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Tobago and the MV Port of Spain

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

It may well be that by the time this column goes to print there would have already been a number of letters of resignation/dismissal notices on several desks, both at the Ministry of Works and Transport and at the Port Authority.

We may also speculate that the prime minister’s proposed August 21 meeting of stakeholders represents an implied deadline for adoption of voluntary exit routes, pending action on the multiple loose ends of the ferry fiasco. And, believe me, the word “fiasco” provides a mild description of the developments we have witnessed in recent weeks.

We teach our children that actions have consequences. At minimum, what we face is sheer incompetence; at worst, a case worthy of criminal investigation. In both instances, the impact of the sea-bridge fiasco constitutes felonious negligence. All concerned need to go.

The case for the removal of senior state functionaries, has already been made by more than one commentator and substantiated by the kind of dogged investigative reporting politicians often call for but don’t really want. In the end, it will be proven that it was journalism and not corporate grace that led us here. But that’s another story for another time.

I however want to draw attention to the mistaken impression that the ferry fiasco is exclusively or overridingly a “Tobago” issue and urge that we consider it within the context of much broader national development imperatives.

True, the most immediate and recognisable casualties of the bungling we have witnessed are the people involved in inter-island trade, tourism and personal travel. But there is a longstanding, unaddressed question of unitary statehood typically billed as a challenge of Tobago and not of Trinidad or of Trinidad and Tobago.

This is probably so because, over the years, ever since 1889 when the island became a ward of Trinidad, the most visible agitators for altering the terms of reference between the two islands have been leading activists in Tobago. The responses out of Trinidad have been far less elegant and, when expressed, taken on the tone of the overseeing imperialist.

This continues to today when we focus on the Super Fast Galicia and Ocean Flower II as if they represent more of a Tobago “problem” than a Trinidad and Tobago challenge. For this reason, Dr Rowley’s stakeholder meetings merit as much floor space in Port-of-Spain as they do in Scarborough.

The Trinidadian politicos also need to do more than snipe from what they consider to be their own safe distance from the action. This situation did not develop overnight or from this Port Authority Board or particular minister, as much as they need to be held jointly responsible.

The objective circumstances that culminated in this most recent mess emerged out of Port-of-Spain a long time ago and not in Scarborough yesterday morning.

I remember well the heady days of the NAR administration, even before the political divorce of 1988, answering wrongly to a question from the enigmatic John Humphrey, then minister of works I believe, about the population of Tobago.

I cannot recall at that time what the precise figure was, but it was used in a quick act of mathematical division to prove that Tobago was receiving a disproportionate part of the national budget, through Act 37 of 1980 which had given birth to the Tobago House of Assembly.

I have little doubt that this simplistic and unfortunate equation formed part of the internecine conflict that led to the dismantling of the NAR administration in 1988 and is a psychological backdrop to what we now face.

Now, before we get into any UNC/PNM business, let me say that we are not the only multi-island Caribbean state with this problem and that the raw features of inter-island conflict, where it exists, are not ethnic (at least in the way we use the word) in nature.

While the processes associated with the post 1889 period present important differences, similar outstanding examples can be found between Antigua and Barbuda, St Kitts and Nevis and the relationships between St Vincent and Grenada and the islands of the Grenadines.

It is a Caribbean dynamic we simply have not spent enough time considering as carefully as we should. I cannot recall a Caricom working paper on the situation of our archipelagic states, but this should supersede any more wasteful expenditure on examining West Indies cricket, to cite one example.

I would urge that the time and energy now be found to go back to some fundamental questions about the quality of the mathematics we employ to understand the unitary state. It is not a simple equation.

For today and tomorrow morning, let’s deal with the current ferry mess. Time to go, ladies and gentlemen.


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