To say that Suzette Louwe has ruffled some feathers on the local political and social landscape might be an understatement. The businesswoman-turned-popular social media activist is in no way shy about voicing her opinion, even if it means earning the ire of some very important politicians. She believes that the political and social structures in T&T need a revamping...and that she is fully equipped for the job.
Louwe recently shared with Sunday Guardian an insight into the humble childhood, cherished dreams, concerns as a businesswoman and mother, and stark realisation which birthed her social media fame.
“I didn't start off wanting to be an activist to be honest. I had become so frustrated with the political duopoly that masqueraded as a democracy in Trinidad and Tobago that I felt that I needed to voice my concerns publicly, with the hope that others would join in the conversation and that that conversation would become a national conversation that couldn't be ignored by our politicians and leaders. I had no real aspirations past that, but along the journey, others joined that voice and kinda depended on that voice to bring our concerns to the Government and Opposition,” she explained.
As the co-owner of several businesses she has shared with her husband, Eduard, for 20 years, Louwe said she was able to observe how the economy impacted social policies regarding the underprivileged and displaced in society. She said she was deeply affected while visiting less fortunate families after her husband became the President of the Chaguanas Lions Club over ten years ago.
“My heart broke. I saw what I would consider to be a travesty on the people of T&T; how a family would have to make the decision between a child having food or going to school. It's a choice a family should not have to make.”
The experience kindled snapshots of her childhood in south Trinidad where Louwe said she grew up with a mother who was a housewife, a truck driver father and three other siblings.
“At that point when I saw those families, I felt we could do better than that as a country. We have the resources, the talent, the hardworking people in T&T.”
Louwe intensified her work with the club and other charities, approaching government agencies for assistance with farming projects and other needs for small communities like Carlsen Field. She said, with little response, she started feeling the urge to speak out to improve the quality of life of citizens.
By 2015, with a “widening gap between the middle class and the working class, and the working class becoming the poor” in “oil-rich and energy-rich” T&T, she said she decided to use social media to get the attention of those in authority.
Since then, Louwe has confronted the Government on issues ranging from the sale of Petrotrin, a supposed WASA rate increase and firecracker legislation to the Government's COVID-19 response, including its strict re-entry measures and the origin of the Brazilian COVID variant, clashing with Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley and most recently with Minister of Health Terrence Deyalsingh.
Without naming Louwe, in 2019, Rowley ripped into the claim of the WASA rate increase while on a political platform at an Arima Town Hall, dismissing it as false. Just months ago, Deyalsingh threatened Louwe and a fellow activist with legal action after she referenced a letter that was circulating in the public domain about a medical supplies company accessing COVID-19 vaccines on behalf of the T&T Government. Her response? She said she was ready to battle since she was within her rights as was every other citizen, to question the Government on contractual obligations they make on behalf of the people.
She did admit to Sunday Guardian that at times filtering fake news presented a challenge in her campaign to empower citizens, but that issues raised in mainstream media were her main focus. She maintained that leaders were free to step down if they did not wish to be transparent.
Louwe has also taken the Opposition to task, insisting that they have “enabled” numerous untenable situations to continue because of their silence.
As a change influencer, Louwe also addresses issues outside the political domain.
Louwe's questions and admonitions to those in positions of power mostly take the form of posts or video blogs on her personal Facebook page where she has gathered over 45,000 followers. She formed the “Citizens Watch Group” page in 2019 to give the public a centralised location to air their concerns and offer solutions while keeping comments respectful. She also attempted to launch an action group, she said. Some of her supporters have even set up a page on Fb titled, “Suzette Louwe for Prime Minister” which now has over 800 followers.
Louwe believes her appeal stems from many people's frustration with current leaders and her brazenness in speaking out. She said she bears no political allegiance, adding that although her main focus was on questioning the Government when she first started since they were in charge of managing things, she holds both sides to equal account.
As to whether she would consider running for political office, Louwe was tentative at first, but then replied:
“After more than three years of speaking out and demanding better...the people are left with no choice but to defend ourselves as we see neither of the two parties have my confidence that they can give this country what this country needs in terms of development and proper governance.
“And so, if we are left with no choice, we have to come together as a people so I intend to attract and form a team of leaders, skilled in their respective disciplines perhaps to form the future government of T&T. I do intend to run for office at some point in time because I believe that I have a lot to offer my country and if I do get the opportunity to help, I know I would be able to make a difference.”
Louwe's firebrand approach represents just one aspect of her personality, however.
Suzette Louwe with husband, Eduard and twin daughters, Catherine and Charlotte.
Born at Scarborough General in Tobago to a Roman Catholic mother who is a blend of Hispanic, African and Caucasian, and an East Indian father who was Hindu, Louwe's heritage reflects the melting pot that is Trinbago.
Recalling her “close-knit” family who taught her to appreciate all cultures and religions, she said as a child, she told her mother about her dreams of helping families who came from modest means like them. She said her faith in God saw her and her husband, who is Dutch, through one of the most trying times in their lives.
“I got pregnant later on in life because we were deeply involved in the businesses we owned in Trinidad. Thinking back now of course, if I had to do it all over I probably would have had kids earlier.”
Louwe had a high-risk pregnancy, giving birth to twin girls, Catherine and Charlotte who weighed a mere 1.3 kg and 1.1 kg respectively. Charlotte had three holes in her heart and Catherine was diagnosed with necrotising entericolitis at about three weeks old.
Necrotising enterocolitis (NEC) is a devastating disease that affects mostly the intestine of premature infants. The wall of the intestine is invaded by bacteria, which cause local infection and inflammation that can ultimately destroy the wall of the bowel (intestine).
“They were at the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) at Port-of-Spain General Hospital and I have to say it up to this day that Petronella Manning and that Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, without a doubt, saved the life of those children. So we do have good service in healthcare that needs to be highlighted as well.
“I remember the paediatrician saying they have a 40 per cent chance of survival and I said to him: I understand that you are telling me this from a scientific point of view, but the God that I believe in will not bring these two children into this world and then take them away from me.”
Doctors recommended operating on Charlotte, but with the child weighing less than three pounds, Louwe said she insisted they wait until she was older and stronger. She kept believing that her babies would make it. When Charlotte was two, the holes completely closed, Louwe said, her voice beginning to waver.
She said Catherine, meanwhile, was the only one to survive out of three babies on the Ward battling the necrotising entericolitis condition.
Louwe and Eduard took their infants home after five weeks and she stayed at home for a year to nurture her babies, shielding them from the outside world because their immune systems were still developing.
Today, her seven-year-old girls are “balls of energy,” speak English and Dutch fluently and top their class at school.
“I tell people all the time that the strength in a mother literally has to be coming from God. It's not something you have until you truly become a mother and your children need you.”
Held up at gunpoint two years ago on a Sunday, after gunmen jumped their wall as she was taking her daughters inside their home, Louwe said she decided to leave T&T.
“I remember just covering my children with my body and hovering over them and closing my eyes, bracing for the impact...just holding them and waiting to be shot.”An avid animal lover, Louwe said that it was their giant Labrador, Mason and her husband's defiance that put off the intruders.
“I said: I'm not living like this; my children fought for their lives and they do not deserve this. We had no choice but to leave.”
Louwe holds a BA in Business Administration and several diplomas, some of which are in inclusiveness and diversity management, public relations and sustainable energy management. She has over 15 years of experience in operations and people management, including supply chain management. Currently the EU Operations Manager for a renewable energy MNC in Amsterdam, she is pursuing a Double Masters in Business Management and Global Leadership and Talent Management.
Still, she said, T&T would always be home.
“I can barely look at pictures of T&T for Christmas and Easter and Mother's Day without literally breaking down. When I left my country I knew it would be hard, but I never imagined I would feel like I uprooted my soul. T&T will always remain my home and I don't care that people say that I'm abroad and I should not be focusing on T&T. That is my country, my land.”
Q&A with Suzette Louwe
You have amassed over 45,000 followers on Fb. You maintain an active presence online with many commenting on each of your posts. Why do you think you appeal to so many?
I think a lot of people feel the same sense of frustration that I feel which is why they can relate to my Facebook page or the opinions that I put out. I am straightforward and determined. I simply want a better country and I hurt every day thinking about having to leave my own country for a better, safer life for my children. We should be able to have that good life and that safety in our own country and I feel empathy for those who don't have that choice to leave. I firmly believe that we can be a better country if we had better leaders. So I think my appeal is that I am not afraid to stand up and call out our leaders.
In terms of their treatment of COVID, what do you think the Government can do better?
With regards to COVID, the Government, I think, dropped the ball. To begin with, our borders should have been closed at an early point in time when we realised there was mass migration we could not economically manage. I believe the Government did not pay attention to the impending crisis. Secondly, the Government should have been more proactive in procuring vaccines ahead of their production time. Leaving the borders porous contributed to having the Brazilian strain enter thereby affecting the critical infection rate we currently have.
You've been very vocal on the Government's strict re-entry measures, what do you think they can do to improve these?
I believe that if it were me and I were sitting in government, I would not leave my people behind. They are citizens of T&T, they have every right to be in their country whether or not they were coming in during the crisis period. There were measures in place where they could have been tested, accommodated and returned to their homes.
I will not accept that we left thousands of our own people stranded abroad, almost becoming homeless with no means of support, requiring what is the equivalent of a visa to enter their country. No citizen of T&T should be locked out of their country under any circumstances.
What would you say to those who would argue that the measures were meant to protect the larger proportion of the population?
I understand that, but I don't see people as collateral damage in any circumstance. What I would have said is in the interim, if you can come up with your PCR test, it is negative, and you are able to fly out at this particular time, we have repatriation flights available, board your flight and come home. Once that had happened and we had a smaller number of people abroad who may have been COVID positive and were able to quarantine (abroad), after that period, we have gone through the same process again.
Is there anything you think this current Government is doing well?
I think the PNM is populated by very well-educated, well-exposed members in their executive. You can tell that they are upstanding members. It's not that they cannot do better, they can. My question is why are they not doing better. One of the things I always say about the PNM is that they do keep that level of professionalism and camaraderie between them and I think that's one of the things that gives them that strength.
Any kudos for the UNC?
They did some very good work when they were in government. The corruption allegations were never addressed and that is the reason they lost the elections in the first place. You have many people in the UNC who are willing to make the difference, but again, leadership is setting the pace and if you don't have leadership that has the political will, there's very little the best candidates can do in any party.
If you were to be elected PM, what would be your first act or area of focus?
My very first area of focus would be strengthening the small to medium business community. I would want to see that the SMEs are developed so that once that happens we are looking at job creation, kickstarting the economy, creating our exports, improved infrastructure in the communities, families being able to create their small businesses and become financially stable. Any economist will tell you that the economic backbone of a country is its middle class.
What do you say to your detractors/people who want to silence you?
People support their party. I get that and people are very loyal to their party, but at some point in time we have to decide whether this trumps our own well-being and if we know that the people that we are supporting are the only ones benefitting, I think we have to take a look at our priorities. I am viciously attacked daily as a woman by women on both sides of the political spectrum and I want to say to them that my fight is not with you. My fight is with the Government of T&T, whomever that is. I want to say that you can attack me, degrade me all you like, I will never return that to you.