Pride and talks

Stabroek News
April 11, 1999

New dialogue proposals have been fluttering down on the Guyanese public again. Let's have two entirely new negotiating teams, said President Jagan in a letter to Mr Hoyte last Tuesday; let's forget about discussing government/opposition issues, and talk instead about national policies.

It is unfortunate that this initiative was ever made public. For one thing, it encouraged a public response from the other side - which it got - when at this stage, with all these egos on the line, a little quiet diplomacy would have seemed a far more sensible way to proceed. And for another, it ironically achieved the opposite effect from the one desired, since by bypassing the central problem altogether, it implied that the PPP/Civic was unprepared to break the talks logjam. If nothing else, the President almost invited Mr Hoyte's charge at his press conference on Thursday of engaging in nothing more than a public relations exercise.

If earlier in the week the worst that could have been said about President Jagan's latest proposals was that they were tangential to the resolution of the current impasse, by Friday they had become an animal of an altogether different hue. Dr Luncheon told the media at his fortnightly press conference that the Government was only willing to resume the dialogue talks with the PNC on an equal basis if governmental matters were excluded from the discussions.

This was an astonishing revelation which prima facie is at odds with what President Jagan had written. In her letter to Mr Hoyte she had indicated that she would like the dialogue to concentrate on national issues and policies - race relations and legislation to concretise equal opportunities, the national development strategy, national health and education policy, public sector reform, taxation policy, social safety net creation and poverty alleviation, among other things. If the list above does not constitute governmental matters, then what, in the name of heaven, does? Or is there no contradiction between her letter and the statements made by the Head of the Presidential Secretariat, because she was making the unexpressed assumption that the PPP/Civic and the PNC would not be meeting as equals?

There can be no one in the country who does not know by now that it was Dr Luncheon's remarks at the last dialogue encounter which brought the discussions between the two leading parties to a halt. Dr Luncheon made clear on that occasion that as far as he was concerned, the PNC and the PPP/Civic were not negotiating as equals, an assertion to which his counterpart, Mr Carberry raised unambiguous objection. An issue which began as a relatively minor matter, therefore, and which could have been easily resolved in the initial stages by some form of diplomatic retreat on the part of the PPP/Civic or Dr Luncheon himself, has now become a major impediment to further discussion between the parties.

Considering that the governing party is in the wrong, both in terms of international negotiating conventions (there would have been no Northern Ireland or Palestinian/Israeli agreements, for instance, if the PPP/Civic principle had been applied) and in relation to the Herdmanston Accord and the St Lucia Statement, one has to wonder about their intractability on this issue.

One hypothesis is that they have made a categorical error. In recent times they have elected to interpret the status dispute between the parties as having reference only to the selection of representatives to state boards. (Front-page Comment, Mirror, March 24, 1999). From the point of view of the record, the transcript of the last talks led by Dr Luncheon on the one side, and Mr Carberry on the other does not bear out this interpretation of what transpired. "I do not recognize in this room or any room for that matter that we speak as equals," said Dr Luncheon.

However, what is on the record is not the point here. Could it be that the PPP/Civic has confused what is essentially a procedural issue with the subject matter of the talks? Is it possible that they feel that if they conform to international procedural protocols they would then be bound to concede equality to the demands of the PNC on the substantive matters under discussion? If so, they are mistaken. It does not follow that because the PNC are their equals in the negotiations all their demands have to be conceded, or for that matter, are even reasonable.

The longer the governing party avoids confronting the fundamental problem, the more difficult it will become to find an acceptable compromise. Civil society in conjunction with most Guyanese want the dialogue to restart; in order for that to happen, the PPP/Civic has to bite the bullet, and the PNC must not demand anything humiliating. Far too much has been said by both sides in public already. Let the politicians pay attention to the people; forget pride, forget grandstanding and start talking again.