Q: Archbishop J, what is the impact of 1990 on T&T today?
Do you remember where you were when you found out about the 1990 attempted coup? I was home when I received a call from someone who lived opposite the Trinidad & Tobago Television (TTT) station.
In a frantic state, she said there was a coup, and I should turn on the TV. I did and saw what looked like a Best Village play, except the guns were real and the TTT staff was under duress.
Our young people would be going downtown to feed street dwellers as part of their ministry. My first response was to call them and ensure they did not. Within a short time, the country realised the unthinkable had happened. Members of Parliament were held captive, and the nation was in a state of emergency and alarm.
The next days were tense. Everyone in Parliament that day was held hostage. The Prime Minister was asked to order the army to stand down. Instead, he ordered them to “attack with full force”.
He was shot and beaten. Our highest elected office holder was shown great disrespect. The seeds of a culture of disrespect were sown; now we reap the whirlwind. Some 24 people died during the event, including MP Leo Des Vignes.
The heart of the challenge
A BBC report states:
After prolonged negotiations with the hostage-takers, during which the prime minister signed an amnesty agreement with their leader Yasin Abu Bakr, Jamaat-al-Muslimeen members surrendered on 1 August.
They were then tried for treason but were released when the Court of Appeal upheld their claim that their surrender was based on the promise of amnesty.
This decision was subsequently overturned by the London-based Privy Council—the country’s highest court—which invalidated the amnesty, but the Muslimeen members were never re-arrested (July 27, 2010).
If the Privy Council overturned the decision of the Court of Appeal, one would think that justice would be served, the offenders arrested and face the consequences of their actions.
I do not believe we have yet reckoned with the trauma of 1990, that we have yet come to terms with the open disrespect to the nation, elected officials, the business community, or the state of democracy.
During the coup, Abu Bakr said: “Do not loot”; immediately, there was looting and burning of businesses in Port of Spain. The damage was very significant, yet the business owners were not compensated.
Twenty years later
The appointment of a commission of inquiry took 20 years. And it took a prime minister who was not a sitting member of Parliament in 1990 to appoint the commission.
The body was clear about several things, not the least of which was that the repercussions of the coup were evident in the state of the nation, that the coup was a catalyst for the rise in murder and criminality.
The report states: “… the Commission concludes, on balance, that the burgeoning crime and the changing nature of contemporary crime in Trinidad and Tobago have their origins in the events of 1990 and the aftermath thereof” (10:97).
In his testimony Dr Emmanuel Hosein said:
The minute these fellows (the JAM) were released, it was a matter of if the Imam (Abu Bakr) could play, you know. Somebody could lead an insurrection, shoot up the Parliament, burn downtown and walk free. Well, who is me? I could go and rob somebody on Frederick Street too and get away with it. It set the climate for lawlessness to which this country was not really accustomed and the bold- facedness with which the criminals approach their task is, I think, because of that (10:12).
Former Senior Magistrate George Hislop testified: “After 1990, I saw a change in the attitude of criminals coming to court. There was a swagger, a confidence. Suddenly, the Magistrate held no fear for them” (10:15).
We have not understood the impact of the 1990 coup on the nation. The fact that a radical group could have disrespected the elected officials of our nation and walk away with no criminal penalties is unthinkable. The fact that the coup’s leader could be admitted into a VIP box with prime ministers, having polite conversation, again is unthinkable.
Prime Minister ANR Robinson was wounded by a gunshot, beaten, threatened with a gun and Government ministers had someone poised to kill them if Parliament was stormed. All this was left unpunished. Now, disrespect is part of the national way of life. We need redemption.
How do we build a nation when we have allowed criminality to go unpunished? The deep trauma in the nation needs to be addressed. It begins by recognising the trauma that we carry from slavery, the 1970 Revolution, 1990 attempted coup, and the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020.
The challenge for us, as Church, is to first recognise the interconnection between the 1990 attempted coup and the current dysfunction of our nation; second, to recognise the trauma that has gripped us as a nation and that remains unresolved; third, to begin the healing of the trauma and positioning again the demands of a stable society.
Healing as a national imperative
The healing process is a national imperative, requiring collaboration and understanding from all sectors of society, including the Church. We must come together, not in blame, but in compassion and empathy.
The wounds of the past cannot be healed through vengeance, but through understanding and learning from history’s lessons. We must confront our shared pain, history, and trauma, since it is only by acknowledging our collective past that we can hope to build a brighter future.
Restoring respect and trust
Redemption lies in restoring respect for one another and the principles of democracy. It demands we hold ourselves accountable at every level of society. We also must confront criminality head-on. Only by upholding the rule of law and ensuring justice for all, can we rebuild trust in our institutions, and in each other. The path to redemption may be challenging, but through unity and a shared vision of healing, we can create a society where every creed and race finds an equal place.
The Church needs to play a pivotal role in the process of redemption and healing. It can serve as a guiding light, promoting forgiveness, reconciliation, and understanding.
By offering solace and support to those who carry the trauma of the 1990 attempted coup and other historical events, the Church can contribute significantly to the nation’s healing.
As religious leaders, we must encourage open dialogue and foster an environment where individuals can share their pain and anguish without fear of judgement.
The 1990 attempted coup was traumatic for the nation. It sowed the seeds of disrespect, taught that there were no consequences for criminality, and contributed to the degradation of society. We need to find a way to redemption.
Speak to someone about their experience of the attempted coup. Be conscious about treating others with great respect.
John 13:34, 35