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Whey the money really gone: Shah identifies our other big users of forex

Central Bank governor Jwala Rambarran was the unlikeliest man to kick the hornets’ nest. But that he did when he named the firms that used the most foreign exchange—or forex—over the past three years.

Amidst a cacophony of complaints from businesses and individuals about being denied adequate sums of forex for legitimate uses, Rambarran went on the offensive by identifying the 18 biggest users.

Photo: Central Bank governor Jwala Rambarran. (Courtesy YouTube)
Photo: Central Bank governor Jwala Rambarran.
(Courtesy YouTube)

His revelations elicited praise from ordinary citizens who felt they had every right to know “whey de money gorn.” The Government was not amused.

Finance Minister Colm Imbert said he was checking to see if Rambarran breached the Bank’s confidentiality clauses. And business organisations cried foul over the name-game.

As the brouhaha gathered force, praise and condemnation competed for media space and time. I think, though, that most people missed the real story in those names and numbers.

It was not about who got what and who didn’t. It was all about people’s almost insatiable appetite for foreign goods and the nation’s multi-billion-dollar over-dependence on things foreign.

What do you think would happen if, tomorrow, the Bank or Government were to say to Price Smart or Massy Stores: “Not another US dollar for you!”

The tens of thousands of trolley-pushing consumers who throng these supermarket chains would riot, move with brute force to overthrow the Government, break down the Bank’s door to find Rambarran and put a severe licking on him—if he is lucky.

Photo: Shoppers fight over sales on "Black Friday" in the United States. (Copyright UK Daily Mail)
Photo: Shoppers fight over sales on “Black Friday” in the United States.
(Copyright UK Daily Mail)

Add to that cauldron, short-changing Courts, stifling Smith Robertson (a pharmaceuticals distributor), squeezing Nestle, WITCO, Carib, National Flour Mills….

If you want to see real revolution, make the mistake of tampering with Trinis’ right to purchase what they wish with their money.

The root problem is not the “parasitic oligarchy” or the “commission agents”, those who buy in bulk (using forex), mark up and distribute, and the retailers who add something more.

The real problem is that oil dollars have reduced us all to “petro-jumbies”—a people who have never explored our creativity, our talents, our potential.

For generations, we have been lazy slobs, knowing that the oil dollars—down today but up tomorrow—will rescue us from ruin, cushion fuel prices, allow us to enjoy dog-cheap water and electricity and low or no productivity.

Let me adduce some statistics on spending forex, which will show that the 18 firms named by Rambarran are not the main cause of our woes.

Photo: Oil prices remain a real source of concern. (Courtesy Earthtimes.org)
Photo: Oil prices remain a real source of concern.
(Courtesy Earthtimes.org)

The country’s average annual imports or visible trade amount to US$8 billion or approximately TT$51 billion. Of that, roughly 50 percent are energy related—mostly crude oil for Petrotrin’s refinery—meaning that the remaining US$4 billion is used for other goods.

The 18 firms named accessed US$3.462 billion over three years, hence US$1.154 billion a year. That is approximately 25 percent of forex used for all imports.

What of the remaining 75 percent?

Well, we know that we eat about US$700 million a year in foreign foods—mostly staples but also gourmet items—and much of them bought at Massy Stores (formerly Hi-Lo) and Price Smart.

In 2011, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), we imported US$48 million in wheat, US$47 million in what they call food preparations, US$33 million in cheese, US$32 million in alcohol—yes, you read right!—US$50 million for roughly 69,000 tonnes of raw and refined sugar, US$17 million in pastry, US$14 million in frozen potatoes (chips, I imagine), and so on…

For ages, we have been dreaming of feeding ourselves, which is really a piper’s dream.

Photo: Bring out the ham... (Copyright caribbeanpot.com)
Photo: Bring out the ham…
(Copyright caribbeanpot.com)

Try offering your friends some ground provisions—which I eat at least twice weekly—or breadfruit/chataigne or a vegetable cook-up for Christmas. They will cuss you in parang!

In other words, the little local foods we can produce on the remaining unpaved land in this country; our own people, especially the children, hardly eat them. So you end up in the same Massy Stores or in Chin’s or Singh’s grocery, pushing a trolley loaded with genetically-modified, forex-paid foods.

We no longer have a thriving garment industry and our few entrepreneurs still in business face mountainous problems, as online shoppers, who, incidentally, rack up US$500 million a year in purchases, can stay at home and shop at Macy’s.

Local furniture-makers—good craftsmen who produced quality, durable items—must be a dying breed, if not long dead, slaughtered by foreign competition.

The importation of new and foreign-used vehicles, more than US$300 million a year, is absolutely necessary: every family must own at least three cars, even if they do not own a house.

And as we degenerate into a sicker society, we must buy more medications and expensive-but-bogus miracle cures, all of which are foreign.

Photo: An online shopper prepares to make a purchase.
Photo: An online shopper prepares to make a purchase.

So, you see why I say that we, the society, are the problem.

Unless we intervene with a heavy local hand, foreign go kill we!

AboutRaffique Shah

Raffique Shah
Raffique Shah is a columnist for over three decades, founder of the T&T International Marathon, co-founder of the ULF with Basdeo Panday and George Weekes, a former sugar cane farmers union leader and an ex-Siparia MP. He trained at the UK’s Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and was arrested, court-martialled, sentenced and eventually freed on appeal after leading 300 troops in a mutiny at Teteron Barracks during the Black Power revolution of 1970.

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20 comments

  1. No democracy is to blame

    We vote for bribes

  2. Kyon you thinking democracy… our mindset is stuck in social welfare programmes….freeness and more freeness, we cannot think beyond that….people have literally thrown up their arms in the air waiting on government’s next move…so much for our educational system that’s sucking up taxpayers money.

  3. Kyon you thinking democracy… our mindset is stuck in social welfare programmes….freeness and more freeness, we cannot think beyond that….people have literally thrown up their arms in the air waiting on government’s next move…so much for our educational system that’s sucking up taxpayers money.

  4. We will oppose any attempt to fix the situation because of what we think democracy is

  5. We will oppose any attempt to fix the situation because of what we think democracy is

  6. It is indeed a myopic view point and what of the remaining 75% of foreign exchange???? Stop the importation of alchohol in large quantities, gourmet foods and luxurious vehicles with immediate effect…those wishing to have those items must source their own Forex….as for all the importation of SUGAR!! T & T is now importing…instead of building concrete jungles in the cane fields …mechanize the sugar plantation or give it out to private enterprise for production….everything that is happening to us now is no surprise, the writing was on the walls many moons ago and if we fail to get our act together, we are going to end up right back in the 50s and 60s…our problem is POOR GOVERNANCE…Stop saying people are lazy, and have not explored their creativity….with the right programmes and incentives everybody is going to get on board…but as long as we choose to play the race card…We as a nation! not going anywhere in a HURRY!!.

  7. Correct Jill…. economist refer to our type of economy as a Banana Republic!.

  8. I saw this. Not a surprise how much is going in food and basic needs. That’s what a colony is. A place where the people are disconnected from their environment and therefore fulfill their needs from their colonisers, their ex-colonizers, and the descendants of their colonizers. We are a model example.

  9. Wow!! . Thanks for this perspective.

  10. Wow!! . Thanks for this perspective.

  11. Truly a sticker society and this describes us so well petro-jumbies”—a people who have never explored our creativity, our talents, our potential.

  12. Thanks Raf……The root problem is not the “parasitic oligarchy” or the “commission agents”, those who buy in bulk (using forex), mark up and distribute, and the retailers who add something more.

    The real problem is that oil dollars have reduced us all to “petro-jumbies”—a people who have never explored our creativity, our talents, our potential.

  13. RAFF on point as usual. But who’s listening? Daiz de t’ing.

  14. Groups are led by leaders, managers, alpha males or females/coaches/parents. Who made these decisions?: close down the railway network in the 60’s to now want to spend billions to put it back; no land use policy or enforcement so we spend millions on squatter related issues; no agriculture industry that can feed the nation so high food imports; free laptops but not a single student certified in MS Office or typing; limited land space but government has built a considerable amount of housing units instead of apartment buildings; 365 days of sunlight but no solar power industry; lawlessness but no enforcement so no collection of fines..etc Too convenient to point fingers at the plebs.

  15. The 75% is the flaw in the governor’s disclosure. Why did he choose those and not others that might show us the ‘misuse’ of funds.

  16. What an absolutely myopic viewpoint. I guess us lazy , greedy laborers need to be taught a lesson and be properly rationed for our own good.