Background – The 1990 Coup in Context
From Friday, July 27th, to Wednesday August 1st, 1990, a six day siege of Trinidad & Tobago’s capital city, Port of Spain, and its Parliament (Red House), captivated the world. Focus was placed upon the immediate situation occurring over that week; the daring of the insurgents, the precarious safety of the nation’s leaders, the resulting violence and civil unrest in the streets, the subsequent State of Emergency, and the response of both the local protective forces, and international allies. The elements that possibly lead to such ferocity erupting in an otherwise traditionally peaceful nation state and how these factors progressed, are an important backdrop to understanding the harrowing six days themselves.
Like some individuals at that time, Yasin Abu Bakr, leader of the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen insurgents, had laid much of the blame for the discontent within the society directly at the feet of the then-Prime Minister ANR Robinson and his coalition National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) Administration. The problems of the country at this time, however, had started before Robinson’s regime; many of the issues faced by his Administration were holdovers from previous years.
THE POLITICAL & SOCIAL CLIMATE
In the two decades before 1990, money had hardly been an issue; on the contrary, during the 1973-1974 period, Trinidad & Tobago had begun to experience a major oil boom. This sudden, unforeseen up-turn in fortune benefited the nation, catapulting the industrialization efforts of the then-government forward. The high quality of local petroleum fetched premium prices on the international market, galvanizing the sector and producing many jobs for local citizens.
Many nationals found work in the oil fields and developing technical centers, and could now afford not only life’s necessities, but its luxuries. By the early 1980s, conspicuous consumption had become common among much of the country’s working class, with lavish foreign products being brought in regularly.
This was not to last, however, and by 1984, the nation would face many shifts, both in mindset and in actuality when dealing with money. Years of heavy spending resulted in financial problems both locally and abroad; increased inflation, amplified subsidies, huge delays and cost overruns would plague the construction industry. Most crippling of all, by 1984 the oil market began to take a down turn as the price of oil began to fall due to a crude oil surplus; by 1986, world spending in oil had been severely reduced. This price collapse benefited oil-consuming countries but represented a serious loss in revenue for many oil-producing countries. As petroleum had become the cornerstone of its economy, Trinidad & Tobago was very negatively impacted.
When the newly-formed National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) coalition won its first and only victory with a (33-3) electoral margin in 1986, they were met with a Treasury that was largely depleted; the foreign reserves and savings were dwindling, and there was a massive debt burden of $7.4 billion. In an effort to stabilize the economy, Prime Minister Robinson promoted a number of “belt-tightening” measures, which impacted all citizens. This action resulted in increasing yearly rates of unemployment, topping off at 25%, an increase in the overall cost of living, and a 10% cut in salaries for all members of the public service. Robinson also suspended the Cost of Living Allowance (COLA) in 1987, which would have allowed Public Servants to better deal with the fluctuation in food prices. By 1988, to reduce spending and initiate recovery, the government had little choice but to formally enter into a program with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Robinson also enacted the Value Added Tax Act (VAT), in January of 1990.
After these ‘Austerity Measures’ were imposed it became unbelievable to Trinbagonians that in a few short years they could have gone from riches to rags. There was widespread discontent from all sectors of society: the opposition parties, the labour front as well as the business community. This led to the formation of the Summit of the People Organisation (SOPO) a pressure group formed to obtain “a programme of peaceful action and an alternative economic programme in pursuit of just objectives.”
At a SOPO rally on June 19, 1990 Canon Knolly Clarke spoke of the bleak state of the economy stating that “the nation’s health centres and hospitals have little or no equipment, little medicine and an acute shortage of health care personnel…” Trinidad he claimed was a “river of tears.”
It was this pervasive atmosphere of mass public frustration and economic uncertainty however, that the Jamaat al Muslimeen sought to capitalize on by attempting the Coup in 1990. Undoubtedly, these ever-present economic ills had built up some of the turbulence which coup leader, Yasin Abu Bakr and his men conceivably must have felt as citizens. The discontent of the people, with having such financial hardship for so long was blamed on the government leaders; and the Jamaat saw this moment ripe with opportunity to get public support behind their plan to remove whom they considered ineffectual leaders. The public response was the antithesis to what they had hoped for and the coup attempt subsequently failed in its early stages.