Trinidad and Tobago: The Big Guy on a Difficult Block

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• Corruption is key factor in ouster of Trinidad and Tobago’s former Prime Minister.
• Landslide victory by UNC’s Kamla Persad Bissessar, as island swears in first female Prime Minister.
• Nation must expunge the deeply ingrained habit of corruption as well as a propensity for homicide.

Located at the southern tip of the Caribbean basin, the oil and gas-rich twin island Republic of Trinidad and Tobago (hereafter “T&T”) often referred to as the rainbow country, is known for its flamboyant mixtures of cultures and succulent culinary dishes. T&T possesses one of the highest per capita growth rates in its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the Caribbean region. T&T’s Gross National Product (GNP) has seen the increase of double-digit growth rates between 2004 – 2008, with an average per capita GNP growth rate of 16.4 percent during that period. The emergence of T&T in the regional vanguard of prime economic performers also has brought with it a number of distinct challenges and problems to be placed on the Caribbean area’s agenda, and especially regarding the case of T&T residents.

But T&T also has turned in a performance hugely scarred by corruption, drugs, gang warfare and indifference to the plight of its neighbors. This is why Kamla Persad Bissesar walked away with a brilliant election victory on May 24th in which her five-party coalition defeated the ruling People’s National Movement party (PNM) by seizing twenty-nine of the forty-one seats contested in the lower house. In this race, there was no question that the corruption spread by Patrick Manning’s shabby leadership was a key factor in his defeat and resignation. In addition, there is no certainty that the new PM’s rule under the People’s Partnership will improve the status of burning social issues affecting T&T.

Local hegemon or Caribbean Integrator? – The fractious evolution of the West Indies Federation into the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM)

Eric Williams, acclaimed by most of the island’s citizens as the “Father of the Nation,” is considered one of the most noteworthy leaders in T&T’s political evolution. Williams, a highly regarded intellectual, had led T&T into a joint Caribbean alliance aimed at creating the West Indian Federation in 1958. This federal structure was meant to assist self-governance through offering a peaceful and orderly constitutional path away from British colonial rule to independence. However, due to the deterioration of the federal structure and ongoing internal conflicts among the islands’ political leaders, Jamaica removed itself from the Federation, expressing its opposition to the proposition to strong federal government embracing all of the area’s English-speaking islands. Jamaica was also reluctant to bear financial responsibility for the smaller and less affluent Caribbean islands.

T&T followed suit in spite of continued efforts by Barbados Prime Minister Sir Grantley Adams to keep T&T within the Federation. Williams then pressed for his country’s complete independence after communicating to the Federation that “One from ten leaves zero,” symbolizing that we are not a Caribbean region without a comprehensive integration of all the Caribbean islands.

After the demise of the West Indian Federation in 1962, the leaders of T&T, Jamaica, Barbados, and Guyana convened in 1963, at the inaugural Heads of Government Conference in Chaguaramas, Trinidad. The islands wanted to explore the possibility of a relationship with Europe, Latin America and Africa. This eventually led to the creation of the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM), which eventually was comprised of 15 full members, 5 associate members, and 7 observers. The leaders also formed the Caribbean Single Market Economy (CSME), designed to create a single economic and trade strategy, providing for the free movement of goods, services, labor, and capital among member states. CARICOM’s goals point toward strengthening regional integration, creating sustainable development in the industrial, agricultural, forestry, fishing, and tourism sectors of market members. However from the start, the organization suffered from a lack of availability of sufficient resources and the relatively slow pace of foreign investment.

Critics of the status quo maintain that T&T is by far the greatest beneficiary of CARICOM. T&T’s dominance is sustained by the country’s own rich resources in the petroleum and natural gas sectors as opposed to the majority of CARICOM member states that lack extensive resources and heavily rely on the “sun, sand and sea” mixture of economic viability. The first half of the 2009 fiscal year saw T&T’s trade earnings deriving from the rest of CARICOM members grow to 39.2 percent as a result of its increasing petroleum exports. T&T’s dominance in the Caribbean’s economy is not a recent matter, but it is one that has long been on CARICOM’s agenda.

The smaller islands of the Caribbean belt, whose population figures barely surpass 500,000 residents, chronically face the lack of sustainable infrastructure along with a continual brain drain of emigrating skilled nationals. Most of these islands also depend upon single commodity economies, a state of affairs that may profoundly mar their respected economic prospects. One way for the islands to expand their single market economies is to request loans and credit lines from international lending agencies such as the World Bank (IBRD) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In efforts to avoid having further contract debt with these institutions and to aid the sale of bonds, these smaller islands have looked to Europe, the U.S., Canada, and to the larger and more affluent Caribbean neighbors to bail them out.

Caribbean Airlines-The Trinidadian Airline of the Caribbean

The financial pinch currently affecting the rest of the English-speaking Caribbean islands also has opened doors to Trinidadian investment. In a deal brokered this month, the T&T government-owned Caribbean Airlines Ltd. (CAL) took over the operations of Air Jamaica, which has accumulated losses of over US$1 billion in its 40-year history, including an estimated debt of US$330 million within the last three years. CAL will be in charge of supervising and flying Air Jamaica’s routes to North America and the Cayman Islands, as well as Bahamian destinations via the airline’s Montego Bay and Kingston hubs. The deal will allow the Jamaican government to acquire at least a 16 percent share in Caribbean Airlines.

According to a May 4, 2010 press release appearing in the Trinidad Guardian, then Prime Minister Patrick Manning told reporters:

We have been quite clear, there has been a take over of the profitable routes of Air Jamaica by CAL with the government of Jamaica having a 16 percent stake in the airline. We have always had that as an objective in mind. We started CAL with the objective for having it as a regional carrier. It is Air Jamaica and then after, Liat. This is standard practice.

This business model will not only strengthen the T&T’s control of the local skies but is also likely to end up increasing its hegemony over the entire Caribbean region. T&T’s measures of integral control fueled by its petroleum and natural gas industries will have the effect of drastically stifling the air traffic requirements of the rest of the region. Moreover, these actions by the T&T government do not necessarily demonstrate an effort to identify and provide leadership along with other English-speaking Caribbean islands. However, the creation of a cohesive regional Caribbean airline requires extensive funding from all Caribbean nations and not solely by the T&T government, with this issue now under review.

Foreign policy

Through its transition from an oil-based economy to one promoting liquefied natural gas (LNG), T&T has become extensively involved in a wide span of trade agreements with other governments. As a result, the island has become the fifth-largest exporter of LNG in the world and the single largest supplier of LNG to the United States. T&T provides two-thirds of all LNG imported into the U.S. since 2002, with that market receiving 33.2 percent (129.1 billion cubic feet) of LNG during the first seven months of the 2008/2009 fiscal year. Despite the island’s profound dependence on the U.S. market for its petroleum and natural gas exports, Port-of Spain has not been reluctant to establish strong economic and trade ties with Cuba.

The two countries signed a Cooperation Protocol trade agreement, which allows for the interchange of Cuban and T&T scholars to pursue tertiary and pre-professional programs at the University of Havana and at academic institutions located in the twin-island state. The agreement also makes way for increased relations in the field of medicine, through which Cuban doctors, nurses, and medical technicians assist in T&T’s health care workforce in return for the export of Trinidadian oil and other energy products to Cuba. Trinidad also has received guidance and assistance from Havana in the agricultural sector through the construction of the Tucker Valley Mega Farm Project that has created two large-scale commercial farms structured on utilizing innovative cropping techniques and sustainable methods in the Tucker Valley area near Chaguaramas.

In spite of past tensions regarding maritime boundaries and fishing disputes, T&T officials have established a close relationship with its 10-mile distant neighbor, Venezuela. On March 21, 2007, the leaders of the two governments convened in Caracas, where Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and former Prime Minister Manning signed a Framework Energy Agreement providing for the intersection of the countries’ adjoining hydrocarbon energy blocks. This agreement by no means managed to entirely eliminate nor resolve Manning’s continuing reluctance to unite the T&T petroleum market with Petrocaribe, an oil partnership with Venezuela and English-speaking Caribbean nations. The majority of these Caribbean islands, with the notable exception of Barbados, acquire oil, oil by-products, and infrastructural and developmental support from Venezuela, hence creating a singular challenge for the largest oil producer in the Caribbean, T&T.

A Failing Government

In the 2009/2010 budget presentation to the House of Representatives by PM Manning, who before his defeat also held the post of Finance Minister, laid out the future goals for T&T under the theme “Vision 2020:Strengthening Efficiency, Addressing the Challenges.” According to Manning, these positive steps would maximize the country’s use of its resources, strengthen its capacity, harness its potential and prioritize projects while improving the quality of service delivery to T&T citizens. However, Vision 2020 is already losing its clarity.

In an April 1, 2010 article, the Trinidad Newsday revealed the data gathered from a recent MORI Caribbean opinion poll, in which the former ruling PNM government “received unfavourable ratings for its management of the provision of basic public services. Eighty-two percent thought that the T&T government had done a poor job handling the issue of drainage, as well as wages (79 percent), roads (77 percent), food security (75 percent), health (74 percent), national security (72 percent), pollution (69 percent), electricity (68 percent), and the financial sector (67 percent)”. Then PM Manning was strongly criticized by the public for the government’s mismanagement of funds after it spent more than $1 billion during the global financial crisis to host the Fifth Summit of the Americas in April 2009 and the twenty-first Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in November 2009. Lavish public spending continued in the same year with the TT$148.1 million construction of the Prime Minister’s Residence and Diplomatic Center and the possible purchase of a private state-owned luxury jet. Apart from Manning, the former Sport and Youth Affairs Minister Gary Hunt also came under heavy fire for the construction of a TT$2 million giant national flag for the Hasley Crawford Stadium, meant to be a symbol of national pride.

The allocation of government expenditures came to the forefront of public attention at the same time citizens were waiting countless hours in public hospitals due to a lack of bed space, inadequate staff and dilapidated medical equipment. In addition to the rising cost of food, the public was outraged by a transportation system that poorly served the riding public, especially Trinidad, where the infrastructure already was in dire need of repair.

On April 8, 2010, Manning advised President Maxwell Richards to dissolve Parliament only halfway through the two-year period of authorized existence by the ruling PNM. This came following an imminent submission of a Motion of No Confidence by the then opposition leader of the UNC and now Prime Minsiter Kamla Persad Bissessar, against the PNM. Aside from the May 24th general election, in which Manning’s forces were crushed, Trinidad and Tobago has experienced four elections within the last ten years: in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2007. This election period significantly differed from the usual buildup of electioneering tension and the issuance of manifestos because last month’s election was predicted to have an extremely close outcome. However, the surge of voters to the polls, proved the analysts wrong. The PNM contested the elections against the People’s Partnership, a five-coalition party comprising of the UNC, the recently formed Congress of the People (COP), the Tobago Organization of the People (TOP), as well as the National Joint Action Committee (NJAC) and the Movement for Social Justice. In spite of the ensuing political fracas between the PNM and the People’s Partnership, the newly formed government must address issues of crime, corruption, mismanagement of public funds and spiraling healthcare costs.

From the land of Carnival and Masquerade to the Murder Capital of the Caribbean

The government’s purchase of offshore patrol vessels, six fast patrol crafts, four helicopters, as well as upgrades to the Special Anti-Crime Unit of Trinidad and Tobago (SAUTT), the Police Service, the Defense Force and the Prison Service, have not been able to appreciably lower the murder rate. Despite the increase in technology and weaponry, murders are estimated to surpass 2009’s figure of 509.

According to a May 14th article in the daily Trinidad Guardian, the United Kingdom government warned its officials and the traveling public that while in T&T: “You should be aware that there are high levels of violent crime, especially shooting and kidnappings.” A U.S. travel advisory on T&T expanded upon this: “Violent crimes, including assault, kidnapping for ransom, sexual assault, and murder have involved foreign residents and tourists, as well as incidents of armed robbers trailing arriving passengers from the airport and accosting them in remote areas.” Escalating crime has not only affected the tourism sector but it also has spurred the flight of a number of local business owners and their assets to North American and European markets.


During the last few administrations, the media described T&T politicians as greedy and failed political leaders with a vaulting thirst for power and little else. In last year’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), compiled by Transparency International, an international non-governmental organization committed to fighting global corruption, T&T came in at number 79 out of 180 corrupt countries. This placed T&T as one of the most corrupt of the Caribbean islands surveyed. Corruption is not a new seed that has embedded itself in Trinidadian soil; rather it is longstanding, widespread and rampant. For example, the 2002 scandal stemming from the construction of a new terminal at the Piarco International Airport resulted in several businessmen, as well as several key members of the UNC government to be charged with allegations of corruption in the construction of the US$262 million facility. In addition, then-PM and UNC party leader, Basdeo Panday, was charged with failing to declare a London Bank account to the island’s Integrity Commission. Over the last few weeks, former PM Manning had been in hot water for the appointment and subsequent spirited defense of Calder Hart, the former executive chairman of The Urban Development Corporation of Trinidad and Tobago Limited (UDECOTT), who was involved in the construction of numerous governmental projects. The Commission of Enquiry into the Construction Sector is currently investigating the discovery of a Malaysian connection between Calder Hart and his wife’s family to Sunway Construction Caribbean Ltd, the same Malaysian entity which was awarded the construction contract for the new Ministry of Legal Affairs tower in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. The airport scandal was a tumultuous cudgel in the 2002 reelection of the UNC; and as made official by the May 24 loss, it seems that the PNM now has suffered the same fate.

To a certain extent, T&T at times has asserted itself as a leading creative force in the Caribbean basin, fueled by the precious natural resources with which it is endowed. These frequently have lead to Port-of-Spain’s mounting hegemony among its Caribbean neighbors. Nonetheless, in spite of T&T’s external triumphalism in the arena of trade and economic relations, the last few decades has seen T&T frozen from its natural resources. At some point, this will lead to the T&T government bursting out in acts of arrogance that will be too egregious for society to countenance.

There is no room for doubt that T&T’s civic society has been traumatized by the spasm of corruption that it has gone through in the recent years. There is no reason to automatically have faith that social conditions under Persad Bissessar will improve. However, given the island’s recent history, it is some consolation that it cannot get much worse.