The late, splendidly named Arthur Napoleon Raymond Robinson – Ray to his family and close friends, ANR as he rose through the hurly-burly of Trinidad and Tobago politics, and then, curiously, His Excellency Arthur NR Robinson, when he occupied the highest office in the land – will probably be best remembered as a heroic champion of democracy when he was Prime Minster during what has been called his country’s “darkest hour.”
On July 27, 1990, Jamaat al Muslimeen insurgents stormed the Red House, the seat of Parliament, and took Prime Minster Robinson, several members of the Cabinet, parliamentarians and civil servants hostage. Having been brutalised, shot in the leg and forced to resign as Prime Minster, he refused the chance to leave the Red House, fearing for the safety of the other hostages. Then – it is now a matter of legend – when he was instructed to command the Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force to stop firing on the Parliament, he instead gave the order, “Attack with full force.”
For his exemplary valour, his captors rewarded him with another beating. An admiring but somewhat ungrateful population then turned their backs on him in the December 1991 general election. The people were venting their displeasure with the austerity measures Mr Robinson had been constrained to implement to get the economy back on track, following a seven-year period of decline under the People’s National Movement (PNM), which had taken the country to Independence in 1962 and governed until 1986, when Mr Robinson led the four-party National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) to a 33-3 drubbing of the PNM.
In a way, the coup attempt signalled the end of the road for the fickle electorate’s first experiment with coalition politics and an alternative to PNM rule. The nation returned the PNM to favour, with Patrick Manning becoming Prime Minster and reaping the benefits of Mr Robinson’s personal bravery and robust defence of democracy, as well as his political courage in adopting unpopular economic and financial policies, only acknowledged in hindsight as having contributed to the economic turnaround of the 1990s.
Internationally, however, Mr Robinson won deserved acclaim as a leading proponent of the International Criminal Court. It is a legacy of which his country and the Caribbean Community can be justifiably proud.
But it is, arguably, as a regionalist, that Mr Robinson left an indelible mark. Having been elected to the short-lived West Indies Federation Parliament in 1958 and widely acknowledged as one of the most experienced parliamentarians in the English-speaking Caribbean, Prime Minster Robinson brought all his intellect and commitment to bear on the regional project. In this respect, his was a strong belief in the necessity of deepening Caribbean integration, most notable in his presentation of a paper, entitled ‘The West Indies Beyond 1992,’ to the meeting of Caricom Heads at Grand Anse, Grenada, in 1989. This strategic vision paved the way for the establishment of the West Indian Commission and a fundamental restructuring of Caricom in the face of the dramatic changes then taking place in the international environment.
That 25 years after Grande Anse and 22 years after the submission of the West Indian Commission’s report, he should have died, aged 87, with his regional legacy only partially fulfilled, is a telling comment on the quality of leadership that has obtained in Caricom for the best part of the 21st century.
Most unfortunate though is the fact that Mr Robinson will also be remembered as the incumbent President of the Republic – the first practising politician to be elevated to the presidency – who not only refused to approve certain senators recommended by Prime Minister Basdeo Panday in 2000 but also appointed Mr Manning, then Leader of the Opposition, to the post of Prime Minister after the two main political parties had won 18 seats in the 2001 general election. Mr Panday and his followers still harbour bitterness at this decision, made according to President Robinson on the grounds of “moral and spiritual values,” as it appeared to fly in the face of Westminster-style conventions, with Mr Panday being the incumbent and his party having won the popular vote. Given subsequent revelations of corruption in Mr Panday’s government followed by Mr Manning’s hubris and squandermania, Mr Robinson was perhaps faced with something of a Hobson’s Choice but to this day, fairly or not, he is held up as an example of why a politician should not be elected as the constitutional president.
A few facts are not in dispute, however. Mr Robinson was endowed with a powerful intellect and was a man of great courage, firm principles and convictions, all of which underpinned his life’s service to his country and region.