Zena Lopez spoke out on the controversial issue yesterday, claiming that her family, who once squatted on State land in a small wooden house on a five-acre plot on Cemetery Street, was offered the money over three years ago by an unidentified man and two other men whom she believed were plainclothes police officers.
She claimed the men had carried guns during the visit.
“They just came in a black car and they never gave their names,” Lopez recalled of the bizarre episode. She said one of the men told her husband they had to move. “He was threatening us and told us that if we didn’t move out in a week, they would come and break down the house,” she said.
Initially, Lopez said she and her husband, Steve, who works with a San Juan-based garbage collection company, had thought nothing of the visit until the men returned several days later. “They came a second time and we got so scared, but my husband didn’t want to give anything,” she said.
Lopez told Newsday that the man gave her husband $55,000 in cash, in what appeared to be a shopping bag, to relocate. She said a portion of the money, $4,000, was quickly used to purchase a small parcel of land from a neighbour.
A sizeable amount of cash was also used to buy ply board and other materials to construct the house in which they currently live, Lopez added.
“My husband became sick and he end up in hospital because we lost everything on the land...We had breadfruit, cush-cush, lime trees and plantain,” Lopez recalled.
The small, wooden shack which the family now calls home is located along a bushy track, lined with dried up, overgrown peas trees, a stone’s throw away from the construction site.
Lopez’ claim came days after Opposition Chief Whip and Chaguanas West MP Jack Warner raised questions in the Parliament, calling on Prime Minister Patrick Manning to shed light on the construction of a church in the remote community. Construction of the church began in January and is scheduled to be completed in July.
The project is being undertaken by Shanghai Construction Group, a firm from China which built the Prime Minister’s multi-million dollar residence in St Ann’s and the National Academy of the Performing Arts in Port-of-Spain.
Lopez said although she had not seen him personally, she had heard from residents that the Prime Minister had visited the site of their former home on more than one occasion, after they vacated the premises.
Originally from Couva, Lopez said her husband, who hails from nearby Maturita, had lived on the land for some 35 years.
The couple, who have a 14-year-old son, Joshua, have since lodged complaints with the Lands and Surveys Division and are yet to get a formal explanation for their displacement.
During Newsday’s visit, several residents insisted the building under construction was a lodge and not a church, as is being reported.
One elderly resident, Stephen Charles, has a clear view of the construction from his small, wooden shack, which rests on an incline.
He claimed an official from the National Insurance Property Development Co (Nipdec) had shown him a plan of the facility about four years ago.
“He said it was a hostel so that when big priests come from away they could stay there,” Charles said. A young man said many young men in the area were denied jobs at the site. He also claimed the structure was being built for a female Spiritual Baptist leader.
“He (Manning) so-called spiritual adviser. That is the woman who help him win the (2007) election,” the man said.
The cornerstone for the church was laid on December 30, 2005, by an apostle reverend named Juliana Pena.
Newsday understands, however, that the woman, who is married to a businessman and goes by another name, is believed to Manning’s spiritual advisor.
She is said to be currently living at The Crossings, but has also resided in Canada and the United States. The woman has reportedly been seen with the Prime Minister and has met many other top personalities. Manning has avoided questions on the issue and is yet to offer an explanation.
The embattled Urban Development Corporation of Trinidad and Tobago (Udecott) has also distanced itself from the project.
“We have already stated that we have nothing to do with the project... That is as much as I would say,” Udecott communications manager Roxanne Stapleton-Whyms said yesterday.
However, it has been reported that Manning instructed Udecott in 2005 to oversee the design and engineering works for the church, which is estimated at $20 million. Udecott subsequently hired two firms, Consulting Engineering Partnership, and Design Collaborative Ltd, for these jobs but the final church project was assigned to Shanghai Construction Group.
Meanwhile, Warner yesterday added a new dimension to his argument, noting that the site for the structure was equipped with some amenities. “It is more than passing strange that the site has already been provided with electricity and water but, again, in whose names were the necessary applications made?” he asked, in a one-page statement.
“The refusal of the Honourable Prime Minister to shed any light on this matter has sparked much speculation. Is taxpayer money involved?” asked Warner.
“Is this a new precedent? Will Trinidad and Tobago soon become a religious state?” Warner said there was precedent in the past where religious organisations had been granted State lands on which they could build places of worship, “but no Government had undertaken to build a church, or temple, or mosque.”
Warner also said applications for State land by religious denominations in the past have been open and public.
“So, why should the Guanapo church land be shrouded in secrecy?”Warner asked. Neither managing director of the Shanghai Construction Co Ltd Michael Zhang, nor officials at the Chinese Embassy could be reached for comment yesterday.