Monday, November 30, 2009


On a less politically charged note than you are likely used to by now from my blog, I wanted to share my concerns on an issue that is near and dear to me: Air travel to and from Venezuela.

Let me right away declare my interest in this particular post: my wife is Venezuelan and as a result I have a clear and obvious interest in being able to travel to Caracas easily and inexpensively. That however is nowhere near as simple as the premise of the question would suggest! You see, it costs about TT$3,500 to get from Port of Spain to Caracas and back... a distance, one way, of merely about 500 miles. One can get to New York or Miami for almost half that cost! Why?

The answer is because there is little or no competition on this particular route. Caribbean Airlines can fly their little Dash 8 planes that they use to go to Tobago for this route, charge a pound and a crown, make a huge profit and not bother with the needs of the travelling public between the two countries. Aeropostal used to fly the route, but they ran into financial difficulties which I am not certain that they have survived. If you have the time and the inclination (neither of which I really have), you can fly from Port of Spain to Miami and then down to Caracas, back to Miami and then back to Port of Spain for more or less what you will pay for a direct flight from here to Caracas. Crazy!

And this leads to another point. If you think that there is no real need for more aircraft or bigger aircraft to ply the route you would be wrong. Try and get a ticket to go to Caracas and come back to Trinidad in December or the first two weeks of January. You will be shocked to know that it would be extremely difficult... not impossible, but as difficult as a snowball’s chances of surviving on Maracas Beach on a sunny day!

Clearly there is a great deal of transit between Trinidad and Venezuela. Equally clearly neither of the two governments are paying much attention (at least they don’t appear to be paying attention) to the traffic between the two countries nor do they seem particularly keen on expanding it. And again, the question is why? Or more aptly, why not? Venezuela has (in comparison to ours) a huge population and therefore a large captive market just next door. Why aren’t we looking to the west as much as we look to the north?

I am not here trying to promote Mr. Chavez, nor am I trying to put him down. As far as I am concerned from a Trinidadian perspective it is for the Venezuelans to deal with their own internal politics, just as it is for us Trinbagonians to do the same. Countries don’t have friends, they have interests. And surely it is in our interests to have better and easier access to Venezuela than we have now? Surely it is in our best interests to have more and better trade with our Latin neighbour than we do now? What do you think?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Heavyweight Fight: NIPDEC vs. NHIC

With the Uff Commission about to resume, we are certain to be bombarded next week by further allegations against UDeCOTT some of which may be fair, while others may not be… the real shame however then as now will be that we will not be able to assess any of these allegations properly because of the apparent bias of Professor Uff and Commissioner Sirju about which I have complained before.


In the mean time, since the Uff CoE last sat, there has been a most interesting development concerning one of the parties of this particular CoE, Northern Hemisphere International (Caribbean) Limited (NHIC), which has received scant publicity in the national media.

I am referring to the National Insurance Property Development Company Limited (NIPDEC) legal victory against NHIC in the High Court on October 21, 2009. In broad terms the High Court confirmed an international arbitrator’s ruling that dismissed a $238 million claim that NHIC had filed against NIPDEC and to make matters worse for NHIC even ordered them to pay NIPDEC $9.1 million related to interest derived from overpayment.

One would think this is big news seeing as this company, which is the “Contractor of the Year 2009” according to the TT Contractors Association (which was co-founded by NHIC’s Chairman), has itself be subject of a CoE (related to the Scarborough hospital), and is one of the main (and loudest) proponents of action to be taken against UDeCOTT along with the JCC (which you might have guessed, was also founded by NHIC’s Chairman).

Anyway, let’s return to the matter at hand. In simple terms what happened was this:

(1) In May 2002 the NIPDEC tenders committee awarded the contract to build the Scarborough General Hospital to NHIC, whose winning bid for the project was for $135,9 million (Vat inclusive). Documents submitted to the court showed that the estimated profit margin at that time was relatively standard 12.5%. Completion of the project was scheduled for March 2005. Work started in March 2003;

(2) Because this was a so called design tender (as opposed to a design/build) bid that meant that one contractor (Stantec, an engineering consulting firm with over 10000 employees in 130 offices worldwide – would develop all design and architectural elements of the project, while another (NHIC in this case) would be responsible for the actual construction. NHIC almost immediately began putting in claims for variations in the initial soil investigation and site survey, re-location of the building, re-alignment of the perimeter access road, construction of 2-tier retaining walls and importation of fill material. NHIC further flagged disputes in respect of the suitability of designs and drawings as well as the lack of utilities at the site;

(3) NIPDEC sees the cost for the project exploding over time and starts to ask questions rather than just to continue to sign blank checks for NHIC. At that point NHIC suspends work accusing NIPDEC of breaching the contract by failing to provide it with sufficient funds to do the project works (this is September 2005);

(4) In 2006 NHIC submitted a revised figure of $474.2 million to complete the project. Please note that this revised figure is more than $338 million over the original agreed sum of $135.9 million! This is 3.5 times the original estimate!!! The court documents also show that over the same time the revised cost estimates submitted at the arbitration by NHIC represented a percentage profit increase of more than 300%.

This brings us to a point where NHIC is no longer tenable as a contractor for NIPDEC, is asked to cease and desist and now claims payment for works performed (which of course is the right of a contractor, regardless of how bad the work performance is). That is usually when the lawyers get involved and this case was no different...

To make a long story short an international arbitrator, in November 2008, rejected NHIC’s claim of $283 million in works performed and found that the actual value of the work completed was $133.2 million. NHIC however had already been paid $135.9 million! Subsequently arbitrator further ruled that NHIC had to pay NIPDEC the sum of $9.1 million (exclusive of interest and cost). And finally this brings us to the appeal by NHIC to the High Court, which was dismissed on October 21st.

It has not been reported if NHIC has as yet paid the $9.1 million that it owes to NIPDEC and as such the people of Trinidad and Tobago.

A complete and much more detailed account of the affair can be found in form of Jerry Narace’s statement to Parliament from November 14, 2009, which can be found here:


Did you understand all of this before reading this blog? Do you think that this is received the proper attention in the media? Incidentally, did you know the Chairman of NIPDEC is none other than Calder Hart, and that the Chairman of NHIC is, …you guessed it: Emile Elias? And do you believe Uff Commission will deal with this issue? Should they? And where is Transparency International in all of this? I haven’t heard a peep out of them!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Now, with CHOGM upon us, it might be a good time to think about the relevance of the Commonwealth, especially to us here in the Caribbean. After all, the Commonwealth is the successor to the British Commonwealth, which in turn was the successor to the British Empire... that global community owned by Great Britain upon which the sun never set! The Empire existed solely for the benefit of the mother country: England. The wealth of the various colonies was systematically transferred back to England, much to the chagrin of many colonists who for a very long time could do absolutely nothing about it.

When after the Second World War the Empire started to fall apart and important colonies like India began to demand (and receive) their independence, the clever British set up the British Commonwealth essentially as a closed market in which goods from the member States would be traded within the system at preferential rates and tariffs. Later on many of the newborn independent States felt that the term “British” ought to be dropped, but that everything should stay the same as regards trade.

So said, so done, until the end of the twentieth century/beginning of the twenty-first. You see, by this time Great Britain (which now preferred the appellation “United Kingdom”) had joined the European Economic Community, which morphed into the European Community, and eventually ended up as the European Union (or ‘EU’). The boys and girls in the EU’s headquarters together with European politicians from every major country including the UK decided that they needed to have a strong internal free market where goods and services from member countries of the EU could cross borders easily and with a minimum of fuss and trade tariffs. It was essential therefore to restrict access of goods and services to the EU from non-member States.

And this is what has spelled the effective death knell of the Commonwealth; for goods and services from Commonwealth countries no longer enjoy preferential access to British markets and the EU rules and regulations for trading with that community have made it harder and harder for small States, especially those in the Caribbean, to survive. Trinidad & Tobago, with its oil and gas, is probably the best placed of all the islands to withstand the changing gale force economic winds that have been blowing around the world because of the world economic meltdown and the recent EU rules that have forced us to open our markets to very unfair competition from European goods and services (and that is another story).

But the real question for us to ask today is: what benefits exactly do we get from the Commonwealth today (as opposed to what we used to get)? How does being a member of the Commonwealth help the little shopkeeper in San Fernando or Mayaro? Does it really provide a forum for our voices to be heard, or is it just a big “talk shop” where the big countries like the UK, Canada, Australia, etc., simply get together and let the little boys talk and then they (the big boys) go and do what they like? For example, the big thing internationally right now is climate change. Will the views of the small island States really be taken on board and be represented at Copenhagen next month?

What is all this costing us and what are the bench marks that we ought to be using to see if we are getting value for money? Or, put another way, is membership in the Commonwealth really worth our while? Why? We should be looking at this……but we are not.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Problems of Transparency - Is the pot calling the kettle black?

Trinidad and Tobago Transparency International (TTTI), the local chapter of Berlin-based Transparency International (TI) held a news conference Tuesday to brief the assembled media on the release of TI’s 2009 Corruption Perception Index, which ranked Trinidad and Tobago 79th out of 180 countries.

The setting would have been an appropriate one for TTTI and in particular its Chairman, Victor Hart, to take a good long look in the mirror and explore some of the transparency and bias issues in TTTI’s own backyard.

On Monday the local newspapers were filled with pictures of an ebullient Mr. Hart mingling at the Trinidad and Tobago Contractors Association’s (TTCA) “Contractor of the Year Gala Banquet” with Winston Riley, President of the Joint Consultative Council (JCC) and Mickey Joseph, President of the TTCA. The award that night for contractor of the year going to NH International (Caribbean) Limited.

In and of itself I would deny no one a pleasant evening with friends, but this becomes problematic when one considers that both JCC and NH International are parties, alongside UDeCOTT, to the UFF Commission of Enquiry into the Construction Sector. And while there are no signs of impropriety on its behalf, it can hardly be expected that an industry organization (TTCA), representing an interest group (contractors) against another organization (UDeCOTT) can be impartial or unbiased.

Bottom line, it is entirely inappropriate for Mr. Hart as a representative of TI to attend this event and then proceed to hold a news conference two days later in which he labels the main opposition of his hosts that evening (UDeCOTT) as the primary source of perceived corruption in Trinidad and Tobago. Much less while a CoE is underway, to which all of the above are parties!

These problems are not new to TTTI as an organization. In 2005 the then Chairman of TTTI, Emile A. L. Valere noted in his report of the Sixth Annual General meeting of TTTI, that “we [TI] are still part of the problem, not part of the solution”. Asking rhetorically, “how many of us will “pull a string” when needed?

He reported that members of the TTTI Board had “vicious fights for power and their own personal differences proved to be problematic.” An incident in which a TTTI Director had made “politically biased” and “agenda motivated” comment against then Minister of Housing Dr. Keith Rowley prompted a public apology to Mr. Rowley and a formal complaint to TI headquarters in Berlin, Germany. Mr. Valere’s damning conclusion was that “during my tenure, I was a witness to broken promises, self promotion and failure of the directors to follow basic protocol.

Seems TTTI ought to learn some of its own lessons. The full Report can be found at

Friday, November 13, 2009

Opposition Unity

An unquestionably desirable goal for all those persons opposed to the PNM and yearning for a change of government, because, let's face it, in the first-past-the post system that we have here in good old T&T there is no way that either of the divided camps of the UNC and the COP will see the corridors of power before snow falls in Trinidad if they don’t unite.

But, unity is a long way off. You hear both sides saying “we will unite if that’s what the people want!” Well, I have news for them: that is EXACTLY what the people want. The truth, though, is that the leadership in both camps are the ones who do not want unity and they are only paying lip service to the concept because they realise that any opposition politician who comes out frankly (and honestly) and says “I don’t want to unite with them!” (whoever “them” might be) will be punished by the electorate which understands full well that the PNM cannot be defeated by a divided opposition. So, the opposition leaders (Panday, Dookeran and their respective followers) speak in code. They say things like “we want unity “from the ground up” when what they really mean is that “I have no problem with unity provided always that I am in charge and the rest of you will follow under my leadership.” Once you understand that you will understand why there can be no unity. Neither Dookeran nor Panday is prepared to step down. And what happened to the people’s interests and what is best for the people? Do they really care? Forget their words; look at their actions. What has either leader done specifically in the last twelve months to convince you that he cares about you?

Perhaps you will understand the point if you look at it another way: a person joins or supports a political party because he/she agrees with its philosophies and policies. (At least, that’s what is supposed to happen when you take the racial agenda out of the mix.) So, what are the philosophies and policies that the UNC and the COP agree on? What are the philosophies and policies that they disagree on? Can’t tell me? Not surprised. I don’t know the answer to that either, and when I asked this question on the radio of a COP deputy political leader he couldn’t say either. Conclusion? It’s all about who will be King Rat, and nothing else.

Don’t you think that we should demand more honesty from all of our politicians? Until we wake up and smell the coffee those who would be our leaders will continue to mouth platitudes and treat us like idiots.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

When the Transparent become opaque…

It is clear for all to see that there is a great deal more below the surface in this ongoing UDeCOTT/ Uff Commission of Enquiry (CoE) than has come out in the press. On one side there is UDeCOTT and its embattled chairman Calder Hart, and on the other side is the Joint Consultative Council (JCC) backed by Emile Elias and his company NH International (NH).

Mr. Elias and NH have been locked in various disputes in Court and Arbitration with UDeCOTT, all of which NH has lost. But Mr. Elias appears to have an unlikely ally on his side, the Trinidad Chapter of Transparency International which is currently headed by Mr. Victor Hart, who is the head of a well known firm of Quantity Surveyors, Hart & Leonard. Hart (Victor) has been very critical of Hart (Calder) and UDeCOTT but has been strangely silent in criticizing either NH or Emile Elias. And there is much to be concerned about in that the Commission of Enquiry into the Scarborough General Hospital recommended that NH be investigated for a possible breach of the Larceny Act in removing materials from the Hospital site without the knowledge or permission of the engineer and in breach of its contract with NIPDEC (headed by Hart/Calder).

This, coupled with the fact that Hart (Victor) is on record as trying to defend NH’s unauthorized removal of the materials and his seeming reluctance to question why the police have refused to investigate the matter, led me to write to Transparency International to find out for myself whether that organization holds its own people to the same standards that it seeks to hold everybody else. If it does, well, there should be a serious shake-up in the Trinidad Chapter. If it doesn’t…well, it’s a “work in progress”.

As you can see Transparency International Headquarters in Germany are taking the concerns I raised quite seriously. I’ll will keep you all updated as things develop on the TI front.

Below, you can find my complete submission to TI Headquarters in Berlin, Germany and their response.

My Letter

Ms. Zoe Reiter “Program Coordinator Americas Department Transparency International” letter

Monday, November 2, 2009

Uff has serious questions to answer

“I would like to share with you my recent interview with the Guardian which was published yesterday. In the interview Ken Ali asked me about my thoughts on the ongoing matter of the Commission of Enquiry into the TT Construction Sector, UDeCOTT and media bias. However, you should be aware that the interview was edited. The words in red in the interview were those which Ken Ali deleted. You should also know that I have had many conversations with Mr. Ali in which I have questioned him (and received no satisfactory answers) as to why my views on a host of matters ranging from how the operations of the Trinidad and Tobago Chapter of Transparency International are not in conformity with those of Transparency International to why nobody is questioning why the Police are not investigating NH International for possible larceny as was recommended by the Commission of Enquiry into the Scarborough General Hospital are not being published and why he is not inviting me onto his radio program to inform the public of these matters.”

Montano: Uff has serious questions to answer
Ken Ali

Q:You have a lonely position on Udecott. You are insisting that the State Corporation did not get a fair shake from the Uff Commission of Enquiry. What is the evidence of bias?

A: When the chairman of the Commission, before hearing the evidence from Udecott, says words to the effect, “It seems as if Udecott was operating as a law unto itself...,” there is a strong presumption that he has made up his mind without hearing the other side.

How would you like to be in a matter before a judge who makes that kind of comment about you before you had a chance to put your side of the story?
Why did Uff allow attorneys for the other sideno time limit to make their opening submissions, but seek to put Udecott’s attorneys under manners by” giving them under 45 minutes to make their opening submissions?

Why did Uff get certain written submissions from ex-employees of Udecott and, at first, refuse to show them to Udecott’s lawyers and then agree only on the condition that they do not show itto their client?
How can a lawyer deal with evidence from the other side if he is not allowed to find out from his client what the client has to say about the evidence? There are lots of other examples, but hopefully you get the point.

Was there also media bias?
Why has the media not reported on any of the matters that show bias by the Commission?
Why has the media not reported, or explained with sufficient clarity, as to why Udecott’s lawyers have applied for protection of the court by way of judicial review?
Why has the media refused to publish any stories that might show Udecott in a different light, or, at least, publish those stories that show that Udecott’s prime accusers are not exactly coming up with clean hands?

And I have a lot of examples on this as you well know. If I had more space I would give you chapter and verse but space in this interview is limited. Invite me on to your radio program and I’ll give all the examples……that is, of course, if you really want me to expose the bias of the media on issues ranging from Transparency International to the findings of the Scarborough Hospital Commission of Enquiry and the refusal by the police to investigate same.

Why, then, didn’t Udecott’s high-priced attorneys protest officially during the hearings?
Good question! I don’t know. Why don’t you ask them?

Is all of this a slur against Professor John Uff, a highly-respected international professional?
It is irrelevant to the case I am making as to whether or not Uff has a good reputation. I am dealing with how he conducted this enquiry. And, having reviewed a fair amount of the evidence, I am satisfied that he has some serious questions to answer. I have seen too much to be sanguine about the fairness of this enquiry.

Justice delayed is justice denied. Isn’t this relevant to this matter?
Absolutely! But—and it is a big but—it is also a cornerstone of our judicial system that every person (even the men who murdered my cousin!) is entitled to a fair trial or hearing. One of the bedrock principles of our justice system is that it is better for ten guilty men to go free than for one innocent man to be hanged.

Surely, you are not saying there was no wrongdoing at Udecott.
I am not in a position to make a determination of guilt or innocence. What I am complaining about is the unfairness of how this enquiry has not only been conducted, but the emotional, speculative and sometimes demagogic way in which it has been conducted in the public discourse.

Critics say Udecott is a rogue elephant. What are your views?
There are very serious questions that need to be answered that have not, to date, been answered satisfactorily. But if the hearings are not fair, then unfortunately, everything gets muddied.

Should Udecott be given State contracts while it is under probe?
I could answer that question either way. Yes, because nobody has been found guilty of anything and the hearings have not been fair. No, because even though the hearings have not been fair, there are very serious questions to answer on the part of Udecott. And here again a fair-minded person would understand why it is important for an enquiry such as this to be conducted absolutely fairly from the beginning.

Should Commissioners Israel Khan and Kenneth Sirju have resigned?
One of the matters the Commission was supposed to probe was the collapse of the scaffolding a few years ago at the Customs building, where a number of workers were injured. Shortly after the incident, Mr Sirju was commissioned by the contractor, NH International, to write an expert report for the benefit of NH. Would you like for me to be sitting in judgement of your actions where I was engaged to give an opinion on a matter in which you are now in dispute with the person who paid me? Do I really have to explain this? As for Israel Khan, his so-called robust questioning was totally inappropriate for a person sitting in a judicial or quasi-judicial capacity.

What are your views on the non-gazetting of the Commission?
Total incompetence on somebody’s part! Whose? I don’t know. But here again, we are seeing the consequences of a biased or incompetent media. If this was, say, the United States, don’t you think the media would have found out and reported who was to blame? So why has this not been done here? And don’t come to with me with the Lucky probe. The media abroad does not wait for the” media” authorities to spoon-feed them with information.

Should the Udecott Board of Directors be removed?
A loaded question! Yes, if they are guilty, and, no, if they are not. But if the Commission has not been fair to Udecott, should we still hang them? Would that be fair?

How do you feel about Michael Annisette serving both as a Udecott Director and an Independent Senator?
From day one, I have been critical of his appointment as an Independent Senator. I simply do not accept that he embodies the principles of what an Independent Senator should be. Further, I do not accept that a person can be an Independent Senator and a member of State Board. From my perspective, it is wrong. I blame President Max Richards for this.

Do you have confidence that the Commission’s report would be made public without being sanitised?
The publication of a defective report can have serious legal consequences.
For example, assuming (although at this stage whether we like it or not, we cannot publicly accept) that the report highlights wrongdoing on the part of some person or persons and the court holds that person or persons has not been treated fairly by the Commission, do you realise the person could escape Scot free? For example, look at the Rowley matter with the Integrity Commission. Do you realise that Dr Rowley’s case was that the Integrity Commission was wrong to refer the criminal accusations that were being made against him to the DPP, without him first being allowed to be heard? The court agreed that Rowley was right. The question of whether he was guilty of anything has never been determined. At least, if it has, it has not been widely reported. In other words, the guilt or innocence of Dr Rowley has never been determined. Is this a good thing?