PORT OF SPAIN, June 7- He is a key figure caught up in the middle of football’s biggest corruption scandal. But indicted former FIFA vice president Jack Warner is still a wildly popular politician in his native Trinidad.
So popular that people queue for hours for an audience with the 72 year old. Some walk into his office, just south of Port of Spain, at 1:00 am; others stroll in at 4:00 am, looking for help, or with a problem to share.
What they all have in common is that they are devoted to him and have serious doubts about the litany of graft charges leveled against him.
He may be disgraced in the football world, but say it quietly here.
“Criticism from the outside is just wicked people who want to say bad things about Mr. Warner,” said Joy Hawls Duyel, 48.
Last week, Hawls Duyel slept outside the jail where Warner was held for a night at the request of US authorities, before he walked out on bail.
Warner was indicted by the United States for allegedly taking a $10 million bribe to help South Africa win the race to host the 2010 World Cup, among other charges.
On Saturday, after a turbulent week, Warner arrived at his office at 6:00 am. But aides in the office in Chaguanas West, which he represents in the Trinidadian parliament, say it is not unusual for him to come in to work at 2:00 am.
They don’t understand when it is he sleeps, they say.
There are no fewer than 25 people lined up waiting to meet him when he walks into the building and Warner, slight and bald, continues to attend political events and insisting on his innocence.
– At your service –
A charismatic and wealthy political player, Warner listens carefully to each supporter. He offers up some comforting words here, hands out some gifts to kids there. And he has his aides track down phone numbers of people who can help solve this problem or that.
His office is decked out with flags of Trinidad and Tobago as well as awards he picked up as the head of Caribbean football (CFU), and then as boss of CONCACAF, and then as FIFA vice president.
He welcomes AFP to film him speaking with constituents. But Warner declines to answer a reporter’s questions, saying: “The media has been very unkind to me.”
Warner, now on Interpol’s list of wanted suspects, also shows a visitor a photo in his office of him alongside US President Barack Obama, at the White House, when the United States was lobbying in 2009 to host the World Cup.
Outside, in the waiting room, Daryl Meade has no doubt. Warner can do no wrong, has done no wrong, and may one day be Trinidad’s prime minister.
“He’s a very good person. He did a lot in football, getting Trinidad into that world stage,” said Meade, a 45-year-old truck driver who came to ask for help after hurting his foot in an accident.
“He’s been hounded down on an international stage for whatever reason. I personally think that it is sad to see someone with his qualities go through this,” he added, saying he would give Warner “condolences for what he is going through.”
– 50/50 ? –
Outside his MP’s office, however, plenty of people are disappointed at the corruption allegations against Warner. And many feel like he has dragged their country’s name through the mud.
“Out of 100 percent in the community, 50 percent sees him as a good one, 50 doesn’t see him as a good man,” said laborer Jason Williams.
The allegations reflect badly on this English-speaking Caribbean nation of 1.3 million people, just beside the coast of Venezuela, Warner’s critics say.
“Jack never came around here to help anybody,” said shop owner Ramchan Jones, a few blocks from the MP’s office. “One time you see him for election — and we never see him again.”
Indeed, Warner’s name is polarizing. Few — if any — have a moderate opinion.
“Some people would say he helped a lot of people, some would say he is a scam artist,” said Aquille, out for a bite at a Port of Spain street market.
“I heard a lot of stories of him helping people, but I see him prosecuted by the US.”