Friday, February 14, 2014


We all know the old adage about wetting your house when your neighbour's house is on fire. But here in happy old T&T we are simply not paying any attention whatsoever to what is happening a few kilometers to the west of us in Venezuela. There are no reports in our local press about what is happening and nobody seems to be paying attention to the looming disaster next door to our shores. On Wednesday (12th February) there were deadly clashes in Caracas when three people were killed. The killings followed a huge peaceful demonstration of more than ten thousand people who took to the streets to protest the economic policies of President Nicholas Maduro and the hardships that the people are enduring as a result.

Right now in Venezuela there are shortages of just about everything ranging from toothpaste and milk to toilet paper. Can you imagine that?! Toilet paper is now hard to come by in the country with  some of the largest oil reserves in the world! How many times a day do you use toilet paper? Seriously. Think about it. Think about, for example, being in a public place (e.g., the airport) and having to go only to find that there is no toilet paper! Do you think that that would be uncomfortable?!? I am sorry to sound so crude, but this is a reality that millions of Venezuelans are having to deal with on a daily basis!

The real reason for these shortages is because there is a tremendous shortage of foreign exchange. Businesses and manufacturers simply can't get enough hard currency to import anything and businesses and factories are shutting down on an almost daily basis. The Venezuelan bolivar is practically worthless ... nobody wants it ... and trades on the black market at more than ten times its official value. Corruption is everywhere. Indeed, I have heard stories that certain high up persons in Maduro's administration are taking the hard currency (US dollars) earned by state owned PDVSA (the Venezuelan equivalent of Petrotrin) and putting an amount in bolivars into PDVSA's bank account at the official rate. They then sell enough dollars at the black market rate to meet this expenditure and then bank the rest outside! We are talking of billions here ... not millions ... being siphoned off. And officially, no money is missing as the correct amount of bolivars are in the company's account. It's just that the US dollars just aren't going into the country but are staying offshore.Neat, eh?

In the meantime, the Cubans continue to suck Venezuela dry. Maduro is continuing the policies of his predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez, and supplying Cuba with virtually free oil. Cuba pays Venezuela back with some doctors and nurses and ... more ominously ... "advisers" on national security. With one of the highest murder rates in the world guess what these security "advisers" are really doing? I'll give you three guesses and the first two don't count! If you guessed that they are helping Maduro turn Venezuela into a police state a la Cuba you would be absolutely right!! And Cuba has one of the most ruthless police systems in the world. The Castros are NOT nice people.

Maduro is trying hard to deflect the harsh realities of economics and the problems that ordinary people are facing in Venezuela. He blames the shortages on "saboteurs" and "profit-hungry corrupt businessmen". Sound familiar? In December he tried to curry favour with the proletariat  by ordering the importers and retailers of electronic goods (televisions, computers, etc.) to drop their prices radically and sell their goods at state decreed prices. Naturally, there was a rush to buy. But what had really happened? In an effort to stay in business the businessmen had bought dollars in the black market at a rate of something like seventy bolivars to one dollar when the official rate was only around six to one. Obviously, in order to make a profit (what other reason is there to be in business?) the prices of these electronic goods were marked up at the black market rate. By forcing the businesses to slash their prices Maduro effectively bankrupted them. Now, the only importers of electronic goods in Venezuela are those few who have an "in" with the right people and can get enough foreign exchange at the official rate to buy their goods.

As for Wednesday's demonstrations, it seems that certain masked persons on motorcycles in full view of the police (and, yes, that is true ... I have seen photographs taken by friends of mine at the demonstration) opened fire on the crowd!! And nobody has been arrested!!

Maduro will not last. That is clear. He can and will hold on, probably for another year to eighteen months, possibly less. But he is not going to be able to hold on for much longer. And the Cuban tactics of ruthless repression will not work in Venezuela. Unlike their Cuban counterparts, Venezuelans have enjoyed the good life in the not too distant past, and they know what it is to have free access to the internet (for example). Maduro is cracking down on the media in Venezuela and has effectively muzzled them, but Venezuelans have as many cell phones as the country has  people and text messages, Facebook, What's App, Twitter and other social media are being used all the time by everybody. How do you think, for example, that I got all this information? Nobody bothers any more with the television news or what the state controlled newspapers print.

The tragedy is that Maduro, like most despots, doesn't give a fig for the people that he purports to represent. All he cares about is that he stays in power. To this end he will lie, cheat, and even resort to murder to keep power. He is a terrible blight on the face of Latin America and a destroyer of what was arguably the most beautiful country in South America. Trouble is coming in Venezuela. You can see it; you can taste it; you can feel it. And when it does eventually come a lot of Venezuelans are going to die.

Monday, February 3, 2014

                                                    THE LOST GENERATIONS

Nobody can look at the state of our country and be happy. Everything seems to be falling apart. The recent Petrotrin oil spills, the soaring crime/murder rate, the drug busts with no "Mr. Big's" being caught ... the list goes on. Critics of the present Government like to say that it is all the Government's fault, but this simply can't be true. For example, assuming (though certainly not accepting) that the OWTU report on the oil spills is accurate, especially about the part where there was an October 2010 report that the offending pipeline was rotten and in dire need of repair, this would mean that the then PNM administration under Malcolm Jones of Petrotrin had not done the necessary maintenance. This does not take away blame from the Gillette administration of Petrotrin but adds to the list of those who ought to be blamed ... if the OWTU report is true!

In other words, if we take all the criticisms of the present administration as being the gospel truth we can easily find that these criticisms all apply (mutatis mutandis) to the last administration as well. Am I saying that this is all right then? Not at all! In fact, what I am trying to say is that I am not particularly interested in allocating blame to anybody. What I am trying to say is that we should spend a lot more time looking for solutions rather than saying "it's your fault" ... whoever "you" might happen to be.

I also realize that the problems in the country are generational. In other words, to a very large extent there is no hope of changing attitudes now for the present generation, much less the one immediately preceding. It might even be too late for the next generation coming up. But it is certainly not too late for the one after that.

Let me give you an example of what I mean: I have two daughters who are married and live in Australia. Daughter no.1 has two children and Daughter no. 2 has one. To make a long story very short my wife, our two sons and I made the long trek to Australia for Christmas to see my children and grandchildren ... and, yes, thank you, we had a great time. But the point here is that one day we were all having lunch in a very casual restaurant (something along the lines of, say, our TGI Fridays or Trotters) and I heard the manageress say to one of the waitresses in the softest of tones "Cynthia, if you don't want to be nice to the customers you can leave. You don't have to stay."  In other words, behave yourself, be polite or get out. The waitress immediately apologized and assured her boss that she would be nice. 'Service' is an important and very key word 'down under'. And it works! The country runs ... and runs well! I could not imagine those words being said here, much less the offending waiter/waitress scurrying off to change his/her attitude immediately. What I would expect here is an increased amount of surliness and downright rudeness.
 I don't have to tell you what kind of "service" we all have to put up with on a daily basis.'Service' in this country is a dirty word.  But why? What has gone wrong? Why don't we work? Why do we accept it with a shrug and say "well, this is Trinidad (or Tobago)?"  Seriously, why?

The problems that we have cannot be fixed overnight. They will take at least one generation to fix. Attitudes have to be changed.  And we have to start in the schools with the very young ones and come up. We have to start giving our young children the tools that they will need to become useful and productive citizens. Right now we are not doing that and the result is that a lot of very bright young people are being born into situations where there is no way out except through joining a gang and living a life of crime. If we continue to bury our heads in the sand the situation will only get worse ... and believe me, it can get worse than this. Try going over to Caracas right now and see what a real crime rate is like!!

But we can stop it. Honestly, we really can. But we need to start thinking differently. I think that the present National Security Minister seems to have his head screwed on right and seems to know what he is talking about. But he is like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dam.The pressure building up behind his efforts is enormous and his task is not dissimilar to that of Hercules who had to clean out the Augean stables. And good as he is, I don't think that there exists any person in this country (or anywhere else for that matter) who has the powers of the mythical Hercules.

It is either that we start to think "out of the box" or we give up, declare a dictatorship, put all the criminals against a wall and shoot them. That will certainly fix the crime problem. Whether we will be happy with the other problems and the consequences that such a course of action would create is, of course, a whole other story!