by Godfrey Vincent
From 1986 to the present, all governments: the NAR, the UNC, the PNM, the Peoples Partnership have committed to the neoliberal agenda of privatization of the economy. This essay will examine a historical trajectory of the ideological positions of each party on the issue of privatization of State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs).
During the two decades after political independence, Trinidad and Tobago’s government created one of the largest public state sectors in the English-speaking Caribbean. From 1970 to 1986, the PNM government owned and controlled approximately sixty-seven State Enterprises that engaged in primary, secondary, and tertiary production of goods and services.
While the government must be given some credit for creating these enterprises, the reality is that it was pushed in that direction by the Black Power Movement of 1970 that called for the nationalization of oil and sugar industries. Moreover, in the light of the oil boom of 1974 and the creation of the United Labor Front in 1975, the government was pressured into taking a position on controlling the “Commanding Heights” of the economy.
During this period, the government nationalized part of the petroleum industry, created the Iron and Steel company, Secondary Roads Company, set up Tringen with W.R. Grace, created Fertrin, and created National Fisheries and other enterprises. In addition to internal pressures to take control of the economy, in terms of the international context as it related to the global economy, the late 1960s and 1970s were periods when Third World governments embarked on creation of Welfare States, which was the prevailing ideology of that time.
However, with the crushing of the Allende government in Chile and the rise of the Thatcher government in Great Britain, the Welfare State gave way to the new emerging ideology of Neoliberalism with its doctrine of the privatization of the state and the glorification of the “Free market.”
The adoption of this ideology became center stage with, first, the emergence of the Organization of National Reconstruction (ONR) in 1981, and then with the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) in 1986. However, it is also fair to say that this ideology took root in the nation during the 1980/81 economic crisis when George Chambers publicly announced in the 1982 Budget that “the fete is over and the country must go back to work.”
This was not just mere “Trini talk” but a policy position that the PNM adopted in 1983. Moreover, in 1982, the government, through the Minister of Finance and Planning set up a Task Force to examine the state of the economy and re-evaluate the country’s development plans and strategies in the light of the collapse of the economy as a result of the falling oil prices.
RETRENCHMENT AND PLANT CLOSURES IN THE 1980s INCLUDE:
Citrus Growers, Charles Mc Earneney, Auto Rentals, Jumans Garment, Matouks Garment, Forsyth Garment, Metal Box, Holiday Foods, Flavorite, T&T Printing & Packaging, T&T Meat Processors, Crown Reef Hotel, Crown Point Hotel, Bescrete Ltd, Clay Products Ltd. Dunlop Tyres Sylvania, Electrolux, Movalite, Mootilal Moonan Construction, Yorke Structures, Caribbean Steel Mills, Bermudez Biscuits.
This change in policy came at a time when William Demas led the Trinidad and Tobago team to discussions with the IMF for a “Draft Development Plan” for 1983 to 1986 (See Anthony P. Maingot and Wifredo Lozano, The United States and the Caribbean: Transforming Hegemony and Sovereignty).
It was during this period that Trinidad and Tobago experienced massive retrenchment and the closure of many factories, particularly, but not only, in the East-West Corridor. While the Chambers government did not pursue the sale of State Enterprises, its policies laid the groundwork for the NAR that formed the government in 1986.
The shift in policies to privatization and away from “Controlling the Commanding Heights of the Economy” must be seen in the light of the demise of the Grenada Revolution, the US assault on Socialism and Communism in Latin America, and the push by the Reagan Administration for a “Caribbean Basin Plan” that sought to nudge the Caribbean governments away from the idea of Socialism and towards the adoption of Free Market enterprise.
Having laid the groundwork for the roll-back of the state in Great Britain and the United States, the right-wing ideologues in both countries set their sights on Trinidad and Tobago because the trade union movement was still a formidable force and the resistance movement kept up its agitation and mobilization in the workplaces and communities. There were massive strike struggles during the period, for example, at Unilever, Metal Box, Sylvania, Fedchem strike of 1979-1980, illegal T&TEC strike in 1982, the widespread shutdown by contractor workers off the South East Coast in 1984, Dunlop, Fedchem lockout of 1986, Caribbean Packaging Industries and other forms of worker resistance like occupations at Bermudez and Meat Processors. However, with the turn to the right in 1986 the discourse shifted to Privatization and Public/Private Partnerships. (LOOK OUT FOR PART TWO)