US Chargé daffairs T&T important to us strategically


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Category: International 21 Apr 13

Last week Monday, as Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar was in the US preparing to address the UN’s General Assembly, Ira Mathur sat down with the US Chargé d’Affaires to T&T Thomas Smitham (whose most recent assignment was as the chief of staff to the Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment at the US Department of State), at his Flagstaff residence for a wide ranging interview from the latest on the Galbaransingh and Ferguson trial to his love of cycling and Carnival.


As we sit here, America is reeling from the bombings at the Boston Marathon finish line killing three, injuring more than 100 people. Your thoughts?

I was shocked. I had friends racing there, which brought the tragedy of the victims of the attacks very close to me. The American people are united in the face of this attack. President Obama has vowed that “any responsible individuals, any responsible groups will feel the full weight of justice.”


There has been speculation that the sons of National Security Minister Jack Warner are under house arrest and are not allowed to leave the US while under FBI investigation into certain “financial transactions.”

We don’t comment on law enforcement issues and, in any case, this type of information is not widely disseminated outside of law enforcement channels.  


Last September, under the ambit of your predecessor, Ambassador Beatrice Welters, the US Embassy released a statement expressing concern about reports that the Ishwar Galbaransingh and Steve Ferguson (indicted in ’05 in a Miami Federal Court on fraud and money laundering charges) may be dropped, expressing concern that they are “accused of committing fraud involving millions of dollars,” expressing disappointment that “after years of investigation, their case was not brought to trial,” reminding us that they “remain under indictment in the United States and the US continues to seek their extradition despite the ruling last year by the T&T High Court.” What’s the latest on that?

We requested extradition, which was blocked by the courts here. Fifteen months ago, we were told they would be tried in Trinidad. The US Attorney General agreed, saying we could accept seeing justice done either here or in the US. Since the Section 34 issues, those cases were drawn out under another legal procedure, wrapped in constitutional questions and appeals creating further delays. It’s not so easy to get them on a plane to the US to face trial. They are under indictment in the US. We want justice done but recognise there are currently legal impediments to that.


By waiting for the T&T courts to untangle the constitutional mess following Section 34, and allowing the case to be tried here, does this mean that the US interest in this case is petering out?

The judge on the Galbaransingh and Ferguson case did not put a stay on the criminal matter so there is some momentum forward. I don’t know how a trial will go here, but we remain interested in justice being served.


What’s your brief on T&T? There are warnings on your State Department site to US citizens wanting to visit here.

T&T is less known as a tourist destination unlike St Lucia, Barbados and St Thomas. A lot of the crime here is concentrated in certain areas, although I am now meeting more people personally affected by crime. The State Department regularly monitors and issues advisories around the world when we feel they are warranted.  


Why is our crime (currently we have the 15th highest murder rate globally) and drug situation of concern to the US?

T&T is an important security partner strategically. Located at the base of the Caribbean and close to South America, it is important to various US government agencies because of its capable military, functioning government and recognisable institutions. If we have success in disrupting drug trafficking routes through Central America and Mexico, it could lead to drug trafficking routes being re-established in the Eastern Caribbean. We need a counter point to this threat.


During the summit of the Americas in Port-of-Spain in 2009, President Obama announced the creation of the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI), an umbrella programme for dealing with transnational crime and narcotics trafficking.

Through CBSI, the US is helping T&T with law enforcement programmes. We are bringing in advisers on firearms tracking to get to the bottom of how and where weapons are trafficked into and out of Trinidad, upgrading the Forensic Science Centre, training the police in forensic techniques, providing military and FBI training, refurbishing a prison and creating youth empowerment programmes to prevent people from going into drugs and organised crime.

Crime here appears to be a combination of organised crime, drug trafficking, disadvantaged youth and illiteracy. How this affects the people is of concern to us.


How important is a tiny nation like T&T to the US?

You never want to oversell these things or you lose credibility. What is undeniable is that T&T is influential regionally, has a solid economy and institutions and is an important investment and security partner as we seek to grow the pie in our respective economies. A country like T&T can and sometimes does “punch above its weight.”

You saw that with the establishment of the International Criminal Court, for example, with the ideas of President Robinson. There are other examples now, as when the Prime Minister works to promote women’s issues around the globe. We don’t see economics as a zero-sum game. When we deal with economic partners we are looking to promote transparency, fight corruption, and reduce tariffs. It’s good for both countries.  


Tell me about yourself.

Born in California, I have been a career diplomat for 22 years with a masters in International Affairs and a BA in History. I’m married with three children. My family means the world to me. I began in Mexico, sometimes seen as the boot camp for the US foreign service, where I spent a lot of time struggling through pollution. Working in the US Embassy to the Vatican in Rome was then my next quirky assignment.

We dealt with the Vatican as government, an international personality with separate ministries on population, relief charities, human rights. At the time the Vatican was peace brokers in Latin America. I’m not Catholic but I went to the official masses and have photos of our babies being kissed by Pope John Paul II.

I was in Peru during December 1996 when 20 terrorists from the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement took the Japanese Ambassador and other top-level diplomats and officials attending a party at his residence hostage for five days. The crisis lasted 126 days during which one hostage and all the militants died.

It was a heady time in Peru, a period of economic boom. There is a novel of that time, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, a loosely based, beautifully dramatised piece of literature on that event.

I have a big interest in the sport of cycling. I started cycling in Belgium, and last summer did the La Marmotte race, an annual, one-day cyclosportive event in France with big “Tour de France” climbs. I ride with the T&T Slipstream Cycling Team every Saturday.


As a fairly serious cyclist what’s your opinion on Lance Armstrong?

I was opposed to drugs in cycling for many years, and Lance seemed to represent that. He was not the only one doing it of course, but it now looks like he was one of the main ones. I am glad that cycling is dealing with drug cheats. There are a few teams now with really rigorous programmes spending half a million $US of their own money testing their own athletes.

What I like about cycling here, it’s a small country with international success. I admire Gene Samuel (now 53, still beating guys on races and tracks today) who told me—and I believe him—that although he was offered drugs he never took them. As a result, he missed out on some big results, but he remains a really honourable sportsman. 


You’ve been here for six months. What’s your impression of T&T?

I don’t think people realise how intriguing T&T is to outsiders. You’ve got big complex country politics in a small country. As an outsider I am never going to figure it all out. Everyone seems to know one another. Although I can’t always know what is behind the curtains, I do judge on outcomes. And those have been largely good. I have found MPs, officials, business people open and receptive. Nobody shuts the door. No one cancels appointments. It’s been great.

I don’t generally go to a lot of parties, I somehow got roped into a lot of your festivities here. I was at the Soca Monarch and pan competition till three-four in the morning, and at J’Ouvert at dawn. It’s cool to see 40,000 people in a country of 1.3M people dancing to Super Blue at three in the morning.

I like the energy, friendliness, openness, the music, the jazz concerts, artists, the art, sport. I feel privileged to have met people like Hasely Crawford, Gene Samuel and George Bovell, along with many of your soca artists. Embracing your culture and society is the easy and privileged part of my job.


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