[Postcard] | Jack's Trinidad, by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro | Harper's Magazine
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In Trinidad, the rise of Jack Warner—and his putative fall—has become something of a parable for the larger foibles of the “nation building” project it’s been engaged in

Former FIFA Vice President Jack Warner walks past a guard as he leaves the court in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, on July 27, 2015 © STRINGER/epa/Corbis

Port of Spain, the capital of the southern Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago, is tucked away between Trinidad’s high northern mountains and the sea. Its romantic name evokes images of Havanaesque plazas fronting aqua waves, but the city has neither of these. It is a hot oil town with an economy based on crude drilled from offshore rigs. The streets are flanked by concrete buildings and asphalt “panyards” where carnival steel bands make music with pans cut from fifty-five-gallon oil drums. Vendors gather in the morning sun to hawk “doubles”—a rich curry snack whose spices landed here not with African slaves, nor with Spanish or French Catholics settlers, but with the indentured workers who arrived from India in the nineteenth century, to farm its sugar fields after slavery’s end. If this is a city lacking the Antilles’ stereotypical charms, it’s also a place, for its partisans, where “all [the] curious threads in the fabric of the Trinidadian world,” wrote Patrick Leigh Fermor, “invest the social life of the island with a colourfulness, a lack of inhibition and a dashing cosmopolitan atmosphere that turn [neighboring] Barbados into something parochial and grey and fiercely Anglo-English.”

Trinidad’s distinctive ethnic mix and comparative wealth within the West Indies have long fed its reputation in the region as a destination for migrants from poorer islands and as a center for restive politics and regional power—which was wielded, until not long ago, from a three-story office block at 113 Edward Street.

I first happened upon the building when I visited the island in 2008. It was made of typical cement and painted Pepto-Bismol pink. It had two big logos affixed to its side, both of which included soccer balls. Stenciled on one of these balls were the block initials of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association—commonly known as FIFA, the now-disgraced organization responsible for regulating and developing the planet’s most popular game. The other bore the initials of CONCACAF—FIFA’s regional association of the Caribbean, and North and Central America—whose longtime head, Jack Warner, hails from the island. 

In Trinidad, Warner was a notorious public figure long before Loretta Lynch’s U.S. Department of Justice indicted him and thirteen other soccer officials on charges of fraud, bribery, and racketeering. An ex-island schoolteacher who became a FIFA vice president, he brokered power and billion-dollar deals at a global scale. Known in Trinidad simply as Jack, his involvement in FIFA afforded him a kind of juice on his small island—as a property magnate, a member of parliament, and a unique political kingmaker. His potency is perhaps suggested by the speed with which he won his release on bail, and by the bluster with which he’s now claiming, as he fights extradition, that “there is no U.S.A. that would carry me from here.”

That Warner is still in Trinidad, rather than stewing in a Swiss jail with his fellow FIFA chums, who were pulled from their five-star Zurich hotel during a meeting there on May 27, is a consequence of him being pushed from the organization in 2011. During a meeting of Caribbean soccer chiefs at the Port of Spain’s new Hyatt, Warner handed out packets of cash with the hope of securing support for Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup. This public display of graft was too brazen even for FIFA. Warner was forced to resign a post he’d worked thirty years to win.

When Lynch’s indictments came down, Warner released a self-produced YouTube video of himself spouting off an eight-minute self-exonerating cant in which he claimed that the United States was trying to punish him because it lost the World Cup bid to Qatar, and that “no country in the world [has] a divine right to host.” He then backed his case by holding up a printout of an Onion article with the headline “FIFA Frantically Announces 2015 Summer World Cup in United States.” Of course, the article was fake, and the video became a viral hit.

Warner was soon the darling of TV satirists far beyond this island. Young Trinidadians who’ve grown up, like kids across the hemisphere, on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show and its many spin-offs, took natural delight in Stewart alum John Oliver’s seeing fit to buy four minutes of time on one of Trinidad’s main channels and for his show Last Week Tonight to admonish a risible old crank for seeming like “an absolutely terrible human being.” Longtime members of the island’s political classes have been less amused. They have been spotted flogging the M.P. from Chaguanas West, the middle class suburban town Warner represents in parliament, for making Trinidad a focus of world attention “not for the good and great things, but because of the actions of one man.”

This outrage has highlighted the extent to which Warner’s admonishers—including the prime minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, who won power, Warner says, with his help—are themselves compromised not merely by their ties to him, but by the larger system in which he thrived. For what the odd new media career of the man known in FIFA circles as Trinidad Jack has helped reveal, is how the political economy of FIFA has shaped many bits of the old Third World where “association football”—a game that evolved on the playing fields of Eton and Harrow and spread around the world by Britain’s empire—is loved as the pastime of pastimes. In the places where soccer is more than a game, it’s also a huge global business whose working dynamics share more than a little with that older colonial age, when poor nations depended, with no contrasting pretense, on the rich. In Trinidad, which joined FIFA’s ranks shortly after winning its independence in 1962, the rise of Jack Warner—and his putative fall—has become something of a parable for the larger foibles of the “nation building” project it’s been engaged in, with halting success and no small sum of frustrations.

Once claimed by Columbus for Spain, Trinidad and its smaller neighbor, Tobago, were owned by Britain for 160 years before winning their freedom from the crown, over fifty years ago, with most of the other British West Indies. Within the Caribbean, the country’s main island is best known for floating in the sea of Venezuelan gas that makes it rich, and for its famed yearly carnival that, in the run-up to Fat Tuesday each year, brings beaded revelers and those mighty steel bands to Port of Spain’s streets. But with its oil wealth now abetted by another kind of geographical curse—crime born of its functioning as a big transit point for South American cocaine—Trinidad is also a state where the workings of power often feel opaque and where the rule of law, like in many young nations, can feel as inchoate as its dodgy roads.

It’s a place ideally suited to the rise of such a figure as Jack Warner, who first came to local prominence before an occasion that looms large in North American soccer history: the qualifying match for the 1990 men’s World Cup in Port of Spain, which pitted the small-island hosts against the United States. The young U.S. squad’s 1–0 win in that match sent the Yanks to their first World Cup appearance in forty years. It’s a victory now credited with launching a soccer renaissance in the United States, a country whose men’s team has secured passage to every tournament since, whose women’s team is a world power, and whose respectable pro league just this spring, with the help of Warner’s FIFA crony in New York, Chuck Blazer, got its first big-bucks TV deal with ESPN. In Trinidad, that match is remembered for something else (apart from the loss’s heartbreak): a spotlight-hogging Warner’s fraudulent sale, to local patriots and schoolkids paying top money, of thousands more tickets to the match than there were seats in the stadium.

For the many Trinidadians cursing Warner’s name outside its stands, it was indisputable that he was a crook. Lucky for him, his larger ambitions depended less on winning their love than greasing palms and making promises to cronies from Central America and the Caribbean, whom he convinced, with Chuck Blazer’s help, to make him the president of CONCACAF the next year. He used the position not merely for ambitious frauds such as his alleged demand of $10 million from Thabo Mbeki’s government to back South Africa’s subsequently successful bid to host the 2010 World Cup; he also advanced his role as an executive-level scalper with the help of his two Miami-based sons, who have already pleaded guilty in U.S. courts to reselling World Cup tickets that had been given to them by their father.

In Trinidad, where Warner’s trickster reputation is tempered by the respect due a small-islander who became a one-man world power, Warner has leveraged his FIFA riches to obtain a hotel, office buildings, and tracts of pricey land—and he forged a unique political role in a country long divided between the descendants of African slaves and the indentured laborers from India.

In June in Parliament, not far from the Hyatt where Warner passed out bribes in 2011, the prime minister decried the disparaging light her onetime ally has pulled to Trinidad. But it’s likely that she wouldn’t have been elected without the help of Warner, who was once part of that government himself, until he was forced to resign in 2013 after conspiring to have the nearly $26 million CONCACAF-funded “João Havelange Centre for Excellence”—purposed for developing soccer in the Caribbean—built on land he owned. But true to form, he simply dusted himself off and, when it became clear he was no longer welcome in the prime minister’s party, launched a new organ—his Independent Liberal Party—whose lime-green colors he carried back into parliament, and which he now wears in those rambling speeches on Jack TV.

When he was forced to resign from his government post, he pledged fealty to the prime minister; now he threatens to air the laundry he dirtied for her to win. Such turncoat tactics are standard for this operator who used his resignation speech, in 2013, to lash out at another old ally, FIFA president Sepp Blatter. In early June, after his indictment, he doubled down, promising to release an “avalanche” of evidence pertaining both to how he helped Blatter, a man he once called his idol, become FIFA’s chief. Jack has changed key. (“If [Blatter] is down,” he said a little over a week later, “I give him a helping hand.”) But whatever the exact snowflakes contained in his files, one doesn’t need the details to glean the basic math, and methods, used by someone whose reason for naming his “Centre for Excellence,” outside Port of Spain, for Blatter’s Brazilian predecessor as FIFA’s head, João Havelange, wasn’t merely that Havelange, now ninety-nine, found his island protégé the money to build it. The old potentate, who was forced to resign as FIFA’s honorary president in 2013, is an important part of Warner’s story—and a hundred others like it. 

Among Havelange’s gifts to Warner was his simple granting, for the price of one dollar, of the Caribbean TV rights to the 1990, 1994, and 1998 World Cups—a prize that he allegedly turned into millions for companies he controlled in the Cayman Islands. But long before that, it was Havelange who turned the Federacion International de Football into a hulking cash cow.

FIFA began as an outgrowth of the Olympic Movement. Its main function, at first, was to oversee the soccer competition at the games, a sporting spectacle born of the amateur ideal of competing for honor alone. But during the 1928 games in Amsterdam, where soccer was by far the largest draw, FIFA’s governors decided their sport could support its own global jamboree; they also decided that their World Cup, launched in Uruguay in 1930, should be open to any player from a member nation, whether they earned money from playing or not. That’s when they established the global structure of a game whose top professionals earn their livings playing for their clubs. But their transformations from stars to gods happened decades later, when the 1970 Cup in Mexico was broadcast worldwide on color TV. It was four years after that famous Cup, won by a storied Brazil team wearing bright yellow and led by Pelé, that FIFA’s most influential president ascended to power.

After overseeing his country’s win in Mexico as the head of Brazil’s football federation, Havelange saw a chance to become the game’s global boss. A well-connected businessman from Rio, he courted dozens of new nations who’d just joined FIFA’s ranks. Promising to funnel “development” funds to poor countries across Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and to expand the World Cup final to twenty-four teams, Havelange won the support of nearly all of FIFA’s new Third World members, and with it FIFA’s presidency. Proving just as deft at forging bonds with big companies as little countries, he worked with Adidas—which became FIFA’s official supplier of balls and equipment—to secure the World Cup’s profitability. He decided that only corporations with worldwide reach would be official World Cup sponsors, and that only one representative from any sector—from beer to credit cards—would be awarded that status. And he ensured that FIFA would sell World Cup television rights to only one official network in each of its member nations. When Havelange finally left his post in 1998, the $4 billion stack of gold he left in FIFA’s Zurich offices only hinted at the riches paid into its Swiss accounts during his reign. And it left a nice stake in place for his successor, Sepp Blatter, to keep FIFA’s money train rolling, with the crucial help of canny leaders from recently enlarged FIFA federations such as CONCACAF.

When, in 2013, Warner boasted about how he’d helped Blatter to FIFA’s presidency, he recounted the directive he gave his Central American colleagues in ’98: “Votemos como un bloque.” But wrangling the Guatemalans and Belize aside, Warner’s real power in FIFA’s one-nation-one-vote general elections came from increasing the votes he controlled by old-fashioned methods well learned from João Havelange. “No other president of any Confederation brought more countries to FIFA than I did,” he bragged in his resignation speech in 2013, before explaining that “to expand the beautiful game of football there was need for a paradigm change where even small territories such as Anguilla and Aruba, BVI and USVI, and even the Cayman Islands should be included.” That this “paradigm change” also grew the votes at hand in Jack’s pork barrel may have commended such countries’ inclusion in FIFA, too.

In June, in his home district of Chaguanas West, cheered on by loyal constituents, Warner promised that “the gloves are off.” His confounding and mutable defense against U.S. charges cited by his enemies finds him making the paradoxical argument that he can exonerate himself by proving how FIFA—which is to say he—paid to shape Trinidad’s 2010 election.

Warner’s more defensible argument is one he offered in that same video in which he held up the Onion, where he insisted, “Nothing I have done within FIFA has been inconsistent with the international culture of FIFA.” That’s true. And the blame for that fact can’t be placed only with the opportunists from small countries, such as he, who saw how they could thrive in FIFA’s corrupt culture; it belongs also to those big companies, rich ones whose vast sums have funded it and whose recent protestations of innocence, as if they didn’t know what they were writing million-dollar checks for, are as risible as old Jack’s.

The world’s Visas and Coca-Colas and Nikes aren’t going to stop associating with the only televisual spectacle yet invented that’s guaranteed, every four years, to get half of humanity cheering like kids. Which is part of why one of the reforms currently being mooted for FIFA—to disentangle the World Cup’s billion-dollar business from an organization devoted to regulating and nurturing a game, at its grassroots—seems a very wise idea. In many poor nations, the notion of “development” has served as a cover for any number of harmful boondoggles and political schemes.

How and what reforms will now unfold within FIFA—whose members may also be asked to restage their corrupted votes for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups—remains to be seen. But in Trinidad, anyway, where Warner was spotted recently trying to broker a peace deal between two warring gangs in Chaguanas West, it’s not hard to glean how the remnants of old corruption persist.

Driving into Port of Spain at carnival time, in February, I passed the shining fields and hotel at the João Havelange Centre for Excellence and then found myself, a couple days later, in the festive streets. With steel bands circling the Savannah, big flatbed trucks, loaded with speaker towers, were blasting propulsive soca at chest-shaking volume for bikini-clad revelers “tripping down the road” in their wake. On the familiar sides of the three-story office at 113 Edward Street, the logos of FIFA and CONCACAF, whose current local affiliate no longer keeps his office here, were gone. Its walls are now hung with a garish lime-green logo, featuring an oil derrick and stalk of sugarcane, of Trinidad’s newest political party. But the building itself, bought with FIFA funds, has the same owner it always did: Jack.

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