The 1990 attempted coup could have been averted had the then National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) government acted on information contained in a newspaper article published in April of that year, mere weeks before the tragic event occurred.
The article, based on information provided by a then senior Customs and Excise (C&E) official, detailed the chain of events relating to the arrival of a container, in which the arms and ammunition later used in the attempted coup had been landed in Trinidad and unloaded.
Customs and Excise had adopted a policy position—following a heavy influx of containers which had posed a cargo examination and, therefore, clearance problem at designated ports of entry—that some of the containers would be allowed to be taken to warehouses operated by consignees.
In April of 1990, a container was offloaded at a port, and a Customs and Excise officer was reported to have directed that it be taken immediately to the warehouse of the importer where its declared contents would be examined. The article noted the officer accompanied the container to the warehouse, examined and cleared its cargo. According to reports, the C&E officer allowed no one from his section, other than himself, to view the unstuffing of the container.
Regrettably, according to the high-ranking C&E officer who had supplied the information, none of the declared cargo was in the container but rather a consignment of arms and ammunition, which was immediately removed from the warehouse and taken to an undisclosed destination.
For the record, the senior C&E officer who made available the damning information once held one of the three highest positions in Customs and Excise. He was understandably outraged that no official action had been taken with respect to the officer who had cleared the illegal consignment of arms and ammunition but to tracking down and confiscating the shipment.
As a result, he had called upon the eventual author of the article, whom he had known for close to four decades, to expose what had transpired and assist in heading off what he had seen clearly as a potential threat to the security of Trinidad and Tobago, and the welfare of its people.
He referred to the 1970 Black Power uprising, which had been fuelled by an illegal shipment of arms and ammunition, and the needless immense suffering this had caused the citizens of T&T. Meanwhile, although the ranking C&E official did not know it then, most of the landed weapons, not unlike the situation of the 1970 Black Power uprising, had been obsolete.
But obsolete or not, their power to intimidate was real as would be seen when gun-toting insurgents stormed the Red House, the nation’s seat of government, on that fateful day, July 20, 1990. Without question, the person who would author the newspaper article had agreed to write it and so alert the NAR government, officialdom generally and the people of Trinidad and Tobago of the gathering storm. But the year 1970 was history, and any talk or written report of an impending outburst was dismissed.
Unfortunately, there would be no positive action or hint which would suggest officialdom had acted. This despite the C&E official’s insistence that relevant persons in his division were in possession of damning information about the arrival, offloading, taking away of the arms-and-ammunition-filled container to the consignee’s warehouse and unstuffing of its contents.
Had such a chain of events taken place now, with today’s technology, the events of April 1990 would have been recorded by cellphone camera and streamed to the public. The July 1990 incident would have been forestalled as not only would the importer have been arrested and charged but the Customs and Excise officer who gave instructions for the container to be taken to the warehouse and supervised its unstuffing would have been disciplined.
Meanwhile, although the technology was not available then, Customs and Excise, the protective services and the Government could and should have acted.
Ironically, the Customs and Excise official who briefed the writer of the expose was himself nearly taken prisoner during the attempted coup when insurgents rushed up Abercromby Street to Radio 610, in a bid to silence a lone, defiant radio voice. The head office of Customs and Excise was located at the corner of Abercromby Street and Independence Square.
George F Alleyne