Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Blessings, brother


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I attended the recent thanksgiving function to celebrate the ongoing recuperation of Patrick Manning since his stroke one year ago. It was moving. I saw courage and resilience facing an enormous challenge; a will summoned, fighting the biggest battle of his life. The grit endures.

How difficult it must be. To be at one moment large and alive, striding the stage almost like a colossus; and then suddenly.... altered. Life is fragile. Manning is fighting this to the end and we should all wish him well.

However it is obvious the sun is setting on a long political career. Indeed even before the illness, Manning himself often acknowledged he is in the "departure lounge" and in his final term in Parliament. So at the thanksgiving, I couldn't help reflecting on the career of this man with whom I worked for much of his 25 years as a pivotal figure in our country.

Like most leaders, Manning made errors large and small. But he also did much good. History will judge him. Today, as he fights to recover, I choose to remember positives in the career of our former prime minister. I think ultimately his achievements will render historical assessment in his favour.

Manning took up leadership of the People's National Movement after its devastating defeat in 1986. Rejecting advice to pursue his professional career, he turned his face towards the scattered wreckage of the PNM that lay before him from Cedros to Scarborough. He summoned his sinews and sounded the trumpet. Without his effort the PNM could have died. The party had won only three seats through Manning, Morris Marshall and Muriel Donowa-McDavidson the trio like flotsam after a shipwreck on the high seas. They had to face an overwhelming government bench of 33 NAR parliamentarians, many arrogant and venomous, all hungry to grind the PNM to dust. Everywhere, the talk was "poor PNM, poor Patrick".

But they underestimated Manning. The grit surfaced; the inner certainty became evident. He had heard the message of the electorate and the PNM had to change. New management came with Lenny Saith, the first "Indian" chairman of the PNM. Fresh talent was placed in the Senate; a new think- thank emerged that included Saith, Keith Rowley, Ken Valley, Augustus Ramrekersingh, Colm Imbert, Ralph Maraj and later John Eckstein. Manning infused his entire team with his confidence, devotion to the cause and his remarkable capacity for hard work. In my various careers, I have not met a harder worker than Patrick Manning. He was tireless.

The party gradually revived. Structures were strengthened, diverse membership increased and Manning ensured a modernised vision in "Perspectives for Trinidad and Tobago in the eighties and beyond". The party again had message and mission. It started a drumbeat, and the adrenalin kept increasing. Hundreds of meetings were held throughout the country. Stirring speeches were made, substance and new direction presented, and the population gradually started listening. The giant was coming back. The party began to move more and more like a mighty army on the march. Manning had pulled back the PNM from the precipice of annihilation. It was historic. Victory came in 1991 and Patrick entered the portals as prime minister for the first time.

He met dire conditions. We had a dying economy, the highest level of unemployment ever, over 35 per cent of the people in poverty, IMF conditionalities presiding, and the social fabric severely weakened by the attempted coup of 1990. The nation was stuck deep in the mud.

Manning immediately moved towards the modernisation of the economy: dismantling protectionist barriers to trade and investment, rationalising the state enterprise sector and floating the currency, signalling to the world the country was open for business. He initiated the lucrative LNG industry that has fuelled national development ever since. Confidence and foreign investment returned and after ten negative years, our economy grew in 1994 and became increasingly strong for over 15 years after that. Between 2001 and 2007 growth averaged 8.3 per cent. By 2010, the economy had tripled in size from $55 billion to over $165 billion and attracted more than US$12 billion in foreign investment. Reserves increased to US$11 billion and the Heritage and Stabilisation Fund grew to $19 billion, 13 times more than in 2001.

And the prosperity percolated throughout. We achieved historic levels of employment, a 100 per cent increase in per capita income, lower taxation, tax exemption for 300,000 low income earners and increased wages and pensions. Poverty levels dropped by half to 16.7 per cent by 2010.

Under Manning, the UTT was established, tertiary education made free and university enrolment increased from 9,000 in 2001 to over 50,000 in 2010. Over 150,000 individuals acquired technical skills. Over 20,000 housing units were built for lower income families; and over 600,000 persons benefited from free medicines for common ailments. Manning built the NAPA-north and south, Hyatt Hotel, international financial centre, government campus buildings, the Chancery Lane facility, Churchill-Roosevelt/Uriah Butler overpass and the Prime Minister's residence and Diplomatic Centre.

He established the water taxi service, the waterfront project, the Brian Lara Promenade and much more. He left office with much in the pipeline including an aluminium smelter and off-shore patrol vessels to fight the drug trade. Diversification was underway with recently opened plants for melamine and Urea Ammonium Nitrate, and growth in the information industries and new targeted areas: film, entertainment, printing and packaging and merchant marine.

And, under Manning, for the first time in our history, former government officials, including a prime minister and cabinet ministers, were charged for massive corruption, the same individuals now set free by Section 34.

As Manning fights to recover, it is helpful to remember. Blessings, brother.

* Ralph Maraj is a former

government minister