A Cabinet reshuffle, health issues affecting two ministers, an apparent diplomatic snub and legislative stand-offs were among the major political developments for 2017.
During the year two government ministers fell ill—one is back on the job, while the other remains hospitalised abroad.
As 2016 gave way to 2017, there was the news that Energy Minister Franklin Khan had fallen ill while on vacation and would have heart surgery. Khan underwent triple by-pass surgery on January 8 and Khan and remained off the job for more than three months until early April.
In September, Public Administration and Communications Minister Maxie Cuffie suffered a stroke and was admitted to the intensive care unit at the St Clair Medical Centre in Port-of-Spain.
Cuffie, who is also the La Horquetta/Talparo MP, was eventually transferred to a medical institution in Washington DC in the United States for rehabilitation where he remains. Relatives said his condition has improved significantly.
In other health-related developments, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley returned to a medical centre in California, United States, for a medical check-up which was a follow up to a visit made in August 2016 when he was given a “good report” by doctors.
One of the political controversies of the year began in late June when Port-of-Spain South MP Marlene McDonald, who had been fired from the Cabinet by Rowley in March 2016, was sworn-in as the new Minister of Public Utilities. She was given the portfolio after Rowley advised President Anthony Carmona to revoke the appointment of Fitzgerald Hinds who was reassigned as Minister in the Ministry of the Attorney General and Legal Affairs.
However, McDonald’s return was short-lived. Three days after she took the ministerial oath, President Carmona was advised to revoke her appointment “with immediate effect.” It had to do with one of her guests at the swearing-in ceremony at President’s House, Cedric “Burkie” Burke.
It later emerged that the well-known Sea Lots resident, who was detained during the 2011 state of emergency and charged with being a gang leader, had been one of two last-minute invitees to the function. Sources at President’s House confirmed that McDonald asked for two extra invitations to the ceremony but didn’t give names. When Burke arrived he was made to wait until McDonald’s arrival when he was ushered upstairs with other guests.
Rowley subsequently called McDonald to a meeting at the Diplomatic Centre where she was informed that her ministerial appointment was being revoked. McDonald remains on the back bench in Parliament but remains active within the ruling PNM.
Rowley held the public utilities portfolio for more than a month before appointing banker Robert Le Hunte. He took the oath on August 24 but his appointment was briefly revoked when it was discovered that he had dual citizenship in Ghana. Late on Independence Day Le Hunte took the oath again.
Newly-installed United States President Donald Trump called Rowley on February 19 to discuss what the White House said was “co-operation on shared priorities.” A brief paragraph on the White House website said the two leaders “reaffirmed the strong security partnership and agreed to continue close co-ordination in the fight against terrorism and transnational organised crime.
President Trump invited Rowley to visit Washington, DC. However, that visit had not materialised by year end.
Another visit that failed to take place followed an announcement in early November by Minister in the Office of the Prime Minister Stuart Young that Rowley had been invited to China to attend a Communist Party of China with World Political Parties High-Level Meeting.
A week later came word that the invitation to the high-level meeting was being replaced with an official visit to China in 2018. This prompted the country’s longest-serving diplomat, retired head of the public service Reginald Dumas, to remark that it was “highly unusual” for China to withdraw an invitation to a foreign leader.
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Dumas said: “Is it that there was no invitation? Is it that something was being considered? I don’t know, we will probably never get to the truth of the matter because the Chinese aren’t going to say anything, of course. But it is highly unusual and it does represent on the face of it a snub.”
Questions were also raised by former Minister in the Ministry of Finance Mariano Browne who also felt it was a diplomatic snub.
The issue erupted into a war of words with Young lashing out at Dumas and Browne saying they should not comment on matters about which they do not have all the facts.
Almost simultaneously came the announcement that PNM activist Makeda Antoine was being appointed to the top diplomatic post of Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland.
Dumas criticised the appointment saying he did not believe Antoine had the experience to head such an important mission.
Legislative sparring in the House
On the legislative front, Government and the Opposition traded words over the Foreign Accounts Tax Compliance Act (Fatca), a matter which had been on the agenda from late 2016. The banking sector pleaded with Parliament to pass the legislation.
The legislation enables local financial institutions to report to the US Internal Revenue Service (IRS) on accounts held by US clients via the Board of Inland Revenue and is part of US tax evasion law.
The issue came into the spotlight after the Bankers Association of T&T (BATT) and other groups began warning of possible negative consequences for the country if the legislation wasn’t passed within a specified time frame. Signals from the Opposition that it was not prepared to support the Bill, which required a special majority, added to weeks of tension, characterised by dire warnings of losses and economic fall out if T&T failed to become Fatca complaint.
Eventually, after much political sparring, the legislation was passed unanimously in the House of Representatives on February 23, with all 39 MPs present on that day voting in favour of the amended Bill. It was also passed in the Senate with 29 in favour, none against and one abstention.
The second legislative stand-off occurred late in the year when Attorney General Faris al-Rawi tabled the Anti Gang Bill in Parliament.
In announcing plans to debate the Bill, the AG quoted figures from the Organised Crime Intelligence Unit (OCIU) which showed there were close to 2,459 suspected gang members across the country. However, the Opposition refused to support the measure and when a vote was taken on December 7, the Bill failed to get the required three-fifths majority.
Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar blamed the defeat of the Bill on Prime Minister Rowley, claiming it was due to his resistance to their recommendations on a sunset clause. The legislation cannot return to Parliament for six months.
Of emails and Emailgate
Toward the end of the year, a statement by acting Commissioner of Police Stephen Williams that Emailgate allegations raised years earlier had been found to be of “very little of substance,” led to calls by the Opposition for Rowley’s resignation.
Another controversy that was still brewing at year’s end had to do with a threat of legal action over allegations by Oropouche East MP Dr Roodal Moonilal. Moonilal read into Hansard an email linking payments of the $80 million involved in the so-called fake oil scandal at Petrotrin involving A&V Drilling to “the spouse of a high-ranking government official.”
As he read the contents of the email with details of a foreign bank account, the AG intervened declaring that Moonilal had made a “direct indictment on the Prime Minister.”
Moonilal reluctantly withdrew the statement.
Prime Minister Rowley has since instructed his attorneys to pursue legal action against persons who had published the “false and malicious” statements made in the Parliament by Moonilal.