It is President Paula-Mae Weekes’ final day in office. T&T’s first female president opted to serve only one term, a decision that was made even before she was inaugurated in 2018. In more ways than one, President Weekes created and faced history.
On the back of a merit list fiasco in 2021 that came to define her term in office, she survived a historical impeachment vote in October of that year, the first for a president in this country, which she said was the most challenging part of her presidency. She had many reactions over the period, she said, “From high irritation to impatience, to really having to bite my tongue and frustration at not being able to say all that I could say in the matter...”
Mere days before demitting office, President Weekes sat down with Guardian Media at her office at the President’s House to reflect on the last five years.
The outgoing President said that she was happy to come to the end of her term which had its highs and lows, but that she was very gratified by what she had done. The most gratifying aspect of it being her interactions with the youth.
On the public’s perception that she was not warm, Weekes confessed that it might be entirely true, but “I am not prepared to be what I am not to please other people.” For Weekes, it has always been “what you see is what you get” with her.
We have picked out some excerpts from her interview with journalist/anchor Ryan Bachoo.
Q: In reflecting, what have you made of this entire experience as president of the Republic?
A: Well, it was my last and greatest work of public service, and like the ones that went before it was interesting, and had its highs and lows, but at the end of the day, I am very gratified by what I would have done and what I have experienced in my tenure. I say I’m happy to come to the end of it because I also knew my 65th year would have been my last working, and so, indeed, it is.
What has been most gratifying for you over the last five years serving in the highest office in the land?
Firstly, dealing with our youth. In 2019, I established a youth development programme called Citizen True, and we had their graduation just last Saturday (March 11). And so, following these children that we met when they were in Form One all the way through was really pleasing at the end of the day to see how they had developed and to see how their sense of citizenship had grown. For some of them, from nil. I always enjoyed dealing with other young people because in our school tours we had children from as young as the early childhood centres. So, I think, overall dealing with the youth was the most gratifying aspect of my time here.
Was the impeachment vote the most challenging part of your presidency?
Yes, indeed, it was the most challenging. I think when you accept public office, you hope that things will be smooth but if you are realistic, you realise you open yourself up to many a challenge. I had a variety of reactions over the period. From high irritation to impatience, to really having to bite my tongue and frustration at not being able to say all that I could say in the matter, but then there is a greater duty. People...not only the man in the street, but people in high office have to have confidence that what comes here remains. So despite the many, many temptations on this and other issues to speak about what took place and what was said at President’s House, it is my policy that that does not happen. It shakes the confidence of people who often need to resort to the Office of the President to exchange ideas or to look for solutions. At the end of the day, I did what I thought was right and what I had to do, and history will speak for itself.
After five years of occupying the office of president, what type of outlook do you see for Trinidad and Tobago?
If you hearken back to my inaugural address, you would remember that I am forever Pollyanna. So, I have an optimistic outlook because I have had an opportunity to take a measure of the calibre of people we have in T&T, to confirm my view that there are many patriots, who, if given the opportunity, will indeed do a lot for the country. Of course, as things stand, one must be a bit concerned. There are many social issues, crime, of course, being among them that makes one troubled with the state of the country. But if you ask me if I’m optimistic? Yes, in the face of it all, I am.
Do you fear we have gotten to a point where the best of us are now unwilling to serve in public office because of politics?
Well, I can tell you that I, personally, in having this office, approach many, many persons to serve in public office have had them decline on the grounds that they don’t like, to use their words, the politics of the country today, and they are not prepared to serve. So people tell you, if it were not for the politics, I would have loved to do service in this way but given what is going on I do not wish to serve. So, I don’t know if I will say the best, but I can tell you from personal experience that many persons that I thought would make admirable and worthy office holders have declined because of the atmosphere.
Were you a little bit disappointed that people didn’t see you more as a people’s president?
No. I’ll tell you this. Before I had my inauguration, I was in contact with a PR person dealing with image, and she kept talking about how I should give all these interviews to be humanised. I said, but I’m human already, and I don’t understand why this need for the public to know all sorts of personal, and to my mind, irrelevant details about me. To me, what you should be concerned about a president coming into office—Is the person knowledgeable? Does the person have a proven track record? Does the person reflect as a person of integrity? So I have heard people say I am not warm. I have to confess that might be entirely true, but I am not prepared to be what I am not to please other people. So for me, it has always been what you see is what you get.
How do you respond to the critics who say you cost taxpayers by living in a separate residence?
First of all, I would say that would only be a comment for the ill-informed. It has cost taxpayers nothing extra to have me live at home. There are several reasons why I stayed at home. Of course, the most important of them is that when I came to this job my mother was 89 years old. We have lived in our home since 1964. She had some issues in 2015 that compromised her mobility, so knowing every single step of our home including the staircase was to me very important to her comfort and her security. To pick her up and bring her here to a strange environment I thought would be a bit much, especially since I always knew I was leaving in five years, so then within five years, at age 94, to have to move back to my residence. So from the very beginning when I was asked I said on the condition that I do not have to leave my home. I maintained my home on my own dime. I remember there was a time when there was an article in the paper about whether or not the State paid for my housekeeper and my gardener. No, they did not. I have footed the bill for every single thing in my house. And so, other than I supposed the gas involved in having to be collected seven minutes away and brought here to work every day, there was no cost to the taxpayer.
How do you feel that a female president will succeed the first female president?
I think it’s wonderful. It will become par for the course so whether there is a third female president in succession or whether we will revert to having male presidents, I think the two female presidents back-to-back certainly will place a stamp on T&T and all fields of endeavour. Young women will no longer be considering whether male or female has anything to do with their aspirations and their eventual careers, professions and lives.
If you had to tell the public any lasting words about the Police Service Commission’s controversy that gripped your tenure, what would you like the public to know?
What I would like the public to know is that if one approaches the issue with an open mind, not with preconceived notions that you were seeking confirmation of, you will know all of the essential and salient details of what took place. Those who cared to read the statement I issued on the matter, if you read it through, all of the details that you need to know to understand what transpired and to come to some conclusion are there, but people were more interested in the bacchanal aspect. And the word long before any statement was out, there were sinister and clandestine things happening and so there are people who have never changed their minds on that and, to my mind, might not have read the statement with the complete openness and ability to be informed about what took place on the important details so I don’t wish to add anything to what I have already said on the matter.
What would be your final message to the people of T&T?
It was an honour and privilege to serve you, and I did it to the best of my ability. I have not lost to the Pollyanna I came to the office with and despite all of our challenges and all of our ills, I remain convinced that together we can make Trinidad and Tobago the place we want it to be. We may go through some more trials before we get there, but get there we will.
The interview, in its entirety, can be viewed on CNC3 Television at 8 pm on Sunday.