May 26, 2001
Where is the light?
35 years after independence only the most optimistic will be able to find something to celebrate. A divided society, a stagnant economy and an unstable climate for investment, the queues for emigration as long as ever and a new breed of hatemongers ready to put the lid on the coffin.
How have we got into this dreadful mess, into a situation in which extra-parliamentary politics have virtually become the norm, in which the possibility of a normal, peaceful life has become an impossible dream, in which most people live privately in despair, wondering what next will befall the country.
It was the left wing politics in the early fifties which started the emigration of the old business, executive and administrative class with their skills and experience. Then there were the ethnic troubles in the early sixties, creating a division in the society from which it has never really recovered. The long Burnham era, the rigged elections, the discrimination, and the human rights abuses coupled eventually with nationalisation and the paramountcy of the party led to alienation and the collapse of the economy. There was a massive brain drain and the educational system was left in shambles.
The society has never really recovered from that prolonged trauma. There was some economic growth from l990 but it started from an extremely low base in which there had been falling real wages for many years. The standard of living had fallen well below the rest of the Caribbean and Guyana had become one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere.
It is not a legacy that is easy to overcome, especially given the continuing turbulent politics and ethnic strife. The protests that have followed the l997 and 200l elections have led to a new level of political instability and have all but brought the country to a halt in terms of development.
Where do we go from here? Dialogue and the resulting committees have held out some hope but there are countervailing negative trends. Some suggest we have reached the end of the road, that the Westminster winner take all model has not worked and that we have to experiment with new forms of governance. But the two main parties have not agreed.
Another effect of mass emigration has been that the skill levels in most areas are now very low, ranging from management to the civil service to public works contracting. Those in touch with government ministries and regional councils are well aware of the routine inefficiency and indiscipline.
Even if we get the politics right it's going to be a long haul back, re-establishing some kind of work ethic, educational standards and the ability to run a modern society which does not now exist. Without a political rapprochement of some kind, which will require mature leadership, there is no hope.
A sense of perspective
July 23, 1999
A common history
Nothing was more symbolic of the divide in the society than when an unruly mob chased members of a procession which had assembled at the Square of the Revolution prior to making its way to the Le Repentir cemetery for the annual Enmore Martyrs' Day observances in June. The crowd doing the chasing was of African descent, and they let it be known that the Cuffy Monument site was their spot. Leaving aside the menacing tactics involved and the fact that the Square of the Revolution is a public place to which all members of the population should have unimpeded access, it must also be said that it should be viewed as a symbol of everyone's history, and not just that of a single ethnic group. In a similar fashion, the Indian Monument Gardens belong to the nation, and not to those of Indian descent alone.
In addition, what has become increasingly apparent in the last eighteen months or so, is that people have become more inclined to confuse the history of their own discrete group with the history of the nation. While each of the ethnic components of the society has made its own contribution to the national historical consciousness, the history of a part can never be the history of the whole. The past of this nation begins not with the coming of the first Africans, possibly in the second decade of the seventeenth century, or with the arrival of the first East Indians in 1838 (or with the Portuguese or Chinese, for that matter), it begins with the appearance of the first Amerindians within the boundaries of modern-day Guyana some eleven thousand five hundred years ago, or earlier. Other peoples came subsequent to that, but eleven thousand five hundred years ago (the date may yet be pushed back by archaeologists as we learn more) is really our current departure point. It imparts to this nation a dimension of anti quity which it could never have if we concentrated our focus on the historic period alone.
The earliest identifiable inhabitants of this land that we know about so far are the Warraus, who were occupying the North-West in places like Barabina some seven thousand years ago. They are an ancient people with an ancient past, and they constitute a critical living link in the chain of our history. Stop the man on the street and ask him when Guyanese history begins, and he might mumble something about the coming of the Dutch and/or the coming of the Africans. Ask him about the first people who lived here, and he would almost certainly answer 'the Amerindians'. But ask him when they came, and he would be at a loss. Ask him which was the first identifiable group to live here, and it is unlikely that he could answer.
To get ourselves in perspective, we also need to get our history in perspective. We need to recognize that despite the chronological sequence in which the various peoples arrived here, our history, going way back into the prehistoric past, is nevertheless a common history. Thirty years ago a useful little work entitled The People Who Came was used by most first-formers in the secondary school system. It covered in a simple, general way all the peoples and the cultures from which they derived who had settled in the Caribbean. Its problem was that it had a regional focus, and not a local focus, so that it dealt mostly with the Taino Arawaks of the Greater Antilles, for example, rather than our Arawaks.
We really should look again at the history and social studies curricula being used in our schools; we desperately need a local version of The People Who Came which could give our children a sense of the shared nature of their past and its ancient origins. This does not mean to say that each ethnic group might not find its own segment more interesting than that of the others - that would be quite normal. Nor would it mean that studies of particular ethnic groups were not in order - that would be patently absurd. It would mean, however, that at the school level - more especially where the younger age groups are concerned - the syllabus would encompass the whole gamut of the Guyanese historical experience. In other countries that is normally one of the ways in which a population acquires a sense of 'nation', and as such, therefore, it may have been a mistake for educational planners to have subsumed primary school history under social studies, thereby breaking up its natural chronological sequence, among other t hings.
Understanding each other means in part, at least, understanding each other's past, and recognizing the validity of that past and its contribution to the Guyanese identity. Most of all, it means recognizing that the history of each single group, is the common property of all.
February 7, 1998
We have been living together for l50 years. There was some geographical separation, the Indians staying mainly in the rural areas, the Africans going to the cities. There was also functional separation, the Indians remaining on the plantation as sugar workers and dominating the rice industry, the African going into the civil service and the professions and as workers in urban industries and bauxite, the Portuguese and the Chinese in commerce, the Amerindian mainly in the interior. But in the last thirty years, there has been increasing integration. Large numbers of Indians have settled in the cities, entered the civil service and the professions, taken clerical jobs. Indeed, as has been argued before, the increasing integration may paradoxically have created new stresses as there is more direct competition and the races mix more intimately and freely.
Guyana is in many ways a successful multi-racial society. The races go to school together, go to work together, fete together and intermarry. As Mr Chang and Mr Walcott indicate, too, in their letters opposite at the level of basic humanity they can and do operate like brothers and sisters, citizens of one nation. Yet at the political level, there is division, and this can readily infect other areas as we have so recently seen. That is the apparent paradox with which we are faced.
We are, of course, a very young nation, only 32 years old. Before that we were an imperially imposed coalition. We lived together because we had to. Now, we are in the process of nation building, with all the stresses and strains that entails especially in conditions of economic underdevelopment and widespread unemployment. And many of us have an ambivalent relationship to our own country because of the past of slavery and indentureship and the plantation. All of this makes nation building even more difficult than it normally is. And worst of all is the fact that our political parties are based, largely, on ethnic support so that at election time divisions and tension assert themselves. Hence the strange dichotomy to which Messrs Chang and Walcott have referred, of personal familiarity and rapport at the same time as there is public hostility and division between the races.
To begin to understand this we may have to accept that the l953 PPP was itself a coalition, not a unified political movement, which split into its component parts. We have never had a unified movement. We will also have to understand something of crowd and group psychology and the insecurities they thrive on.
The question facing us all is whether we can in some way by constitutional engineering or otherwise, deal with the divisions that have held this country back for so long and created a sterile and desperate situation where emigration still remains a live option for so many. It requires mature and sober statesmanship.
May 15, 1999
The problem of ethnic identity
In debates on Guyanese culture that arise from time to time the question is often asked, who are we. The answer is complex and there are contradictory strands.
We were a British colony for over l60 years. During that time, we absorbed an enormous amount of British culture, the language, the educational system and the literature (the library of the old, educated Guyanese is not too dissimilar from that of his British counterpart), the legal system, the business and commercial practices, the structure of government. In the course of this long transition a lot of our old culture rubbed off and we are now quite different creatures to our original countrymen who never left home as is readily proved by a quick visit to the land of our forefathers where we may find ourselves unable to speak the language, most certainly be treated as a foreigner and feel quite out of place in many ways.
Whatever we are therefore we are not Indians, Africans, Chinese or Portuguese though we may so describe ourselves in an ethnic sense. We are culturally a new hybrid, potentially cosmopolitan, creation. The problem has been portrayed most vividly in the case of persons of mixed descent as immortalised in the verse of Derek Walcott from as early as `A far cry from Africa' (l962), and other Caribbean poets.
The issue is not of purely academic interest. It means, for a start, that the whole question of ethnic identity must be approached circumspectly. So, for example, for a Guyanese Indian to describe himself as Indian is in an important sense false as he is in fact far more West Indian or Caribbean in views and outlook than he is Indian. The ethnic identity being claimed is partly misconceived though there are still obvious religious and cultural links. The same would apply, perhaps more strongly, to the other "ethnic" groups in Guyana. After well over a century of living here they are far more Guyanese or Caribbean in identity than anything else.
Differences in temperament and lifestyle remain. Yet even these are far from being as stereotyped as they seem and part of the reason can be found in our own historical circumstances here. Thus any model of ethnicity here must be approached with great caution and it can easily become both opportunistic and distorted.
There are `ethnic' voting patterns as any analysis of the votes in the fair elections from l957 to date will show. Yet who exactly is this Indo-Guyanese or Afro-Guyanese that we talk about? What are their characteristics, what is the nature of this ethnicity? Are the differences more apparent than real, given the increasing mixing and socialisation in the last fifty years as the Indians moved in large numbers to the cities, despite the voting patterns and despite the tensions in the early sixties and again more recently?
May 12, 2000
A multicultural society
Guyana is a multicultural society in which several religions are practised, a wide variety of foods is consumed, different styles of clothing are worn, at least on some formal occasions, and there are differing lifestyles. Indeed there can be few societies in the world today that are not multicultural, given high levels of emigration.
In many cases there are dominant cultures within which minority cultures are accommodated. Theorists have pointed out that there can be a large number of attitudes to multiculturalism ranging from what has been called the Tebbit view, after a prominent Conservative politician in the United Kingdom, which is that immigrants should broadly accept the mainstream culture and should not, for example, support another sports team when it is playing against England, what might be called the assimilationist view, to the liberal view that though immigrants must accept the laws of the land (and even there accommodations have been made, for example, to allow Sikhs not to wear hard hats in factories) and some aspects of the dominant culture they are broadly free to adopt and practise their own lifestyles. There are many permutations within these parameters.
But that is not our concern today. What we wish to discuss is an insight provided by Mr Gilbert Ahnee, an editor from Mauritius, at the recent Third Annual Caribbean Media Conference. Mr Ahnee said that in a multicultural society we must do more than accept multiculturalism as an abstract ideal, we must seek to become multicultural ourselves by making every effort to understand and even attend and practise the culture of the other ethnic groups. This, he suggested, would give us a much broader depth of understanding that would make us less intolerant and less liable to fragment under pressure.
It is a noble ideal. Many of us are severely culture bound, a habit partly inherited from the former imperial power which was notoriously not adaptive to the other cultures it encountered in its colonial exploits (Noel Coward's Mad dogs and Englishmen immortalised this attitude) and to this day many even of the educated classes in England are monolingual. It is a view of the world that is limiting and locks us in to certain assumptions. There can be no doubt that we would benefit from the effort to have a better understanding of those with whom we live and work every day, to go beyond the stereotypes (most of them negative and, again, inherited from the imperial power which had at best a patronising view of its subjects and their capacities) and to learn something of the background culture of their homelands, which though much attenuated here because of the long colonial experience still provides many valuable insights into the way they now are and the possibility of a greater understanding.
At another level, there are our Spanish, French and Dutch speaking neighbours from whom we are virtually isolated, our primary links still being historically conditioned.
The idea of a personal multiculturalism is a fascinating one that can be pursued in many ways. It can certainly usefully form part of the ongoing debate in the never ending search for adjustment to and accommodation of each other and each other's lifestyles.
June 2, 1999
Is Guyana a society that is divided along ethnic lines? What exactly does that mean? Can democracy be maintained in a country divided along ethnic lines? Can constitutional adjustments be made that will help? That is one of the issues being considered by the Constitution Reform Commission as some submissions have been received proposing various forms of power sharing though neither of the two main parties has proposed any fundamental change in this regard.
When can a society be said to be divided along ethnic lines? The mere presence of different ethnic groups is not enough as no country is completely homogeneous. Does it depend on the proportions of the ethnic groups(e.g. roughly equal with neither dominant), the degree of cultural and social assimilation, the level of geographic or territorial separation, job and occupation differentiation, voting patterns? Must other factors be considered such as the level of development or prosperity? At what stage does a country require changes or new institutions designed to modify majoritarian systems and promote interethnic relations and compromise?
There are many in Guyana, including the leaders of the two main parties, who feel that the existing system of government is adequate, subject perhaps to amendments to presidential powers and parliamentary procedures. They do not accept that the society is severely divided along ethnic lines, they believe that their parties appeal to the entire electorate and that given a fair and competently run electoral system governments will be elected with majority support, or coalition governments will be produced, that can run the country effectively. They see no need for radical experiments to move away from the established majoritarian system, they believe that might lead to a situation which is unstable or unworkable.
Their views must not be lightly discounted. The Westminster system we inherited, now with a presidential imposition, has worked well in many countries and produced stable government. Are we convinced that there is now such a level of ethnic division that the traditional system is no longer workable and that experiments should be made? It is also true that there is no established ready made alternative. Responsible analysts entertain grave doubts as to whether consociational or consensus democracy can work. That system, expressly designed to reduce conflict in ethnically divided societies, provides for governing coalitions of the main parties, the electoral system of proportional representation, shared representation in cabinet and public offices, consensual decision making in cabinet with mutual veto powers and considerable group autonomy. Can that work or will it lead to gridlock or to a manipulative, elitist politics where deals are done at the top and there is no effective opposition? Are there other techniques or mechanisms that will reduce interethnic tensions and that do not involve that level of power sharing, such as managing parliament through a joint committee of the main parties, having a strong Race Relations Commission to deal with incidents of discrimination, fair employment legislation, devolving more power to the municipalities and so on?
The issues are complex but they should be faced up to rather than wished away. And Guyana is not unique, we do not face a special set of circumstances that exist nowhere else. Many other countries have faced severe problems of ethnic division and have dealt with them in various ways. More recently, and the ones with which we are most familiar, include South Africa (executive power sharing for a limited period), Northern Ireland (an experiment with a form of consociational democracy on which the jury is still out) and Fiji where a government has just been elected under a new system designed to reduce ethnic conflict where the outcome will be closely watched.
Ethnic voting patterns have been established in Guyana since l957, the first election after the split in the original PPP. They have been clearly visible in all the fair elections (l957, l96l, l964, l992 and l997). The experience of the WPA (and other small parties) has shown how difficult it is to break the ethnic stranglehold. The PPP and the PNC have got used to this system which gives them both an established and reliable support base. But have they thought through the logical implications if ethnic voting patterns persist? Can the minority party win? Is the system viable?
February 18, 2001
A work in progress
There is no such thing as instant democracy. A true democratic culture takes time to build, so the institutions which support it can take root. Some of the well-established democracies - England being the classic case in point - took a very leisurely road indeed to political freedom. It was in 1215 that a truculent King John was confronted by his rebellious barons, and agreed to sign the Magna Carta, sometimes referred to as a kind of founding document of political and personal liberty. But whatever else the Magna Carta was, it certainly was not a vindication of modern democracy; the barons were concerned simply with their rights and privileges in relation to the monarch, not with anyone else's.
The Magna Carta acquired its democratic reputation during the seventeenth century, when the House of Commons was challenging Charles I and his notions of divine right. Rummaging among the papers of Parliament in search of a historic document which would bolster their arguments, the leaders in the Commons stumbled across the 400 year old manuscript, which was immediately pressed into service as demonstrating that the king was trampling on traditional parliamentary and personal rights. Thus a document conceived in one era, took on an entirely new significance in another. And so it was with the institution of the English Parliament itself, which accommodated itself over a time frame of hundreds of years to the evolving demands of democracy.
Not just England, but several of the more stable democracies were able to build on historical antecedents. Their institutions - however far removed from the democratic ideal at the inception - either evolved eventually to reflect the changes in the society, or were deliberately reformed. These countries did not have to start from scratch institutionally speaking. That is true even of some of the Caribbean territories like Jamaica and Barbados which had planter assemblies dating back to the seventeenth century for much of the colonial period. These assemblies were light years removed from democratic norms, of course, but their institutional framework had originally been based on the English model. The conventions of Westminster-style democracy which were incorporated into the independence constitutions of those islands, therefore, were not alien to them; they had, if you like, some kind of indigenous foundation.
Guyana, however, was in a different position. She had no political institutions in colonial times which lent themselves easily to a later process of democratic evolution or reform - the Dutch Courts of Policy, for example, were not like the planter assemblies of the English Caribbean islands. The Guyana colonies were for most of the Dutch period owned by private companies, not by the state, and the local government model in consequence borrowed nothing from the traditions or forms of the States-General, or Parliament of the Netherlands. Perhaps this country's greatest hope on which to ground later indigenous democratic development, was the 1891 constitution, but it was not left in place for very long, and in a retrograde move, Crown Colony government was imposed in 1928.
In any case, unlike the islands, Guyana has special difficulties in finding an appropriate democratic framework, since her population is not culturally homogeneous. We are still experimenting, and we may have to continue to do so for a while until we hit on something which answers our present needs. There are no really durable models from the past with which to tinker, and so theoretically all kinds of possibilities could be considered. However, the work of the Constitution Reform Commission notwithstanding, we have not yet envisaged in real terms what an inclusive democracy of the future should look like.
We are about to go into an election which contains some elements which are quite novel. Whether it will answer the temporary purpose cannot be known in advance, but satisfactory or not there is no doubt that the complete set of rules of our political game have not yet achieved finality. Exactly what the options are for proceeding, will very much depend on the outcome of the March 19 poll; all that can be said at present is that Guyana's democracy is still a work in progress, and should be viewed as such.
February 8, 2000
The ethnic trap
The two main political parties, the People's Progressive Party and the People's National Congress, have since l957 drawn their support primarily from the two main ethnic groups. An analysis of the l96l results by the New World Associates in l964 had shown this quite clearly and they had predicted the l964 results, the first election under proportional representation, on the basis that the ethnic bloc votes of the PPP and the PNC would remain largely unchanged, the new communal parties (JP and GUMP) would fail to split the PPP vote to any appreciable extent and the UF would lose Indian and African votes to the PPP and PNC respectively.
New World predicted for l964 PPP 46.5%, PNC 42.5%,UF l0% and JPl%. The results were PPP 45.l4%, PNC 40.52%, UF l2.4l%, JP .56%, GUMP .5l%, PEP .09%, NLF .07%. On the assumptions that the Indian population had risen from 268,000 in the l960 census to 300,000 in l964 (a net increase after emigration of 3% per annum), that 9 of every 20 Indians were of voting age which was then 2l, that 90% had registered to vote and that 96% of the Indians registered had voted (that was the national percentage of actual voters registered) the Indians actually voting would have been ll6,000. The total votes for the PPP, JP and GUMP were ll2,000.
It was difficult to make similar comparisons for the African vote because of the large `mixed' vote. However, New World suggested that based on the figures the PNC had got a solid African vote and had shared the `mixed' vote with the UF. The Portuguese and Amerindian votes were attributed to the UF (Mr Stephen Campbell of the UF became minister of the new Ministry for Amerindian Affairs) and the small Chinese vote remained an enigma.
The ethnic voting patterns then established never changed. This was obfuscated by the results of the next four elections, l968, l973, l980 and l985, all of which were rigged and increasingly severely distorted. But the ethnic voting patterns were immediately re-established in l992, the next fair elections, in which the PNC did surprisingly well, given the long years of economic collapse and authoritarian rule, perhaps emphasising the strength of the ethnic voting patterns. With the virtual collapse of the United Force after Peter d'Aguiar withdrew, its votes in l992 and l997 were divided between the two main parties.
The persistence of ethnic voting patterns means two things, unless the demographics change substantially (and there has been some change but there is a desperate need for an accurate, up to date census) elections results are largely predictable and the two main parties remain trapped within an ethnic mould in which, whatever the actual disposition of the leaders, they end up responding to the fears and insecurities of their supporters. The voting patterns push politics into an ethnic prison.
Thus events which may have nothing to do with ethnicity in their inspiration but may spring from an economic programme are interpreted from an ethnic standpoint. If it affects party supporters the party has to respond, whether the programme is otherwise rational or not. There is no possibility for a longer or broader vision or give and take. The ethnic trap imposes its own dimensions on the social and political situation.
It is partly the unhealthy politics that this spawns that led the WPA to get started. Its failure is a measure of how hard it is to break these patterns. The perception of the ethnic trap has also led others over the years to look for solutions like coalitions, since the sixties. Nothing has ever worked, the party in power has always been more reluctant than the other to get involved. And now after 28 years of PNC rule some in the PPP see it as unfair that other solutions should be canvassed that would deprive them of full power.
The constitutional reform process has not thrown up a solution, as the three wise men of the Herdmanston Accord had clearly half hoped. Prosperity could of course greatly alleviate the situation, as it has in Trinidad, but that does not seem to be around the corner. The best one can hope for, therefore, is an efficient election, which gives no obvious reason for disruption, and some measure of economic development to ease the pressures of unemployment and poverty.
July 20, 1998
Race Relations Commission
Shortly after the 1992 general elections, the PPP/Civic government established a Race Relations Commission (RRC) which was intended among other things to promote racial harmony and to inquire into claims of discrimination and victimisation.
At the outset the laudable move suffered from a fatal flaw. The PPP/Civic initiated the process without ensuring the participation of the PNC. Moreover, the PPP/Civic named Anglican Bishop Randolph George to head the process. The PNC had serious reservations over Bishop George because of his prominent role in the pro-democracy campaign and stayed away from the RRC, effectively rendering it useless.
In retrospect, considering the ethnic electoral divide, engineering an important institution such as the RRC required the fullest engagement between the two parties and other political and civil society groups to ensure that it inspired public confidence and was broadly representative. The PPP/Civic's approach to this issue fell far short of the mark.
An RRC is desperately needed to foster an environment of understanding and respect among the races, particularly in the aftermath of the electoral disturbances and the ensuing extremism and harsh invective.
The RRC would also have been indispensable as a repository of complaints about racial discrimination in employment and other spheres of life.
More importantly, it would have been able to investigate complaints and separate the wheat from the chaff.
Increasingly, the issue of discrimination and victimisation is being wantonly bandied about by groups and persons with varying motives. The veracity of these allegations have not been tested and in genuine cases, the plight of the ordinary person has been occluded by the political background chatter.
That there isn't a vibrant, functioning RRC has to be laid at the feet of the government. If a political compromise with the PNC was what was required to set it in train then it should have come much earlier. Compromises have been made on a whole host of lesser things. The RRC has however languished and the tensions that it could have defused over a number of years have festered and now pose questions which society is yet to address.
Constitutional reform is expected to entrench statutory mechanisms for dealing with race relations and problems of discrimination. But today, July 1999 seems like decades away and there exists a pressing need now for an interim arrangment to catalogue and probe claims of racial discrimination and victimisation.
The St Lucia Statement does recognise that prior to full-fledged constitutional reforms, interim measures will be taken to tackle many of the issues protesters had been complaining about in their most recent demonstrations.
A fresh start is needed with the RRC right now. Perhaps this is one issue which should be high on the agenda of the first meeting between President Janet Jagan and PNC leader Desmond Hoyte. Some mechanism should be immediately worked out between these two leaders to invite complaints of discrimination and to have these probed by a mutually acceptable race ombudsman with the relevant support staff.
As we have said before, the two parties through their leaders and supporters must engage in concerted confidence building measures to lower tensions and buttress faith in the pillars and institutions of a fully participatory democracy. A mutually acceptable RRC would be an auspicious beginning.
August 21, 1999
The fact that the children of the two men who dominated our political life for most of the last fifty years live abroad is worthy of reflection. It hardly suggests that they have bequeathed us a sparkling legacy. Indeed, it strongly indicates that it is time for us to stop equivocating, deluding ourselves and refusing to grasp reality.
Guyana has become one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere. There was a massive exodus, which started in the fifties but accelerated in the sixties and thereafter and at the end of it all most Guyanese have half their close relatives living abroad. There is a demonstrably lower level of education than there was forty years ago. Because of prolonged political instability, increasingly authoritarian tendencies, the cult of the party card and declining living standards Guyana became an increasingly unpleasant place in which to live in the seventies and the eighties. Those who remained did so in most cases for reasons other than purely economic calculations.
A genuine political debate about our future must be based on honest foundations. If we indulge in half truths, if we rewrite history, if we fail to grasp reality we cannot recognise the problems and start rebuilding.
Unable to bear the chafe, the political dishonesty and bullying and the falling standards a very high percentage of our experienced, skilled persons and entrepreneurs left Guyana. The biggest problem today by far, that transcends politics, is the lack of experienced and well educated people capable of running the civil service, and managing institutions and performing important administrative and other functions. We have lost the knack of getting things done, efficiently or at all. The skill level is so low that it threatens to make the society unviable, whoever is in power.
Can we persuade thousands of experienced and able Guyanese to return and participate in rebuilding? Perhaps, but we have to convince them that we are mature and serious enough to be trusted and believed in. There is a credibility gap.
A credible plan must have several facets, the prospect of long term political stability, a pragmatic and open approach to economic development, a rethinking of our educational priorities. As a start to achieving the first of these the PNC should make an honest statement on its long years in power during which traditional democratic rights were destroyed. It would be a vital exercise, both for itself and the nation, a cathartic coming to terms with what took place in that period of virtual one party rule which had such a profound effect on all who lived here. The failure to come to terms with that heritage still hangs like a cloud over the conscience of the nation. Burnham was a nationalist with energy, intelligence and progressive instincts. But in his ruthless drive for power he strayed into devious paths and committed many wrongs. An honest statement of what was tried, what was achieved and what was done wrong could do so much to remove that brooding sense of grievance and injustice that still exists on the part of many who suffered and could vastly improve the political atmosphere. Then President Hoyte in fact from l986 onwards gradually dismantled substantial parts of the Burnham legacy. He did a Gorbachev, glasnost (free press and, eventually, free elections) and perestroika (a complete reversal of the failed economic policy of state ownership) but he never did a Khruschev, denouncing the misdeeds of Stalin in his l956 speech to the party congress - though it must be said at once that the misdeeds of Burnham were not even remotely comparable to those of Stalin, perhaps one of the two main mass murderers of the twentieth century.
Guyana is at the moment still a far from attractive country in which to live because of the tensions that afflict it. Its image in our own sister territories in Caricom is that of a country which has lost its way, with a recalcitrant opposition unwilling to abide by the rules of democracy. That is not the whole truth but an effort is needed on all sides to grasp reality and to put our house in order.
July 25, 2000
Where's the silver lining?
The reflections on the future at this stage of the average Guyanese who is not a political activist are as follows. First, an election is due by January 200l. Many sensible and well-informed people feel all the necessary preparations cannot be completed in time. But Mr Desmond Hoyte, the leader of the main opposition party, has said that that date is not negotiable and that if elections cannot be held by then this government must not remain in power. He did not go on to spell out an alternative. Does that mean more protests and trouble lie ahead?
In any event, an election will be held some time next year even if not in January. Ethnic voting patterns will almost certainly have hardened as a result of the events that followed the last election. Accordingly, the likelihood is that the small parties, including any new ones, will get very few votes and unless perhaps the PNC can offer some new faces with a vote pulling capacity the PPP will secure a majority and the PNC about 42% of the vote. Will that lay the basis for a stable government or will there be more trouble? As part of the same issue, can the election be held efficiently and in such a way as to avoid controversy.
Will economic development be possible given the political climate and the fears of local and foreign businessmen in view of their recent experiences with strikes and protests? Can the `dispute' with Suriname be settled and the CGX oil rig be brought back to explore? What other investment is on the horizon? And what is President Chavez up to, will he do anything rash after he is re-elected. Is our Minister of Foreign Affairs at all capable of dealing with these problems?
Guyanese have been in the doldrums for too long. Even the most committed of them talk openly now of their doubts about the future and the possibility of emigration. Almost without exception they desperately want peace, jobs, good schools for their children and a chance to get ahead in life. For the last 30 years there has been stagnation. Their country is now one of the poorest in the hemisphere. And the political bickering and infighting continues, endlessly.
That is roughly how Guyanese think. Add an ethnic slant and that is what they are talking about in the streets, at the work place and at cocktail parties. Can the silver lining be found among all these grey clouds?
A combination of the cold war, rash policies, poor governance and ethnic politics have led us to this sorry pass. We are faced with the task of reconstruction and nation building. The energy required is not now obviously there. Too much of it is still being spent on fighting each other.
It is clear that at the very least, consensus must be sought on certain issues. These include the need for a well run election, a willingness to work together on maintaining our territorial integrity, the need for investment and the concomitant need for political stability. All of these, of course, are issues that could and should have been discussed in the political dialogue envisaged by the Herdmanston Accord, which could have led to some sort of concordat spelling out broad areas of agreement and a code of political behaviour. Regrettably, that dialogue never really got going and has aborted. The old beggar-my-neighbour politics is still in full swing and opposition is unbounded.
Insofar as the Herdmanston Accord in l998 sought a more lasting solution to our problems it may well have failed. The constitutional reform process, still incomplete, was inadequate and disappointing though there will be some useful changes. And the dialogue failed. Those were the two main mechanisms. The best hope now, in terms of damage control at least, must be a well run election and new investment that will relieve the poverty that undergirds all our problems.
March 30, 2001
Poverty and unemployment
Though everyone has been obsessed with politics since the election campaign started, if not before, in the opinion of many. much of our ongoing malaise as a country is due to the lack of economic development. Our economy went into reverse gear from the end of the seventies, partly as a result of an extensive programme of nationalisation which led to a large fall in production and the `miniaturisation' of the private sector, and has never really recovered, though there was certainly some improvement from l989. But of course, as noted by Mr Rajendra Bisessar in a letter below, that improvement flowed from the Economic Recovery Programme which incorporated IMF conditionalities including the removal of subsidies and the curtailment of public sector employment which impacted severely on the urban population.
This has been compounded by two things, a brain drain that started as early as the fifties and the deterioration of the system of education which can be linked to the abolition of dual control in l976 and the subsequent failure to invest adequate funds in the state system. And many of our teachers emigrated to other countries in the Caribbean and further afield.
We may be less well off as a nation today than we were thirty years ago. Real wages in the public sector certainly fell in the eighties as Mr Leslie Melville and others have pointed out. The bauxite industry never really recovered from its slump, and the recovery in the nineties led by sugar, gold and rice has tapered off due to price, marketing and other reasons. People are therefore as a whole not well off, there is poverty and unemployment and those are fertile breeding grounds for dissatisfaction anywhere. We are suffering primarily therefore from stagnation and a lack of economic development.
There has also been discrimination, as Mr Wyman's letter in this issue illustrates. That does not help, nor is it an answer to point out that there was massive discrimination against Indians in various ways under the Burnham government, including the illegal seizure of the government by rigged elections. This game of racial tit for tat does not work. For every incident of discrimination one side can produce the other can produce another. The only way to deal with it is to forget the past and wipe the slate clean.
Start from now. Recognise that there was discrimination in the past eight years. Some of this was an inevitable reaction to the inheritance in l992 and a correction of the then situation. But over the years it has gone well beyond that, as Mr Wyman's letter shows. There has been discrimination in jobs, the awarding of contracts and in other areas. This must be rectified and put an end to.
But above all, there must be rapid economic development. People want jobs, homes, security. Stagnation has led us to turn inwards against each other. The PNC REFORM had a plan and some bright new go-getters like Stanley Ming and Eric Phillips. Ask them to help. The National Development Strategy is replete with good ideas. Use this as a basis. Make energy and talent the main criteria for selection for jobs. If the economy were developing rapidly a lot of the tension would evaporate.
It is all a major challenge for the young president-elect, and the post-election unrest will not exactly encourage investors. He is aware that under the revised constitution he can only appoint four technocrat ministers. But many, including several of the younger leaders of the PNC/R and the leaders of the smaller opposition parties, feel he must go well beyond this. They want a broader, more inclusive government. Once the situation returns to some kind of normalcy, and that must clearly be a good faith pre-condition, the president should initiate an urgent meeting to set an agenda for dialogue.
A © page from: Guyana: Land of Six Peoples