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FOREIGN ECXHANGE AND THE PUBLIC’S RIGHT TO KNOW By Eugene A. Reynald

posted 11 Dec 2015, 06:13 by Gerry Kangalee   [ updated 11 Dec 2015, 06:16 ]

The recent statements by Jwala Rambarran, Governor of the Central Bank, on where SOME of our foreign exchange goes specifically, for which he is being attacked by big business and others, may have been revealed for the wrong reasons; but the release is commendable and in keeping with good governance and its stated ideals of  transparency and accountability. It is also in the interest of the public for reasons which I outline hereunder.

Fundamental to this discussion is that the money we are talking about is earned almost wholly from the energy sector and belongs to all citizens equally. We the public therefore have a right to know who is getting it, giving it away or stealing it and this applies all along the chain of its distribution.

This right can only be made less supreme by another of superior public interest – such as national security matters.  In simple terms, subject to the latter, we the public have a right to know the details of all transactions entered into involving our patrimony including the names of all the beneficiaries. The term patrimony I use to mean all public money and assets. The claim for rights, confidentiality and security of the foreign exchange hawks in the private sector has no place in this discussion. If they want foreign exchange that comes with all of that go out and earn it.

I acknowledge that besides the 90 percent of the country’s foreign exchange income that is derived from assets of the public there is a 10 percent that is not. The latter I acknowledge should not be so scrutinised or accounted for. But I need not say that because I am sure no sane businessman outside the energy sector returns such earnings to the country.   

Deals made by the State regarding how our patrimony is transacted are still hidden from the public by  persons who are today sitting in Cabinet, the Public Service, Parliament and on the Board of most state Companies, including TSTT: all of these persons we pay to serve us and some we elect to do so. 

Of course big business loves that arrangement because it creates conditions that facilitate and encourage corruption, cronyism and deal making; thus their objection to the light which has them and their public sector cohorts squirming – and all Rambarran did was to shine a light in that dark corner they inhabit - and that light, not Rambarran, revealed a part of the truth about their goings on.

Dr. Terrence Farrell
This view of public patrimony and the public rights is seemingly not shared by the economic advisory board of Cabinet (editor’s note: Dr. Terrence Farrell, Professor Karl Theodore, Mr. David Abdulah, Mr. Trevor Lynch, Ms. Alison Lewis, Dr. Rolph Balgobin and Dr. Marlene Attzs) because it has not been enunciated or argued by them nor has it influenced the views expressed by their Chairman regarding subsidies which come from public patrimony or taxes paid from revenues earned from such.

I should have begun by stating the fact that there is one business in T&T and that is the State. All others are subsidised by it, directly and/or indirectly. Further, everyone is also subsidised; some, of course, much more than others and banks and big business more than most. Business profits/benefits further from whatever is spent and also from the privilege they enjoy in corruptly or otherwise, accessing all public patrimony managed by the State. That is why the primary and most rewarding investment for big business is in politics, politicians and public sector officials generally. Some even have departments dedicated to this function which they call “Government Relations”.

Central to the recent discussion over low income housing was also the issue of subsidies. Why that conflict arose is there is no clear definition or understanding of what constitutes a subsidy, nor is there a stated, practised and monitored policy regarding subsidies and how these are to be applied, who are the target groups, etc. The real subsidy on single family units selling for $600,000 would be well over 75%. Persons in Government argue otherwise which means they don’t know or don’t know how to calculate for it – and the problem begins there.   

The same argument applies to the controversial fuel subsidies, GATE and almost all other areas where subsidies are applied. Lacking in all of these is reliable data that tracks these subsidies and therefore tells us who are the beneficiaries; how much is allocated; if the subsidies reach those deserving; whether the targeted are the deserving, etc.

I am sure if these figures are ever revealed they would be more alarming than those revealed by Rambarran. I know for the fuel subsidy a considerable part of this does not reach citizens and we pay for what does and also what doesn’t.

Even though our supposed economists, learned scholars, public officials and private sector hawks have argued for the removal of the fuel subsidies I have consistently written and argued that this cannot be done until accurate tracking data on what happens with this fuel is made known to the public because we own the stuff and pay the subsidies for all the beneficiaries.

We are literally being double if not triple “whammied” and conned – and this applies to all subsidies. What is Farrell and Abdulah’s position on all of this?

It is passing strange that not a Bank was mentioned in the Rambarran list because I am sure they also would have been up there with PriceSmart as major beneficiaries of our money. I do not understand why the same principles enunciated herein regarding the interest of the public cannot apply to them and make it mandatory for them to publicly declare the names of those parties to which they sell foreign exchange.

The secrecy and confidentiality being claimed by big business and the policies and the regulations which offer it to them created those dark places in which no light is allowed and thinking and speaking truth is forbidden. This is what led to the CLICO and HCU scandals for which the public paid and are still paying.

If the challenges of the pending reality are to be confronted and those in Cabinet understand there will be the need to have citizens peacefully and cooperatively play their role in the necessary and painful transformation, it will first have to address the sins of waste, corruption, cronyism, arrogance, mismanagement, profligacy, disrespect of the public and the Laws of the country - such as the FOI Act, etc. that are to be found everywhere in the public sector.

They allowed Rambarran to take from them the high ground and he did so by speaking to citizens and making available to them information which is of interest to them. He was transparent and accountable – while others in the State Sector are not.

Those in Cabinet and big business, in a joint display of arrogance and ignorance, dared challenge him and are paying a price for it. What such form and thinking portends is disturbing to say the least - as for Rambarran he now has license to tell it all like it is – especially if it embarrasses the Government.

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