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Heads up – Embassy 32

Entering a Golden Age

Garvin Nicholas, Trinidad and Tobago’s new High Commissioner to London, is tickled by the notion that he is the ‘Alistair Campbell’ of the Caribbean nation.

Working as a lawyer in London in the late 1990s, he admits he was intrigued by the Labour spin doctor, little knowing that one day he would serve as the first-ever press secretary to Trinidad’s first-ever female Prime Minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar.

That was no easy task in a country with a historically ethnically polarized political system and a media ready to exploit any fissures between the parties.

“It was a major learning exercise for me,” admits Nicholas. “It gave me an insider’s appreciation of the running of government and that was an incredible experience.”

Not that the High Commissioner is one to shy away from challenges. Disillusioned with traditional politics in Trinidad and Tobago, Nicholas set up his own political party, the Movement for National Development.

“Starting a political party from scratch is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever undertaken,” he admits. “But I’ve always seen politics as the mechanism for social and economic transformation, locally and internationally, and there were things that I believed needed changing. I saw too much disparity in wealth and I got restless, so I formed a new party that I believed represented the ideals of the nation.”

He spotted the same instincts in Kamla Persad-Bissessar which is why his party joined hers when she won the race to lead the United National Congress party and they went on to unite the opposition groups into an ethnically diverse broad-based coalition that won the election last year.

“This represents a fundamental change in the way we do politics in Trinidad and Tobago,” he says.

Now in London, the High Commissioner is using his best spin-doctoring skills to communicate the priorities of the new government, not only to his British counterparts, but to the many countries and international organisations represented in London.

While links with the Commonwealth and Caricom countries remain important, Nicholas wants to use his time to “reach out” to non-traditional partners. “The world has become way too small to simply concentrate on your neighbourhood,” he says. “I want to spread a message that we are a powerful small state.”

Yet the new government still faces a few challenges, not least national security and economic development. High youth unemployment and a gang culture fuelled by the drug trade are a toxic combination that has caused a rise in violent crime.

Part of the solution is to shake up the criminal justice system, he says. Trinidad is already reaching out to partners to help train more police, and the government recently introduced changes to the legal system to fast-track trials (an idea the High Commissioner borrowed from the UK).

The other half of the solution is getting the youngsters off welfare and into gainful employment, he adds, and that means giving them education, skills and jobs.

From here in the UK he will be increasing partnerships with UK universities and attracting British investors into job-creating sectors other than the traditional oil and gas industries.

“We need to diversify our economy away from fossil fuels,” says Nicholas. With its mix of diverse cultures, beaches and jungles, tourism has the potential to generate many more jobs.

Trinidad is also blessed with an excess of cheap energy and a brace of trade agreements making it the gateway to the Americas for investors in infrastructure, manufacturing and green energy.

Already, plans are in place to produce solar panels using top-grade silicone from Guyana, while ethanol may have the potential to revive the waning sugar industry, explains the High Commissioner.

And he sees no contradiction in investing in renewables and being a major fossil fuel exporter (it is responsible for 20 per cent of BP’s global profits, supplies 70 per cent of the US gas market and is the world’s largest exporter of ammonia).

“We have been given these resources and we need to use them responsibly, because ecotourism is also important for our economy too,” says Nicholas, an enthusiastic scuba diver.

Another passion of the High Commissioner, which he shares with his Prime Minister, is philanthropy. Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar recently launched the London chapter of the Children’s Life Fund, which raises funds for to pay for the treatment of seriously ill children in overseas hospitals. The High Commissioner, meanwhile, would like to set up a charity focusing on sports and education.

A sports enthusiast, he’s looking forward to the 2012 Olympics next year where he hopes Trinidad will bring home a few gold medals. The Games coincide with another golden celebration: Trinidad’s 50th anniversary of independence.

The High Commission is planning to set up a Trinidad Village at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn where visitors can enjoy a five-week long spectacle of Caribbean culture.

It seems that with a new generation of leaders, a grand celebration and a few medal prospects, Trinidad and Tobago is indeed entering a golden age – and High Commissioner Garvin Nicholas is looking forward to seeing it shine.

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HE Mr Garvin Nicholas

“The coalition government allows for every segment in our nation to be represented. This represents a fundamental change in the way we do politics in Trinidad and Tobago”

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