Nation bows its head in sorrow
The country had been expecting it.
But when it happened around six o’clock yesterday morning, the nation bowed its head in collective sorrow.
Arthur Napoleon Raymond Robinson, former president and prime minister of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, died at St Clair Medical Centre.
Robinson, 87, had been ailing for some time.
Robinson touched and shaped many administrations during his career, which spanned from 1956 to 2003. For sheer political endurance, he was unique.
Every time we spoke in terms of his possible political demise, we witnessed his amazing political resurrection.
The country’s third prime minister and its third president mastered the difficult art of moving from political wilderness to political pinnacles.
Part of the reason for this lay in his unshakeable bond with Tobago, of which he became its strongest advocate. If Eric Williams is deemed to be the father of the nation, Robinson was the father of Tobago, where he was born in Calder Hall on December 16, 1926.
He not only raised the consciousness of the average Tobagonian, he embodied the Tobago spirit, yearning and earning its place in the political sun.
He piloted the motion for Tobago self-government in 1976, which led to the creation of the Tobago House of Assembly (THA), of which he became the first chairman in 1980.
Robinson is expected to be buried in Tobago, alongside his wife, Patricia.
However, it was as prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago in 1990, when armed insurgents stormed the Parliament building, that Robinson’s legacy as a substantial national figure is most entrenched.
His defiant call to the armed forces to “attack with full force” reflected a selflessness and fortitude which few might have exhibited in such a situation and would forever be recorded in the annals of Trinidad and Tobago’s history. Robinson was shot in the leg as a consequence.
Minister Bhoe Tewarie stated yesterday: “He risked his life for this country. This has been a giant of a man and a significant, heroic figure in the life and politics of Trinidad and Tobago.”
Joseph Toney, who was in Parliament with Robinson when the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen held them hostage, said: “The nation has lost a great man who has served his country well ,without any stain of corruption on his man and his character, something which all those who are aspiring to leadership would do well to emulate.
“He was very committed to the development of Trinidad and Tobago. He was prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for our country, without any blemish on his good name. He is a good exemplar for all of us.
“He demonstrated, in peace time and war time, that he was truly a leader of Trinidad and Tobago. It is an extremely sad occasion for the country. Throughout his time in public life, he was clean, committed and very patriotic.”
Minister Winston Dookeran said it was a great honour for him to share a large part of the political life of Robinson.
“I grew to respect him and to understand the power of his silence. He never deviated from what he believed was right for the country, even when it appeared to be politically unpopular. Mr Robinson never allowed that to interfere with what was good for the country,” Dookeran said, referring to Robinson’s term as PM from 1986-91.
Robinson’s political career started in the People’s National Movement (PNM) where he rose quickly to become a deputy political leader and minister of finance. But he broke with Eric Williams by 1966 and walked out of Balisier House, as he so graphically put it, “in the rain”.
Tobago gave him life and he continued in Parliament as an MP for Tobago East until 1980 when he moved to the THA.
By 1986, Robinson was selected as leader of the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR).
The Organisation for National Reconstruction (ONR) and United Labour Front (ULF) controlled the Trinidad vote, which comprised 34 seats in a 36-seat Parliament. Robinson, with just two Tobago seats, and a national persona deemed to be most acceptable to the electorate, was selected as leader.
The NAR registered a historic 33-3 victory. But the massive goodwill soon evaporated under the harsh economic measures which the government was forced to take.
Basdeo Panday’s ULF broke with the NAR and in the 1991 election, NAR lost all but the two Tobago seats.
Panday had helped to make Robinson prime minister in 1986. And Robinson returned the favour in 1995 when he used his two Tobago seats to break the 17-17-2 election deadlock.
Two years later, Robinson became president of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, but Robinson and Panday fell out again. And in 2001, Robinson, who had made Panday prime minister six years earlier, “unmade” him and selected Patrick Manning after an 18-18 general election deadlock. Panday was less than charitable yesterday.
“What comment can I make but to say that the loss of any human being is a loss to all humanity. And it is in that sense I express my condolences to his surviving family. As you are aware, I was instrumental in him becoming both prime minister and president,” Panday said.
In 1995, Robinson gave Panday the two Tobago votes which made him (Panday) prime minister.
“I don’t think history would be as kind to him for some of the things he did while in office,” Panday said.
He added he had very little recollection of anything significant Robinson would have done for the country, except for his role in the formation of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
And Panday said he (Panday) did not have a spiteful bone in his body.
Trevor Sudama, another ULF member in the NAR government, said Robinson was a “strict” leader who did not compromise. He said Robinson as prime minister did not appreciate that the NAR was a coming together of three parties which had their own interests and support. He said Robinson did not manage those different interests very well.
However, he said, Robinson showed strength and courage in 1990 and accepted his injury in Parliament with “great fortitude”.
He said a lot of people after this experience would have packed up and left politics but Robinson soldiered on. He said Robinson’s decision to select Manning as PM was as controversial as the grounds he gave for it—“moral and spiritual values”
—which, Sudama said “caused consternation”.
“He is one of the outstanding political figures in the history of this country,” Sudama said.
John Humphrey, also a ULF member, declined to comment on Robinson’s passing, saying: “I would like him to rest in peace.”
House Speaker Wade Mark said Robinson’s behaviour and conduct were exemplary, outstanding and very patriotic.
“His character was impeccable. He promoted integrity and morality in all aspects of public activity,” he said.
Robinson’s personal friend, Prof Courtney Bartholomew, said Robinson invited him to accompany him on the occasion of the inauguration of the ICC in the Hague, a court for which Robinson had been a major advocate.
“He was a feature speaker and his eyesight was already severely compromised by his long illnesses, which he stoically bore over the years. But the eloquence of that speech, delivered with such dignified and gentle authority, aroused a prolonged standing ovation from the international audience. It was a time when I felt proud to be a Trinbagonian,” he said.
Bartholomew added he was “privileged” over the years of their close friendship to “savour his unique intelligence and scholarship”.
Robinson was also conferred Caricom’s highest honour.
St Lucia Prime Minister Kenny Anthony said Robinson was a Caribbean statesman. He recalled St Lucia hosted the Caricom meeting at which Robinson received the Order of the Caribbean Community.