A lot of foreign exchange was frittered away, huge fuel debt built up
Stabroek News
February 28, 2004

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Dear Editor,

Kindly allow me to comment upon Mr Haslyn Parris' responses to the letters of 4/10/03 and 17/02/04 concerning the flour ban under Burnham. I do so because I think it will be in the interest of historical accuracy and also to guide pupils how to sift out deeper understanding from seemingly ordinary statements:

(a) Mr Parris seems to indicate that my statement was illogical that, even if wheaten flour was made a restricted import except for small quantities under the Burnham regime, the failure to provide any foreign exchange to purchase such small quantities of flour made such a rule nugatory. The fact that the government was hard-up for foreign exchange in no way makes this statement illogical and does not conceal the fact that "restricted import" and banning were the same thing.

Indeed, the evidence of banning is there for all to see. The newspapers of the period carry numerous reports of people being charged for possessing small quantities of flour and especially, travelers from Suriname who were charged for bringing back a few pounds of flour in their personal baggage. Mr Burnham himself seemed to revel in this hypocrisy. At the opening of the GNTC bookshop in Camp Street, he boldly announced that parents are absolutely free to have their children doing the English exams like GCE, etc. After the audience had broken out into cheers, Burnham then dryly said "but where are you going to get the money from?"

(b) Mr Parris said that the Burnham government, because of the inadequate inflows of foreign exchange, had to choose between pressing priorities like "whether to use foreign exchange to pay for fuel, to pay for flour, to pay stipends for students abroad, or to pay salaries and rents for diplomatic staff posted abroad, or to pay debt, or payments for persons seeking medical attention abroad, or spares for equipment for local industries."

There are three facts that one must keep in mind regarding Mr Parris' statement: (i) the cost of fuel was by far the largest individual item of foreign expenditure. But the Burnham government made no payments to Trinidad for the fuel and it was left to President Jagdeo's regime to pay this debt! The scarce foreign exchange was therefore not used to pay for fuel (petrol and petroleum products). (ii) Mr Parris talks of paying the salaries of diplomatic staff posted abroad. Many of these officers were specially favoured political appointees who enjoyed enormous salaries well in excess of ordinary Public Service salaries. After 1992 when the PPP government came into power, the then Minister felt that such enormous salaries were far above other Public Servants and were unfair and beyond what the country could afford.

The Minister tried to deal with this distortion of enormous salaries for some and low salaries for others. But the result was that a number of law suits were showered upon him.

In these lawsuits, the enormous salaries were exposed to the public for the first time. For example, for six months one officer was paid over $30 million dollars which at today's value would have been $60 million dollars and more. The government lost these lawsuits and had to pay out enormous sums to these favoured foreign service officers stationed abroad.

Mr Parris' statement is loaded and conceals the irresponsible frittering away of public funds and in particular foreign exchange. (iii) The foreign debt was not serviced or paid, Mr Burnham's usual remark being that no one could foreclose on him or the country.

Yours faithfully,

F. Gibbs