Thursday, May 29, 2014


The ensuing brouhaha over the video of a man in a hotel room  (who looks a lot like Sports Minister Anil Roberts,) rolling what looks like a joint of marijuana, has got me thinking. I am not going to comment on the video other than to say that I personally do not approve of the behaviour that I saw there. (And, yes, I did watch it.) But that is not the point that I wish to make in this post.

I am almost the only person that I know of my generation who has never smoked weed. This was not because of some higher sense of morality or character or any other high sounding moral principles. It was simply because I have never smoked a whole cigarette in my life. Frankly, I hated the taste and smell of tobacco (and still do) ... and yes, I have stuck a cigarette or two in my mouth in my life and taken a few puffs. So, although (especially in my student days) I was around people who smoked the stuff (marijuana) I can put my hand on my heart and swear that I personally never did.

Why am I making this confession now? Because, quite honestly, I did not then, and do not now, consider the smoking of marijuana to be any big thing. Oh! I have read the reports that say that leaving aside any illegality that it is extremely bad for your health. Indeed,  I even have read one report that said that marijuana is even more dangerous cancerwise than cigarettes! Well, that may or may not be so, but alcohol and tobacco ain't so good for you either!

But I do not see the logic in giving kids who puff a joint and then getting caught by the police a criminal record that stays with them for life. Why would we ... do we ... want to do that? To my way of thinking it really doesn't make sense. Frankly, the only thing that I see happening with the continued criminalizing of marijuana is that it makes the big drug dealers rich (or richer) but it doesn't stop, prevent or even lower the use of the drug.

Indeed, there is an argument (that is personally attractive to me) that because marijuana is an illegal drug, that this makes  it easier for young people to go on to harder and more dangerous drugs like cocaine. If you are already breaking the law for smoking marijuana, the argument goes, you might as well get hanged for stealing a sheep instead of a lamb. In other words, if you get caught it is going to be the same punishment. (And just to be clear: I see a big difference between marijuana and cocaine and am certainly not advocating legalizing the latter.)

As I said at the beginning, the behaviour of the man who looks like Anil Roberts in the infamous video is not something to be admired for a whole host of reasons that, hopefully, are (or ought to be) obvious. We'll soon find out how that particular scandal will play out. But I think that we should use the opportunity that it has created to have a wider discussion on the whole question of de-criminalizing the use of marijuana.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014


Well, the internal PNM elections are over and,as expected, Dr. Keith Rowley and his team swept the polls. Even if one were to accept that each and every allegation of fraud and/or unfair practices made by the Penny Beckles team was true and all those "lost votes" were added back in, Dr. Rowley would still have been victorious. It was/is a convincing victory and only the most churlish would not recognize this.

But, (and it is a big "but") the problems that I wrote about last week are now going to come galloping to the fore. If Dr. Rowley and the PNM can convince  non African people that the present  perception that is held by them is false then I predict a landslide victory for the PNM next year. However, if they can't, then the PNM will probably lose. And it is as blunt as that!

If you read the political pundits in the newspapers carefully you will see that one or two of the smarter ones have recognized the perception of racism that exists in the society  and that it ought to be addressed sooner rather than later, although most everybody keeps pussy footing around the topic and trying to bury it. But it does exist and you will hear it being muttered in Port of Spain and almost shouted out loud south of the Caroni river. Trinidad is dividing into two clear camps: Africans and the rest, with a few "nons" (i.e., non Africans going into the African camp but with most of the "nons" ... with the exception of the majority of the Syrian community) going into the rest of which by far the largest is the Indian camp.

I have been told that I ought not to raise this matter because all that I am doing is making matters worse by highlighting the problem of the racial divide. That argument is attractive on the surface, but the reality is that although this topic of race and the perception of racism is not discussed openly, the truth is that it lies there just under the surface and just about every Trinidadian and Tobagonian is aware of it.

And yes, I am also well aware that there is a mirrored perception in the African element of the society that the Indian community and the UNC is just as racist as they are held out to be.

And that is my whole point! Put another way, I believe that it is high time that we put these raclail bogeymen to rest once and for all. And I am making a call on ALL the politicians of every colour, creed and religion to come out and clearly denounce racism in all of its forms. Dr. Rowley has to come out clearly and in the most graphic language condemn that nasty  "Calcutta ship" remark. (He did condemn it three days after it was made, but the perception then was that the condemnation was half-hearted and not sincere.) He has to stop saying things like "I am a proud black man.". Good grief! If I said on public television that I was a proud white man I would be pilloried and accused (justifiably) of being racist. But I am white ... an undeniable fact ... and I am proud. But I don't need to put the two together. In fact I shouldn't! And if I shouldn't then neither should he! I have no problem if he says that he is a proud man. In fact, the question then would be why shouldn't he be proud? And he is black. That is an obvious fact. But him putting the two together ... well, it doesn't come across very nicely to say the least. (I prefer, incidentally, when defining myself to simply say that I am a proud Trini! If that doesn't explain it then nothing ever will.)

We need leadership in the country that sees us all as citizens with an equal right to our own little piece of this twin island Republic.  And to be clear: we need this leadership to come from all sides ... including the unions.We need the media to step up to the plate and slap down anybody and everybody who plays the racial card ... and the slap must be so hard that the person never does it again. But the media has so far shied away from doing this. Why? I don't know. Ask them.

Why am I saying all this as passionately as I can? Because I see trouble looming on the horizon. I see the PNM not doing enough to erase the perception of racism and in reaction I see the non African element swinging the other way. And I see politicians on both sides fanning the flames of racial division. After all, it is much easier to say that "dem" (and "they" are whichever race that you are not) "doh like we and go cause us pain" rather than come up with ideas and policies on how to fix the many problems that face us. The PNM's internal campaign was singularly devoid of any policies, plans or meaningful discussions on what either side would do for the country if and when they got into power.

Prime Minister-elect Modi really said it best when he referred to his political opponents not as the enemy, but as competitors. If only our politicians would see each other publicly in that light we would be half way there towards solving our problems. Why can't the two sides get together to discuss the best ways to fix crime, health care, education, etc.? It would be so nice rather than to here the same tune with the same words week after week in Parliament which can best be summed up in "all ah allyuh is t'tief!" For crying out loud, please tell us clearly what exactly will you (the politicians) do to fix things? What?

It's not too late ... yet! But, trust me: the time is now very, very short. We can help save things if we make it clear to the politicians that we will not tolerate racism. And a first step will be getting Rowley's PNM to fix that horrible perception that is held of them. Don't fix it and I guarantee problems for the country. Big ones.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014


The upcoming internal elections inside the fifty year old PNM this coming Sunday is of greater interest and importance than most people realize. Oh, Keith Rowley will win. That is a given. Put another way, I would be really, really surprised if he doesn't. His rival, Penny Beckles-Robinson, has failed to excite the PNM ground, nor has she been able to get the Party's membership to consider her seriously. She has not articulated any sort of vision and (although this is very probably a most unfair comment) her main "claim to fame" seems to be that "it's time for a woman to lead the PNM." This is such a pity, because, with a little bit of effort and political "smarts" the Beckles-Robinson team should have been able to market themselves much more effectively. That they didn't probably speaks as much to the culture of the PNM where internal dissent is seriously frowned upon as it does to the team's seemingly amateurish attitude to campaigning. Whatever the reason, Dr. Rowley has had a very easy run in what Michael Harris, a columnist in the Express, has called a most boring campaign. And it certainly was; nobody on either side really discussed where he or she would like to take the Party and (most importantly) the country. No issues were discussed or even debated. It was a "beauty contest", pure and simple ... which is such a shame. Was this the best that a fifty year old Party could do?

Add to this the inherent conservatism in the PNM, which does not have a history of rejecting sitting leaders, and you do not need a political pundit to predict Sunday's results.

So, my bet is that Keith Rowley will win these internal elections in a cakewalk. But that is where the "fun and games" will start rather than end. National elections are due (more or less) in one year from now. It is almost predictable what will happen: the economy will grow, more money will be pumped into the system and the Government will trumpet its undeniable successes and the Opposition will shout about the many scandals. There'll be a lot of 'blah, blah, blah!'

But behind all the talk will be something that will be unspoken on the platforms and never mentioned in the media, whether print or electronic; and that is the heartfelt perception amongst non-Africans in the country that neither the PNM nor Dr. Rowley cares much for them. When Hilton Sandy made his blatantly racial 'Calcutta Ship' remark in last year's Tobago House of Assembly elections Dr. Rowley was on the platform. It was noted by the  non-Africans in the society ... especially the Indians against whom the remark was made ... that Dr. Rowley did not jump up immediately (he spoke after Sandy on that same platform) and condemn the remark. Indeed, it was noted in the non-African community that it took Dr. Rowley three days before he said anything, and only after there had been somewhat of a firestorm of criticism.

There have been other faux pas that have caused consternation in the non-African community (e.g. the  "too black to be Prime Minister" comment of Fitzgerald Hinds) that have left what you might call the "nons" to feel that the PNM is only about black people and that every non-African had better be very careful if they allow the PNM to come into power under Dr. Rowley.

The unfortunate thing about all this is that these are only perceptions and not necessarily the truth. Dr. Rowley will, for example,  strenuously deny that he has a racial bone in his body and will point to the fact that he is the darling of the Syrian (non-African) community, amongst others. He will trot out people like Terrance Deyalsingh and Faris Al-Rawi to prove his point. Unfortunately, in politics, perception is reality and it doesn't really matter who or what you are, but who or what people perceive you to be! And that is the point of this post, i.e., that in order for PNM to win next year the Party will have to tackle this perception head on. If the PNM fails to dispel this perception both about itself and about its leader then it will find it very difficult to achieve a plurality of the votes. And if it wins a majority of the seats with a minority of the votes (always a possibility in a first past the post system) it will find itself in the unenviable position of being a minority governing the majority: a sure fire recipe for real trouble!

Frankly, the sooner the PNM does tackle this perception the better for all of us. We need a vibrant two Party system. We need to have an alternative Government. But that alternative Government will have to convince us that it genuinely cares for all the people and not just a certain section of the society. It also has to come with new ideas and new approaches on  how to solve our seemingly intractable problems. It is a truism that is often ignored that problems cannot be solved with the same level of awareness that created them.

You can bet that the ruling UNC will be breathing a sigh of relief that they will have to face Dr. Rowley next year rather than Penny Beckles-Robinson. The obvious "ground" campaign will be much easier to run against Rowley than against Penny. What is most unfortunate about Sunday's internal elections is that its foregone result will effectively further divide by race an already racially divided society.

P.S. The tragedy is that if Penny were to win (which is about as much of a chance as snow falling in Trinidad) this problem would be greatly diminished!

Thursday, May 1, 2014

THE MYTH OF MINIMUM WAGE (or what they won't tell you in Politics 101)

Nicolas Maduro, the embattled President of Venezuela whose support is now probably much less than the bare majority that the official results in last year's Presidential elections said that he had, in an effort to shore up his dwindling support has announced this week a thirty per cent increase in the minimum wage as from 1st May. The minimum wage now moves from 3,720 B's (which is equal to US$520 at the official exchange rate) to 4,252 B's (which is US$675 at the official exchange rate). In other words, the increase is officially equal to US $155.

There are several problems with this: first of all,  the increase is only worth a little over US$67 at the black market rate; in other words, in reality the increase is less than half of the trumpeted thirty per cent. Everybody knows that it is virtually impossible to buy US dollars with Venezuelan Bolivars unless you happen to have first class contacts inside the Government. Secondly, inflation last year in Venezuela is officially reported as being 56.2%. (I do not know what the inflation figure is for this year, but you better believe that it is as high, if not higher, than it was in 2013). So, the trumpeted 30% increase "to help the poor workers" has not even kept them level with the raging inflation even at the official exchange rate!

 But the continuing Venezuelan troubles, serious as they are, are not the point of this post. I was just using this particular "event" (for want of a better word) to illustrate how politicians the world over use minimum wage to fool people. Fact: minimum wage is NOT a device used by governments to help the poor and the underpaid worker. Minimum wage is a device used by governments to increase productivity. Don't believe me? Check it out: the countries with the highest minimum wage in the world also have the highest minimum wage. Coincidence? Yeah! Right! And the Easter Bunny brings presents on December 25th!

But you can test what I am saying another way: let's say that the minimum wage in the country of What's Happening Now is $5 an hour. Now, let's say that you live in What's Happening Now and that you have a small garage in which you repair motor vehicles. In this garage you employ two young men at $5 an hour for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. So your weekly wage bill is $400 a week. The government of What's Happening Now suddenly raises the minimum wage to $10 an hour. The result of this decision is that your wage bill now is doubled overnight. But you simply can't  can't afford to pay out $800 ($400 to each employee) a week. So? What do you do? Answer: You have to let one of them go. The other one that you keep has now to do the work of the dismissed worker as well as his own. In other words, he is forced to become more productive. And as to the one who is let go ... well, he either has to retrain himself in order to get another job or work harder in his next job in order to keep it. Productivity has been increased.

Now you know why opposition politicians always yell loudly about increasing the minimum wage when they are in opposition but when they get into power they become strangely silent on the issue They know that raising the minimum wage abruptly and too quickly can have serious and deleterious effects on employment and the economy.  Trade Union leaders are, of course, another story. They (at least the ones in this country) couldn't care less about economics. All they really care about is having their membership pay their dues so that they (the leaders) can live well. (When last did you ever see a Trade Union leader lead a strike and forgo his pay while the workers were out on strike?)

Maduro's gambit of increasing the minimum wage will play well temporarily with that increasingly diminishing section of the electorate that still supports him, but as reality continues to bite the poor in Venezuela, he will find it harder and harder to convince his countrymen that he really knows how to fix the very serious problems created by his hero, Hugo Chavez. The truth is that this latest action of his just shows how really shaky he is. The reality is that his government cannot last ... at least, not without even more severe repression that is taking place right now.  If I could advise him I would tell Maduro that he ought to know that problems cannot be solved with the same level of consciousness that created them. Unfortunately, nobody has taught the former bus driver this. What a pity!