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SMOKE AND MIRRORS by Sylvestre McLaren

posted 29 Jan 2012, 12:42 by Gerry Kangalee
Trinidad and Tobago is a place where mamaguy and promises go hand in hand. To this we must now add the use of smoke and mirrors, which when placed in the hands of an illusionist who is good at his trade can paint a very beautiful picture that everything is all right.

Most of the time the illusionist succeeds in fooling the audience into believing that what they are seeing is reality when in fact it is not. Well, what we have been witnessing in this country for more than forty years now is not reality. The truth is that the political economy of this country was balancing between left and right until it took a right turn following the economic collapse of the 1980s.

Since then successive governments have been carrying out neo-liberal economic policies: some to a greater or lesser extent than the one before. What is not understood by the population and some of the intellectuals on the UWI Campus is that the architects of Trinidad and Tobago's independence had a vision of this country as a capitalist enclave and this was to be achieved in phases.

The first phase was the granting of independence to the natives, with a Constitution which tied them to British norms and laws which impacted on every facet of everyday living. The foundation for the second phase existed in the reality that the economy of the country was controlled by the colonial masters, so that while you had political independence, you did not have economic independence.

This question of economic independence was the central issue facing the Haitian people from the day they ran the French out of Haiti. That has been the issue facing most former colonies.

The illusion continues. Sir Arthur Lewis the economist and Nobel Laureate, in an effort to get around this problem of the barriers to economic independence concluded that small island economies should invite foreign investment as a tool for economic development.

He failed to recognise that the pattern of trade to which these economies were tied placed them in a position where the former colonisers controlled the markets for their products and the leadership of these countries were not interested economic independence as they were in political independence. Dr. Eric Williams being of that ilk, took his advice, tried it and it failed.

The failure of the economic strategy of industrialization by invitation and the consequent 1970 uprising, against the background of the anti-imperialist movement, created opportunities for the country to chart a course of economic independence away from the capitalist model.

Dr. Eric Williams, - quite reluctantly - attempted to do so through the nationalization of certain foreign entities and through the intervention of the state in the economy, on the proviso that the state will hold the nationalized and state-created entities in trust until such time, when it was appropriate to dispose of them. That was a clear indication that the economic strategy of the government of the day was to build capitalism in Trinidad and Tobago.

The anti-colonial/anti-imperialist struggles which occupied the international community at the time and the Black Power uprising forced Dr. Williams to put the plan on hold for the time being. The disposal of entities under the control of the state then fell to the National Alliance for Reconstruction, which came into office on a wave of popular support in1987.

When the PNM won the elections in 1991 Prime Minister Patrick Manning, in making his victory speech, said to Mr. ANR Robinson -the outgoing Prime Minister- that he would continue his policies. And so he did!

A good example of the role of the PNM in this regard was when Mr. Kenneth Valley, who at the time, was a Minister in the Ministry of Finance, reported that the government planned for Trinidad to become a financial hub through the establishment of a stock market where companies local and foreign could invest in all kinds of financial products.

The United National Congress came into office and did their bit as well. But there were structural adjustment conditionalities which the country still has to satisfy. These are the ones which Winston Dookeran is now seeking to satisfy Hence the privatization list which he announced recently.

A major problem faced by small economies is the limited availability of local private financial resources in amounts sufficient for investment in mega-projects. In these circumstances state intervention and foreign direct investment in economic activity becomes critical and necessary.

In the case of foreign direct investment, it exposes the country to the harsh conditionality of neo-liberalism and the illusion that structural adjustment of the economy is the only option open to countries facing economic difficulties. The truth is that small economies like ours are tied hand and foot by trade agreements which even an oil and gas producing country is unable to get out of in times of economic trouble.

So the illusion that we are building a democracy is constantly fed into the minds of the population who believe it to be so; when in fact that type of democracy is largely responsible for the condition in which the society is in today.

We have to fight to build a society in which the state continues to carry out its responsibility to provide the public goods which it currently provides; where the broad masses of working people are not seen as a burden; where health care and education is on the top of the list of prioritized goods to be provided; where the local and foreign private sector recognizes the importance of the role of the state in all aspects of economic activity.

In other words we must begin to destroy the illusion. What we have to fight for in the current international political and economic climate is the creation of an economic model which represents a mixture of what is good on the left and right. Certainly not the type which Friedman wished for and Winston Dookeran would like to see.

For the time being this country must continue along a mixed economic path. What Mr. Dookeran knows but is afraid to admit is the fact that some of the staunchest advocates of capitalism are now willing to sit down and discuss and examine capitalist economics and question whether it is still viable. The truth is that former colonies have toyed with the illusion that capitalism offers the chance for economic development through individual initiative and drive.

As things turn out, throughout the history of the development of capitalist society, those individuals who were successful in accumulating wealth did so on the backs of those who toiled and whatever the toilers were able to get from them came through bitter struggle.

The sad truth is that small economies have not been treated with the dignity and respect they deserved. In the case of this country, whose energy resources are largely in the hands of the trans-national companies, the government could hardly demand that they pay their taxes on time. So much so that the Minister of Finance was forced to announce in his 2011-2012 budget speech that taxes outstanding was in the amount of 13 billion dollars.

We continue to live the illusion that we have democracy because we might succeed in removing a corrupt government every five years but when we achieve that we lapse back into complacency, a state of mind, which it would appear, that we might be recovering from albeit very slowly, because the illusionist is at work day and night.

The tools with which he is working include our oil and gas resources, the drug trade, and the weapon of mass communication which include the religious beliefs of our people. He is at work in every area of the society; even in the workers’ organizations where elements working for the system have succeeded in dividing the movement for years while pretending to be sympathetic to the cause of the workers.

They were always against unity in the movement but recently their strategy has changed. The question is being asked whether leopards can change their spots. We have to begin to understand these elements are also part of the tools of the trade of the illusionist. There is a view in political circles that as long as the basic needs of the electorate (the ordinary people - the working class) are satisfied most of the work of governance is achieved.

An example of this was demonstrated by the Prime Minister on January 24, 2012 in her address to the masses who turned up at the Rienzi Complex when she boasted of the things her government did in the few months that it has been in office. She spoke of new roads that were built, new facilities now available in the health sector, free travel for persons 60 years on PTSC buses and on the boat between Trinidad and Tobago. Obviously the people could have no quarrel with that. But there is a story to be told which is not told and this is where the illusionist is at work.

The government is bent on taking the country down a neo-liberal economic briar patch. In his contribution to the debate in the Senate on January 23, 2012, the Minister of Finance in explaining his government’s policy approach in the CLICO/HCU matter, as an aside, went on to explain his concept of the electorate (the people) as clients of the state.

He included the capitalist in that definition; meaning that there was a point in time when the state had to shoulder the responsibility to provide for the needs of the population; as in the case of the welfare state which provides social services and subsidises a number of benefits. He is of the view that it is now the individual's responsibility to provide for his/her needs. It must follow from that premise that the state’s responsibility to provide public goods will now be passed on to the local private sector and the trans-national corporations.

When you begin to connect the dots, it becomes clearer and clearer that the struggle of the trade unions has to be not only against the 5% cap but also against the privatization of valuable state assets and against the neo-liberal policies of the government. This is the challenge to which the trade union movement must rise. Is the movement capable of rising to the challenge? It can... if the current external and internal obstacles to its full development are removed. Those obstacles are all part and parcel of the tools of the illusionist.