Arthur N.R. Robinson, former prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, dies at 87

By Hoai-Tran Bui,

Arthur N.R. Robinson, a political leader in the Caribbean island-nation of Trinidad and Tobago who survived a bloody coup attempt while prime minister in 1990 and was a force in the creation of the International Criminal Court, died April 9 in the capital of Port-of-Spain. He was 87.

National Security Minister Gary Griffith announced that Mr. Robinson had complications from diabetes.

Mr. Robinson held ministerial posts in Trinidad and Tobago before serving as prime minister from 1986 to 1991. He held the mostly ceremonial position of president from 1997 to 2003.

His political career began soon after graduating from the University of Oxford. He returned to Trinidad and Tobago and helped found the People’s National Movement, a political party that dominated the country for decades following independence from Britain in 1962.

Under long-serving Prime Minister Eric Williams, regarded as the political father of the country, Mr. Robinson was variously minister of finance, minister of external affairs and deputy prime minister.

Trinidad and Tobago, located off Venezuela’s coast and with a population of 1.2 million, became known as one of the more prosperous Caribbean countries thanks to an oil and natural gas boom in the 1970s. But Mr. Robinson, who was of African descent, grew concerned with economic and social disparities that affected the many islanders of African and Indian ancestry.

Mr. Robinson left the People’s National Movement in 1970 and joined Parliament in 1976 with a newly formed opposition party called the Democratic Action Congress. It later merged with another political opposition group, made up of largely Indian extraction, to form the National Alliance for Reconstruction.

In 1986, Mr. Robinson’s landslide victory as prime minister was viewed as an astonishing feat against the formidable People’s National Movement. At the time, the collapse of global oil prices in 1983 had crippled the economy, and Mr. Robinson promised a recovery via tax reforms and public expenditures. He also vowed to clamp down on rampant corruption and the alleged misuse of billions of dollars in oil revenues.

“What happened to members of the [People’s National Movement] was that they had been in government too long and had not, like myself, experienced both being in power and being out of power,” Mr. Robinson said at the time.

However, his political term was marred by currency devaluation, unemployment that reached 22 percent and rising crime. In 1988, he negotiated a $ 141 million loan package from the International Monetary Fund, which required him to adopt deeply unpopular austerity measures.

Mr. Robinson’s popularity plummeted, and his fragile political alliance collapsed over internal disputes.

On July 27, 1990, a group of more than 100 radical Muslim rebels known as Jamaat al-Muslimeen, or Society of Muslims, stormed Parliament and its state-run television station in an attempted coup.

The group’s leader, Abu Bakr, had long fashioned himself as an agitator for the poor and railed against government mismanagement and corruption. He said that the “straw that broke the camel’s back” was a $ 500,000 expenditure on a planned government monument while too many people were going hungry.

The siege sparked a six-day standoff that resulted in the deaths of at least 24 people. More than 100 were wounded.

Mr. Robinson was in the Parliament building when the rebels stormed in. They held him and more than 45 others hostage, binding them hand and foot, gagging them and forcing them to lie facedown on the floor. The rebels attempted to force Mr. Robinson to call off the Trinidad military waiting outside the building.

“I shouted, ‘Murderers! Torturers!’ and I called upon the forces outside to attack with full force,” Mr. Robinson later told Reuters.

He was beaten and was shot in the right leg.

Looting devastated the capital before negotiations between the rebels and the government led to an agreement in which the rebels would receive amnesty and Mr. Robinson would resign from office.

The hostages were released, but government officials quickly claimed that the demands were not valid under the laws of Trinidad and Tobago. The rebels were arrested and charged with murder and treason. Two years later, Trinidad’s high court upheld their amnesty and freed them.

Mr. Robinson survived the ordeal, but his political career did not. He was voted out of office in the 1991 election.

Arthur Napoleon Raymond Robinson was born Dec. 16, 1962, in Calder Hall, Tobago, and was raised in the fishing village of Castara.

He received a law degree in 1951 from the University of London and graduated in 1954 from St. John’s College at Oxford, where he studied philosophy, politics and economics.

His wife, the former Patricia Rawlins, died in 2009. Survivors include two children.

While prime minister, Mr. Robinson was an early and fervent voice for the establishment of what in 2002 became the International Criminal Court at the Hague. He spoke of his vision for the court in 1989 before the U.N. General Assembly, mostly as a means of controlling drug and weapons trafficking, and its scope was later expanded to hear cases of crimes against humanity.

Mr. Robinson served on the board of the ICC’s Victims Trust Fund, which helps people rebuild lives shattered by war.

In 2011, Tobago renamed its international airport in Mr. Robinson’s honor.

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