ANR Robinson: An integral part of T&T politics
By Debbie Ransome
Arthur Napoleon Raymond Robinson, who died at the age of 87 on 9 April in Port of Spain, was a player in many of the key developments that formed the political scene in Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean region.
From West Indies Federation to the first House of Assembly in his native Tobago, from prime minister and then president of the republic of Trinidad and Tobago and as global player who pushed for the establishment of the International Criminal Court, ANR Robinson did it all.
He is best known internationally as being the Trinidad prime minister held hostage during an attempted coup in 1990.
He is also known as the first active politician to become president of the republic of Trinidad and Tobago, largely a ceremonial role before his time.
In his proactive role as president between 1997 and 2003, ANR Robinson sparked off debate about whether Trinidad and Tobago was moving towards an executive presidency.
With a classic political carving PPE degree from Oxford and his time at the London Bar in the early 1950s, Arthur Robinson went on to have a high-profile political career right the way through to his retirement as President of Trinidad and Tobago in 2003.
After returning from Britain in the 1950s and working as a lawyer, ANR Robinson was elected to the short-lived West Indies Federation in 1958 – the region’s first attempt at political integration.
Moving into national politics, he became the first finance minister in the newly-independent Trinidad and Tobago government and, from 1961 to 1967, was responsible for the establishment of the country’s post-colonial financial landscape.
After this, he also gave time to build up the role of his native Tobago, making sure that it did not get lost in the agenda of an increasingly oil-rich Trinidad.
After moving away from what went on to become the six-term rule of the People’s National Movement (PNM), he was to re-enter national politics in the mid 1980s.
When a chance came to break the two-party, race-based political landscape in Trinidad and Tobago politics, ANR Robinson was chosen as the leader of the newly-formed National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR), which surged to power in 1986.
However, the hurriedly-formed NAR coalition started to show its splits rapidly, alongside the introduction of a series of unpopular economic measures, part of an IMF restructuring package, that left the NAR government reeling.
By 1990, some of the parties that had come together to form the NAR started to pull out their key players, regular protests against public service cuts became the order of the day and the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen believed that the government could be toppled.
The attempted coup in July 1990, in which ANR Robinson and members of his government, other members of parliament and media workers were held hostage, became global news.
It is at this stage that I have to admit my personal dealings, which told me so much about the core nature of ANR Robinson, beyond the politician.
ANR Robinson had always been the gentlemanly-type Prime Minister who, during his White House-styled regular press briefings, would single me out as the only female journalist in the room to ask the first question.
Even at the height of the NAR government’s problems, when many wished that the media would go away and stop reporting their problems, ANR Robinson was always courteous to me and my colleagues reporting for an overseas audience.
At the height of the July 1990 attempted coup by the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen, I had been sleeping at my desk, watching for every movement from the windows of the embattled Red House, Trinidad and Tobago’s seat of parliament, where ANR Robinson and other MPs were being held hostage by the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen.
When my phone rang, I was asked to hold and the next voice was ANR Robinson.
“Miss Ransome, how are you?” he asked me.
After getting over the shock that this was undoubtedly the voice of the Trinidad leader I knew to be held at gunpoint across the road, my response was: “More to the point, Prime Minister, how are you?”
During the ensuing interview with Prime Minister Robinson from his hostage position – conducted for my then employers, the Caribbean News Agency, CANA – I had little time to think about the opening of that conversation.
However, with hindsight, it has come to sum up the gentleman politician I grew to respect and admire over the years.
ANR Robinson was, despite the rough-and-tumble of modern-day politics and even with a gun against his head, a gentleman.
Another enduring element of ANR Robinson’s career was his love of his native Tobago.
As well as his work on Port of Spain’s national political scene, he always made time to make sure that Trinidad’s sister island was never neglected.
Among his many firsts, he was the first chairman of the restored Tobago House of Assembly.
During his time as prime minister, in many state visits by international heads of government and heads of state, included in the official itinerary of the usual Trinidad-based duties, a summit in or visit to Tobago would always be a part of the official visit.
Many global leaders would find themselves in a convoy of official vehicles being guided around the beautiful island of Tobago before returning to Port of Spain to sign hemispheric trade deals.
One colleague said after his death that ANR Robinson had put the “and Tobago” in Trinidad and Tobago.
Outside the national political arena, ANR Robinson pushed vigorously for what became the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Members of the ICC still attribute the revitalisation of the idea of a post-World War II, post-Cold War global court to a speech ANR Robinson made to the UN General Assembly in 1989, putting the idea back on the global agenda.
Alongside former Nuremberg Prosecutor Benjamin Ferencz, ANR Robinson spent many years championing the need for an ICC.
He served as a director of the Foundation for the Establishment of an International Criminal Court for more than 15 years, breathing new life into the global court concept, which came to fruition with the establishment of the ICC in 2002.
It was something that ANR Robinson always spoke of fondly after the ICC was put in place and had started its work.
ICC president Judge Sang-Hyun Song said in 2011 that ANR Robinson had been the “grandfather of the ICC”.
Mr Song told a 2011 seminar in Trinidad on the day that the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi that “the idea of creating a permanent international criminal court that would prosecute and punish would-be perpetrators went up and down, up and down and when this idea was brought up”.
He added that “before we engaged in any meaningful discussion, the Cold War froze the entire idea for decades and as soon as the Cold War ended it was President Robinson of this great country – who was at that time prime minister – who spoke up in relation to this idea for the first time.”
The order of the Caribbean Community (OCC) was awarded to ANR Robinson in 1998.
Caricom said on 10 April: “He is revered as one of Trinidad's outstanding political leaders, whose vision and dream was for the political emancipation of his people from the grips of colonialism and their social and economic well-being.”
Tributes came from the global community, from Caricom and across Trinidad and Tobago’s political spectrum.
The International Crimincal Court (ICC) hailed Mr Robinson as the 'Godfather' of the global court for his early lobbying.
As Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean held a five-day state funeral for a veteran, it was clear that once again, ANR Robinson had lead the great and the good, even in death, back to Tobago for the final assignment on his statesman's itinerary.
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By Jabari Fraser