Opening Remarks: Dr the Honourable Keith Rowley, Prime Minister of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago
Fellow Caribbean Leaders, peoples of the Caribbean, from Mexico to Suriname, Welcome…welcome to this Symposium, this unique exchange of experiences and perspectives, among the people of the Caribbean.
This morning we, the many components of Caribbean leadership, stand here as a collective body speaking to, and with you, the whole of the Caribbean, above all in our geographical, social, racial, religious, economic and democratic complexities, and diversity.
This is a historic moment. What brings us here is not that diversity, it is not the usual command gathering to deal with Trade, Education, Finance, Tourism, Health or Diplomacy. We have assembled here in this unity of purpose to confront a problem — one that is common and threatening to every aspect of every individual’s life in the Caribbean.
The Founding Father of this great Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, Dr Eric Eustace Williams, standing before a similar audience, at the signing of the Treaty of Chaguaramas, in 1973 noted that: “All of us here today are genuine representatives of the Caribbean, with a common history based on the Caribbean trinity – colonialism, monoculture, and racism – the symbols of fragmentation…and isolation of one territory from another.” He added that there could be no new Caribbean dispensation, no Caribbean future which does not truly mean the integration of the peoples of the region, and their economies. Dr Williams then referred to what he described as “a larger aspiration” , a larger purpose, advising that the Caribbean’s strength is in its union, and that the Caribbean’s danger is in its discord.
This morning, Ladies and Gentlemen of the Caribbean, we are here to address an aspect of that “larger aspiration” that Dr Williams spoke of, displaying our union of purpose, and, hopefully, we are all fully aware of the dangers that await us in discord. As we are now well into the 21st century, the record will show that for all of the new era we all have continued to be haunted by violence from the domestic quarters at home, to our school yards, to our streets and our borders.
In short ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, violence is threatening to destroy our paradise in the Caribbean Sea. This is not to say that we have not been struggling to cope with this truth, on the contrary we have been, but if we are not careful its stubbornness and metastasizing malignancy could overwhelm us. Violence in the Caribbean is a public health emergency which threatens our lives, our economies, our national security and by extension every aspect of our well-being.
In Trinidad and Tobago, in the years 2011 to 2022 we have lost and had to grieve for 5,439 lives to violent murder, largely through the use of imported firearms and ammunition. In 2011 we lost 352 lives and by 2022 the annual count was over 600, a new record, already being challenged by the murder rate for 2023. Except for Covid, in a pandemic, none of the listed dangerous diseases have taken lives like this in our population.
For the thousands of wounded, victims and perpetrators alike, a surgical intervention to the head costs approximately $170,000, a surgical intervention for a chest wound would cost about $135,000. A shot to the leg requiring surgical intervention would cost just under $100,000 and a leg shot without surgical intervention would cost about $40,000 in medical care and attention. All of these frequent daily incurred costs are to be borne by the taxpayers at every level from scarce revenues diverted from other more deserving productive priorities.
Our current laws acknowledge a suite of afflictions, Yellow fever, Smallpox, Plague, Cholera, Ebola, Novel Corona virus as notifiable, warranting emergency responses if even only a few cases are known to appear. Violent behaviour, violent crime, violent crime involving the use of firearms, the associated individual and group mental health trauma accompanying violent behaviour, so ever present amongst us now, pose a far greater destructive threat than these diseases and on that basis alone qualifies violence as a public health emergency.
During the last 15 years, using the Trinidad and Tobago example, in the growing quest for safety and security we have seen a significant increase in the allocation in the national budget for National Security. In 2008 policing alone represented 32 per cent of the $4 billion National Security budget. By 2017, this rose to 38 per cent. Even in the tighter budgetary environment of 2023 policing still accounted for 43 per cent of the National Security allocation.
In the political arena some believe it is all about having the right National Security Minister, others share their epiphany of separating the Ministry of National Security into fragments of Homeland Security and Defence; wish it was that simple. In fact, Trinidad and Tobago’s own experience put those theories to the test. In recent years, we have had ten (10) Ministers of National Security sourced from career politicians, (including that of Prime Minister), the military and the private sector.
One administration (PNM) had one Minister who served for seven unbroken years grappling with the upsurge of violent crime and insufficiency in policing. A succeeding administration, (UNC), in a five year term, had five (5) National Security Ministers (with junior assistants) with tenure ranging from a few months each to two years. This current administration (PNM) has had 3 Ministers in eight (8) years, and the one indisputable fact in all these musical chairs is that the violence has not abated, it has, in many instances, increased and become even more cynical. Clearly the problem does not exist and grow because of a shortage of Ministers or even Ministerial output.
This forum has been long in coming. Recently CARICOM Heads of Government began looking at rising Crime and Violence in the region as a Public Health issue, with commitments to mount a symposium as this one in 2019, but all efforts were understandably displaced and delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic. It is against this background that when Trinidad and Tobago announced its intention to have its own national discourse, and our Caribbean neighbours gladly agreed to join in, that we had no hesitation in making room for the widest participation.
Ladies and Gentlemen, just look at media reports. They appear to be telling us that across the region, territories are under siege from the acts of crime and violence from elements of our own society, just minorities, who are today creating larger atmospheres of fear, despondency, trauma, surrender, and hopelessness, among us all. This is a battle in which we must all be engaged. This is a war that we cannot afford to lose.
In this engagement Governments are open to uncomplimentary charges of, some say, indifference, others say impotence, unimaginative planning, discrimination, abdication of duties, poor leadership, and with repeated calls for resignations. Ole talk is cheap, we know that but let us try and extract some light from the expressions of the next two days, in the fervent hope and expectation that the beast of violence which has stalked us for virtually all our existence in this blue Caribbean Sea, will be starved of its sustenance, condemned to wither and die so that we all may live in peace, safety and harmony from the home to the school to the streets to the borders.
Our presence here is admission that Crime and Violence are now a major part of the Caribbean’s overall plethora of problems, ranging from petty theft, to school violence, home invasions, domestic violence, sexual abuse, human trafficking, drive-by shootings, drug-gang warfare, mindless daily revenge murders, etc
When such a situation arrives at the door, it is said that there was a failure of the society to spot an oncoming crisis. Then there may be the later failure to perceive the extent of that arrived situation, as a societal problem. Further, there may be problems of finding solutions, and whether the solutions, selected, may even succeed.
Today, if there is one aspect that we…we all may be guilty of, is that the problem of criminality and violence was not dealt with sufficiently, in a much earlier time frame, in the homes, in the schools in the prisons, in the courts and in the Parliaments.
There was what can be described as “a creeping normalcy”; we allowed slow, moderate, deviant behavioural trends to increase; we allowed slips in our aged old standards, in ethical and moral norms in our family homes, in our schools, in public institutions, on our roads and in public places. All of which, hindsight reminds us that we should have checked very early.
Instead, we seemed to have been saying that these times are different; this is the modern age of American gun culture, as we adopt, the internet revolution with its tremendous promises and all its warts. An age of selfish individualism has been allowed to flourish at the expense of the society itself.
So, morals and values are now considered flexible, their lines are blurred, and they occupy spheres of their own, determined and shaped by one’s personal whims, the present, fashionable social trends, and, worst, the political and bureaucratic shortcomings of something malleable called “the system” . So, over the next two days, Caribbean people, helped by inputs from cross-sections of the Caribbean citizenry, will attempt to address the full scale of the problems of Crime and Violence, in the context of a Public Health issue.
Hopefully, there will be elements of operational consensus, after the planned examination and exchanges, which will form a plan of action, that will give the Caribbean people their much needed assurance that something — beyond talk — will be done, using the same planned, programmed and strategic methods that were adopted to confront the challenges of Covid-19.
Ladies and Gentlemen, again Welcome to the twin islands of Trinidad and Tobago, and I pray that as we have done here in our Constitution in Trinidad and Tobago, that we recognise the Almighty’s presence throughout all our deliberations.
Finally, I must assure you that Caribbean peoples, in spite of our circuitous history, we have evolved, and continue to stand strong today.
May Almighty God continue to Bless us all.