A few years ago then Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar raised regional eyebrows – and not for the first time – when she cautioned reporters at a Caribbean Community (CARICOM) meeting in Jamaica that Trinidad and Tobago must not be regarded as the region’s automated teller machine (ATM).
In fact, Mrs Persad-Bissessar had made it clear at the time that Port of Spain was not prepared to fund the region’s US$40 million security budget, as she told her regional colleagues that there was need for greater accountability and transparency in the Petroleum Fund and the CARICOM Development Fund – both of which benefitted tremendously from funding provided by Port of Spain.
“A lot of monies have been shelled out by Trinidad and Tobago [with] no accountability, no transparency . . . [and] we just cannot continue to do things in that way and each time there is a shortfall we cannot continue like Trinidad and Tobago is an ATM card . . . you come in, you put the card there and you come back out with cash. It just cannot happen anymore,” the Trinidadian leader had said, drawing the ire of many within the community, including former Jamaican prime minister PJ Patterson who told reporters that he disagreed with the view that Port of Spain’s generosity had been abused by CARICOM members.
“I can only speak for Jamaica and I would have to say that we did not line up or benefit from any ATM machine and I confine that remark to Jamaica,” he said, adding, that said, those programmes that have been administered by CARICOM “have been done in a manner that always ensures accountability and I think those who have been responsible for the administration of those funds can, if necessary, or should it be necessary, be called upon to give an account of their stewardship”.
Nonetheless, there was no questioning at the time of Trinidad and Tobago’s commitment to CARICOM, even though Mr Patterson said it was very evident that its emphasis would be somewhat different to that which existed before with the previous Patrick Manning-led People’s National Movement (PNM) administration.
But speaking for the then-opposition PNM, its new leader Dr Keith Rowley had publicly decried the “ATM” comments as insulting to the rest of the region.
Speaking at a PNM rally, Dr Rowley had also suggested that Mrs Persad-Bissessar could have been more diplomatic in her comments while at the same time alerting regional partners that her country too was feeling the economic squeeze.
At the same time, the PNM leader admitted to a view held by many Trinidadians that former leader Patrick Manning “was trying to be CARICOM’s godfather”, and might have been “excessive” in his regional outreach.
However, he reminded that CARICOM was Trinidad and Tobago’s largest market while sounding a warning that Mrs Persad-Bissessar’s “insulting” remarks could force some Caribbean countries to do business elsewhere with the resulting implications for jobs for Trinidadians.
“Our jobs here are largely dependent on what they spend on our products over there,” he said, adding that: “Those of you who travel will know that when you go to Barbados, St Vincent, St Lucia, Antigua, [and] Jamaica, all the shelves are stocked largely with products that say ‘made in Trinidad and Tobago.’”
Fast forward to 2018 and it is Mr Rowley’s government that is now accused of making undiplomatic declarations in relation to a CARICOM member, but this time at a hemispheric meeting where Trinidad and Tobago recently opposed a waiver for hurricane-battered Dominica on the grounds that having been among the early responders to Roseau’s pleas for assistance “Trinidad and Tobago has had itself to explicitly express a position that it is unable to facilitate any increase in its own assessed contributions.
“Given the explanations provided by the chair of the cap, this delegation must advise distinguished colleagues that at other multilateral fora in the hemisphere, Trinidad and Tobago has had to explicitly state its concerns for the overall impact of adjustments in the established arrangements for payment of quota contributions.
“In doing so Trinidad and Tobago has offered the proposal, the opportunity, the option for consideration of the deferral of payments of contributions by member states and, where possible, the implementation of a payment plan, subject to review of course, given that you never know how long an adjustment and capacity to return to the normal arrangements,” the country’s ambassador to the Organisation of American States (OAS) Anthony Phillip Spencer told the hemispheric meeting.
Since then, all manner of excuses have been given for why such a position would have been taken by Trinidad. And given all that is now known of its regional neighbour’s plight, which is nothing short of dire, many are now openly asking, could the Rowley government be so uncaring, heartless even?
We note that Mr Rowley has ordered an investigation into the matter. However, in the absence of any firm action against the OAS envoy involved, we are left to conclude that both he and his administration are one with the embattled envoy on the position taken against Dominica.
If so, we believe it is fair to say that Mrs Persad-Bissessar’s position is not the only one that is insulting to CARICOM.