White Collar Crime in Trinidad

The face of corruption

In Trinidad and Tobago corruption has many faces. From the everyday ‘bobol’ of getting into a carnival band or making bureaucracy more efficient to more corporate forms like the recent $24 billion dollar CLICO treasury scandal and a former Prime Minister’s breach of the Integrity in Public Life Act.

This month Practicum welcomes Dr. Dylan Kerrigan as a guest columnist. Dr. Kerrigan (University of the West Indies) writes regularly for the Trinidad Guardian. His research constitutes a social history of race, class and culture in urban Trinidad with a specific focus on Woodbrook, carnival, and violence. It provided cultural connections between the different political and economic climates/structures of colonialism, post-colonialism and neo-colonialism. He is currently working on a book project on the militarisation of everyday life in urban Port of Spain. 

White Collar Crime and Everyday Corruption: From the Colonial to the Behavioural

Trinidad is the southern most island in the Caribbean. It is part of a twin island nation-state called Trinidad and Tobago (T&T) that was granted Independence by Britain in 1962. The population today is approximately 1.3 million people and ethnically diverse. The three main groups demographically are: Indo (37.6%), Afro (36.3%) and Mixed (24.2). This reflects its colonial history of slavery and indentureship. Today T&T is well known as an energy economy and was recently taken off the list of developing countries by the OECD.

Conversations about corruption, both as white-collar crime and more mundane forms like using personal networks of influence to make bureaucracy more efficient or access jobs and more, are familiar topics I encounter in everyday life in Trinidad, where I work and conduct fieldwork. Over the last five years or so I’ve collected around 50 open-ended interviews with random commuters in a suburb close to my university on the subject of corruption. And also recorded the opinions of the many persons who live and socialise in my main fieldsite in Western Trinidad on the subject.

From these conversations many themes have emerged. But one I hear very often is that of responsibility, and in particular, “it is the Government’s responsibility to fix, tidy up and punish corruption”. This should not be surprising to anyone on the ground here because in Trinidad there are many recent and older examples of massive forms of state corruption that distress the populace. These include in recent times the $1billion Piarco Airport Enquiry in the 90s, the Section 34 fiasco in 2012, the $24 billion Treasury scandal and collapse of Colonial Life Insurance Company (CLICO) in 2009, the $34 million contract for no work given out in 2014 by former sport minister Anil Roberts, and a former Prime Minister found guilty of infringing the Integrity in Public Life Act in 2002.

Each of these episodes, alongside many other examples of white-collar crime are, much like Sardan (1999) noted of corruption in Africa, stigmatised by the general public in conversation and form a “central element of all discourses, public or private, at all levels of society, and have punctuated all the political phases since independence.” As Sardan noted of corruption in Africa we might also say there is a similar moral economy of corruption in the Caribbean and other ex-colonies too. And this moral economy “does not merely concern corruption [white-collar crime] in the strict sense of the word, but indeed a ‘corruption complex’”. By corruption complex Sardan was describing a continuum of corruption activities from the everyday and mundane to massive frauds found in both the public and private sector

Another way corruption is spoken of in Trinidad and Tobago is as “bobol.” In fieldwork bobol has been described and defined to me as “entrepreneurial graft,” “eat ah food,” and “political corruption.” Bobol is spoken of in radio chat shows, in everyday situations, by politicians, as the theme for Carnival bands, and on the news. In everyday terms some suggest bobol has come to be a familiar understanding to many of the “political” in T&T (Danns 1982:120) and is often used as a pseudonym for white-collar crime.

In Lise Winer’s excellent ‘Dictionary of the English/Creole of Trinidad and Tobago’ the entry for “bobol” reads:

“Bobol, bubol, boboll, bubbul N Graft: corruption; fraud; embezzlement. [ˈbʌbɔːl] (south central Zoombo Kikongo lu-bubulu ‘corruption’; Kikongo bubula ‘become corrupt’; go rancid) (Northern Angola)”

Winer’s dictionary entry provides evidence of the word in use locally from as far back as 1907. For example, the ideas, language and discourse of bobol as behaviour, experience and discourse were “talked” about in local calypsos, newspapers, court records, political cartoons and local novels throughout the 20th century and still are today. As noted by Raymond (2013) a good example of this is the 1937 calypso by Atilla the Hun, called ‘The Treasury Scandal’.

I wonder if is Bobol? 
What dey doing with Taxpayer’s Money at all!?

I wonder if is Bobol? 
What dey doing with Taxpayer’s Money at all!?

(Opening stanza of ‘The Treasury Scandal’ calypso by Atilla the Hun 1937)

The phrase “Taxpayer’s Money” and the name of the calypso, “The Treasury Scandal,” can be interpreted as a bottom up view of the existence of state corruption and white-collar crime from 1937. The subject for this calypso by the great Atilla the Hun (Raymond Quevado) concerned the scandal of some $200,000 missing from T&T’s treasury. The calypso’s outrage according to Raymond (2013), and I paraphrase, was because the details came out in drips and drops and of course no one was ever jailed or charged for the crime. Atilla’s calypso was popular because it reflected the unrest in the island about the lack of accountability and transparency in how the Colonials managed Public Money.

Interestingly, the Government of Trinidad and Tobago officially blames the latest treasury scandal – the $24 billion CLICO bailout on the 2008 global financial crisis but according to Raymond (2011) it was simply about theft and had no connections to the 2008 crisis at all. As he said in an address delivered to the 4th Biennial Business, Banking and Finance Conference: “We don’t have a Wall Street problem [in Trinidad], what we have here is a St. Vincent Street problem” (2011).

By the 21st century – using the three main daily newspapers (the Trinidad Express, The Trinidad Guardian and The Newsday) and public statements of public figures – its pretty clear “bobol” can still be described as a ubiquitous part of public and political life and conversation in Trinidad as a small selection of public headlines and comments from newspapers clippings demonstrate:

  • “I married that to the underhanded nonsense going on in Trinidad and Tobago. Bribery, trickery, dishonesty, slyness, deceit. All de bobol, comesse and grease han’ skulduggery” – Sonya Sanchez (Carnival designer, June 20, 2010)
  • “No Proof of Bobol” (Headline, Oct 22, 2012) [story about Prime Minister Kamla Bissessar’s public statement that there is no evidence of corruption in her government.]
  • Raymond: “All the ingredients for bobol” (Afra Raymond Oct 29, 2013) [Chartered Surveyor and President of the Joint Consultative Council for the Construction Industry]

In comparative terms the anthropological literature has documented similar yet not identical terms to bobol such as Wasta in the Middle East (Cunningham and Sarayrah 1993), Quiza in China (Ding 2014), Blat in the former Soviet Union (Ledeneva 1998), Protektzia in Israel (Danet, 1989) and Natabad-Cryabad in Nepal (Kondos 1987), to name a selection. All these authors and others who have studied such informal methods of gaining power and advantage in societies suggest that a general lack of transparency, accountability, efficiency and punishment, encourage behaviours such as wasta, blat, quiza, natabad and protektzia; while at the same time all the authors refrain from calling these local practices corruption. While all these local terms overlap with bobol in Trinidad, it is suggested none is identical to it. In each situation unique historical, economic and social forces shape techniques of resourcefulness and produce behavioural distinctions. Nonetheless, it is suggested that bobol contains these similar elements and practices to wasta, blat, quiza, natabad and protektzia:

  • A hidden force
  • Elements of clientelism, nepotism and pull.
  • Connections to pull strings.
  • Using personal networks of influence
  • Gaining access to public resources and state system of privileges
  • Conceals exercise of power
  • Culturally legitimate
  • Humanising
  • Efficient

Corruption as historically embedded

Now how might we propose a relationship between white-collar crime and everyday bobol in Trinidad? One way is the implication that white-collar crime in the past, and continuing today, prepares a fertile ground for corruption in the everyday. From an anti-colonial position, Fanon makes it clear that first colonialism and then imperialism were criminological enterprises (1963). Friedrichs (1997) too posits that the Caribbean was established through a form of state-organised crime, or state-corporate crime. The conquest of the “new world” he says was a function of the greed and control of European explorers, settlers and power. While Biko Agozino (2003) says the “primitive accumulation” of colonialism and capitalism undertaken by the powerful was a criminal practice.

In anthropological terms Comaroff and Comaroff (2001) also suggest this criminological encounter needs to be understood not just in cultural terms but also economic and political ones. For example, European bureaucracy with its courts, papers, contracts, agents and the many features we might say accompany Western Democracy were forced on colonial subjects as the path to universal progress. This of course hid the self-justifying nature of the project under progressive terms and no doubt concealed poorly the central function of the colonial state, to protect the wealth and status of colonials – a distinctly political and economic project.

Another way to describe these historical shifts is that emergent countries desire development and the increases in wealth meant to go with it. They try to replace the colonial state with indigenous rule, however they often fail for a variety of reasons including a lack of consensus (Dunn 1982:120) and destablisation by foreign Governments like the USA and Britain. As such, newly emergent nations are mostly left with the corrupt, white-collar apparatus of the colonial state as the foundation of the post-colonial state (Danns 1982:120). Or put another way. “The process of state-apparatus building during the 20th century, a process that is far from being achieved, is obviously fundamental not only for the production of corruption itself but also for the production of a cultural embeddedness of corruption” (Sardan 1999:21).

For Sarden, another way to look at the emergence and continued salience of corruption in Africa is to examine the cultural outcomes and behavioural logics produced as a consequence of the cultural syncretism of colonialism, post-colonialism and pre-colonial realities, something we can do for the Caribbean and Trinidad too. To do this he proposed five behavioural logics he suggested are engrained in social life in Africa. The five logics were: negotiation, solidarity network, predatory authority, gift-giving, and redistributive accumulation. Sardan (1999) proposed that each, often in combination with others, helps to explain how and why corruption in Africa can seem banal and everyday. His proposition was such logics shape the behaviour of local actors and what he termed the “complex of corruption”.

Here are some examples of these logics at work from my ongoing fieldwork in Trinidad. The first logic is negotiation, and it influences the complexity and embeddedness of corruption. Simply put corruption involves bargaining and as such corruption can be understood as negotiation and a type of transaction rather than simply illegal. As one of my informants told me, “Sometimes police stop you and tell you, ‘yuh break a light’, and they would tell you give them ‘so and so money’ and I tellin dem ‘oh gosh I don’t have dat.’ …If I don’t pass the money to them, I would have to pay $900 in Court. They say I have to give dem something. They do this on weekends to get their liming [socialising] money. If you don’t pass it, they say go to Court cause police not wrong.”

On a larger scale we might venture the Section 34 fiasco where prominent white collar criminals were due to be extradited to the USA to face prosecution but were let off on an unheard of technicality by the Government, involved some sort of verbal bargaining and negotiation between those involved too. Understood in this light, negotiation, is an intrinsic guiding logic of all levels of corruption in Trinidad, yet bargaining is also mundane; an “ease up” that breaks the rules is after all a common everyday behaviour in Trinidad (Winer 2007:322)

The second logic is gift-giving. Many kinds of corruption from the petty to massive fall under this. Think about party political donations and the influence they engender. Or as one respondent told me, “My business life would be affected by not indulging in white collar crime.” Many types of corruption from the petty to the more serious fall under the logic of gift-giving. Or on the more everyday level one respondent told me, “think about the little favours yuh do for yuh friends and family, when yuh need help dey first person yuh call is the one wukin who owes yuh dey favour.

The third logic is predatory authority and this is the idea that persons involved in corruption often see it as a right and beneficiary of their office or job. For Sardan this reality is a pattern from colonial days and an extension of the ways colonial authorities used their positions in the context of extortion, arbitrary acts, despotism and racketeering. Equivalents today are extensive such as “tenderpreneurs”, but to pick just one my respondents have been talking about recently, is the story of the luxury massage chair for Trinidad & Tobago Electricity Commission (T&TEC) chairwoman Sushilla Ramkissoon-Mark. The matter may not be criminal but for my respondents it is a clear abuse of power and an anger-inducing account about how officials overstep their authority and how public servants let them do so (the chair is almost seven times the most expensive chair of any other ministry and was found at the chairwoman’s home and not office). As one person said to me, “Bobol take place every day, that is part of the culture of Trinidad. You cyar get the rid of dat. Dem politicians always hidin tings and only for election, the mark does buss.”

The fourth logic of corruption is the logic of the solidarity network. This logic implies corruption is necessary for social acceptance. Solidarity networks include people and friends from all levels of our school and working lives. They also include our local neighbourhood, churches, families and more. Solidarity networks are defined by the obligations we have to others to provide mutual assistance. In small states with distinct demographic realities like Trinidad and Tobago these networks have distinct behavioural outcomes, such as creating “gangs” of white-collar criminals themselves who in a modification of the Chicago school’s “social disorganisation theory” emerge from social networks of the powerful.

The final logic is redistributive accumulation and reminds me of the time corruption in Trinidad was described to me as “social mobility.” Another translation was “our time now.” For Sarden redistributive accumulation means illegal enrichment and nepotism. Whether it is a civil servant or a more senior member of government, a post of responsibility is also a “juicy” post. One providing the holder with an opportunity for wealth they most likely will never encounter elsewhere. Furthermore, the logic of redistributive accumulation infers the wealth should be shared around to close friends and family.

So what might this brief account of corruption from white-collar crime to bobol the Caribbean and particular Trinidad suggest? Well on one level its worth pointing out it is quite simplistic to so easily suggest, much like Jean Jacques Rousseau once did, that white collar criminality in the past is the reason for present-day corruption. Nonetheless I might still suggest, in line with Sarden, that in post-colonial societies bankrupt elites both in colonialism and after did, on some level, pattern behavioural logics and a culture of politics that over time fed into the wider society. Of course it is difficult to argue this as a strict causal connection because it isn’t, but much like Sarden in his study of corruption in Africa, we can say the relationship between white-collar crime in the past and everyday corruption today is a syncretic one. And this syncretism of colonialism, post-colonialism and pre-colonial realities is productively understood by using Sarden’s behavioural terms and logics.

In simple terms, one lesson we might take from this detour is that strategies to fight corruption must have a long-term behavioural component tied into them and most sensibly education, the family and civil society should drive this. When behavioural logics blur illegality with the everyday, perhaps real transformations become generational rather than possible in the shorter term. The historical argument offered here about how the socio-cultural, economic and political terrain was made fertile for corruption and bobol does also perhaps suggest too that a problem with such deep roots cannot be solved in the short term or perhaps ever.

References Cited

Agozino, Biko

2003    Counter-Colonial Criminology: A Critique of Imperialist Reason. Pluto Press

Comaroff, J and Comaroff, J.

2001    Millennial Capitalism: First Thoughts on a Second Coming’ in Public Culture 12(2):291-343

Cunningham, Robert B. and Yasin K. Sarayrah

1993    Wasta: The Hidden Force in Middle Eastern Society. Westport, Conn.: Praeger,

Danet, Brend

1989    Pulling Strings: Biculturalism in Israeli Bureaucracy. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Ding, Yuecheng

2014    Power and legitimacy in the New China; the case of Bo Xilai. Paper presented at the Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and Commonwealth Decennial Conference, Edinburgh, 20th June 2014.

Danns, George

1982    Politics, Corruption and the Police. In Caribbean Political Thought: Theories of the Post Colonial State (eds.) Aaron Kamugisha. Ian Randle Publishers

Fanon, Frantz

1963    The Wretched of the Earth. Grove Press Inc. New York

Kondos, Alex

1987    The Question of ‘Corruption’ in Nepal, in Mankind, Vol. 17, No. 1, April 1987

Ledeneva, Alena

1998    Russia’s Economy of Favours: Blat, Networking and Informal Exchange. Cambridge University Press.

Raymond, Afra

2011    Lessons from the Financial Crisis: The Resolution of Failed Entities. Address given at the 4th Biennial Business, Banking and Finance Conference, Hilton, Trinidad, June 22-24

2013    The Treasury Scandal. Accessed June 28, 2014

Sarden, Jean-Pierre Olivier de

1999    A moral economy of corruption in Africa? Journal of Modern African Studies, 37, 1, 1999, pp 25 – 52

Winer, Lise

2009    Dictionary of the English/Creole of Trinidad and Tobago. McGill-Queen’s University Press



One thought on “White Collar Crime in Trinidad

  1. Pingback: Declaring Crime to be a Public Health Emergency: Trinidad & Tobago Out Front – ZERO ANTHROPOLOGY

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