By Reginald Dumas
Visits by Xi Jinping and Joe Biden notwithstanding, Trinidad and Tobago hasn’t in recent weeks been getting the best regional and international coverage it could. On aviation matters, for instance, Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves of St Vincent and the Grenadines has been fretting and fuming over what he says—perhaps rightly, I don’t know—is the fuel subsidy (coyly called a “hedge” by some of us here) being received by Caribbean Airlines Ltd (CAL), which he describes as unfair and a breach of the Caricom treaty. (CAL has benefited from this arrangement since January 2007, so I don’t know why Gonsalves has only recently become so vocal about it.)
Aviation is also a sore point with the Jamaicans, who in addition resent what they see as a tightening T&T stranglehold in trade and investment, on their economy and the region’s. Some are calling for Jamaica to abandon the regional movement. Well, if she did, it wouldn’t be the first time. It would be the last, though.
Then came a news item from Washington purporting to quote the US State Department’s 2012 International Religious Freedom Report as saying that, among other countries in the Caribbean, T&T discriminated against Muslims and Rastafarians. “Really?” I asked myself. “I didn’t know that.” But I have now become very wary of much that I read and hear in the media, so I decided to check the State Department website myself for the report on T&T.
What I saw about Muslims was essentially this: “During a three-month state of emergency declared by Parliament in 2011, authorities arrested 16 Muslim men who were allegedly plotting to assassinate the prime minister and three other Cabinet ministers. The Government never charged the men with any crime and released them after one week. During the year, Muslims referred to this incident as an example of bias against the Muslim community.” How on earth does that translate into Government or societal discrimination against Muslims?
On the contrary, the report says this: “There were no reports of abuses (by the Government) of religious freedom.” And this: “There were no reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief or practice, and prominent societal leaders took positive steps to promote religious freedom.” So what was the Washington news item all about? What discrimination?
As for Rastafarians, the report doesn’t mention them at all, except in the section listing the population’s religious affiliations, where they are lumped for statistical reasons with Baha’is, Buddhists and Jews.
Discrimination? What discrimination? But shouldn’t we really be asking who the confusionist reporter was who sent this invented story from Washington in the first place?
Then appeared a story of a junior French government minister, Pascal Canfin, telling the French National Assembly on May 22 that T&T was one of the countries blacklisted by a French body for not helping to investigate foreign-aid fraud. There was a lack of transparency in the blacklisted countries, we heard, and pressure was being brought to bear on them to pull up their socks.
The French body concerned is the Agence Française de Développement (French Development Agency), which describes itself on its website as “a financial institution and the main implementing agency for France’s official (my emphasis) development assistance to developing countries and overseas territories.” Note the word “official”—in other words, it’s in essence a French government organisation.
Its website further says (I’m translating from the French) that “the (agency’s) operations in the Lesser Antilles are focused on Dominica and Saint Lucia…” Therefore not T&T, which is part of the Lesser Antilles. We receive European Union assistance, not French (though France is a member of the EU). But the EU is silent on this matter. So what exactly was Canfin talking about? What foreign aid fraud are we reluctant to help investigate? On the last occasion it was Nicolas Sarkozy’s government that was pointing fingers at us; now it is Francois Hollande’s. If I had a persecution complex I would already be wondering what offence we have given the French. Equal opportunity offence, may I add, since Sarkozy was rightwing and Hollande is of the left. That would be true nonalignment for you.
Ministers Winston Dookeran and Larry Howai have properly expressed concern and astonishment at Canfin’s remarks—made without any prior discussion with or notification to us—and sought an acceptable explanation from the French Ambassador here. I wish I could say that what I’ve seen of his responses so far has erased my discomfort. But I cannot. For instance, what was the basis of Canfin’s remarks? Why did he make them, and at this time? Why was there no advance indication to our government? What may be the implications for the T&T-France and T&T-EU relationships?
The Ambassador is reported as saying the whole thing is a nonissue. I wish I could agree. But I cannot. Canfin is a government minister, junior though he may be, and thus presumed to be responsible and to be articulating French Government policy. How does government policy become a nonissue? In this age of obeisance to the gods of transparency and accountability, and with an economy that is by no means as healthy as it used to be and is trying to attract foreign investment, the last thing T&T needs is an official accusation and castigation from one of the world’s major powers that we are dragging our heels on fraud and corruption. I trust that the Ambassador will soon set our minds at rest.
One final question. What is the role of all our expensive government “information” offices and highly-paid so-called “communications specialists” in countering these negative images of our country?
• Reginald Dumas is a former ambassador and former head of the public service .