Pall cast on historic CARICOM moment
Guyana Chronicle
July 4, 2002

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THE legendary Garden City had been prettified; the auditorium of the National Cultural Centre had been spruced up and all the documentation centres were in a state of readiness. Yesterday was envisioned as one of those shining moments in the life of the Commonwealth Caribbean. For the third time in the 29-year-old history of the Caribbean Community, Guyana was playing the role of host to a Summit of Heads of Government. And Haiti was attending the conference for the first time as a full member of CARICOM. But this vision of the Summit planners was to be marred by events triggered by a group of destructive protestors.

And a pall was cast over the day
As we understand it, a protest march that began earlier in the day on the East Coast of Demerara became extremely unruly and violent when, around noon, some persons forced their way into the New Garden Street entrance of the Presidential Complex. Despite the many warnings of the law-enforcing agencies, the protestors pushed their way into the Accounts Department of the Office of the President where they alarmed and terrorised employees and began a senseless vandalizing of property. From all accounts they wreaked havoc and mayhem until the Police were forced to open fire on them. Two persons were killed in the melee and several others were injured. By the time the dust had settled in the Presidential Complex, Police had arrested a number of protestors and taken them to the Police Station.

But that was not the end of the unrest. Within the hour, there were reports that protestors in Regent Street had overturned a vehicle, which reportedly caught fire, or was set on fire. The resulting flames ignited a business-place, and, within minutes, billowing black smoke was seen by persons from as far up the East Coast as Liliendaal, and by residents at Eccles on the East Bank of Demerara. We later learnt that one building was destroyed in this conflagration, while the building of the recently-opened Bounty Meat Centre was scorched.

When news spread of these happenings, harried parents and guardians rushed to schools and day-care facilities to collect youngsters and get them away from the City centre. Employees resident out of the City beseeched managers to leave workplaces earlier just so they could get home before dark, and anxious persons attempting to reach others by dialing cellular telephone numbers were frustrated as the system became overburdened.

The whole scenario had a sickening and familiar quality because it evoked in Guyanese memories of the uncertainty and fear during periods of post-elections unrest. This time however, the protest actions were doubly embarrassing to a majority of the Guyanese people, who are renowned for their hospitality. Here, in Georgetown, there are over one dozen Heads of Government attending the 23rd CARICOM Summit. There are also scores of officials and envoys of prestigious international organisations, who are here not only for the conferences, but also for bilateral meetings. This violent and destructive form of protest is what Guyana does not need at a time when it is inviting investors and promoting itself as a different, but no less attractive tourist destination.

We recognise the fact that groups and individuals have a legitimate right to protest in a democratic culture. However, we cannot condone trespassing, vandalism and destructive behaviour perpetrated by groups and individuals however noble their cause. We readily recall an occurrence at the 1987 Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference in Vancouver, Canada. The authorities were alerted that several groups of their own nationals had planned to demonstrate against the British monarchy. Queen Elizabeth was scheduled to open the conference to be attended by some 40 world leaders including Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The authorities identified a spot not far from the conference centre and enclosed it with steel barriers. The protestors were penned there where they were free to shout slogans to their hearts’ content. But they could proceed no further to disrupt the meeting or to harass any dignitary. We also know of the feats of the anti-globalisation movement in recent years and of the famed ‘Battle in Seattle’ in which social protest was taken to new heights.

We still believe that in a civilised world the exercise of one person’s rights should never be at the expense of another’s rights and well-being. Yesterday’s actions of a mob of protestors wreaked mayhem and destruction and cast a pall over the entire nation.