The protesters encircled and blocked all three exits of the Housing Development Corporation’s (HDC) and Ministry of Housing headquarters at South Quay, Port-of-Spain encircling the building with placards calling for Housing Minister Roodal Moonilal and HDC managing director Jearlean John to resign.
The Prime Minister, who at the time was inside of the building for the handing over of keys to HDC homes to about 50 new home-owners, stayed there for about an hour as security officers attempted to manage the protesters, the media and members of the public who congregated on George Street.
The farmers had staged a protest at Woodford Square from 10 am and marched to the HDC building.
After she arrived, the Prime Minister’s official car was parked in a small street-side garage at the George Street side of the building. Members of the media waited on the pavement at the enclave, seeking another opportunity to question the Prime Minister (who had already been questioned by another battery of media inside the building during the handing-over ceremony).
Protesters congregated opposite the media workers on the pavement, blocking pedestrians and, at times, posing a challenge to vehicular traffic.
The protesting groups, which included trade unionists, farmers lobby groups, CEPEP workers and some persons who wore red T-shirts, had gathered at the building at about midday, almost an hour after the Prime Minister arrived for the handing-over ceremony.
There appeared to be no effort on the part of Special Branch to disguise the Prime Minister’s exit route from the building.
A retractable garage door in which the official prime ministerial vehicle was parked was left open, making the black car’s presence easily discernable.
When the time came for the Prime Minister to leave, she held talks with Moonilal at his office as members of the police sought to deal with the fluid security situation. A black SUV was driven to the front of the garage to block traffic and preserve space for an exit route; other police officers on the scene who had been called in were given instructions; members of the protesting groups were asked to stand clear of the car’s path, members of the media were asked to stand back.
With protesters and a rowdy rabble also congregating at the South Quay exit to the building, the exit route was arguably sealed off.
Another exit at the centre of the building on George Street was also blocked by the marching protesters, chanting and bearing placards. The only possible exit appeared to be the one at the very north of the building, where the Prime Minister’s car was parked and in open sight.
President of the Trinidad and Tobago Sheep and Goat Farmers Association, Shiraz Khan, called on the noisy protesters to remain peaceful and respectful, as they waited for Persad-Bissessar to emerge from the building.
When the Prime Minister, Moonilal and John finally exited the building at about 12.40 pm, the farmers erupted in loud boos and chanted, “Moonilal must go!”
Control of the crowd then broke down.
The protesters and members of the media merged, forming a virtual human wall in front of “PM 1”. Moonilal, John and Persad-Bissessar were quickly shown to the car, but the Prime Minister turned back.
A smiling Persad-Bissessar, appearing calm and poised, greeted a child who was among the protesters and then walked towards them with her head high and her palms cupped together.
The crowd rushed in around her, provoking visibly frantic reactions from some armed members of the Guard and Emergency Branch who moved to block the Prime Minister from the crowd.
“Block she! Block she!” one crowd member shouted at the same time. Another crowd member, who appeared to be unrelated to the farmers said, “let we throw acid”.
Persad-Bissessar’s security detail, with assistance from additional officers who were called in, then prevented the farmers and some members of the media from speaking with her. However, some members of the media managed to corner the Prime Minister and question her as she remained virtually blocked-in by the mob.
Eventually the Prime Minister was ushered to the car which drove off without further incident, leaving behind an agitated crowd. Members of the police, apparently acting on instruction not to incite emotions, remained stand-offish and avoided touching or harming protesters throughout.
Despite the clamour, the Prime Minister yesterday signalled her intention to push forward with her public engagements.
On Easter Monday, the crops of farmers squatting on State lands ear-marked for housing projects, were bulldozed. The farmers had been given advance warning of the impending action and left their crops to be destroyed. Last week the State agreed to pay the farmers compensation and to have them relocated to 420 acres of land in Caroni. The farmers refused relocation.
Despite the security scare, the Prime Minister appeared upbeat. Hours after the stand-off, the Office of the Prime Minister issued a press release informing media houses that Persad-Bissessar is due to attend the launch of a workforce assessment centre at south Trinidad this afternoon.
Earlier, when she was questioned by reporters from all media houses which had been invited to cover the HDC event, Persad-Bissessar expressed optimism that a solution to the impasse can be found.
“As far as I am aware there has been a meeting arranged for tomorrow (today) with the two line ministers (Moonilal and Food Minister Vasant Bharath) and the farmers for further discussions and to find a way forward,” she said. “I have no doubt that a resolution can be found. Every single person may not be pleased with it but we have to work for the greater good. That is what the ministers have been mandated to do.”
Speaking to reporters later after a function at Cascadia Hotel, St Ann’s, Persad-Bissessar said she had greeted the protesting farmers, although not necessarily to attempt to speak to them. Asked if she had attempted to speak to them, she said, “I’m not sure I attempted. I greeted them. How I see it, it can only be resolved in the best interest of all. As there is a meeting tomorrow (today), I do not want to compromise those discussions or prejudice them in any way.”
“Obstacles are not impossible to overcome...We must be focused on the larger picture. There will be sectoral interests but as Prime Minister I have to look at the larger good and the greater good, and see the whole picture rather than that from each specific group,” she said. “It’s like a family. You have several children and each has a different interest — one wants Nike shoes and the other one wants a basketball shirt or a Nintendo game. Everybody wants something, and for me my job is to make sure there is fairness, there is equity and there is justice. That is what I try to do.”
Farmers were not impressed with the Prime Minister’s decision to acknowledge their presence outside the HDC yesterday despite the security scare.
Following the stand off at the HDC, farmers, together with trade unionists, returned to Woodford Square, Port-of-Spain, where they described the prime minister’s behaviour as “hurtful and “disrespectful”.
“I feel very hurt today, after all we have done in this country, to feed this country...Today our prime minister has disrespected us,” Khan claimed. Khan described Persad-Bissessar’s greeting of the child as a publicity gimmick.
Speaking to the farmers, and pledging his support, Oilfield Workers Trade Union (OWTU) president general, Ancel Roget compared Moonilal’s permission to the HDC to bulldoze State lands to that of the Patrick Manning government.
“He feels he can do what he wants to everyone, assuming that he can do what he wants to farmers and come what may, he has farmers support,” Roget said. He stated that Moonilal’s and the PNM’s housing policy “is one in the same.”
“The call by Fitzgerald Hinds and Dr Keith Rowley for the resignation of the Minister of Food Production, Lands and Marine Affairs is their way of putting PNM politics in it. They have no moral authority to speak on any issue concerning the farmers,” Roget said.
However, the farmers indicated that they will meet with the Persad-Bissessar, Moonilal and Bharat at the Ministry of Food Production, Lands and Marine Affairs at 3 pm today. The meeting was scheduled since last week.