This week’s blackout taught us a great lesson: the street windscreen wiper boys at the West Mall traffic lights are human! Not only are they human and not freaks intent on mischief, but they are also brave entrepreneurs. Who would have thought?
When anxiety levels were rising, they, who reportedly live in the ‘hot spot’ of Cocorite, stopped hustling and took over the jobs of our police in managing the traffic.
They saw the need for helping the drivers to find their way home safely and wagered that, by assisting in that effort, they would be allowed to ply their trade in the future. There is no record of them demanding pay for their selfless service.
They gave up the possible pittances they could have earned to help others who may never remember them in the future.
Why did they not try to rob the motorists in the congested traffic? Can reflection on this event hold some clues to address our crime situation?
To understand our crime situation, we should look at our economy and government’s policies over the years since Independence. Let us consider Diamond Vale built in the early 1960s. Those were the days of civil service mandarins, like Eugenio Moore, Doddridge Alleyne, Frank Rampersad and Frank Barsotti and others.
We were discussing five-year development plans. We understood that homes needed schools and jobs, and a community is created by neighbours who raised children in common.
Yes, MP Alfredo Bermudez ensured that his constituents had a chance at getting a home, but the new homeowner had to pay for the privilege, and the home meant security. The Trinidad and Tobago Mortgage Finance Co. Ltd provided the funds. Dreams flourished and led to many children becoming successful citizens.
Diamond Vale was not the only such development. We had Pleasantville (as distinct from Ne Plus Ultra) and Morvant, which were self-help built. The notion was that there was a need for housing, but the planners did not thoughtlessly throw folk together.
There was a sense that evades the later editions where people were shunted into buildings that represented traps. The fire-struck Trou Macaque apartments still stand as a grim reminder of the shortcomings of our more recent housing solutions.
The ‘Plannings’ in various locations and the absence of parks represent a fundamental misunderstanding of how children grow and communities are created.
Neighbourhoods matter. The community dramatically influences the outcome of the children in families because of the quality of schools and play areas. The poor ones also lack the human and political resources that other communities have, making the opportunity to improve life chances more difficult.
By 1968, the tides were turning. Laventille, a mirror community to Diamond Vale with police and prison officers as residents and teeming with tradespeople of all stripes, was under pressure.
The Eastern Caribbean people, who usually came to work in the oilfields, moved to Port-of-Spain—pursuing the promise of manufacturing jobs.
Their brothers who went to Point Fortin and La Brea are not the victims of the myth that Dr Eric Williams imported them to pad the vote. We do not speak about crime in the latter places the way we speak of it in the Laventille area.
There must be another cause for the crime. It is not a case of where these people came from.
The newcomers climbed the hill and created without restraint the higgledy-piggledy streets where cars could not go, or trucks collect garbage. Then came high unemployment, the mark of backwardness in economic development, and a loss of employment when the agricultural sector collapsed.
The trucks laden with oranges and grapefruits disappeared. Today we do not remember that we had a viable agricultural industry. We have forgotten the existence of the Citrus Cooperative Growers factory, which now lies in ruins on the Eastern Main Road.
We do not recall the Elite shirt factory and Van Heusen shirts made here. Today, there is little sign that the Eastern Main Road was once a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity.
The shirt and citrus factories closed. The decline of the Port of Port-of-Spain began. The men lost their jobs. Trust in the Williams administration evaporated.
The place with streets named after the PNM stalwarts lost hope of finding employment, and this, over the years, turned into little interest to discover the scarce openings. The question was this: “is the government delivering what it promised?”
Simultaneously, in the Pt Lisas area, a different dream was being birthed based on the new-found reserves of Amoco in the South East. Laventille, the base of the PNM party and cultural powerhouse, had to wait. The young ones bristled, bursting out in the Black Power protests.
Over the years, the more capable residents moved out of the community, thereby reducing the possibility of improvement. William J Wilson (1996) explained when jobs are lost, schooling opportunities shrink, health care becomes a pain to access, and hellholes are created.
Unemployment levels in these neighbourhoods are persistently higher than anywhere else. There should be no surprise when young men became Robin Hoods.
Fast forward to the 2000s and the third oil boom. What did we, as a country, do?
The IMF summarised in 2016: ‘[…] taking into account the size of energy revenue windfalls, the country has under-saved and under-invested in their future [which] could lead the country to uncomfortable levels of debt…’
This assessment strongly resembles Michael Manley’s 1980 quip: “They say that Trinidad is going to be broke in three years… that Trinidad has oil, but they are allowing the oil to flow like a dose of (Epsom) salts through the country. Cadillac and Mercedes Benz are available, but they can’t even patch a blasted pothole.”
In two years (2008-09), we put more money into the Heritage and Stabilisation Fund (HSF) than we did in five years (2010-2015). Yet in 2011-2016, dividends from state enterprises to the Treasury increased sharply to TT$19.5 Billion.
The then Central Bank governor Jwala Rambarran helpfully detailed our excesses in food and drink, buying on our credit cards and splurging on fancy cars. In the first six months of 2015, we squandered US$932 million—the equivalent of what Jamaica got from the IMF’s four-year Extended Fund Facility.
Rambarran added, ‘the insatiable demand for US dollars’ created a shortage that ‘will not be solved unless we dramatically change our consumer-driven, heavily import-dependent behaviour’.
Meanwhile, hell-like poverty coexisted; no sign of trickle-down wealth on the way.
Corruption was not only about stealing but was a means of political control. The greedy monsters, free from restraint, sought their interests—not the national ones.
Manufacturers did not turn their share of the foreign exchange into exports yet increased profit. Our tastes became more Americanised as income grew without growth in job creation.
There was neither transformation nor diversification; the multinational companies ruled. Jamaican dancehall artists filled the business class seats to and from Port-of-Spain. If one could not find a well-paying job, he could dance the night away.
Petty banditry presaged the concerts. But who cared? Money was flowing. The masses were seduced with baubles, such as the Shaq O’Neal visit and Colour Me Orange project.
We knew better. Lloyd Best and Eric St Cyr (2005) told us how to manage our resources in times of plenty. In the same year, an IMF paper recommended creating a sustainable non-energy sector’s debt position.
Did the citizens get value in either the second or third oil boom?
Gregory Mc Guire (2014) cites the appalling example of the Brian Lara stadium as the answer. We never learnt not to spend money on consumption and instead transform the economy.
As Mc Guire (ibid) noted, we were moving backwards between 2003 and 2009, based on the Human Development Index.
We never helped the East-West corridor poor, even though the National Gas Company’s Corporate Communications budget mushroomed from $67 million in 2012 to almost $200 million in 2014.
Who expects things to be different in the future? Can we not see the link to crime?
We increased our spending on national security by more than 200%, with little or no impact on the spiralling increase in serious crime. And this was before Gary Griffith arrived with his massive increases in the TTPS budget.
The public school system collapsed even as the private schools mushroomed. The transport system creaked and moaned with commuters waiting endlessly. If you could afford it, you bought a car, using up the foreign exchange but bringing no economic transformation.
The civil service bureaucrats of old had long gone, and their insecure successors dare not confront the politicians. The Central Statistical Office became a shadow of itself, and, therefore, the economy could not be appropriately managed. We hollowed out the resolve of the poor.
With the advent of Covid, the music has stopped. The piper must now be paid. The bill has been totted up for 50 years and the accounts must now be settled.
Do we have the courage to reject false solutions and do the necessary national psychoanalysis? Will we look at ourselves and see where our greed has landed us?
Are the West Mall crews the only entrepreneurs with a social conscience? Will we ignore their gesture of goodwill and perhaps force them into banditry?
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