For those prepared to look as well as see, Trinidad & Tobago is a fascinating country. One steeped in history, rich in cultural variety; a land of contrasts that deserves far greater attention than it receives. For a nation with a stable economy, rich in oil and gas, with an undervalued currency it is currently experiencing events in its body politic that can truly be said to be shifting its tectonic plates.
The architect of this seismic activity is none other than Jack Warner, yes Jack ‘Teflon’ Warner of FIFA fame (or some might prefer infamy). Rarely in the history of the islands can one individual have caused so much excitement and anxiety. All the more remarkable as not so long ago Warner faced investigation and a degree of censure following on from a report compiled by the Integrity Committee of the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF). In many ways this CONCACAF report could be said to be the genesis of the political ructions being experienced throughout Trinidad & Tobago at the present time.
Whilst Warner is no longer a big shot at FIFA, he certainly wields enormous influence in the Caribbean and effectively bankrolled the United National Congress (the largest partner in the People’s Partnership coalition) in Trinidad & Tobago’s two most recent general elections. Ever the workaholic, the wealth of evidence he is believed to have amassed on colleagues whilst heading up the Ministry of Works and Infrastructure (ministerial portfolio with possibly the largest budget and the greatest scope for corruption), and latterly as Minister of National Security in the Coalition Government will no doubt prove a handy ‘insurance policy’ in these turbulent times.
The CONCACAF report has certainly proved controversial, especially in regard to the issue of the ownership of João Havalange Centre of Excellence (a 16-acre sprawl containing a conference center, football stadium, hotel and swimming pool) on Trinidad. Whilst Warner had remained defiant, the damning criticism contained within the report along with the news that his sons in the US had been placed under house arrest for a time and of his being investigated by the Federal Bureau for Investigation (FBI) for possible fraud and tax evasion caused Warner to consider his position. Realizing the potential gravity of the situation on 21st April 2013 he went to see the Prime Minister the Hon. Kamla Persad-Bissessar to tender his resignation as a Minister, MP and Chair of the UNC.
Ever the conviction politician, Warner believed that he should go back to electorate and allow them to pass judgment through the ballot box as they saw fit. With his being so pivotal to the UNC Persad-Bissessar told him not to resign, a decision he went along with and duly left only to see Surujrattan Rambachan, Dr Roodal Moonilal and Chandresh Sharma waiting to see the Prime Minister on his departure. Warner’s instinct told him that something was afoot, especially as there had been bad blood between Rambachan and himself (Warner having been instrumental in orchestrating a coup with the Opposition Party – the Peoples’ National Movement (PNM) that unseated Rambachan as Mayor of Chaguanas and replaced him with Natasha Navas).
These three figures, whom amongst others he has subsequently dubbed the Cabal (A cabal is a group of people united in some close design together, often by intrigue).
A few hours later that Sunday evening Warner received a communication from Persad-Bissessar informing him that she had decided to accept his resignation. That very night Warner cleared his desk and his resignation was duly made public the next morning. Matters were made all the more remarkable by the fact that breaking from the apolitical tradition of his post, the Police Commissioner Stephen Williams said after Warner’s resignation that he had been an “exceptional minister”. It is understood that the Prime Minister told Warner that in standing for re-election he was bound to win, yet whilst all the 31 UNC party groups in the Chaguanas West constituency chose Warner for their candidate, oddly the Executive of the UNC preferred not to have Warner as the Party’s candidate. A classic case of biting the hand that feeds you.
Going it alone as an independent can be a daunting prospect. Yet for a man who had always prided himself on being an accessible constituency MP, Warner appeared to relish his new found freedom. He resolved to found his own party, the Independent Liberal Party (ILP) and set about his campaign with gusto. Only too aware of his strengths, leading figures in the UNC preferred not to stand against him.
For an Afro-Trinidadian standing for election in a predominantly Indo-Trinidadian populated constituency he demonstrated considerable insight and understanding of signs and symbols. Choosing green as his party’s color was typical of his ability to read his electorate, green evoking the verdant landscape so precious to those of Indian heritage, a color that resonates readily with Hindu and Muslim alike. It is worth noting that green is also the color of the maxis, the minibuses that serve as the transportation of choice or necessity for many local people in Chaguanas. With oil and sugar cane featuring on the Party badge, here was further evidence of his appreciation of elements central to identity and prosperity in the past and present.
When it came to the campaign itself rather than denigrating the PM he opted not to criticize her, but rather to claim that she had been badly advised by the Cabal. His opponents naturally sought useful ammunition in the findings of the CONCACAF inquiry and report. The inquiry having been led by Sir David Simmons, a former chief justice of Barbados had found that on the balance of probabilities, that Warner had committed fraud and misappropriated funds. Preferring not to refute accusations in person Warner skillfully made use of lawyers who armed with a wealth of correspondence and documentation going back over several decades were able to pick holes in the report and suggest that he had in affect been ‘gifted’ the João Havalange Centre of Excellence by Mr Havalange for services rendered. As more and more evidence was wheeled out, Warner’s team were able to sow seeds of doubt that worked in his favor, they even managed to elicit considerable degree of sympathy for Warner.
Friend and foe alike are aware that Warner has a capacity for work comparable to the late Margaret Thatcher (a politician who in her prime famously survived on only four hours sleep a night). Only a few weeks prior to his resignation Persad-Bissessar had singled her Minister of National Security for particular praise – footage Warner and his team were happy to replay at every available opportunity. With the UNC’s campaign failing to make inroads, the Prime Minister took to describing Warner as a lagahoo – a creature from local folklore famed for staying up all night making mischief and dragging chains. Far from being offended Warner laughed off the supposed insult, believing that his nocturnal industry was in marked contrast to the poor work ethic of her closest advisors. His campaign was proving to be slick and engaging. His adept use of social media enabled Warner supporters to sign up for a free party card online (a first for Trinidad and Tobago). Particular emphasis was also placed on connecting with young voters with a ‘Youth for Warner’ campaign and a large green painted Hummer driving around the constituency featuring a picture of genial Uncle Jack and the chance to enter competitions to win prizes such as a ride in the said Hummer.
The Jack Warner juggernaut and his stunning victory in the bi-election on 29th July 2013 have resulted in a state of near panic for all the other political parties. Khadijah Ameen (UNC), his nearest rival for the Chaguanas West seat polled less than half the number of votes that Warner secured. In the course of campaign the UNC candidate’s medical records mysteriously made it into the public domain, a fact that seemed to confirm just how high the stakes were. For the UNC the psychological trauma of Warner’s triumph in a constituency in what was once viewed as its key heartland cannot be underestimated, it is already having far reaching ramifications. For the Congress of the People (COP), the junior party in the PP coalition there is a sense that they have become tainted by their association with the UNC. Some COP MPs and party members are increasingly critical of their party leader, Prakash Ramadhar.
The main opposition, the PNM is equally filled with doom and gloom. Warner and the ILP have demonstrated an uncanny ability to cross racial boundaries. The PNM has traditionally relied on its core voters hailing from constituencies largely made up of people with an African heritage, often from poorer districts such as Laventille. Neglected “eat ah food” areas (places where anyone prepared to give will gain support) have relied on meager support from the PNM, but with the party’s funds limited Warner’s largess or his ability to get things done looks set to change allegiances. This formidably shrewd political operator appreciates the fact that Trinidadians are generally impatient, especially of politicians and he has been quick to exploit this fact to his advantage. Friends and foes alike all agree that he is a man that makes things happen. All the political parties have finally begun to appreciate the gravity of what has taken place and emergency meetings have suddenly become the order of the day.
Even on the evening the result was announced three ministers in the PP Government chose to publically congratulate Warner something deemed an act of near treachery. Those three ministers: Winston Edward ‘Gypsy’ Peters (Minister of Culture), Fuad Khan (Minister of Health) and Anil Roberts (Minister of Sports) already look likely to jump ship. Recognizing Warner’s potential to wreak havoc the Prime Minister is believed to have offered Warner a place in the Coalition, something he rejected out of hand.
In such a small country it has not taken long for people to realize the enormity of what has taken place. Herbert Volney, MP for St Joseph has already resigned from the UNC and whilst an Independent at present looks set to join the ILP once the party has a constitution. Various UNC and COP councilors have already rallied to the ILP flag, and the Vice-President of the Senate (Lyndira Oudit) has resigned and been appointed Deputy Leader of the ILP. PNM MPs and councilors are equally nervous and whilst the PNM is endeavoring to stay calm they are aware that the shock waves of what is taking place are just as likely to envelope them as the Coalition. Donna Cox, the PNM MP for Laventille-Morvant is one of a number of PNM figures believed to be seriously considering joining the ILP. Even the relatively sleepy tourist idyll that is Tobago has not been immune to the reverberations. Insensitive remarks from some in Trinidad, especially referring to the Calcutta ship coming to Tobago has caused particular offense. The racial overtones of this remark have managed to touch a nerve with Tobagonians who are largely of African heritage. For all the general harmony across the country, the issue of ethnicity and race remains a problematic one, especially as there is a perception that the Government in Port of Spain has presided over the Indianisation of many ministries and public offices.
The current bacchanal is being enjoyed by the media, with much coverage appearing largely sympathetic to Warner. There has been degree of schadenfreude about the Coalition’s discomfort, something that has been made all the sweeter as in the past the Government has used the power of the purse in regard to advertising to thwart those whose journalistic endeavors were not to its liking. Whilst the economy appears unaffected at present, there is growing anxiety, especially in regard to job security both the public and private sector. In recent years people have been hired on short contracts and the Ruling Party/Parties have appointed their own people. The private sector is jittery about contracts with the Government, especially if there is the risk of a change of administration. So sensitive have things become politically that the Prime Minister is fearful about calling the local elections. In the current febrile atmosphere the word on the street is that the Coalition Budget on 9th September 2013 is likely to offer sweeteners in order try and win back support. As for the Great Machiavellian himself, Jack Warner is probably busy working every hour God sends working on his game plan to ensure that one day he becomes Prime Minister of Trinidad & Tobago. His artful machinations might just become a textbook example of how to achieve and maintain power. Love him or loathe him, one thing is for certain and that is Warner’s ingenuity and zeal must never be underestimated.