Trinidad and Tobago, the twin-island republic at the southernmost point in the Caribbean, gained its independence from Britain on August 31, just 25 days after Jamaica.
In the 58 years of its independence, this oil-rich nation, admired for its distinct African and Indian cultures, was led by six men and one woman as prime minister.
The prime ministers of Trinidad and Tobago since 1962 were:
Dr. ERIC WILLIAMS TC, CH
Dr. Eric Eustace Williams, often hailed as the Father of the nation of Trinidad and Tobago, was that nation’s first prime minister. He led the nation from the failed West Indies Federation to independence in 1962.
Williams, like Jamaica’s Norman Manley, was a strong federalist, but he also was a man of vision and common sense. When Jamaicans voted in a referendum in 1961 to leave the federation, Williams famously calculated 1 from 10 equals to zero, and shortly after announced Trinidad and Tobago would also be leaving the former 10-nation federation.
Williams, a noted Caribbean historian, served as prime minister from 1962 until his death in 1981.
The People’s National Movement (PNM) led by Williams won the general election held in December 1961 by a landslide. Williams became premier of the colony and later prime minister of the new nation when it gained independence on August 31, 1962. He was instrumental in the country becoming a republic in 1976.
As prime minister, Williams practiced what was called “pragmatic socialism,” a policy that focused on social services, improved education, and economic development through the cautious attraction of foreign investment capital. The policy resulted in making Trinidad and Tobago the wealthiest nation in the Commonwealth Caribbean in the 1970s. He was successively reelected in subsequent elections and served as prime minister until his sudden death in 1981.
One memorable aspect of Williams tenure was the growth of the Black Power movement which infiltrated the nation from the USA in the 1970s.
Between 1968 and 1970 the Black Power movement, which started at the St. Augustine campus of the University of the West Indies, gained strength in Trinidad and Tobago.
Led by Geddes Granger, the National Joint Action Committee joined up with trade unionists led by George Weekes of the Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union and Basdeo Panday, then a young trade-union lawyer and activist.
Sensing the influence of what seemed like a national movement, Williams, following a display of the Black Power movement in the 1970 TNT Carnival, went on radio to declare “I am for Black Power.” He introduced a five percent levy to fund employment and established the first locally owned commercial bank. However, this intervention had little impact on the protests.
However, a series of events led to a State of Emergency, a Cabinet shake-up and mutiny. On April 3, 1970, police killed a protester, then on April 13, A.N.R. Robinson, Member of Parliament for Tobago East, resigned. By April 18, sugar workers were on strike and a general strike loomed. Williams responded by calling a State of Emergency on April 21 and arrested 15 Black Power leaders.
Members of the Trinidad and Tobago Defense answered with mutiny, taking hostages at the army barracks at Teteron. The Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard contained the revolt and the mutineers surrendered on April 25.
Williams, however, still tried to identify himself with the Black Power movement. He reshuffled his cabinet and removed three ministers, including two white members, and three senators.
Despite his support for the Black Power movement, and the black population of the country, Williams is remembered, not only for the positive economic gains made in Trinidad and Tobago during his tenure, but for being a bridge between the back and Indian populations in the country.
George Michael Chambers, ORTT
On March 30, days after the death of Prime Minister Eric Williams, George Chambers, then one of the deputy leaders of the PNM, was summoned to the President’s House, with the other two PNM deputies, Kamal Mohammed and Errol Mahabir. He was appointed by then-President Ellis Clarke as the country’s second prime minister.
Chambers served as assistant general secretary of the PNM before becoming parliamentary secretary in the Ministry of Finance in 1966, then served two terms as minister of finance (1971-1974 and 1981-1986). Chambers also served as minister of public utilities, housing, national security, education, planning, industry/commerce and agriculture.
Following his rise to prime minister, Chambers led the PNM to victory in the 1981 general election, but in 1986 led the PNM to its worst-ever electoral defeat, winning only three of the then 36 seats in Parliament. Chambers resigned and Patrick Manning succeeded him as PNM leader.
During his 5-year tenure as prime minister, Chambers was faced with the difficult task of diversifying the nation’s economy following the oil boom of the 1970s. Although his policies were unpopular, leading to the PNM’s defeat in 1986, many credited him with the country’s continuing economic success at that time.
Some of the budgetary policies that resulted in Chambers and the PMN’s downfall included a 10 percent cut in salaries of all public servants, and eliminating personal income tax relief and allowances; a 100 percent increase in postage for all mail, both internal and external; and requiring UWI, St. Augustine students, who previously paid no tuition fees, to pay 10 percent of their tuition costs for the next two years.
The labor movement organized a mass mobilization program against the budget. This included a nation-wide “day of resistance” during which 82 percent of public sector workers, 75 percent of private-sector workers, and 65 percent of teachers, refused to go out to work.
As prime minister and chairman of CARICOM, Chamber refused to collaborate with the United States in its invasion of Grenada on October 25, 1983. Trinidad and Tobago did not respond to the “urgent request” of then U.S. President Ronald Reagan to invade Grenada to quell the revolution that resulted in the assassination of Grenada’s Prime Minister, Maurice Bishop.
Because Chambers stood up to the might of the United States, Trinidad and Tobago faced retaliation. Shortly after, the U.S.-controlled International Monetary Fund (IMF) imposed severe, conditionality measures on a US$100m loan to Chamber’s government.
Arthur Napoleon Raymond Robinson, SC OCC TC
Known as A.N.R. or “Ray” Robinson, he was Trinidad and Tobago’s third prime minister, serving from December 18, 1986 to December 17, 1991. He is recognized for his proposal that eventually led to the founding of the International Criminal Court.
ANR Robinson became prime minister when the National Alliance For Reconstruction (NAR) severely defeated the PNM led by George Chambers in 1986. Shortly after assuming the position, he dismissed Basdeo Panday, John Humphrey, and Kelvin Ramnath from the Cabinet. However, Robinson subsequently lost the 1991 election. He rejoined the UNC administration as a coalition member representing the NAR. Panday later offered to nominate him to become the next president of Trinidad and Tobago.
Robinson was instrumental in creating the International Criminal Court. In 1989, he asked Benjamin Ferencz and Robert Kurt Woetzel to help him draft a proposal for the UN General Assembly to ask the UN’s International Law Commission to study whether they could create the International Criminal Court. The resolution was presented on behalf of Trinidad and Tobago at the UN General Assembly in June 1989, leading to the adoption of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court in July 1998 and creation of the International Criminal Court on July 1, 2002.
A remarkable event in Trinidad and Tobago’s history during Robinson’s tenure as prime minister was the 1990 coup attempt by the group called Jamaat al Muslimeen.
Robinson and much of his cabinet were held hostage in the Red House, the House of Parliament, for six days by gunmen under the leadership of Yasin Abu Bakr. During the hostage period, Robinson was beaten by his captors and shot in his leg.
Robinson and the NAR subsequently lost the 1981 election to the reformed UNC, led by Patrick Manning. Ironically, Robinson would return as the third president of the Republic, serving from March 19, March 1997 to March 17, 2003.
Robinson was the first active politician to be elected to the presidency. He was also the first presidential candidate who was not elected unopposed, as the then Opposition People’s National Movement had nominated Justice Anthony Lucky as its candidate for president.
President Robinson sparked controversy in his term in office when he refused to appoint certain senators recommended by Prime Minister Basdeo Panday following the elections in 2000 and in 2001. He instead appointed opposition leader Patrick Manning, as prime minister after the historically tied general election.
Patrick Augustus Mervyn Manning
Manning, the fourth prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, served three terms, second only to Dr. Eric Williams, Trinidad’s longest-serving prime minister. Manning’s three terms ran from December 17, 1991, to November 9, 1995, and again from December 24, 2001, to May 26, 2010. He was also the leader of the People’s National Movement (PNM) from 1987 to 2010.
A geologist by training, Manning served as Member of Parliament for the San Fernando East constituency from 1971 until 2015 when he was replaced by Randall Mitchell and was the longest-serving member of the House of Representatives.
When the PNM lost the 1986 general election in a shocking landslide, winning only three seats, including Manning’s, he was made PNM leader and consequently leader of the opposition—a post he held until 1990. In the election of 1991, the PNM regained its place as the government of the nation, with Manning becoming the nation’s fourth prime minister.
In 1995, with the political tide turning against his government, Manning called a general election one full year before it was constitutionally due. In this election, both the PNM and the opposition United National Congress (UNC) won 17 seats, while the NAR won two seats. The UNC and the NAR then united in a coalition and formed the government and Basdeo Panday, the UN leader, replaced Manning as Prime Minister. Manning served as Leader of the Opposition once again, also losing the subsequent 2000 election.
Election was called again in 2001, with the results being a tie between the governing UNC and the Opposition PNM, both parties winning 18 seats. However, President ANR Robinson made the bold move of appointing Manning as prime minister. In addition to being prime minister, Manning also held the portfolio of minister of finance.
Unable to elect a speaker of the House of Representatives, Manning proceeded to rule without Parliament until the need to pass a Budget forced him to call an election in October 2002. His party won this election with 20 seats to 16 for the UNC and formed the new government.
Under the PNM administration, income taxes were substantially reduced and the Corporation Tax reduced for most companies. The government also reinstituted free university education. The economy grew, primarily due to high natural gas and oil prices and significant increases in natural gas production.
In the general election Manning called in November 2007, the PNM won 26 of the 41 seats and Manning began his third term as prime minister.
Subsequently, the country experienced a slow-down in the economy. Despite this, the economic ratings of the country came in for high praises mainly from the Standards and Poor report on August 15, 2008, which raised Trinidad and Tobago from an “A-” to an “A.”
On April 9, 2010, Prime Minister Manning advised President George Maxwell Richards to dissolve Parliament, resulting in a general election being held on May 24, two years sooner than was constitutionally mandated. Manning and the PNM lost the election to The People’s Partnership (UNC, COP, TOP, NJAC, MSJ) led by Kamala Persad-Bissessar. Following the defeat, Manning officially resigned as Political Leader of the Party on 27, May 2010, but remained as the Parliamentary Representative for San Fernando East.
On January 23, 2012, Manning suffered a stroke. Four years later he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and died on July 2, 2016 at the San Fernando General Hospital—six weeks before his 70th birthday.
Dr. Basdeo Panday
Panday, a Trinidadian lawyer, politician, trade unionist, economist, actor, and civil servant served as the fifth prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago from 1995 to 2001. He was the first person of Indian descent and the first Hindu to hold the office of prime minister.
Panday and the other expelled ministers from the NAR founded the Caucus for Love, Unity and Brotherhood (CLUB ’88), which later became the United National Congress (UNC). Economic decline, austerity, racial tensions and, above all, the failed but impactful 1990 coup attempt led to the NAR being swept out of power in the 1991 general election. The PNM, led by Patrick Manning, formed the government, and the UNC led by Panday, became the opposition.
Panday’s political moment came in 1995, when Manning called an early election, which ended with the PNM and UNC holding 17 seats each, and the NAR holding two. The UNC and NAR then entered a coalition bringing the UNC into power and making Panday the first Indo-Trinidadian prime minister.
To solidify his mandate, Panday called a new election in 2000, which the UNC won outright, and Panday was sworn in as prime minister for a second time.
Following charges of corruption, and the firing of three UNC MPs, Panday was forced to call another general election in 2001. The election resulted in the historical 18-18 tie between the UNC and PNM. The deadlock was resolved when President Robinson appointed Manning as the prime minister. Panday opposed the decision, and in protest refused to accept the position of leader of the opposition.
In the ensuing 2002 general election, the PNM won a clear and undisputed majority. Panday accepted his third term as Leader of the Opposition—a position he held until 2006, when he was convicted of failing to declare a bank account in London.
On March 20, 2007, that conviction was quashed by the Court of Appeal. On May 1, he resigned as chairman of the United National Congress, but the party’s executive refused to accept his resignation. He lost the party’s internal election on January 24, 2010 to deputy leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar.
In 2005, Panday was awarded the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman by the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs.
Persad-Bissessar, often referred to by her initials KPB, is a lawyer and politician who was the sixth prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago from May 26, 2010 to September 9, 2015. She was the country’s first female prime minister, attorney general, and leader of the opposition; the first woman to chair the Commonwealth of Nations, and the first woman of Indian origin to be a prime minister of a country outside of India and other South Asian countries.
Persad-Bissessar is the political leader of the United National Congress (UNC) and the current leader of the opposition in the parliament. She became political leader of the UNC in 2010. In 2011, Persad-Bissessar was named the 13th most influential female leader around the world by Time magazine.
On January 24, 2010, Kamla Persad-Bissessar was elected political leader of the UNC, emerging victorious over the party’s founder, Basdeo Panday in a very contentious election. She was formally appointed opposition leader on February 25, 2010, having gained the support of a majority of UNC MPs.
Persad-Bissessar took office as prime minister after the victory of the People’s Partnership in the general election of May 24, 2010, defeating the previous government of the People’s National Movement (PNM), which had called an early election. She gained popularity as the nation’s female prime minister, and there was speculation she would be in power for a long tenure, but her tenure was foiled by internal party strife and scandals.
She began her political career in Trinidad and Tobago as a member of parliament, representing the Siparia constituency. In addition, she has also served as the minister of education. While she largely keeps her family and personal life private, she is known for speaking on themes of religion and spirituality with an unusually ecumenical perspective. Aside from her achievements as a woman in office, she is widely noted for championing programs to improve her country’s educational system. She is also presented, particularly in campaigns, as a politician who is from a humble, rural background, but who has also pursued a high level of education, attending top schools in the United States.
She led the UNC in the ensuing 2015 general election to defeat the PNM, led by Dr. Keith Rowley.
Keith Christopher Rowley
Rowley is the incumbent prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago. His first tenure as prime minister began in September 2015, and was reelected for a second term on August 10 this year.
He has led the People’s National Movement (PNM) since May 2010 and served as leader of the opposition from 2010 to 2015. Rowley has also served as the member of the House of Representatives for Diego Martin West since 1991.
Rowley led the People’s National Movement in the September 2015 general election, in which his party secured 23 out of 41 seats in the House of Representatives to form the government, defeating the previous People’s Partnership coalition government. On 9 September 2015, Rowley was sworn in as Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago by President Anthony Carmona.
A Volcanologist who obtained his doctorate in geology, Rowley is credited for revival of the local natural gas sector and laying groundwork for further oil and gas exploration, the largest economic sector of Trinidad and Tobago.
With the nation’s economy challenged by sharp decline in oil prices since 2019, and the recent health and economic challenges presented by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Rowley called a general election in July for August 10. Despite a strong challenge from the UNC led by Kamla Persad-Bissessar, the PNM won by three seats, and Rowley was sworn in for a second term on August 19. The 70-year-old prime minister subsequently announced this will be his final term as leader of the PNM and as prime minister, as he plans on retiring at the end of his term.