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He cast a giant shadow

By Raffique Shah

 Ray Robinson was the most titled politician in the history of Trinidad and Tobago: President of the Republic, Prime Minister, Chief Secretary of the Tobago House of Assembly, and for good measure, Chief Olokun Igbaro of the Yoruba people.

But he was not the most successful, certainly at the polls. He was King of Tobago but a knave in Trinidad. In fact, he was a Tobagonian politician whom Trinidadians loved to hate. 

PNM diehards had the worst things to say about him when he broke with Dr Eric Williams in 1970, and never forgave him for what they saw as treachery. “Did you know he was plotting to overthrow the Doc?” they would ask, without a shred of evidence. 

Basdeo Panday and his Indian diehards believe he was racist—you should see some of the comments on the blogs after his passing.

In 1990, when Robinson, in the face of an attempted coup, proved his mettle as a courageous and patriotic leader, a large number of citizens, maybe the majority among the population, police officers included, wondered aloud why the Jamaat al Muslimeen insurgents did not kill him.

Personally, I would rate Ray as the most principled political leader who assumed high office in the country. He possessed great intellect and could never be accused of being corrupt or having condoned corruption, which was quite extraordinary in a society that judges its politicians by degrees of corruption.

In this regard, Williams and George Chambers failed to rein in the excesses of the many thieves, big and small, who plundered the public purse for three decades under their watch. 

Panday presided over an even more corrupt administration, and under Patrick Manning, the looting continued unabated. The least said about the current administration, the better.

Many argue that there was little or no corruption under Robinson because the Treasury was empty and there was nothing to steal. Maybe.

As a revolutionary who refuses to compromise the values and principles I have held for some 50 years, I see Ray, like others who have held the highest offices, as someone who could not shed the colonial mindset, whatever his pronouncements to the contrary. He was conservative to the core. But that was hardly a sin in a post-colonial world in which “massa gone, but massa dey”.

If anything, the post-colonial, neo-liberal world has become more unequal, man has become more inhumane towards his fellow human beings, and satisfying the insatiable greed of the few supersedes meeting the basic needs of the many.

 As someone who was there when Robinson rose to prominence, I should intervene to set the records right based on my knowledge of what transpired post-1970. In 1976, when the ULF transformed itself from a labour fraternity to a political party, we in the leadership did not think we could defeat the PNM, especially as the oil dollars flowed from 1974, and for Williams, money was no problem.

We identified three organisations that we felt we could work with, and sought alliances with them. These were NJAC, Tapia and Robinson’s DAC. NJAC said it had no interest in electoral politics: later, it would contest the 1981 and 1986 elections and lose disastrously. Tapia insisted it would run alone, which it did.

I was involved in talks with the DAC (Robinson did not participate). After several sessions, the DAC made its final offer: the ULF would contest ten seats, six in our stronghold, four elsewhere. That was unacceptable to us, so those elections saw as many as eight candidates contest most seats. 

Predictably, the PNM won, capturing 24 seats to the ULF’s ten, with Robinson and Winston Murray taking the two Tobago seats for the DAC. In Parliament, we worked with Robinson, especially when he fought passionately for greater autonomy for Tobago. With the establishment of the THA, Robinson resigned from Parliament and successfully contested the 1980 THA elections.

I was not actively involved in 1981 when Karl Hudson-Phillips and the ONR stormed the political stage. A depleted ULF worked out an alliance with Tapia and the DAC, but in the face of the ONR onslaught, the Alliance captured only ten seats, with the ONR gaining more votes (91,000 to 88,000).

I was not involved, too, in the formation of the NAR in 1986. An analysis of its runaway success at the polls will show that the party-of-parties needed all its constituent parts and Robinson’s leadership to win those elections. Panday and Hudson-Phillips brought the most votes to the pot. But either one as leader would have hampered the party’s chances since the population at large did not trust them with power.

They needed Robinson, the most neutral, acceptable leader among them. So Panday did not quite make Robinson Prime Minister in 1986 the way Robinson made him in 1995. And when Panday made Robinson President in 1997, it was his way of “kicking Robinson upstairs”, out of harm’s way—only Robbie would return to hurt him in 2001. Panday and his supporters never forgave Robinson.

This bright but simple Tobagonian certainly cast a giant shadow over the country’s political landscape for five long decades. 

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