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Tobago in the spotlight

By Kim Boodram

NOTHING overshadows crime and a dismal economy like political elections.

Tobago has been thrown into campaign mode—with all its hilarity, mudslinging and even some innovative advertising—with the announcement in December 2012 of this month's elections for the control of the Tobago House of Assembly (THA).

This came after a year of tug of war between THA Chief Secretary Orville London and Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bisessar, where London claimed gross disrespect was shown to him and to the people of Tobago on several counts.

On January 21, the People's National Movement (PNM) and Tobago Organisation of the People (TOP) will face off, amid promises by the Prime Minister of more money and more autonomy for Tobago from her coalition People's Partnership Government, which includes the TOP.

Persad-Bissessar also announced late last month that the Constitution (Amendment) (Tobago) Bill, 2011, will be laid in Parliament during the election season.

More schools, more hospitals and more jobs are some of the plums she has dangled for residents of the sister isle, also promising regularisation and more land for Tobagonians.

In the 2009 THA elections, the battle for control of the Assembly was considered a close one, given the fact the TOP was a new party.

The PNM took home eight of the 12 seats to retain control of the THA.

While this current fight may be as interesting, as the TOP promises to drag into the light a series of irregularities in the operations of the THA, an Express visit to Tobago last November showed most residents interviewed to be loyal to London.

Many called him the "godfather" of the island, one known to all communities and a man thought to be selfless and sincere in his vow to protect and develop Tobago.

With a number of improprieties appearing to plague the People's Partnership Government, one stood out—the premature declaration of Section 34, which was seen as a gateway that would allow some alleged friends of the United National Congress (UNC) to escape corruption charges.

Tobagonians who spoke to the Express were adamant that Section 34 was too bitter a pill for them to swallow and even some who admitted to voting for the TOP in 2009 promised to stain their fingers for the PNM this time around.

The perception ran rife that the sister isle had been used by the Partnership to gain office and that the real intention was to claim the land for the party and its close supporters.

Two articles for the "MP Monitor" series—where the Sunday Express sought the views of Tobago residents on the performance of their MPs, Dr Delmon Baker in Tobago West and Vernella Alleyne-Toppin in Tobago East—indicated that they seemed to have lost much support.

Alleyne-Toppin's reputation was hurt by a scandal in May, when she was accused of using a State-issued credit card for purposes not in keeping with the rules of the card. The card had racked up a bill of $17,000 for what were said to have been personal purchases.

Alleyne-Toppin , up to November when she spoke to the Express, defended herself, saying she will one day be vindicated and shown to have been cleared of impropriety.

The damage had been done, however, and Alleyne-Toppin, who had returned the card, was later fired from her post as Tobago Development Minister, with the portfolio given to Baker by the Prime Minister.

Up until the announcement of the THA elections, crime and a flatlining tourism sector were soaking up most of the attention on the sister isle.

Tobago recorded its first homicide for 2012 in January, when a 29-year-old Trinidad sheep farmer, who was shot during an attempted robbery in late 2011, succumbed to his injuries.

Keegan Boxie, of Palmyra Village, San Fernando, was shot once in the abdomen by a man who had earlier pretended he had sheep to sell but later tried to rob him.

The incident occurred on December 20, 2011, at Mt St George.

In May, three Tobagonians found themselves in the Scarborough Magistrates' Court to answer to charges of murdering a Point Fortin man on May 5.

Marlon Kerr, 39, an Unemployment Relief Programme (URP) worker of Patience Hill; Anderson James, 33, a landscaper, of Orange Hill; and Sherry Scott, 28, a landscaper, also of Orange Hill, Tobago, were charged with the murder of Sherwin Anthony Richards, 46, of Point Fortin.

The victim, who was stabbed in the neck, was at the time employed at the Orange Hill Ice Factory.

In September, Veronica King, of Mason Hall, was found dead in her Smithfield, Scarborough, garden, bearing chop wounds to the neck.

The peaceful Buccoo area also saw a dreadful crime unlike anything it had experienced—with a December murder/suicide.

Burlinda Solomon-Sobers, 36, was chopped to death at her Orchid Lane home by a former lover, Daniel Benjamin, who then killed himself by ingesting a poisonous liquid.

The woman's 13-year-old daughter also sustained chop wounds in the attack, but survived.

Tobago also saw its own economic decline, as the number of visitors dipped to its lowest in years—down 75 per cent since 2005—leaving many of those dependent on tourism facing near-bankruptcy.

Calls came from every quarter for Tourism Minister Stephen Cadiz—who inherited the situation when he became Minister in June 2012—to revive the industry, which accounts for about US$2 billion of the economy.

Job losses, closed restaurants and hotels, and a drying-up of downstream industries had begun to hit the island hard by the third quarter, with only a slight improvement recorded for the winter season.

While there was brief triumph for the Government in June with the re-opening of Magdalena Grand, formerly run by Hilton, one of the expected benefits of the hotel was lost when Virgin Atlantic announced it will pull its direct flights to the island later this year.

It was announced in December that negotiations were underway for a direct flight from Scandinavia during winter months.

It was in July that Cadiz declared a need for at least US$300 million to promote the tourism product, including Tobago.

Cadiz said at least six more hotels the size of the Magdalena were needed to meet room stock needs.

There was also some drama generated by inclement weather, when heavy winds and rains in August and December brought on a few landslides and blocked roads east of the island.

In August, an islandwide blackout caused some nervous excitement for about half an hour and raised concerns about operations at Cove Power Station, which generates 64 megawatts of electricity on the sister isle.

And December finally brought an end to years of waiting for the complete availability of the new Scarborough Hospital,

Started in 2005, the hospital at Lambeau was mired in controversy and accusations of corruption. It was partially opened in April 2012 by the Prime Minister.

The Tobago Regional Health Authority moved in 85 supporting staff to work in the space provided by Nipdec.

When fully operational, the hospital is expected to carry a staff of 1,559—384 more than that at Scarborough Regional Hospital at Fort King George.

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