Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Why I wrote PM

Dookeran: I felt it would have been a tragedy if a protester would die protesting without someone trying to intervene and save his life


AN ISSUE OF HUMANITY: Winston Dookeran

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Flashback May 16, 2010: Then political leader of the Congress of the People Winston Dookeran and United National Congress leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar acknowledge their supporters at the People's Partnership's Rally For Change at Constantine Park, Macoya. —Photo: CURTIS CHASE

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The loss of human life can erase any political gain.

Already faced with a burdensome crime situation, the potentially willful death of an Oxford-educated professor in protest at the Prime Minister's door would have been untenable for the duration of the People's Partnership's Government's term of office.

That was the realisation that caused Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Dookeran to issue a public statement at variance with the administration's position last week.

"A man put himself at risk and was prepared to die for that issue. I felt it would have been a tragedy if a protester would die protesting without someone trying to intervene and save his life. To me, it was an issue of humanity. But it had political implications. People tend to respond to the politics of the situation and ask which side are you on," explained Dookeran.

It was a hunger strike to prevent a highway but it hijacked a nation for 21 days. Environmentalist Dr Wayne Kublalsingh's hunger strike to protest the construction of the Debe to Mon Desir section of the $7.2 billion highway from San Fernando to Point Fortin, gave Dookeran cause for concern.

Dookeran, who'd announced the highway in his 2010 budget, was sound in the logic that it would open up the southwest peninsula of Trinidad for development.

In his 30 months in Government, he has never publicly disagreed with the People's Partnership administration on controversial issues which have ranged from the questionable appointment of Reshmi Ramnarine as Security Intelligence Agency (SIA) chief, to the Section 34 debacle to his own re-shuffle in the Cabinet.

Enter Kublalsingh.

While out of the country, Dookeran issued a statement and appealed to Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar for compassion.

In an exclusive interview with the Sunday Express at his Foreign Affairs office in Port of Spain last week, Dookeran explained why he chose to speak out on this issue and not the others which had come and gone before.

He did not link the highway with the hunger strike but focused on the strike itself.

The rationale for his intervention was that humanity trumped politics.

"The truth is, I don't know if I am on any particular side on the issue. I've made it clear that the call for compassion was not in any way affronting the PM's right to authority. When it became a human issue and a man was standing up for what he believes in with the risk of dying I thought (that) would not be good for the nation," he explained.

Cognisant of the country's history after the 1990 attempted coup and the scars left behind, Dookeran said he did not know if the country would have recovered from another stain if Kublalsingh had died or if the government would have survived its duration in office.

Dookeran acknowledged he was familiar with the Kublalsingh family who the Sunday Express understands have been supportive of his idea of new politics when he'd launched the Congress of the People (COP).

But that wasn't the basis for his appeal for compassion.

It was merely the man and his mission.

And while he admits he is frequently "agitated" by the noises which emanate from the country, he considers Kublalsingh an aberration.

Unlike other politicians Dookeran's not keen to cause confusion in the public.

He observed the country requires stability for any economic growth and public utterances must be judicious.

How then does he stand up to issues? asked the Sunday Express.

"You stand up by what you do," he responded, "I make my views known. I don't think you should publicly be at variance with your government. A government must be stable. I have two responsibilities—to keep the government stable and also to guide society on the right path. I can't do one at the expense of the other."

Asked whether such positions perpetuated the assumption that he was a weak leader, Dookeran shrugged.

"I have always been criticised as being a weak leader. The concept of strength is in big voice. My concept of strength is in what I do," he answered.

You're okay with that criticism? asked the Sunday Express.

"It's not well founded," he dismissed.

"This country is accustomed to a bad-john kind of politics, a bad-john kind of culture. I sought to build a political party devoid of prejudices in what I called new politics," he opined.

When he was moved from his position as Finance Minister in June, Dookeran easily morphed into his new Ministerial appointment without murmur.

"There were some fallout in terms of the COP perspective of it being a demotion. There was some fallout in the Caribbean region because they saw the movement as a less influential position and they had warmed up to what we were doing. And that is the truth. There were fallouts in those two counts. The Minister of Finance had more power," he said.

But he reckoned it was a natural movement to work on the country's image internationally. As far as he's concerned, he's laid the foundation during his two years as Minister of Finance to move the country away from the fiscal cliff in which it was headed.

"I firmly believed in the logic of what I was doing. My economic logic and my political logic coincided. Logic is not something you can create. Logic is there," he stated.

The resolution of the CLICO issue, he believes, will help the economy move forward in the next two years.

"In the end you do get the credit but you're not going to do it for applause to start with in the first place. The country is in a safe place financially. The systemic risk in the banking sector has been removed. The debt situation has not become worse. But it is probably going to become worse," he said.

But he's aware that there's brewing dissatisfaction with the Partnership by the populace. He said the country's path to nationhood had led the population to shed the monolithic political system to a multiple political vision system.

"In the same way the country was in search of another kind of expression of multiple political visions and that is why they bought into the Partnership," he observed.

He argued, T&T cannot hide behind the excuse that it's a relatively young democracy.

"I think that some people use it as an excuse to say we are young. I think 50 years is not young. You ought to fix up a few things in 50 years," he said.

But he recognises that changes in the system are often difficult to make, explaining the challenges to public sector reform and the legal constraint to management.

"When we accepted independence we accepted a control system that was concerned about control than performance. A control system that's further controlled by our legal system. There are legal obstacles to development that makes it impossible to move forward without changes in the legal framework if you believe in the rule of law," he said.

In his view, there are three hurdles which the country needs to cross before it can expect a different form of governanc: Constitution Reform, Procurement Legislation and Legislation on Campaign Financing.

He said if those three things can be achieved in the short term, the country would not be held to ransom by entrepreneurs.

"The Economist magazine recently coined a new phrase to describe businessmen around the world who benefit from government contracts, calling them 'tenderpreneurs'. See Page 12.

"There are always interest groups that are affected negatively by positive change," he said.

"Entrepreneurship is very fertile in T&T. It is done on the basis of ethnicity, on the basis of culture and on the basis of religion. They use the power that they have to advance their entrepreneurship.

"I always say the winners are not yet born. The losers are here now, they can talk. The winners are the next generation. Nobody is going to take the babies and form a trade union."

Questioned whether he thought racism was seething beneath the surface of the country, Dookeran said he did not think the country was fundamentally racist.

"I don't see that. There's entrepreneurship. The groups form themselves and the protagonists of those groups are entrepreneurs for State funds because of the dominance of the State in providing support for everything. That is what you see coming through and is interpreted as racism but it is not. It is entrepreneurs competing for State funds and they position themselves to do so," he said.

He explained, the political system has been fed in the past on the basis of ethnic division.

"Then there are political entrepreneurs which exploit that division so they go and make a speech in certain areas and they appeal to the natural ethnic divisions. And that's easy to do because of group identity. There are political entrepreneurs in our scene and the most powerful politicians are those who can exploit the political entrepreneurship and now that's a numbers game," he said.

"So if you view these things as entrepreneurship, one for the sharing of State wealth and two, for the acquisition of State power. Political entrepreneurs look for State power and they use it. This country is not fundamentally racist from my experience over the years," he said.

Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule.

"There are prejudices. There will always be prejudices in any society, everywhere you go but the State itself must be above it. The State, in the discharge of its functions must not be party to those prejudices. This is how I see it," he said.

He credits his present philosophy to time.

"I was never against anyone making a case for their people. That is their legitimate right. I was never against Sat Maharaj (secretary general of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha). I supported him for his case. I didn't agree with him taking his case and extending it to society. That's how I see it. I support the Emancipation Committee and what they are doing but I don't think they should use that to hold the entire government to ransom," he said.

He conceded there were questions being raised about the ethnic compositions of State boards.

"If you go into office with a goal to undo the neglect of the past by creating neglect for the future, you're in trouble. People say the public service is dominated by Afro-Trinidadadians. It's an historical phenomenon. The situations have been set up to perpetuate it," was all he would offer.

But in his view, the country's greatest short-term challenge was dealing with the crime scourge.

"It's not a problem that can be solved overnight but it must be a problem that is solvable and can be solved," he said.

He said while there are some results, it's not as fast as a civilised society would like it to be.

He said he had agreed with the 21st Century Policing initiative which former commissioner Dwayne Gibbs had sought to introduce into the local police force because he felt it was a new direction in engaging the communities.

"We are building a society on protest rather than a society on engagement," he said.

However, as has repeatedly happened, development became subservient to interest groups, he lamented.