Trouble spots in the Caribbean

By Rickey Singh
Guyana Chronicle
May 30, 1999

ACROSS the 15-member Caribbean Community (CARICOM) there are states gripped by serious social and economic problems with manifestations in poverty of 25 per cent and upwards, high incidence of youth unemployment and violent crimes, declining health services and rising cost of living.

The outlook, to judge from the assessment of some social scientists and development economists, is that with the exceptions of a few states, Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados among them, the Caribbean is likely to end this final decade of the 20th century worse off than the region has been in the previous two decades.

In Trinidad and Tobago, Central Bank Governor, Winston Dookeran, has been pointing to continued non-inflationary economic growth with the economy being more resilient than it has been, he said, than 10 years ago.

In Barbados, acting Governor of the Barbados Central Bank, Marion Williams, has spoken of a contraction in export earnings and an expected slow down in economic growth of 2.5 to three per cent compared to approximately five per cent in 1998.

Barbados, nevertheless, remains one of the best managed and promising economies within CARICOM.

In contrast, the worse case scenarios seem to be Haiti, the poorest nation in this hemisphere; Jamaica and Guyana - where some 50 per cent of the population are afflicted by poverty - and Suriname, where the very survival of the government is currently seriously threatened by growing industrial and political disturbances.

If we exclude Haiti, which has been in a state of perpetual crisis even before the downfall of the last Duvalier dictatorship in 1986, we are still left to face the enormous social, economic and political woes of Guyana, Suriname and Jamaica.

After the very costly riots and chaos of April sparked by a 30 per cent hike in the price of petrol in Jamaica, where the government of Prime Minister Percival Patterson is spending some 62 per cent of budgetary expenditures just to service debt payments, there is now the challenge from the unions representing public sector workers with a demand for a 40 per cent pay increase. The government is talking of a possible affordable six per cent.

With the expiration of the ultimatum served on the government by public sector unions, the hope is that confrontation can be avoided with new rounds of negotiations producing a compromise -but hardly anywhere near to the original demands of the union.

The cost to the Jamaican economy of the anti-petrol riots has been preliminarily estimated at some J$14 Billion (J$38.20=US$1).

Writing last week on the threatened social explosion in Jamaica, the Trinidad political scientist, Selwyn Ryan, had a very gloomy prognosis:

"The general feeling which prevails in Jamaica", he said, "is that an economic earthquake is imminent, and that given the rage of the population and the feeling of economic and political injustice that prevails, particularly in the ghettoes of the inner city, there was no telling what would happen by the end of the year, let alone the end of the millennium".

In Guyana, where the politics of race afflict so many aspects of life, the main opposition People's National Congress (PNC) continues to engage in destabilisation politics, as threatened following its second defeat at free and fair elections since losing power in 1992.

And the government of President Janet Jagan is desperately seeking to cope with the demands of public sector unions for a 40 per cent pay hike at a time when the economy is showing negative growth of some 1.8 per cent in 1998 and unmindful that some 90 per cent of total government revenue must be utilised to simply pay debts and wages and salaries of public sector workers.

With the public sector unions expected to end their strike last week at the time of writing, the cost to the national purse of more than three weeks of strike action that severely disrupted critical services such as customs and transport, was still being tallied amid deepening tension in a plural society where race-based conflicts are a depressing feature.

This situation is quite unlike multi-ethnic Trinidad and Tobago where post-independence social upheavals have not had the ugly manifestations of ethnic conflicts. And is a factor I intend to revisit in a subsequent column that will focus on the analysis of "dual society on the eve of the new millennium" as presented by the distinguished African scholar, Ali Mazrui, when he delivered the Thirteenth Dr Eric Williams Memorial Lecture of the Trinidad and Tobago Central Bank.

The respected Guyanese economist Clive Thomas, a former unsuccessful presidential candidate of the Working People's Alliance, speaking in Trinidad earlier this month about the situation in Guyana, lamented that for all the vibrancy and creativity of its diverse population, "most of the energies of its people is focussed on consolidating racial identity and building communal barricades in a mind-boggling orgy of mutual self-destruction..."

Those of the main opposition PNC who are more than threatening to "make the country ungovernable" and know quite a lot, after 28 years of stolen power how to exploit the fears of racial insecurity, should also be aware of the consequences for the nation of this "orgy of mutual self-destruction".

Across in Suriname, another plural society and some half an hour's flying time from Guyana, the government of President Jules Wijdenbosch is also complaining of tactics by opposition forces, including use of trade unions, to bring down the administration.

Suriname has been in a state of economic and political crisis for at least two years. More recently, Surinamese have been demonstrating their anger as they struggle to cope with a rapidly diminishing guilder, now trading at about 1,700 to one US dollar, as the government of a shaky coalition of forces cast a wide net of blame for the society's ills and plead for understanding with the hope of a respite from the escalating economic and political woes.

But last week, as spokesmen for the Wijdenbosch administration continued to link the street demonstrations and pressures from the private sector and unions to opposition forces out to topple the government, hope of Suriname excluding itself from the category of Caribbean states in crisis seems in vain - at least in the immediate future.

And after the fuel riots in Jamaica and the strikes in Guyana, or more precisely primarily Georgetown, we have to see how these two other CARICOM states fare in responding to the challenges of political tribalism and racism in coping with their respective severe social and economic problems.

A page from:
Guyana: Land of Six Peoples