Resentment in East Coast villages springs from justifiable causes

Stabroek News
May 27, 2001

Dear Editor,

Your editorial (Sunday Stabroek May 6, 2001) captioned, 'The Buxton Violence', requires a response. It is tendentious, simplistic and dangerously naive. I had hoped that someone else would have challenged it long ago.

In the first place, the writer seeks to isolate the incident of Wednesday May 2, 2001 from the wider ongoing protests which erupted at Buxton since Thursday March 22, 2001. Obviously, this is untenable. Second, to conclude that the incident was deliberately staged (a) to '(sabotage) the talks between President Jagdeo and the Leader of the Opposition, Mr. Desmond Hoyte', (b) to drive out the government by force (the 'grab for power' thesis) and (c) to promote ethnic confrontation, is nonsensical and utterly wide of the mark.

It is nothing short of tragic that your organ should peddle such facile notions about the nature of the manifestations we are witnessing. The problems are too serious to be dismissed with such superficial analysis. Unless we have the good sense to acknowledge their existence, the patience to uncover their root causes, and the courage to address them in an honest and forthright manner, we will talk in vain about lowering tensions and creating stability in our country.

Admittedly, there have been some wholly undesirable side-effects of the protests. A few miscreants have used them, opportunistically, to pursue their own criminal and other anti-social agenda; but to conceive of the protests, in their entirety, as being organised by 'criminal elements' or 'racists' is to indulge in willful obscurantism. Unfortunately, some media have (conspiratorially?) tended to suppress the fact that the protests were not confined to Buxton but were widespread along the Coast. After the initial disturbances in that village, there was a domino effect that involved communities as far west as Plaisance and as far east as Belladrum. The same outburst of anger seen at Buxton appeared sporadically and in varying forms of intensity in these communities. The anger was pervasive; it still persists and shows no sign of abatement. Why this is so should be a matter of national concern and serious thought.

If the writer of the editorial would take the trouble to visit the villages and talk with the residents, he/she would be better able to understand what their real concerns are and the reasons for their deep-seated anger.

Within recent years, they have witnessed with alarm and anguish the progressive decay of their village infrastructure, their economic circumstances and their quality of life. In these circumstances, as they became increasingly resentful of their marginalised state, breaking point was bound to come sooner or later. Regrettably, the PPP regime cynically denies that these villages are marginalised and that there is justifiable cause for their frustration and feelings of injustice. The regime has therefore paid little or no attention to their grievances and complaints. Ineluctably, the anger has mounted; and the regime and its apologists seemed, albeit transiently, to have found comfort in the vain hope that the resulting protests could be extinguished by police (and military) force. There has even been inane prattle about "pacifying" Buxton. The reasons why the protests extended well beyond Buxton are simple: their root causes are endemic in all of the marginalised communities. They cannot be wished away by pious talk or brute force.

What are the economic and social realities in these villages?

These villages are traditionally farming communities whose backlands in the past yielded large volumes of vegetables, fruits and other agricultural produce. This was their economic base. Today, whether by accident or design (the villagers infer the latter), the regime has successfully struck at and destroyed their economic base. Their drainage and irrigation systems have been neglected and allowed to go to wrack and ruin. Consequently, in no instance are they able to farm their backlands in any reasonable way and a principal source of their family income has vanished.

But it is not only drainage and irrigation systems that have been neglected; little or no attention has been paid to all basic infrastructure such as roads, potable water supply, electricity, education and health and recreational facilities.

At Buxton, the children are herded into a building that used to be a market where fish, vegetables and other commodities were sold; the nursery section is in the part where fish was vended. The entire building is low, dark and filthy and completely unfit for human habitation. How the Ministry of Education and the Public Health authorities could permit a school to be housed in such conditions passes all understanding.

The delivery of basic health services, too, is also a bitter cause of complaint. The Health Centre at Buxton opens on week days from 8.30 a.m. to 2 p.m., a period that is far too short to cope with the demand for the services, given the susceptibility of the residents, particularly children, to maladies deriving from public health inadequacies and economic woes. Their exasperation can be readily understood when it is observed that in neighbouring villages, such as Enterprise and Enmore, there are resident Medexes and services are accessible to these communities on a 24 hours basis.

Moreover, the regime shows a remarkable solicitude for the welfare of favoured neighbouring communities at the expense of these marginalised communities. For example, potable water supply at Buxton is insufficient to meet the needs of the village but, despite this fact, the regime diverts water from Buxton to supplement the supply at Annandale!

To compound these problems, there is an unacceptably high incidence of unemployment among young people. With no backlands to farm and in the absence of recreational and cultural facilities, they float about the village and become easy targets for anti-social influences.

In short, these marginalised villages suffer from grossly inadequate and often non-existent basic infrastructure. The nub of the problem, then is this: they see favoured neighbouring villages enjoying the benefits of basic infrastructure - water, electricity, schools, community health and recreational facilities, telephone services, roads, drainage and irrigation - while they are left out in the cold to suffer. Who can blame them if they attribute their condition to a studied, deliberate policy of the regime?

Two other causes of persistent tension in these depressed communities need to be noted.

The first stems from continual Police provocation and harassment. The Police have developed a practice of swooping down on these villages, arresting young men by the droves and charging them with loitering, and often with some 'bonus' offences, such as resisting arrest or assaulting a Police Officer, thrown in for good measure. Thus, these young people are unjustifiably criminalized and their prospects blighted.

The other derives from the perception of being threatened by neighbouring villages. The village of Enmore offers a prime case study of such an armed community. Villagers embody themselves into a so-called community policing group; dress in a black uniform in imitation of the notorious Target Squad of the regular Police Force; describe themselves as 'vigilantes'; and are perceived to be a constant source of menace.

I referred to this problem in a letter dated 7th March, 1996, when I wrote as follows:

"... It is a disturbing fact that the Ministry of Home Affairs records show that the PPP regime, during the past three years, has issued five times the number of firearms licences as issued during 1990-1992 under the previous PNC Administration . . ."

The situation has got even worse. In a written answer to a question in the National Assembly, the Minister of Home Affairs admitted that between the date of PPP accession to governmental office to December 1998, some 30,000 firearm licences have been issued - an amazing 5,000 licences per year! Recently, a Senior Police Officer expressed a very deep concern to me. According to him, he estimated that in the months prior to the March 19, 2001 elections, firearm licences were being issued at a rate of 1,000 per month!

Yet, the writer of the aforementioned editorial feigns surprise that some residents of the marginalised villages appear to be armed!

The prevailing manifestations of resentment, frustration and deep anger spring from justifiable causes that cannot be dismissed as being specious or irrelevant. They have to be honestly confronted and courageously addressed. We have to grapple with them in good faith. This is the only way in which conditions that could reasonably be described as being 'normal' would emerge. There is no other way.

The quicker we begin the process, the better it will be for the security, development and progress of our country

Yours faithfully,

H. D. Hoyte