Workers left jobless by the 2003 closure of Caroni (1975) Limited have become more hopeless as the present People’s Partnership administration succeeded that of the People’s National Movement, which had dropped the axe on the sugar industry.
The rightful expectations of the former Caroni workers, judicially affirmed since 2007, have remained in frustration, leading now to threats to withdraw electoral support from the Kamla Persad-Bissessar-led coalition. The Government’s two-part response appears to be that work is proceeding, however slowly, to deliver the residential and agricultural lands promised under the separation settlement; and that farm production has been growing along with consumption of locally grown food. Impressively expanded crops of cabbage, dasheen, pumpkin, tomatoes, cassava and sweet potato have been utilised in the School Nutrition Programme – at least, that is the claim of Food Production Minister Devant Maharaj, who also boasts about displacement of imports.
Such outcomes, however, impress neither the Caroni ex-employees awaiting their lands, nor the people represented by Trinidad Unified Farmers’ Association. The Partnership, as it faces multiple and increasingly severe re-election challenges, cannot afford to feel comfortable about any assurance of support from the south and central voting blocs on which it has traditionally counted. Indeed, the closure of Caroni Ltd was most likely determined primarily by political considerations rather than financial factors.
The entity had been a multi-million-dollar drain on national coffers for decades before Basdeo Panday became prime minister in the 17-17-2 electoral outcome in 1995. As the long-time leader and virtual guru of the sugar workers, Mr Panday was best placed to oversee the necessary closure and restructuring of Caroni Ltd, but he failed to take any action during his tenure. That no doubt was because proper policy would have been politically problematic for Mr Panday, who would have been seen as betraying his loyal followers.
For Patrick Manning, who entered prime ministerial office in 2001, the political calculations were entirely different. Mr Manning most likely assumed that dismantling the sugar workers’ main source of employment would have little or no effect on votes for the PNM, and the resulting disintegration might even weaken the United National Congress, whose base lay in this community. Be that as it may, both Messrs Panday and Manning miscalculated, as shown by their later defeats electorally and within their parties.
Now UNC leader Persad-Bissessar has to make her own assessment. The new militancy expressed on behalf of ex-Caroni workers, now about 5,000 strong, should not lightly be discounted. The People’s Partnership administration, identified with promises of improved handling of the cause of former Caroni workers, had better hasten to close that decade-old file, to the satisfaction of people left for too long out in the uncaring rain.