into the New Year, which in political terms we should measure as being 17 months since the campaign for the next general elections will straddle both 2014 and 2015, the prospects are that the excesses of the administration will only get worse as it strives desperately to win a second term in office.
That gloomy perspective is in no way relieved when we contemplate the alternatives. Jack Warner (and his ILP) never was and never could be the path to our salvation. He is pure, naked, ruthless personal ambition untempered by any vision or values. And who is so mad as to argue that Jack, Ramesh and Panday together spell anything other than an unmitigated disaster for this country?
Which, at this point in time, leaves us only the shadow cast by the PNM. It is enough to make the angels cry. The PNM, and more specifically its political leader, did have the opportunity, post its massive defeat in 2010, for re-engineering and rebuilding to make the party relevant to the needs of this country.
Indeed, Dr Rowley did indicate early that such was his intention. In an important interview with Ria Taitt of the Express published in December 2010, Dr Rowley talked about his desire to change the delegate system because “it doesn’t give you the broadest democracy, because ……. it is easy to manipulate and dominate”. He also spoke then of curbing “the power of the political leader in dominating the organisation”.
Do not get me wrong. It is not that Dr Rowley was wrong about these things. He was not and indeed in relation to the delegate system he has kept his word. The problem is that Dr Rowley was never able to see the issue whole. His viewpoint was limited and thus his approaches were entirely piecemeal.

The result is that, in spite of those changes which have taken place in the PNM, the core of the party and its dominant ethos remain the same as they have always been. It is a cult organisation, without a national perspective, and thus is incapable of delivering good government.
The entire prospect is so depressing that we are reduced to wishing with the poet that, “Surely some revelation is at hand”. Except that if it is, I freely admit I lack the foresight to see it.
But the problem posed by our politics is only part of the gloom that lies ahead. Even greater dread stems from the contemplation of the prospects in the economy and the society.
The economy of Caricom is in shambles and only the perversely ignorant would imagine the T&T economy will stand in splendid isolation, unaffected by the economic implosion taking place around us. To the decimation of our most lucrative markets for our non-oil exports we must add the increasing desperation of our search for markets for our oil and gas products.
Abundant production from and reserves of shale oil and gas have changed the pricing regimes and the market configurations of the international oil and gas economy. In this new configuration T&T is not in a strategic position. The prospects are that we should be preparing ourselves for greatly reduced levels of revenue from the oil and gas sector, and perhaps, by extension, our entire off-shore sector.
When we combine such gloomy prospects in both the offshore and on-shore economies and we consider such developments in the context of the horrendous mismanagement of national expenditure which has taken place over the years the implications are frightening.
The specific issue revolves around the fact that some 50 per cent of national expenditure (amounting to some $23 billion) goes to transfers and subsidies. This country now runs a massive welfare system which benefits all sectors of the society, rich and poor alike. The Inter-American Development Bank has estimated that “Trinidad and Tobago has an extensive social protection system with more than 120 programmes”.

Such a level of welfare expenditure is even now unsustainable (we are borrowing to finance our budget deficit) but when the negative effects on our revenue streams are felt, and we face the prospect of reducing and removing levels of subsidisation to which the population has grown accustomed, then shall our chickens come home to roost with a vengeance.
(A clarification: It has been brought to my attention that in my article last week entitled “Absorbing Caricom’s pain” what I wrote in the third to last paragraph could give the impression that migrants to this country from other Caricom states come to enjoy the extensive welfare services available here. It was pointed out that not only was I wrong but I was helping to feed an unfortunate stereotype. I agree. The recent increase in Caricom migrants to this country comes as a result of the shortage of labour in our semi-skilled and unskilled service industries. That such migrants may or may not access some of our welfare services is not a reason for them being here. If I offended anyone I unreservedly apologise.)
May I wish all of you peace in the New Year.

—Michael Harris has been for many years a writer and commentator on politics and society in Trinidad and the wider Caribbean.
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