THE July 27, 1990 attempted coup will live forever in the consciousness of many who lived through it, but for many it is nothing more than a story.
Dennis McComie and Adrian Pinheiro’s 1990: The Personal Account of a Journalist Under Siege captures McComie’s personal recollection of the event.
McComie was a broadcaster at the National Broadcasting Service, which was attacked during the attempted coup, but continued to broadcast during the six-day siege.
The second edition of the book was launched on the anniversary of the attempted coup as a part of the Bocas Lit Fest’s virtual events. It was
broadcast from the Writers Centre, 14 Alcazar Street, Port of Spain,
on July 27.
The virtual launch featured a discussion between human rights activist and former member of the commission of enquiry into the attempted coup Diana Mahabir-Wyatt; veteran journalist Andy Johnson; and musician and “child of the coup” Muhammad Muwakil. Muwakil is the son of Salim Muwakil, a key figure in the attempted coup, and part of a younger generation of Muslims who spent their early years in the Mucurapo Road Jamaat pre-1990.
Broadcaster Sterling Henderson moderated the launch. Remembering 1990: Why and How Should We
took a deep and detailed look at the event and surrounding issues such as the possible correlation to crime
The launch’s first half saw McComie and Pinheiro talking about the book. Henderson first asked Pinheiro about the introduction, in which
a parallel was drawn between McComie and Abu Bakr, the leader of the Jamaat al Muslimeen.
“Two Belmont boys, foundations in Catholicism,” Henderson said. “Different but parallel.”
Pinheiro said it was important to note the fact that both are very strong believers in God.
“Which is unusual today for adult males over a certain age…most people tend to be agnostics.”
Although there were some technical difficulties during Pinheiro’s discussion, he went on to say Bakr claimed there was a divine reason for the attempted coup.
“We have to give him the benefit of the doubt. What struck me and about the issues during that week, hearing conversations, talking to Dennis about it, hearing reactions from other people about what had taken place – the thing that struck me was that they both seemed to be anchored in the same way,” he said.
McComie was asked if he had read the recent sworn affidavit by Bakr. McComie said no and that he was not going to punish himself after the 30-year persecution with anything Bakr has to say or write.
He described Bakr as a “chameleon” and an opportunist who “got away on a technicality.
“The point is on July 27, 1990, he led 113 misguided Muslimeen zealots into the democratic Parliament (and TTT), into the beautiful paradise that is TT. And we are still trying to come to grips with that horrendous event.”
If there was some divine reason behind the attempted coup, members of Bakr’s crew did not know about that, Mahabir-Wyatt said during the second half, addressing an earlier statement by Pinheiro.
The panellists delved into a range of questions about the coup, such as where were they when it happened, the effects of the coup on TT and compensation for those affected.
Johnson remembered being in the Express newsroom, receiving a phone call and springing into action when he was told shots were being fired.
Mahabir-Wyatt saw what was happening on TV.
She also said she learned a lot more about the coup from the commission of enquiry. She said a number of the Muslimeen spoke to the enquiry, but not one mentioned “any kind of divine mission that was behind the actions that were taking place.” They talked about other things: corruption in the country, police corruption, the gun trade and societal breakdown but not about God.
Muwakil was six when the attempted coup happened and learned more about it as he matured. From speaking to different Muslimeen members and listening to various accounts, he learned, “almost every man went in with some kind of different intention.”
He said only a handful of people know what happened on that day and what was the real intention, but he would lean towards McComie’s side, that it was a grab for power, and that would be known after. He was not sure religion had a part to play in it, as there were too many unknowns.
The panellists also looked at the build-up to the coup: McComie remembered teachers and nurses protesting and trade unions leading marches through the streets of Port of Spain into opposition to the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR)-led government.
Looking at the conditions of the time, Mahabir-Wyatt said the Jamaat was very angry because the police kept trying to take over their property and were harassing them all the time.
When McComie said paradise was interrupted, Muwakil said the question of whose paradise came to his mind.
“I am not in any way advocating for breaking the law, but the law is a social contract that we have all signed into. We obey laws because we have formed this society, and when those laws are seen as just across the board and work to the mutual benefit of everyone, then we uphold that social contract indefinitely.
“But when we see those laws working in favour of a few and not in the favour of others, you must ask, ‘Whose paradise is this?’”
He asked when it was said paradise (was) lost, was it the communities which were flooded with cocaine and drugs even to this day?
“Is it in our attempt to return to that paradise so quickly we have silenced the question of 1990 and even 1970?” Muwakil asked.
He was asked what was the Jamaat’s legacy and said it is not what it should be. He said the Jamaat
fed people, had a walk-in clinic where people could access free medical treatment and a dormitory for displaced individuals.
The rift in the community, he said, saw that legacy diminished and power relegated to the hands of a few who did not have the same vision.
Asked if there was a connection between the attempted coup and crime today, Mahabir-Wyatt said yes. She added that the commission of enquiry, in its 2014 report, made 15-20 recommendations, including compensation for those injured, which were never implemented.
She said she knows a number of young people whose lives were saved by the Jamaat: the organisation genuinely helped a lot of people and this is a part of TT’s history that no one knows about, along with the history of 1970 and 1990.
There was some crosstalk between McComie and Johnson as the discussion about crime and the attempted coup continued.
McComie said the Jamaat was given $300,000 as part of the faith-based organisations outreach for covid19 and was also being helped with their schools and medicine.
“We are all citizens of this country, the Muslimeen and their children.”
He said to get to resolution TT must acknowledge what the country has experienced, seek the truth of the matter and heal.
Johnson said he was not sure what was meant by healing. McComie said he has been through a lot of pain over the last 30 years.
Muwakil said he does not think any truth is going to come out about the attempted coup until a certain generation has passed. He added that there were too many people with too much to lose.
For McComie, while some people felt the commission was a waste of time, he was “extremely happy” that some effort was being made in whatever manner to try to come to terms with that experience.
“It is the only thing that has happened to bring any kind of information, closure, any kind of resolution to this situation,” McComie said.
Johnson said closure is not going to happen. He said it was part of TT’s history and the country had to learn from it and go forward.
“There is no one thing we would all come away from it with. It is a step along the way of the development of society.”
On the basis of some of Muwakil’s comments, Henderson asked if he was saying there might be another attempted coup. Muwakil said he was not saying that, but what TT might see again if it does not treat its societal problems, is a completely disorganised mass uprising.
McComie and Pinheiro’s book will be available from August 1 at Nigel R Khan booksellers nationwide.
The total virtual Bocas Lit Fest will be held from September 18-20.