Enter: the age of quick-fix Carlos


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Category: Trinidad Politics Date: 25 Jul 00

Don’t be tempted by the shine

Hunger only for a taste of justice

All that you have is your soul

- Tracy Chapman


That afternoon in Couva, the rain was splattering untidily over garbage-filled drains - KFC boxes, plastic bags, bottles, soggy newspapers. Ragged children of school-going age ran out of their wooden houses to stare and smile at the sight of dozens of suited men parking their cars on the narrow streets and pavements, before disappearing into a local restaurant for a South Chamber of Commerce meeting.


There was a buzz when the feature speaker, Carlos John, well-groomed in an impeccably-cut day suit, with manicured hands, (no doubt, if one got close enough, his cologne would be expensive and subtle and his breath, minty) bustled into the restaurant, bringing with him the aura of importance, high connections, plush-carpeted Board rooms, and weighty matters of State.


He was late, he said, because he was in a meeting, (implied: high level) and there was another he was missing, chaired by the Honourable (John) Humphrey, to attend this one. Never mind, he had already attended the meeting chaired by the Prime Minister. The audience took it as it was meant - a compliment that his regard for them was so great, that despite his position, he took time off his busy schedule.


In between the discreet clashing of knives and forks on plates, the gathering listened attentively to what was described afterwards as a lecture on the state of the nation’s roads.


There was a plan, said Mr John, (delivered as if it were an epiphany). Every MP was being asked to submit the ten top priority roads in their area. Of these, the top five would be dealt with first. We are the wealthiest country in the region, he said, and there is no reason why our infrastructure shouldn’t be the best.


While the rain drummed outside, this small audience watched this man, whose every smooth pore screamed of success, wade cautiously into politics. He spoke slowly, carefully reading his carefully-written speech as well as he could. The main thing this time was not to fumble or make mistakes.


Later, no doubt, as his confidence grows, he will draw on his experience as an insurance salesman - to convince, persuade. We will forgive him if his delivery was somewhat stilted, halting, read rather than spoken. Then there were times when he was a bit muddled, as if unsure of his position, since he made references to “My Government” followed by “Our Parliament - since Government is made up of two sides” and the piece de resistance when he vowed to complete “what we were elected to do”. That is, fix the nation’s roads in record time.


He sat down, then came back impulsively to the mike to refute the impression “out there” that he was implementing “the Carlos John Plan”. On the contrary, “The Plan” was to be a team effort of highly-qualified public servants. He sat down to applause. No one looked as pleased as he did with his own magnanimity.


We don’t know much about Mr John, except that he dresses immaculately, that he paved the Savannah in record time, was a major player in the Miss Universe Contest, and is or was a former CLICO executive. And now, a budding politician.


It would be a cheap shot at this stage to call the Honourable Carlos John an opportunist who has entered politics only for his own benefit. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. Too often we are mean-spirited to hard-working, driven people and grudge them the rightful financial and social fruit of their labours. The green-eyed monster of envy makes us pull people down, so we can feel tall, instead of pulling ourselves up, too.


But Mr John would be naive not to recognise, that like all our politicians, he will be presumed guilty by the objective observer of being self-serving, until he proves otherwise. Mr John, a newcomer (like Mr Gillette), is being closely watched by an intelligent and wary population, with a kind of fatalism which comes from experience and disappointment, to be betrayed and exploited again by yet another politician.


Yet there is always a sliver of hope which defies reality. Maybe, this man will do what he is supposed to do - represent the voiceless, serve and improve the lives of the thousands of citizens who can barely scrape together a living.


Consider the great politicians of our age: Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela, Jawaharlal Nehru, Winston Churchill, John Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln - men whose passion and spirit burst out of their individual bodies to encompass countries, stretch across continents.


They became substantial, wise, popular, humanist, liberal not through PR but the weight of their character formed by vast knowledge of history, economics, science, sociology.


Their charisma is no secret. Their fire and ideals had a solid base of a lifetime of unswerving conviction that somehow, they had to elevate their people; that they had the power to carve out, light up thousands of lives, project the destiny of a people and country, way beyond their individual lifetimes.


But we live in the era of the quick fix, where finance and technology rather than the humanities, drive men to the top. The irony of new technology is it creates many men and cities of tinsel.


If we don’t take our history and social sciences as seriously as we do our MBAs and management and sales courses, we will continue to allow history to repeat itself, spin top in mud, as we have these past 50 years.


We can mourn the past but we need to work with the present. So let us presume, for his sake (and ours), that as Minister Carlos John was being driven out of Couva, he was able to see through his tinted glass, the connection between his present power to the ragged children playing near unsanitary drains outside flimsy wooden houses; the connection between his belief we are a wealthy country to the need to spread the wealth more evenly; the connection between breaking bread with the upper crust to duty to his country as a representative of the people; the connection between power and responsibility. We hope.


VS Naipaul wrote more than 43 years ago in “The Mystic Masseur”, there was no politics in Trinidad, only personalities. In “Guerrillas”, published ten years later, he was clear on his opinion of the politics of a small tropical island: narrow, insular men without world views, operating without context or history. Naipaul intimated in “Guerrillas” that our politicians are phony, ambitious men without substance, who are ejected and admitted into a politics of shifting sands based on short-term expedience, rather than the strength of character.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur