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Ten Million Dollar Man
If life imitates art in the rest of the world, life in Trinidad imitates television. In the seventies, there was a show called The Six Million Dollar Man. The hero, Steve Aus-tin, played by Lee Majors, was a cyborg, part man, part machine, with “bionic” legs, a bionic arm and a bionic eye, if memory serves (though mine is more likely to spit in my food on its way to the table). After a plane crash, Steve Austin is left severely injured but, as the voiceover intro reminded every week, “We have the technology to rebuild him.” Well, almost 40 years after the show’s 1974 debut, T&T has proved it has the technology to rebuild a $10-million finance minister out of the ruins of his predecessor. Last week, Minister of Finance Winston Dookeran, who, for the last two years, did all he could to hold back wasteful and non-productive state spending, was replaced by Larry Howai, whose last cheque from the state-owned bank he worked for was for $10 million. Nice work if you can get it; or, to be precise, leave it: the ex-gratia payment was to mark his departure from First Citizens Bank. And to think I was conflicted about accepting the $300 honorarium from the Ministry of Planning for my gig in the Technicians of Humour thing on Wednesday at City Hall! (For the record, I wish to state clearly that I did not actually take the $300: I donated it to Dr Sabga, to assist him in furthering the very good work he has been doing over the years in the brewing of Carib and Stag.)
Now I don’t know Finance Minister Larry Howai at all, unless you define “nodding terms” very widely, or in the fashion of the old joke about the Swedish janitor and the CEO (he tells me nodding, I tell him nodding). I see no reason to doubt his work has been of a high standard over the 32 years, a full anthropological generation, he spent working for Trinidad’s state-owned bank. But how the firetruck can anyone justify paying one person anywhere in the world $10 million in this international guava season? And for leaving a job, too besides? According to Guardian Business Editor Anthony Wilson’s quite astonishing story, the $10 million is “over and above” Howai’s pension and gratuity. Pinned down by Wilson, First Citizens’ chair, Nyree Alfonso (whom I know personally but who did not receive any of the beers paid for with my own ex-gratia payment on Wednesday) conceded that it “might look awkward” to pay a departing CEO $10 million when he was leaving to take up what turned out to be the job of Corporation Sole, with direct control over the bank giving him the ten mill it had no legal obligation to pay. Gamely, Ms Alfonso accepted “the jabs for saying I was trying to placate the new boss,” but explained the payment would have been made even if Howai had taken up another portfolio; her point is not without strength.
But the $10 million man may turn out to be, not the straw that breaks the camel’s back, but the spark that sets off the conflagration. The very great social danger in T&T now is not just the huge divide between haves and have-nots, but the complete discon- nection of the haves from reality. The Trini ruling sector knows its paratha is buttered on the inside, but seems to know firetruck-all else, particularly about the plight of the people over whom it rules/ runs roughshod. And it’s not an Indian thing. It’s a Trinidadian thing. Mr Manning built a palace for the prime minister in St Ann’s while, almost on the same compound, the president’s house was literally falling apart and, over in Tobago, the hospital could not come together at all. Attitudes in the halls of power in the here and now seem to have been formed in the distant past. An additional, unnecessary, completely avoidable payment of $10 million is the very least one can do for a good man, just as one sent one’s slaves over to another plantation to help harvest the canes; it is the West Indian interpretation of noblesse oblige. In these august corridors, we see nothing wrong in the payment of a million dollars to a man to “study” crime, or in the description of the purchase of a Porsche SUV as “no extravagance.”
But it’s not just an economic issue. Trinidad has always been a boiling pot but, at our best, we’ve always boiled that pot down to a good sancoche. Derek Walcott, in his Nobel prize acceptance speech, said, “here they are, all in a single Caribbean city, Port-of-Spain, the sum of history, Trollope’s ‘non-people.’ A downtown babel of shop signs and streets, mongrelised, polyglot, a ferment without a history, like heaven” (which gave Niala Maharaj the great title of her first novel). In coming up with the title of his own first book, his doctoral dissertation, former newspaper columnist, political commentator and politician, Kirk Meighoo, discerned that T&T is a half-made place. What it becomes when it is fully done will be what we make of it. And we’re making a mess of it. The real worry is not that we should have a $10-million man; it is that we should fail to see that, as Minister of Finance, he will either very shortly be calling for fiscal astringency or spending so much on vote-buying that he comes to be known as the $50-Billion Man.
BC Pires is out of pocket but not touch. E-mail your goal-line technologies to him at [email protected]
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