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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.