Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley launched a scathing attack on the local media today, which he accused of trying to paint him and his government as ‘liars’ with regards to its narrative on the visit of Venezuela vice-president Delcy Rodríguez and her contingent in March.
In today’s post-Cabinet press conference, broadcast live by TTT, Rowley pointed to an excerpt from the Trinidad Express newspaper and also quoted editorials from the Trinidad Guardian and Express. He offered rebuttals to each one.
The Express excerpt which drew his ire read: ‘Worse, the PM has come out to say he also did know who was in the room at the time of the Venezuelan VP’s visit…’
“When did I ever say that? When did the prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago ever say that?” asked Rowley. “[…] That sentence painted the prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago as a liar. I never said that. On more than one occasion as you were agitating the country, I said I sat with two Venezuelans: one was Delcy Rodríguez, one was Mr [Asdrubal] Chavez, who was not at the time president of PDVSA.
“[…] Who is not in the room is not in the meeting [but] last week that was not common sense. Anyone who was anywhere in St Ann’s was in the meeting; and I was supposed to know them, their mother and their neighbour’s name.”
Rowley referenced calls for the resignation of Minister of National Security Stuart Young and pushed back.
“We don’t have independent media houses in Trinidad and Tobago,” said Rowley. “What we have is media houses that have interests to protect. And if you don’t think I know what is going on, I know exactly what is going on and I will speak to it in full in future times.”
At one point, Rowley appeared to directly challenge CNC3 journalist Akash Samaroo in one of several exchanges with the gathering.
“You are never going to accept what I am telling you because you have a problem with the truth—that is the problem,” said Rowley. “If you know something else you tell me… If you are telling me to come clean and I have told you the truth, then you are asking me to lie… That is what it is.”
Rowley’s delivery was, as usual, blunt yet sprinkled with the occasional humorous barb. He was forceful but did not shout. And although he insisted on answering questions on his terms, he did not avoid them outright.
Pressed for his view on the recent press coverage of the Venezuelan visit and the potential ramifications, Rowley made a case against the media itself.
“The time has come for the population to know what the interest is, because apparently you don’t know. One media house is owned by a business conglomerate that has interests, and the government has taken decisions that is unfavourable to their interests.
“The other one has business with the state which the government is not facilitating. And then obviously the government is making enemies, because they have interests to protect [and] we have interests to protect.
“Our interest is to protect the interests of the people of Trinidad and Tobago. Their interest is to protect their financial bottomline and on many occasions we stand in the way.
“[…] And if you aren’t aware of that then maybe you should be; and then you would not believe that what you see there is pure as the driven snow and that there is no motive behind a lot of what has been harassing the psyche of the people of Trinidad and Tobago.
“Last week was a particularly bad week for those conflicts, and there are going to be other days going forward… I represent the people of Trinidad and Tobago because I am only doing a job… And while I am doing my job, I am laser-focused on the interests of the people of Trinidad and Tobago.
“[…] My linen can stand airing in the sun.”
Challenged by another journalist, Rowley confirmed that the government is a shareholder at the OCM group, which owns TV6 and the Trinidad Express, but said it was ‘not relevant’ since it has ‘not used the state’s interest’ there.
Rowley reiterated his government’s position, which is that it recognises Nicolás Maduro as president of Venezuela, as does Caricom and the United Nations. He stressed too that his government disagreed with the United States’ interpretation of the Rio Treaty to justify military action against Venezuela—not least because Juan Guaidó, the self-declared president of the Latin American country, was represented in the decision-making process.
“If we’re not accepting Guaidó as the president of Venezuela, it follows that we can’t accept Guaidó’s appointees at the OAS or anywhere else for that matter,” said Rowley.
The prime minister declined to say whether Trinidad and Tobago, one of three Caribbean signatories to the Rio Treaty along with the Bahamas and Haiti, would withdraw from the pact. And he did not offer a comment when asked whether the United States was attempting to ‘bully’ the twin island republic.
He said that he was nervous about the implications for Trinidad and Tobago if things went ‘pear-shaped’ between the bickering parties, just off our shores. But he stressed that the government will not be pushed into taking sides and suggested that the population should be proud of their efforts towards that end.
“We demand the right to be neutral,” said Rowley. “[…] As the government of Trinidad and Tobago, seven miles from Venezuela with 30 million people, 16,000 [of who are] in my country, in a pandemic—if the government next door wants to talk to me, what are you as a citizen of Trinidad and Tobago saying to me?
“Don’t talk to the government of Venezuela? A government that the United Nations general secretary sat on a table with me and Caricom and said the government of Venezuela, acknowledged by the UN, is the government of Maduro—until it is changed and properly so?
“[…] All we have done is to preserve our position of neutrality where titans want to clash; that is all that has happened.”
Rowley described claims that the government planned to facilitate Iran tankers bound for Venezuela as lies by the opposition United National Congress (UNC) part and again insisted that his meeting with Rodríguez was for Covid-19.
He said the Venezuelan contingent offered testing kits to Trinidad but they were not felt to be as reliable as the ones already in the possession of the Ministry of Health; and the offer was not accepted.
Samaroo: Why was Chavez in the meeting?
Rowley: You have to ask the vice-president of Venezuela that. I didn’t pick her delegation for her…
The prime minister said that he could not recall Chavez making any contribution to the meeting.
Rowley did not have any news on when Trinidad and Tobago will enter phase three of the reopening of its economy but said he will address the public again from 2pm on Saturday, after discussions with medical experts as well as the Ministers of Health and National Security.
He warned that the country might be in a ‘dangerous zone of comfort’.
“It is almost over a month now that we have not had confirmation [of a new Covid-19 infection] and it is very easy for our population to take the position in many places that we had a pandemic problem,” said Rowley. “I simply want to emphasise again that we are not in the past tense. We are still very present because one of the problems we are facing—because we have been very successful in the initial period in keeping the virus out—[is] our population has a very low resistance to the virus.
“We have built up no immunity at the national level… as we come out, if we get the virus amongst us, it can wreak havoc. The danger is if you try to [re-open] too fast, you could fall on your face. If what you are going to do is gamble, why take that gamble?”
The prime minister said he recently visited four manufacturing companies at random—CPI, Nestle, TYE and Vemco—with less than 24 hours notice and was ‘very pleased’ with what he observed of their operations.
He urged the population too that he was, on the advice of chief medical officer Dr Roshan Parasram, ‘cautiously but steadily’ allowing entry to some of the 330,000 citizens who live or work abroad at present.
“For those who are critical [about our border restrictions], don’t forget why we are doing it,” he said. “[…] The alternative is to try to solve one problem by creating a greater problem.”
Rowley advised that his term in office ends in September and, according to the constitution, elections must be held 90 days from then. Campaigning this year will have to not only satisfy the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) but also the CMO.
“The virus is not going to give us a pass because we have an election,” he said. “[…] We are going to have to do things differently in campaigning for the elections.”
He advised the public to ‘sieve out’ its news carefully.
“Last week was a terrible week for truth in Trinidad and Tobago,” said Rowley. “A lot of what was published was published by persons who were ill-informed, malicious, or just sad… Even my garden you had trouble with.”
Flashing a smile, Rowley closed the press conference with a presumably playful jab.
“If there are no further questions, maybe I should go back into hiding… Thank you very much for accurate reporting.”