PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad
Stretched out on a beach chair underneath a broad white umbrella, Wayne Kublalsingh had an announcement: He was going to remove his shirt.
“You all will have 30 seconds to take pictures,” he said. “That’s it.”
The 55-year-old with an elfin face pinched apart the buttons, launching a chorus of camera clicks from the posse of newspaper photographers stationed beside his perch across the street from the prime minister’s office. He slipped the pressed white shirt off his shoulders, and there were the bones: his clavicles, his knobby elbows, his rib cage.
He was gaunt — the result, he said, of 10 days refusing food and water. But Kublalsingh has always been on the unsettling side of skinny, leaving him little fat to work with and an easy target for skeptics who wonder, is he cheating?
Born in Trinidad and Tobago, the southernmost island in the Caribbean, Kublalsingh has been many things over the years — Ivy League-er and Oxford graduate, British military officer, labor organizer, literature professor. But in recent years, he has become known as one thing: a hunger striker.
In September, for the second time, Kublalsingh vowed to abstain from all food or liquids to protest the construction of a highway, a 14-kilometer, $1 billion project that will either rescue the nation’s gridlocked commuters or destroy communities, depending on whom you ask. Naysayers object for all the reasons people object to highways: It will destroy the environment, uproot families under eminent domain and balloon into a taxpayer-funded boondoggle. It is forecast to be the most costly infrastructure project in the nation’s history.
Kublalsingh’s first hunger strike, two years ago, garnered success that most observers thought impossible: After 21 days, civil society organizations and the government agreed to have the highway proposal re-evaluated — a review that ultimately raised serious questions about the project. Kublalsingh was hopeful the government would scrap the plans and start anew.
But a contract had already been awarded, and construction moved full steam ahead. Kublalsingh felt his gains slipping away. He sensed a do-or-die moment.
“In a few days, Madame, I intend to go on a hunger strike,” Kublalsingh declared in a video message to Trinidad’s prime minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar. “No one wants this. It is a hateful thing… But what choice do we have? How many more diplomatic efforts? How many more sacrifices and prayers? How many more demonstrations and arrests?
“The hunger strike will stop, madame, when you agree to abide by your promise to put on hold, and review, the Debe-Mon Desir highway.”
At lunchtime on Sept. 17, he ate roti, a kind of floury sandwich filled with curried vegetables, and arrived at his makeshift camp outside Persad-Bissessar’s office.
Click, click-click-click, click-click. Kublalsingh stared straight into the camera lenses, his boyish face and expressive eyebrows conveying a fine-tuned solemnity, desperation, earnestness. These photos were his capital: In a country with a healthy skepticism of politicians and martyrs alike, his task was to prove he was, in fact, depriving himself of all food and water.
Those images of his starved body — they had worked the last time, generating a public outcry that demanded a government response.
But would they work again?
Trinidad has never been timid about development.
A former British colony of 1.3 million about twice the size of Luxembourg, Trinidad and Tobago is endowed with enormous petroleum reserves that have kept foreign money flowing in for a century. The oil-dependent economy has had ups and downs — the 1980s oil glut wasn’t a great time — but the country, by and large, provides better education and higher incomes than most other islands in the Caribbean. And its capital, Port of Spain, is a thriving metropolis with high-rises and sleek shopping malls and little need to emulate the kowtowing resort industry of other islands.
The oil economy also brought Trinidadians disposable income, as well as popular gasoline subsidies (right now, it costs about $1.58 per gallon). Car ownership has skyrocketed. Ask any engineer or traffic warden or minibus driver: There are too many cars on the road.
Traffic is bad everywhere, but it’s particularly bad in the southwest. Drivers often sit in their cars for two hours to and from work; it’s not unusual to hear of people waking up at 4 a.m. each day and arriving to work by 5:30, just to avoid the traffic. Stacy Roopnarine, a 30-year-old minister and rising star in Trinidad’s ruling party who represents this region, said the traffic issues have reached near-crisis proportions.
“There are times, if you’re on a Sunday evening, you’re trying to get from Penal to Debe to buy doubles, you will not believe it,” Roopnarine said. (Doubles are the ubiquitous Trinidadian street food, a kind of spongy chickpea taco.) “It sometimes takes you something like 30, 40 minutes what should really be a five-minute drive — and that is a Sunday.”
That’s why, for decades, the government has been planning to build a highway, saying residents in the south deserve the kind of modern infrastructure their countrymen to the north have taken for granted since the 1970s. It’s an expedient political message ahead of the national elections next summer. And no one has turned the highway into her golden child more than the prime minister.
Kamla Persad-Bissessar made headlines in 2010 when she was elected the country’s first female prime minister, a bespectacled grandmother with a honeyed voice and unflappable political mettle. The highway is one of her crowning achievements. The communities that stand to benefit are some of her party’s largest strongholds. The symbol of a hulking asphalt freeway dovetails with her political message: Build more, and quickly.
“This area has been one of the neglected areas of our country in terms of development,” she told a crowd at the recent opening of a highway interchange. “The quality of life as a whole is destined to improve with this project. … All over this country, if you have eyes to see, you will see there is development taking place in every sector and every area.”
To Kublalsingh and the Highway Re-Route Movement — a group of locals at risk of losing their homes, along with supporters from other parts of the country — Persad-Bissessar is their greatest foe. That’s why they camp out in front of her office every weekday, shading their eyes from the hot sun; they know that if anyone can slow the momentum, it’s her.
“She’s insincere, underhanded, and devious in her approach,” Kublalsingh told me at the protest camp, a cluster of standing umbrellas and folding chairs scattered on the sidewalk and in the gaping gutter. His supporters offer water bottles from an ice cooler. “She’s not budging, and that’s not the kind of attitude we need in our leaders.”
Kublalsingh has forged his career in activism by refusing to budge, always allied with underdogs taking on the government. In the 1970s, as an undergraduate at the University of the West Indies, he helped sugar farmers after the closure of the state-owned sugar company. Around that time, anti-imperialist stirrings around the globe — Vietnam, India, Cuba — fuelled a sense of indignation. “I thought about terrorism — which was not tenable for me,” he told the Trinidad Guardian in 2012. “I like to think of myself as a social warrior. No guns, no ammunition. Just principles and persistence.”
Activism became a nearly full-time pursuit in the early 2000s, when locals in Chatham asked Kublalsingh to help them fight the construction of an aluminum smelter there. They won. Then came the fight against another smelter in La Brea, and the steel plant in Claxton Bay, and the chemical complex in Couva. Kublalsingh became known for his outrageous acts: stacking logs and burning tires to block access roads and sabotaging construction work. All the while, he said the opposition was never just about a smelter, or a factory, or a plant. He was fighting for government transparency, he told reporters again and again, and the rights of residents to decide the future of their own communities.
Kublalsingh doesn’t live anywhere near the proposed highway. His home, where he lives with his wife and raised his son, is in D’Abadie. It’s a short commute along a decades-old highway to the University of the West Indies, where he taught English literature until his polarizing protests prompted administrators to sack him in September 2013. “While highways are important, they’re not correct for every community,” Kublalsingh said.
He and supporters maintain they’re not wholly against the highway, which cuts through 13 small towns bookended by Debe and Mon Desir. They want the highway shifted to a different route, one that would run farther from a natural wetland and wouldn’t displace hundreds of people from their land. One of them, Fazila Ali, said she and her husband have just built a new home on property that has been in the family for years. Like many others, she envisioned passing it down to her grandchildren.
“My husband born and grow there from small. … I don’t want to move. I don’t want compensation. You don’t just take people and pelt them and they children anywhere,” Ali said. “They lied to the people. They never had any consultation with people in the community.”
As a result of Kublalsingh’s first hunger strike, independent reviewers released a report concluding the project had “significant shortcomings” and “inadequacies of proper assessment.” It alleged the government had signed onto an “ill-advised” contract. For people like Ali, this so-called Armstrong Report was vindicating.
Now they want more extensive studies. “Whatever the results of that review, we’ll respect it,” Kublalsingh said. “It’s a perfectly reasonable position.”
Kublalsingh has the measured, formal tone of an academic. He underscores his anecdotes with flowery phrases and sweeping gestures, a storyteller’s cadence he’s always had, said his older sister, Faith. From the time he was a child, he begged his parents to tell him stories, and told his own to his six younger siblings. He loved to spend time outdoors, and even built a treehouse so he could read and write his school assignments with his feet dangling off the ground. Teachers showed off Kublalsingh’s essays to older students as a model for their work.
Even as a boy, Faith said, he picked up on subtle cues and subplots in the books they read or in programs on television. He always had the uncanny ability to know how the story was going to end.
Kublalsingh coupled his impressive academic pedigree — the University of the West Indies, New York’s Columbia and Oxford — with graduation from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, a British army officer training center. There he refined his ability to conquer physical challenges, a useful skill for a hunger striker.
He maintains he drinks no water and eats no food during his strikes, though he purported to sustain his body, at least a little, by deep breathing — he can capture some of the dew in the air on his tongue, he said — and by taking long baths that allowed his body to absorb moisture.
Kublalsingh’s family members fall on a spectrum from pride to puzzlement to terror. His wife has penned op-eds in her husband’s favor, and their son is said to be “filled with admiration,” according to a relative. His seven siblings don’t all agree with his radical tactics, but they do agree with his cause: that the environment is worth fighting for, if not dying for.
At Kublalsingh’s camp, a woman pleaded with him to consider reneging. He shrugged, pointing to a university student in a flowery dress holding up a sign on his behalf. He explained he was deriving strength from supporters. “She had a whole bag of chips this morning,” he said. “They tasted very good.”
He’s got the kind of unruffled demeanor that causes supporters to treat him with a reverence that borders on religious. Whenever he is at his protest camp, they are, too — which, it turns out, isn’t that often. Kublalsingh keeps modest office hours, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. every weekday. That leaves him about 20 hours per day to eat or drink whatever he wants in secret.
This was a major point of contention during his first hunger strike. Jack Warner, a Trinidad politician — and former executive of FIFA, before he was ensconced in a soccer corruption scandal — derided the university professor during his first hunger strike.
“I am even advised that last week he was lying on the back seat of his vehicle eating a doubles,” Warner told the Trinidad Express. “And it was not even a Debe doubles,” an insult that suggests that he was not just a faker, but also a carpetbagger.
Prevailing medical research asserts a person can survive three to four weeks without food if they have water. Mahatma Gandhi’s lengthiest hunger strikes lasted 21 days, during which time he allowed himself to take sips of water. As of this writing, it has been nearly nine weeks since Kublalsingh ate that roti.
Kublalsingh’s supporters respond: Just look at him. Look at the skin and bones he has become, the sharpness of his cheekbones, the yawning sockets of his eyes.
Each day, supporters sit beside him, singing to him or rubbing his feet or offering their own prayers. One man read from Proverbs:
The lips of the righteous feed many: but fools die for want of wisdom.
The blessing of the Lord, it maketh rich, and he addeth no sorrow with it.
But Trinidadians saw that serene, unshakable demeanor evaporate midway through the 2012 hunger strike, when Kublalsingh, sitting in his usual spot, entertained a visit from the national minister of health, Fuad Khan, looking prim with his suit and clean shave.
Khan had come to inform Kublalsingh the government had arranged for an ambulance to be stationed nearby to take him to a hospital if necessary — a gesture of goodwill, he said, from the prime minister.
“I’m just here to tell you, as minister of health and as a medical doctor, I have put things in place on the advice of the prime minister to make sure that if anything happens to you, you have waiting for you an ambulance’s services,” Khan said.“And I would like you to reconsider what you’re doing,” he added, patting Kublalsingh’s knee.
Kublalsingh’s circle of supporters grumbled words of derision under a drizzling rain. But the thin man in the center remained silent, looking at Khan and nodding his head again and again. It almost looked like he was agreeing, that he was grateful and a little touched, and that maybe he would listen to the minister’s pleas.
Then Kublalsingh opened his mouth, and his anger crescendoed.“Well, I just wanted to advise you, since you’re the minister of health, that the people in Mon Desir to Debe are suffering trauma — exhaustion — because it’s seven years of long struggle, because their camp has been mashed up by the government,” Kublalsingh barked. “We have put down action upon action to the government, and they fail to respond in a very responsible way.”
Khan mumbled that he’s concerned about those people, too. They could telephone the ministry directly for assistance if they need it.
“This action has been caused by the response of your government. And I will not use that ambulance.” His eyes widened and his voice sounded strangled, like he was trying to scream and fight tears at the same time. “I will NOT — NOT — NOT — use thatFUCKING ambulance. So you get the FUCK out of here.”
The irony of a hunger strike is that the longer it goes, the fewer people believe you.
The first had lasted 21 days. As this one stretched into its fifth week, some began to wonder. Whispers of skepticism grew into full-blown accusations aired on radio and television and in the pages of newspapers.
One advertisement, published in the Trinidad Guardian, was designed to feign the look of an objective newspaper story.
“Trinidad and Tobago discovers human reptile,” screamed the headline. It went on: “The KUB-LAL. An unusual human reptile discovered here on the pavement basking in the limelight everyday outside the Prime Minister’s Office, defies medical explanation by surviving without food and water for weeks without any sign of health issues.”
“The Kub-lal is a great imitator and sometimes assumes to itself names such as Ghandi and those of other great prophets, yet it has no such following or cause other than confusion.”
People argued on the radio, and his defenders began to sound increasingly delusional, like one person who called into one of the country’s most popular and influential radio shows. Their topic of discussion: Kublalsingh, medical miracle or self-aggrandizing cheat?
The man offered his take: If Jesus could do it, why not Kublalsingh?
“It was 40 days and 40 nights!” the caller declared. “Now, anything over 40 days, you’re bordering on death, but within that span … he could still, the body could still — medical science proved that anything over the 40 days … you could absorb that energy, you could survive it.”
The host of the radio show pointed out Jesus went without food, but not water. Still, he said, it was hard not to respect the activist’s self-discipline, even if he was sneaking a couple sips here and there.
“I dunno,” he responded. “Sometimes I feel like we toss the stones at the wrong things.”
When Kublalsingh fainted in the back of a relative’s car, it couldn’t have been timed better.
Supporters already had planned a candlelight vigil in a park in central Port of Spain for Sunday afternoon. Hundreds were expected to gather with signs and T-shirts supporting the highway reroute.
The morning of the event, family members took Kublalsingh to a local beach with the hopes that a bath in ocean water would have a revitalizing effect. But before he put his feet on the sand, newspapers reported, he collapsed, and family rushed him to St. Clair Medical Centre. The hospital, as it happened, was directly across the street from the vigil.
Throngs of protesters showed up carrying signs — “Is Armstrong Report in Kamla rubbish bin?” — and when Persad-Bissessar arrived in a pastel-pink dress to visit the hunger striker in his hospital room, the steady chants grew deafening. “Reroute! Reroute!” “Shame on Kamla!”
The prime minister spent a half hour in Kublalsingh’s room, then came outside to talk to reporters, nearly drowned out by the thunderous yells. Her eyebrows kneaded in worry, she said she had spoken to Kublalsingh, held his hand and bowed her head in prayer with him.
“Wayne looks in very good condition, he’s very lucid, and he seems very strong,” she said. “We continue to pray for him.” But, she maintained, there had been no change to the highway situation, no talk of compromise or mediation. “I told him I did not think this was the place for any such discussion. … I came as a human being, with concern for his health.”
Kublalsingh stayed in the hospital for one night, agreeing to receive some IV fluids to stabilize his condition, then checked out the next morning.
He returned to the camp twice. Then, he stopped showing up. He was too weak to leave home, he said.
It was one more instance in which Kublalsingh’s efforts provided more drama and entertainment but failed to deliver actual results.
Earlier this year, in the town of Penal, Kublalsingh stood on top of a bulldozer, about 40 of his supporters gathered below. The machine was supposed to be tearing up the ground in preparation for the construction of another stretch of the highway. Framed against an ominous sky filled with dark gray clouds, he looked like the hero of a medieval epic about to deliver a battle speech to his warriors chanting “Reroute!” and “Shame on Kamla!”
“We are not moving from here,” he declared. “Those who are on the tractor, if the police decide to take us down, I want you to — when we come down — to hold us, don’t let us go with police, you understand that?” His look was earnest. “Hold us, hold us by our legs, hold us by our arms, hold us by our waist, hold us down and don’t let us go. You understand that? Nobody’s getting arrested today. You understand that? No one must stand idly by while the police takes anybody here.”
Supporters nodded their heads.
The police arrived, in all-black tactical gear and bulletproof vests and combat boots. Their first target: an older man standing in the midst of the crowd. As they handcuffed him, he fell to the ground, refusing to use his legs to aid his arrest. “That’s it — sit on the ground!” Kublalsingh yelled from the bulldozer.
This was the moment. This was the instant when supporters were supposed to grasp the man’s limbs, clutch at his torso.
But barely anyone moved. They looked remorseful, as if they understood that it would be futile to prevent the man’s arrest.
Police picked up the man by his arms and carried him away with his feet suspended above the ground. Kublalsingh looked on in disbelief. Eventually, he was carted away, too, and placed into the back of an SUV.
As the vehicle drove off, a new and jaunty round of chants grew louder: “We want the highway! We want the highway!” About a dozen highway supporters moved in, holding signs of their own.
“Kublalsingh ego,” one read. “Hindering our growth and development.”
On Nov. 15, Kublalsingh reached the 60th day of his purported abstention from food and water, with no concessions from the government in sight.
In those waning days, as he lay bedridden at home, unable to speak and listening to strains of classical music, detractors called for him to release his medical records. They wanted an answer, once and for all, to the question that had been hanging in the air since the first week: Had he really been starving himself all this time, refusing any water? Or had he fudged it, stealing sips and nibbles here and there, in an effort to prolong the drama?
Reporters took the question to Persad-Bissessar, asking whether she would pen a formal request to the hunger striker to release his medical records.
She raised her eyebrows for a moment, then broke into a serene smile.
“Those matters are not important to me,” she cooed, just before turning to leave for her next engagement. “I have a country to run.”
Kublalsingh ended his hunger strike on July 1, 2015, with a meal his mother cooked for him. He said he stopped because he needed his energy to combat harassment against members of his movement. After six years, the highway extension is still incomplete because of protests and lawsuits.
Martine Powers is a journalist formerly based in Trinidad and Tobago reporting on transportation. She now covers transportation and infrastructure for POLITICO.
Edited by Ben Wolford. Copy edited by Jackie Valley. Additional editing by Colin Morris and Jon O’Neill.