A scandal at Piarco Airport in Trinidad – Stella Ramsaroop

A scandal at Piarco

Stabroek News – July 27, 2013 · By Stella Ramsaroop · Comments

That is exactly how many Guyanese feel when going through the T&T airport—sub-human, degraded and embarrassed. How much longer will this be allowed?’

In August 2010, I was going through Customs in the Piarco International Airport in Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago as I switched from an American Airlines flight to a Caribbean Airlines flight to continue on to Guyana. As I stood in line with my husband, I watched as a customs officer verbally insulted some young ladies from Guyana, yelling at them and treating them like they were animals.
He then worked his way over to the customs officer who was checking our documentation and, with a look of disgust, said, “Guyanese!” He spat it more than said it. I was furious.

From that point on, I have never flown through T&T again. The extremely poor customer service by Caribbean Airlines compounded this unpleasantness and made my decision all the easier. Since that time, I have always flown Delta direct from JKF Airport in New York into Guyana. Why would I fly through a country that treats Guyanese with such hostility?   

I have heard and read of other horror stories from Guyanese about such treatment in T&T, confirming that what I saw with my own eyes was not a one-time incident of a customs officer who might have been having a bad day. However, a story I was made aware of this week is even more shocking.

Three women, a mother and her two daughters, were traveling from the U.S. to T&T on June 20 when there was a confrontation with yet another rude customs officer, who insinuated that these women must be illiterate, after they asked for guidance to access declaration forms despite signs around the airport.

This is according to a blog by one of the daughters, Tameka Vasquez, who said she voiced her displeasure at the rudeness of the customs officer then stepped out of the way and instructed her mother to do the same. It was at this point that Tameka says another plain-clothes officer who did not identify himself, physically assaulted her.

In fact, her mother tried to stop the officer, as she thought him instead to be a robber or a crazy man assaulting her daughter. According to Tameka’s blog, “…My sister and my mother… were inappropriately grabbed by other male officers, and I was taken away by the arms, by another plain clothes officer, who screamed in my face over and over ‘what right do you have to talk to a man that way?’”

After being held for eight hours, the women were then told they were under arrest for the assault of three on-duty officers. The officer who assaulted Tameka was asked for a statement and was let go with no punishment for his actions. Tameka’s blog says, “We were taken out of the airport in front of the public, in handcuffs, surrounded by guards. We were put in handcuffs, placed in a police station, where fingerprints were taken and all personal items were taken.”

Once in court, the women were told that the federal charges being brought against them could result in a prison sentencing of 6 months and fines for each charge totaling TT$13,500 (about GY$421,500). They were provided with a court date of July 19, given bail and told not to leave the country. There had been no movement on the case at the time of writing this column.

A June 26 Trinidad Express article detailing the incident included this piece of information: “The Express was also told by the police that all three women were originally from Guyana, prior to migrating to the United States.” Ah! Now we learn what their real crime was. It was being Guyanese.

This statement says so much. It seems that simply because these women “were originally from Guyana,” they must be guilty, much in the same way that Trayvon Martin must have been guilty simply because he was a black boy.

Since they were released on bail, the women have been staying with a relative. The mother is the sole breadwinner for the family after the father lost his job in the recession and since she is not working, their bills are piling up and they are in peril of losing their house.

Some students from Tameka’s college are trying to raise money for legal bills and there is an online petition calling for justice. The women have been in this situation now for 38 days, relying on their relatives to take care of them while they try to prove their innocence. It seems there is a videotape of the incident that prosecutors cannot seem to produce. This video would prove the guilt or innocence of these three women.

I acknowledge that my rendering of this story is one-sided and that is on purpose. The other side of the story has been told. It is time for the world to hear what these women say happened. I do not find their side of the story at all impossible. In fact, having seen the maltreatment of Guyanese in the Piarco airport with my own eyes, I find it quite probable.

I am a woman who travels alone quite frequently. There are times I also travel with my mother-in-law and sister-in-law (both originally from Guyana). Is this what we are to expect in the T&T airport? Thanks in large part to a ridiculous snafu between the Guyana government and Delta, we now have no choice but to use dreaded Caribbean Airlines since Delta has stopped its service – and Caribbean Airlines travels through the dreaded T&T on its way to Guyana.

In Tameka’s words from her blog, “There was something about seeing my mother and sister, in handcuffs that just broke me down. Every time I close my eyes, it’s just flashing back to that moment where we were brought in to see one another, in handcuffs…We feel sub-human. We feel so degraded and so embarrassed.”

That is exactly how many Guyanese feel when going through the T&T airport—sub-human, degraded and embarrassed. How much longer will this be allowed?

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  • Deen  On 07/30/2013 at 2:51 pm

    This is outrageous and humiliating! Obviously, the Guyanese are profiled and treated with disrespect. These Trinidad Customs Officers are prejudiced and need proper training. I recall a few years ago, the same situation existed in Barbados where many Guyanese were commonly treated with discourtesy and disrespect by Customs Officers. I assume that has changed.
    “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” hopefully, justice will prevail in this case. If there’s a videotape, that will give some proof of how these women were treated.
    Is the Guyana government doing anything about this flagrant insult? And is the US Government helping these US immigrants?

  • Rosaliene Bacchus  On 07/30/2013 at 3:55 pm

    How can CARICOM survive if some of its members are profiled and mistreated on arrival at an airport of one of its member states? Are our CARICOM passports just a sham?

    On the other hand, it concerns me that our fellow Caribbean brothers have lost their respect for us. We must have given them reason to.

  • sirenagx  On 07/30/2013 at 4:29 pm

    There can be no good reason for an entire people to be treated as stated above. There is no good reason for Guyana to ever consider giving any power over Guyana to CARICOM. Time for the government to remedy this situation and be less understanding and helpful to those who disrepects our citizen.

  • Cliff Thomas  On 07/30/2013 at 6:26 pm

    It is time we move away from Caricom. We can go it alone. Guyanese could no longer put up with these people who call themselves Immigration and Custom Officers. These ROACHES need training but unfortunately many of them have old brains and would not be able to understand the position they are put in and how they are to function. This is unfortunate.

  • Ben  On 08/03/2013 at 11:40 am

    Get out of Caricom, like we are doing in the UK with the EU.
    Guyana is NOT in the West Indies, as many Guyanese like to think they are..
    Not only in Trinidad we have the problem, it is also abundant right in Guyana.
    The people in Guyana must look around and see that ” all is not well”, when there is so much greed and thieving within their Government. Who are they to complain about T&T?

  • gigi  On 08/04/2013 at 1:05 am

    It’s time Guyana distance itself from the Caribbean/West Indies and embrace its true South American geography. We can definitely blame Burnham for this disgraceful and humiliating treatment of Guyanese.

    WE GUYANESE DO NOT BELONG WITH THE CARIBBEAN/WEST INDIES. NEITHER DO WE WANT TO BE BELONG. WE ARE SOUTH AMERICANS. If we’re going to be subject to such mistreatment, then better it be by classy people than by uncouth and crass people.

    As much as I miss Guyana, I will never visit until things change. And the ignorant rhetoric of manifest destiny that some like to preach and align to needs to be kept permanently disbanded. And the only way for that to happen is to ensure that those who embrace it are never elected…

    • Rosaliene Bacchus  On 08/04/2013 at 6:05 pm

      Gigi, we cannot blame Burnham for all the wrongs of our present society. Over 20 years have passed since his party lost power. A government that respects all of its citizens, regardless of race/ethnicity, will gain the respect of its peoples and that of other nations.

      We were and are tied to the English-speaking Caribbean through our common history as former British colonies. It affected the core of our character and cultures.

      While we are geographically linked to South America, we have very little in common with the Spanish and Portuguese cultures of the rest of the continent.

      There are uncouth and crass people everywhere in this world. While living in Northeast Brazil, I was shocked at the lack of common politeness among the general population. Good morning, please, thank you, excuse me were uncommon words. In colonial British Guiana, we were educated in deference and civility towards others.

      As a nation, we must look within ourselves and work towards changing the way we think, behave, and treat others.

  • Thinker  On 08/04/2013 at 5:19 am

    Let us observe how a general problem of over-zealous immigration officials (happens everywhere once you have a Muslim name, for example) can be used to draw political and in the case of Gigi racial implications. The fact is that Guyanese are leaving in droves for anywhere North. Originally, it was fear of Jagan’s communism. Then it was economic decline and Burnham’s authoritarianism. It continues even more under the PPP. Lots of Jamaicans and others are no longer enamoured of Caricom, so there won’t be a general weeping and gnashing of teeth if Guyana in particular leaves. (Did we ever pay back what we owed Trinidad years ago?)

    We may have more of a South American destiny because of geography, no doubt, but Gigi has decided that Caribbean people are “uncouth” but South Americans are “classier”. S/he should travel more. “Manifest Destiny”, historically is a US doctrine but it has somehow been metamorphosed into a PNC doctrine and we are warned that its supporters (who obviously know nothing about it) must never be allowed back in power. In other words, fight the Quixotic battles of yesteryear!

    The peoples of South America have an Iberian, African and Amerindian cultural heritage. Culturally, how “South American” can Guyanese ever be?

    • Rosaliene Bacchus  On 08/04/2013 at 6:18 pm

      Thinker, I share your skepticism about Guyana ever adapting a South American culture. This will only be possible with the growth and influence of Brazilian immigrants to the point that they are able to gain power and become the dominant culture. Consider the growing influence of Latinos in the USA.

  • Thinker  On 08/05/2013 at 4:32 am

    Just a matter of time.

  • Michael  On 08/05/2013 at 3:11 pm

    The arrest of these women had nothing to do with their nationality. You refer to Ms. Vasquez’ blog, but you fail to mention that she has so far changed her story twice (as originally written, Tameka Vasquez admitted that she sought to leave the airport without having first presented the necessary documentation to Customs). Eye witnesses also state that she was abusive to the immigration officials.

    I am surprised that any intelligent person would place such blind faith in Ms. Vasquez’ account of this incident. Could it be that I expect too much of the author of this piece?

  • Jason Martin  On 08/06/2013 at 4:02 am

    Ok did anybody check or know where these women are? This is indeed a scandal and if unresolved requires US congressional and executive action. I am interested in finding out if these women are still stuck in Trinidad. If so they should be allowed to come home now to the USA. I did not opt to be a US citizen to be silent on issues like this. Anyone with direct info please contact me at nyjasonmartin@aol.com.

    Again the first priority must be to get these women home? This should have been resolved and Caribbean Air will have to explain to our representatives as to what assistance they rendered and why they should be given favorable treatment by US authorities on certain other matters, where their track record is spotty.

    Jason Martin

    • Michael  On 08/06/2013 at 1:47 pm

      I understand that the US Authorities are unconcerned as these women are not US citizens. Furthermore, as I understand it they are residing with relatives in Trinidad pending the outcome of their trial.

      You speak as though they should not be expected to be subject to due process, and I can sympathise with this because, as an American citizen, you probably don’t know the meaning of the word.

      For your benefit, “due process” is what those being held in Guantanamo for 10 years and more without trial have been deprived of. Either get off your high horse or use your decision to “opt to be a US citizen” for something worthwhile, like lobbying your government to respect the human rights of those detained in Guantanamo.

      • Jason Marin  On 08/06/2013 at 2:58 pm

        Thanks for giving the update on the Guyanese women, although they are not Americans I will still do what I can to help them by using alternative channels. They deserve better. As for your rant about Guantanamo and the terrorists held there, I am not sure if you expect me defend the continued operation of a prison that every fair minded person is against. But that’s not the fight I am picking and I am not also looking to fight you, I am just concerned about (Guyanese in this case) women held in a country for a minor offense when they could have easily been fined or put on bail and then allowed to go home.

        As for a high horse (have not heard that one in while), well you don’t know me, do you? But since you raised it, my concern is that I shoud get accountability and assistance as a US citizen for matters like this, and that’s why I became one. By the way and a very proud one. Just as proud as being Guyanese – No Apology.

        Last, but not least you speak of due process, that’s easy when its not your daughter, Mom, wife, sister or girlfriend being stuck in the country they visited without income and at risk of jail and probably losing everything back in the USA after the vacation that will not end!

        Again thank for the update, and I don’t want to fight with you, just to help these women in any way possible, so please enjoy your wonderful life.

        Peace out!



    • Michael  On 08/08/2013 at 10:23 am

      Update – Their next hearing date is 21 August. In the meantime, they sought permission to leave Trinidad and this was granted on condition that they return for their court date.

      Legally, they are still on bail and I expect that the US authorities will be looking out for them should they seek to return to the US. Whether they will be allowed into the US in the present circumstances is debatable.

      Apparently, video evidence is available and is before the court. As I understand it, Ms. Vasquez was very economical with the truth in her blog. The video evidence should therefore clear up what happened once and for all.

  • Rosaliene Bacchus  On 08/07/2013 at 5:31 pm

    Just read this Caribbean news item about Indira Joseph of Guyana. Is this a related case?

    • Jason Martin  On 08/08/2013 at 2:22 am


      It does not seem connected but this raises the bar even further. Someone is now dead and as Martin Carter said all are involved all are consumed. I will share an approach with this forum that should bring attention to this issue ad hopefully find out what happened and hopefully stop this

      • Rosaliene Bacchus  On 08/08/2013 at 2:31 am

        Thanks, Jason. It’s important for Guyanese in the Diaspora to know of the risks we face when passing through or visiting Trinidad and Tobago.

  • Satchi  On 08/21/2013 at 11:42 am

    This is the fear of every one who travels internationally so for all times. I always keep my mouth zipped, firmly, and only open it when necessary, very polite and smile, better to be thought that I am ignorant than end up in jail in some one else,s country, because is never sure of the justice system. There. are some very nasty immigration and customs officers in a few countries in the world and with much ado I have also had a very difficult. Time at Guyana airport

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