The first time I came across heavily armed soldiers standing at nearly every street corner while the civilian population went about its ordinary business was on a visit to Caracas nearly 40 years ago. At first I was really taken aback and then I thought: well, this is the Latin American model.
It was a model in which it was virtually a rule of thumb that the army regularly overthrew civilian governments or if not certainly played a key role in backing whichever government was in power. It was a model in which the word “revolution” figured prominently. It was a model to which the word “unstable” was regularly applied.
We in T&T back in 1972 or thereabouts were into the British model. Police officers patrolled our streets. Soldiers were confined to their barracks—unless called out to deal with national emergencies, like the Black Power upheaval in 1970.
“And then there was a mutiny in the army.”
What I also recall of that period of unrest was a military tribunal made up of officers drawn from the British Commonwealth which was selected to try the 1970 army mutineers because, it was so rationalised, only such a tribunal could be truly objective” in delivering judgment on those errant soldiers.
And I clearly remember one Col Theophilus Danjuma, who chaired that Commonwealth tribunal, telling the mutinous soldiers at the start of the proceedings: “Where I come from, if you fail in a mutiny you are shot!”
Not long after that Col Danjuma was recalled home—I believe it was Nigeria—where there was a successful military coup and he was to play a key role in the new military government.
Eventually the rebel officers of 1970 were freed after they successfully argued that there was “condonation”, or approval of their actions, by their then commanding officer. Following which the lower ranks were also freed and that was the end of that military episode in our early post-Independence history.
Thereafter our soldiers remained confined to their barracks—and only came out to defend our democratic way of life, as they did during the attempted coup of 1990.
But this is 2014. And it seems we are stepping in line with the Latin American model because armed soldiers can now be seen almost anywhere you turn and especially in the so-called “hotspots” and there is clear conflicting sentiments among members of the public about the presence of those soldiers, soldiers everywhere.
I have read stories in the Express quoting the residents of some “hotspots” praising the fact that the army presence has made it possible for children to play in their streets again and indeed made residents feel safer in going about their everyday affairs.
But travelling in a taxi recently I heard a woman passenger, a resident of one of those communities, complain bitterly about the presence of those soldiers, especially after one of their own was murdered. In her view the soldiers had taken to regularly roughing up residents of her community and generally throwing their weight around.
“They taking advantage of innocent people!” she claimed.
It’s important to point out that Venezuela first brought its soldiers onto the streets to help put down violent crime—but that has hardly been the result. I saw a recent statistic that said in Venezuela a murder occurs every 21 minutes.
National Security Minister Gary Griffith has earned himself some opprobrium by virtually declaring “war” on the criminals in our midst, following PM Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s promise to “unleash the dogs of war”.
But is winning that “war” by the use of more and more deadly force really likely? Or are we going to find ourselves more and more deeply embedded in the Latin American model of murderous violence begetting more murderous violence?
Yes, we have to be tough in dealing with the criminals in our midst but bear in mind the old saying that “an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind”.
I fear, unless the Government takes some very urgent and seriously creative steps to curb this runaway crime spree, apart from simply unleashing the “dogs of war” and following the Latin American model, we are going to be simply spinning top in mud, the “dogs of war” attracting more and more murderous assaults on our population.
Clearly it’s time to really think this whole thing through and come up with a truly workable plan to save the population from the ravages of runaway, murderous crime. Mark my word.