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The talk in town

By Raoul Pantin

 “A Lot of things are said in the public space and there is no way you can prevent someone under the conditions of free speech from saying what they think or feel, but that doesn’t make it true.”

—Planning Minister Dr Bhoe Tewarie on allegations by Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley of corruption in the $1 billion contract award to construct the Beetham Wastewater Recycling Plant.

It was Dr Tewarie who also noted: “Allegations are allegations, but they do damage. What they do is bring the whole government under suspicion.” He added: “I will be frank with you. It is a source of disturbance to me. The truth is allegations have to be addressed on the basis of fact.”

The problem is, there are simply so many allegations flying around at the moment that the facts are probably having a very hard time catching up. 

In truth, if there’s one valid reason for transparency in public affairs and for government officials to be open and honest with the public on any number of especially controversial issues it’s the fact that without proper information, people will talk and speculate and arrive at their own conclusions, no matter how twisted or bizarre.

I have been led to thinking about this after travelling regularly by taxi and listening to people discuss any number of issues. 

One of them, and a hot topic at that, is that multi-million dollar cocaine bust in the United States—i.e. a container filled with cocaine hidden in orange juice cans bearing the label of a Trinidad manufacturer and which was shipped from Trinidad to the US.

Since then there’s been a lot of speculation about American Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents arriving in T&T in pursuit of that investigation—and denials, from people like politico Jack Warner, that they have ever in fact landed here and are doing any kind of investigation.

Minister of National Security Gary Griffith, normally a very loquacious man, has repeatedly refused to comment on this, other than to say that the investigation is continuing.

But are there any reputed “big fish” about to be netted? Has there been any real information first on how the cocaine was brought into this country (Trinidad and Tobago does not produce cocaine, a product for which neighbouring Colombia is well known) and secondly, who was responsible for packaging it in the cans, loading up the container and having it shipped to the United States?

And to whom was it consigned, reportedly in New York?

In the absence of official word on any of this, the talk in town, which I have heard openly discussed by ordinary people, is that the son of a top Government official  is involved.

In which event, the talk in town is that said official’s son is virtually untouchable because of who his father is and therefore the DEA, or whoever, is simply spinning top in mud.

In talking about this particular issue and speculating on who might be involved and how high up their connections go, one gentleman said to me plainly: “I don’t trust any of them”, meaning Government officials whose credibility, to say the least, is highly suspect.

Or as another wit put it to me last week: “The only ‘big fish’ we know about is to be found in the Gulf of Paria so he, or she for that matter, will never be caught.”

As for the issue of “corruption” in high places, people generally appear convinced that this is a rampant activity among members of the present Government, with names being called right, left and centre— which, of course, I dare not repeat since, as the other town saying goes, I don’t have court clothes.

I would like to commend the Prime Minister for setting up the Commission of Enquiry into the 1990 coup attempt. I have read sections of its report, submitted to the President last week, and I think it is a very valuable historical document that will provide generations of citizens of this country with a clear perspective on exactly what transpired during those dark days in 1990  and why it needed to be nipped in the bud, as it were.

I’ve heard some people dismiss the report, coming nearly 24 years after the initial event, as  “a waste of time and money” but that, to my mind, is a very ignorant view. We needed this kind of exhaustive investigation of the events of 1990 in order to get a clear understanding of what was involved and why it should never be allowed to happen again.

But the Prime Minister, I must admit, is one of the main targets of the town mauvais langue which constantly derides the state of our politics and indeed constantly points to  the very parlous state of our republic.

The general speculation has to do with deep disappointment in the Prime Minister’s handling of government affairs since coming to power on a wave of high public expectations in 2010.

“I am so terribly disappointed in her,” is an oft-repeated comment on Mrs Persad-Bissessar.

That disappointment, and a general sense of disillusionment with the powers-that-be, was amply reflected in any number of critical calypsoes during the just-concluded Carnival season.

Again, I won’t repeat some of the more scandalous talk in town I constantly hear about Mrs Persad-Bissessar and some of her, shall we say, bad habits.

Suffice it to say that if the Prime Minister’s credibility among members of the general public is not yet at an all-time low it is not very far away from getting there.

All of which is very relevant of course because by May next year the Government would have completed its five-year term in office and must face a new general election, the final outcome of which at this stage is anybody’s guess.

It will be interesting to see the reaction of the general public to that call by the trade union movement for a protest march against the Government on May 23. You can’t help but wonder if the trade unions aren’t hoping that a Venezuela-style protest movement will erupt here, with disastrous consequences for the Government.

It should also be noted that some of the talk in town I have heard about Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley is not very flattering either. But the focus of the “bad talk” has been on the Prime Minister and members of her administration.

I don’t know exactly what can be done to reverse or at least stymie this trend—other than the Government taking a decision, and implementing it, to be frank and open with the general public on any number of current issues, especially the more controversial ones.

The alternative, mark my word, will be a continuing slide downhill in the Government’s public image with the inevitable disastrous results come election time.

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