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Prime Minister, Dr. Keith Rowley, centre, with Finance Minister, Colm Imbert, Minister of Community Development, Culture and the Arts, Dr. Nyan Gasby Dolly, visit the Teaching Kitchen, during the tour of the Bagatelle Community Centre, in Diego Martin during its opening, yesterday. 7/10/20

SHALIZA HASSANALI

Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley has accused Opposition leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar of making dangerous and unfounded claims against the People’s National Movement (PNM) and the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) concerning foreign nationals’ ability to return home to vote in the August 20 General Election.

He made the comment yesterday as he responded to claims by Persad-Bissessar that the PNM has been engaging in “backdoor politics” by allowing their supporters to quietly enter the country while deliberately blocking United National Congress loyalists from returning home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Addressing the allegations following the opening of the Bagatelle Community Centre in Diego Martin yesterday, Rowley, visibly upset when asked the question, said, “Let me put it this way, Mrs Persad-Bissessar has a habit of saying things that are not true.”

Noting constant attempts to put a negative light on the country, Rowley said Persad-Bissessar needs to do “much better than that.”

“These things do not portray our country in a good light. And when these allegations are based on naked lies, it must be hurtful to people who run the show,” he said in reference to the work of the EBC, which he said is an institution we can all be proud of as far as running elections were concerned.

The PM said he had no idea where Persad-Bissessar has been obtaining her information, but took umbrage that she was trying to suggest not only that the PNM was engaging in such activity but that the EBC was complicit in it as well.

“Suffice it to say it is all lies. And it is hurtful to the staff (of the EBC) for the leader of the Opposition who somehow carries the ambition of being Prime Minister again to come and tell such naked untruths.”

Persad-Bissessar made the claim while addressing supporters during the UNC’s Moruga/Tableland office opening in Moruga, earlier this week. Calling for nationals stranded abroad to be allowed to return home to vote in the General Election, Persad-Bissessar said then, “Whilst I do not call to open the borders, I leave that for the medical people to tell us what is the best thing to do, in the best interest of the health of the country. At the same time, they cannot be bringing people through the back door, bringing their supporters to vote.”

Yesterday, however, Rowley said this was not the first time Persad-Bissessar had made such unfounded accusations against the EBC. He said when T&T opened its doors for 16,000-plus Venezuelans to work and reside in our shores temporarily last year she also had unfounded allegations.

“When we were engrossed in that problem she was out front saying that the EBC was registering Venezuelans when in fact all we were doing was keeping a record of Venezuelans at the Ministry of National Security,” he said.

Addressing this specifically, the PM said only a person born in T&T can qualify to be on the EBC’s voting list.

“No Venezuelan can come here and go into the EBC’s office and get on the EBC list by any subterfuge. Our country is not run like that. So the Opposition Leader told a lie upfront.”

Rowley again reiterated that the closure of the borders was not intended to punish Trinidadians abroad.

“I have been all over the United States, East, West, North and South and everywhere you go you meet Trinidad and Tobago citizens. So when you say we closed the borders, it is not to punish anybody, it is just to keep the virus out.”

Having kept the virus out, Rowley said, “There is no reason to play fast and loose now… by crying on the TV you want to come home. I have no problem with you not coming home. What I have a problem with is the risk level.”

He said if the Government is criticised for managing the borders effectively to protect the people he would plead guilty to that.

“But in so doing it is not simple and easy for everybody… we know that people on the other side of the border…when we closed them…that they would have been negatively affected.”

He said the Government has provided exemptions not on the number of people who want to come in but on whether the health system could manage who could come in.

“It would be irresponsible of us, at this stage, to take advice from an irresponsible ambitious leader, telling lies about elections and embarrassing the country and talking about people are being brought in for elections. That is totally untrue. It is not fair to the honest people of this country who see this country as a place where honesty has a place,” Rowley said.

The PM said he has no idea who has been coming into T&T outside of what the National Security Ministry would have briefed him about from time to time.