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Trinidad & Tobago elections December 10

Acrimonious campaign marked by infighting and a split in ruling party with widespread charges of corruption.

© By JOHN COLLINS

The people of Trinidad & Tobago (T&T), the twin-island country in the southern Caribbean which is rich in oil and natural gas, go to the polls in elections Dec. 10, which have been called four years early.

The campaign has been marked by acrimony and a breakup in the ruling United National Congress (UNC) party as well as widespread charges of corruption in it. Most observers are indicating that the election will be very close with a number saying it could be the closest ever.

Elections were not constitutionally due until 2005 but Prime Minister Basdeo Panday last month advised President A.N.R. Robinson, the T&T President, to call them earlier after infighting in the UNC led to a breakup between the prime minister and Attorney General Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj. Maharaj had been joined by two other members of Parliament who had also become disenchanted with Panday. The three then approached the opposition  People’s National Movement (PNM) to form a coalition. The PNM is headed by former Prime Minister Patrick Manning who is now the leading contender against Panday. Panday’s response to Maharaj’s move was to preempt him by advising the President to call the early elections.

The country’s Parliament has 36 seats of which the UNC held 19 and its control is viewed as in jeopardy and predictions are that it could lose seats. Panday, who is 68 years old,  is a high-strung and flamboyant personality whose health has not been well – he has twice had heart surgery. The British-trained lawyer is famous for his erratic and unpredictable behavior marked by bizarre outbursts. But he gets high marks, even from his detractors, as a leader who has harnessed the country’s potential and managed the oil and gas boom. Manning is a 55 year old geologist. A professorial type, he had a reputation as the longest serving parliamentarian (since 1971). He is not a dynamic personality and is even considered lackluster but he has a reputation as a good manager who surrounds himself with a good team. He has a reputation for not rocking the boat.

The most recent elections were last year and they were very close and dragged out over weeks because of court challenges involving two disputed candidates who had dual-nationalities. In a country where the political and ethnic balance is almost evenly divided, the worse case scenario would be a split of 18 each for the two major parties which could lead to a coalition with a much smaller party, the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR).

The campaign has been dominated by the charges of corruption in the ruling party and the protracted acrimony. The worldwide recession and the decline in oil prices has many people nervous and there is considerable uneasiness over the possibility of devaluation of the T&T dollar which is currently pegged TT$6.25 to US$1. Unemployment is officially 12.8% but much higher among youth and the rural population.

Libyan connection?

One worrisome aspect is a group of Black Muslims, the Jamaat al Muslimeen, headed by Yasin Abu Bakr, a former Trinidadian policeman. He is notorious for mounting an attempted coup against the government in 1990 in which the Parliament was attacked and occupied. Before the assault was over the prime minister at the time, now President Robinson, was shot. What followed was looting and fires that caused millions of dollars in damage.

Prime Minister Panday has on several recent occasions accused Abu Bakr of attempting to overthrow the government again, a charge he has denied. The controversial personality has caused considerable concern because of several trips to Libya this year where he is reported to have two sons studying under Libyan scholarships. While he brags about his admiration for Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, he denies receiving financial support from him.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is reported to have sent teams into T&T and several other countries to identify persons who trained in terrorism in Libya and who may in some way be linked to criminal mastermind Osama bin Laden.

Among the 548 foreigners being held by the U.S. Immigration & Naturalization Service (INS) on immigration charges in connection with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. While they are described by the INS as from dozens of countries around the world, the agency declines to identify any of them. Sticking out among the detainees by nationalities are “two Trinidadians.”

Reports from Trinidad indicate Abu Bakr is being low-keyed during the closing days of the campaign.            

T&T became independent from Great Britain in 1962. It is renowned for its annual Carnival and having given the world the current Nobel Prize winner in Literature, Sir Vidia Naipaul, and the melodic sound of steel band music. When the country was founded by Columbus it was inhabited by indigenous Indians but soon there after various colonial powers brought slaves from Africa for the sugar-based economy. Following the emancipation of the slaves in 1834 indentured farm workers were brought from a number of places including Portugal, China and India.

Today the ethnic balance in the country is almost evenly divided between two large groups of blacks and the descendants of the East Indians and the remaining smaller groups of Portuguese, Chinese, Arabs, indigenous Indians and Creoles. The population is 1.3 million is overwhelmingly concentrated in Trinidad. Both islands have a total land mass of 1,980 square miles which is mostly in Trinidad while Tobago has only 117 square miles.

The diversified economy of T&T is an impressive one. Although T&T’s population is half that of Jamaica (2.6 million), the largest country in the 15-member Caribbean Community (CARICOM), its gross domestic product is larger ($7.2 billion compared with Jamaica’s 6.5 billion). That translates into a per capita income of $4,725.

Exported $2.3 billion to U.S. last year

Because it is rich in oil and natural gas, T&T is one of the two countries in Latin America and the Caribbean (Venezuela being the other) with which the U.S. has a trade deficit. Last year T&T exported $2.3 billion dollars in goods to the U.S., dominated by oil and natural gas products, up considerably from $1.3 billion in 1999 and $971 million in 1998.

Exports from the U.S. to T&T in 2000 were $1.1 billion, up from $785 million in 1999 which was a contraction from $983 million in 1998.

December 1, 2001

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