By David Jessop
When large numbers of Trinidadians and Tobagonians living abroad come together in the same room to speak truth to power, the event is bound to be a lively one.
They had assembled for a rare Diaspora meeting with the country’s Prime Minister, Keith Rowley, at a central London hotel.
Those of you who know the impressive Trinidad and Tobago High Commission building might wonder at the choice of location. But when you saw the near-300 attendees who had come from different parts of the UK, you realised that the mission really did need a bigger room.
Guests were unhappy about the very long line for security and other checks. They had expected to walk in for a glass of wine and a chat before the meeting, in the style of the usual High Commission gathering – the kind of hospitality Trinis expect.
But this was intended to be a far more formal event. After an hour’s wait for the start, guests were then asked to put their cameras away as the hotel didn’t allow photos in that room. Media interview requests had been blanked by the High Commission in advance and all were asked to stand as the prime minister and his entourage entered.
It didn’t stay that formal for long. These are Trinidadians (and Tobagonians) and they were determined to have their say.
Frank economic outline
Prime Minister Rowley pulled no punches in outlining Trinidad & Tobago’s economic position after a prolonged period of falling oil prices. Once an oil-rich country, Trinidad & Tobago now earns much more from natural gas, but even so, the price of gas has fallen as precipitously as oil.
The T&T leader and his Commonwealth delegation had spent the pre-CHOGM [Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, 16-20 April] period talking with the companies vital to the country’s gas and oil production: Shell on Monday and BP [British Petroleum] on Tuesday.
The importance of these meetings to the PM and the country can be judged by the fact that he chose to send his foreign minister to meet UK host Prime Minister Theresa May, as that session at which the British leader apologised for the treatment of Windrush victims clashed with the BP meeting.
Later, back in T&T to underscore what he believed was the wisdom of his decision to have talks with the oil giant, Prime Minister Rowley announced that the country would receive a TT$1bn cheque in back payments from BP.
While still in London, Dr Rowley told nationals: “These [negotiations to renew contracts now coming to an end] are critical. We are mainly a gas-producing country now.”
He added that the discussions had gone well and “rectified some of those legacy issues”.
Prime Minister Rowley outlined how his government had struggled with a 2015 budget based on oil prices that had since fallen – and how his administration had been forced to take tough decisions to cut Trinidad’s cloth to suit.
“Nobody makes themselves popular by taking away what people had become accustomed to,” he explained.
Dr Rowley and his Energy Minister, Franklin Khan, have previously put some of the blame on the energy giants themselves. They argue that transfer pricing, a system in which multinational corporations transfer the value of their products to low-tax jurisdictions, has robbed T&T of billions of dollars.
The prime minister told his Diaspora audience that, against falling revenue, there had been continued claim on the public purse for those “unable to look after themselves” and expectations from the labour movement that his government would rectify “what had been done” under the previous administration.
However, he said a 5% wage settlement with the powerful Oilfield Workers Trade Union (OWTU) had been all his government could afford. “We can’t settle anywhere near their expectations,” he explained.
On the continuing reform of state-owned oil firm Petrotrin, Dr Rowley said that it had not responded to the fall in oil prices and his administration had been forced to “rectify issues in that company” to make it sustainable. Petrotrin is carrying billions of dollars in debt and its ageing infrastructure is in desperate need of replacement, with foreign investment being an obvious solution - a proposal that the OWTU firmly resists.
To cut public expenditure, his government had removed some contracts and started at the top in government by removing discretionary spending and having fewer ministers. “We handled it without any disruption and around the wider national interest,” he said.
The upcoming mid-year budget review, he said, seemed “a bit better”. Over the last couple of months, oil and gas prices have inched up and Finance Minister Colm Imbert is now projecting economic growth for 2018 to average between 1.5% and 1.8%. This, he says, has been the result of increased production and export of natural gas over the last 12 months.
While education had always been the priority call on the public purse, Prime Minister Rowley said that national security “is now our number one call on our revenue”.
Over the past 10 years, violent crime in parts of the country has resulted in hundreds of murders, quite a large percentage of the killings being gang-on-gang revenge killings and turf wars. However, only 20% of murder investigations result in successful prosecutions. Checks by Caribbean Intelligence indicate that crime, as a major social concern, has an undoubted negative impact on business and investment.
“We have not been able to appoint a police commissioner in five years, in a crime wave,” said Dr Rowley, adding that service commissions set up to protect institutions at the time of independence shut the prime minister out of the appointment process.
The prime minister has expressed disappointment in the past that sufficient numbers of sufficiently qualified and experienced Trinis abroad have not applied for the job of commissioner. On this occasion, he appealed to the Diaspora around him to consider doing some of the jobs back home, using the expertise they had gathered in the UK over the years.
Turning to tourism, he outlined plans to market Trinidad and Tobago as separate products: “Trying to market them together, we don’t get the best out of that at all.” Succeeding governments over a 25-year period have talked tourism, but have failed to get the industry off the ground. The latest attempt is the much-mooted arrival of the Sandals holiday resort chain in Tobago, which the prime minister said was still in the pipeline, despite having been delayed by Sandals’ 2017 hurricane setbacks in other parts of the region.
Dr Rowley saw benefits for Trinidad and Tobago arising from the Commonwealth leaders’ summit, such as a range of partnerships in health, aviation and agriculture that he had discussed with India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. One health project in the pipeline will be the introduction of the teaching of traditional Indian medicine at Couva Hospital in central Trinidad.
Not all woe
The Trinidad leader often used a common touch and won applause from the Diaspora audience, taking questions from the floor on a range of topics including:
Dr Rowley also said that he had been frank with other countries about the impact of their travel advisories damaging his country’s reputation abroad.
He also got some applause in outlining plans to change the gaps in existing legislation which currently does not allow Trinidad and Tobago to prosecute people for crimes committed abroad, such as fighting with ISIS in Syria.
Dr Rowley told the Diaspora meeting that “an upgrade” in legislation was in the “not too distant future”.
Following another question, he also explained why his government was appealing against a High Court ruling against the country’s laws on buggery. The courts have ruled the law to be unconstitutional. The ruling now allows for anal sex between consenting adult males and adult males and females in the privacy of their homes. However, the government has made known its intention to challenge the ruling up to the final court of appeal, the Privy Council in Britain, as a large portion of the population disagrees with the ruling of the local court.
Trinidad, like a number of other Caribbean countries, has found that LGBT citizens now live in their Diaspora communities in the UK and the US, hence the interest at this London meeting.
The prime minister took still more questions as the hour grew late, leading to some older people and those with work the next morning starting to leave. There was increased heckling of those asking lengthy questions or making statements from the floor. The rising noise levels from the meeting clearly left the security team, mission staff and hotel management looking distinctly uncomfortable.
Diaspora members started to offer their services in the law, health, ICT and other areas. By the time Dr Rowley was ready to leave, the London hotel protocol had broken down and it became a truly Trini affair as people shook hands and took photos with him.
By then, all bets were off on the hotel policy of no photos. Phone cameras whipped into action as his security looked on, doing the best they could in the circumstances.
Afterwards, despite the late hour, some people wandered through to the refreshment area. Tea, coffee and donuts were available, just in case the Diaspora hadn’t taken on board the message that Trinidad & Tobago is no longer oil-rich.
Debbie Ransome is the former head of BBC Caribbean. Tony Fraser is a freelance Trini journalist who has worked for local, regional and international media.