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Pre Cheddi, Post Cheddi
The PPP’s ten years can most basically be split into before and after Cheddi.
His death began the decline of the economic prosperity of the country in part because the political vacuum he created led to future instability. While his views may have not sat well with Afro- Guyanese he was respected in a way Janet Jagan and Bharrat Jagdeo were not.
His heart attack on the evening of February 14, 1997 was more severe than originally thought. He was flown to the US Walter Reed Army Medical Center and his son Joey two weeks later said he would be away only for a couple of months.
His condition deteriorated and he died on March 6th at the age of 78.
People lined the East Bank Road as his coffin was carried into town. He lay in state at state house for two days and Guyanese of all races stood in line for hours to pay their respects. A few days later he was cremated in his home village of Port Mourant. After 28 years waiting in the opposition he had spent less than five charting a vision for the country. Hoyte expressed his personal condolences and said “Politics will never be the same in Guyana.” Never were truer words spoken.
Then PM Sam Hinds was sworn in as President and Janet Jagan as Prime Minister. But with only a few months to the general elections she was chosen as presidential candidate and Hinds started on an almost comical game of musical chairs that would see him being sworn in as President twice. Days before the elections Jagan made it clear that Finance Minister Bharrat Jagdeo would succeed her if the PPP/C were to win and anything were to happen to her.
Something did happen - the election on Monday, December 15th. It coincided with the death of poet Martin Carter. With delays in the announcements of results all were consumed by anxiety. Elections Commission Chairman Doodnauth Singh controversially declared the PPP/C the winner before all the votes were counted and Jagan was hastily sworn in. Later at an official ceremony a High Court marshal attempted to deliver an order stopping the proceedings. But Jagan took one look at it and nonchalantly tossed it over her shoulder. While her speech that day may have preached inclusivity her gesture started a firestorm and to all intents and purposes tarnished her short presidency from the get go.
Meanwhile the PNC started an election petition disputing the constitutionality of the ID cards and the accuracy of the results. This would drag on for three years and create its own whirlwind when the verdict was rendered. Hoyte appealed for calm but described Jagan’s appointment as unlawful. The results showed the PPP actually won 36 seats to the PNC’s 25 - an increase on 1992.
Jagan appointed her cabinet largely unchanged from the previous one with only Feroze Mohammed (perhaps wise only Feroze Mohammed (perhaps wisely) declining to be reappointed as Home Affairs Minister and Bernard de Santos being replaced by Charles Ramson as Attorney General mainly because De Santos was still recuperating from a heart attack . Four new ministries were also created and this trend would be perpetuated when Jagdeo formed his own cabinet in 2001.
Firings or even honourable resignations have been non-existent despite a number of cases of corruption and plain incompetence within ministries.
The PNC held demonstrations and by the first few weeks of the New Year with bomb scares in schools, ministries blockaded and a guard at a TV station killed, the situation looked so dire that CARICOM dispatched a mission to reconcile the impasse. On January 17 the Herdmanston Accord was signed which lopped two years off the PPP’s term in office. Whether or not it was weakness from what was by all rights a validly elected government, it served to calm the nation if only temporarily. Or at least long enough for the English cricket team to play at Bourda. A Stabroek News editorial commended the two leaders and hoped Jagan and Hoyte could meet for tea and get to know each other personally. PM Sam Hinds in his role as Home Affairs Minister also slapped a ban on all protests for one month.
Over the next year the political arena was relatively quiet, but the dialogue between the two parties gradually ground to a halt and bogged down when the PNC took umbrage at Dr Luncheon’s assertion of his side being superior in what was supposed to be dialogue between equals. Eventually, the dialogue - under the facilitation of Barbadian Maurice King - failed to deliver because the terms of reference he had been contracted under were too narrow and the parties seemed unprepared to make genuine compromises. It at least, however, saw the return of the PNC/R to Parliament, an agreement to set up the Ethnic Relations Commission - still in limbo - and a promise of future talks.
1999 Public Servants Strike
Jagdeo takes over
On April 30 1999 the public servants strike erupted and would eventually last three months (57 days) crippling all public sector activity and shutting down the ports. It was accompanied by violent protests replete with looted shops, and tear gas.
A few months later Jagan complained of feeling unwell after a summit in Rio de Janeiro and after medical tests decided she could not give the job her fullest attention.
Prior to the election the PPP/Civic had announced the concept of the `A’ Team, made up of Jagan, Hinds and Jagdeo with the understanding that Jagdeo would take over with the Prime Minister retaining his position in the post allotted to the Civic component of the PPP/Civic alliance.
But Hoyte saw Jagdeo’s accession as a manipulation of the constitution and refused to recognise him as President. “The PNC has never acknowledged Mrs Jagan as the legitimate President and any person hand-picked to succeed her will find himself in the same position,” Hoyte asserted. It was not a good start.
But hope springs eternal in Guyana and Jagdeo’s appointment was praised by many as a new beginning and a recognition that the future belonged to the young people. At his swearing in ceremony on August 12 Jagdeo said “I offer you a chance to break the vicious circle of insecurity... we need to trust each other in our ethnically diverse community. We need to break away from this bondage of victim and victor perceptions. Let us look at our real worth as human beings and create a civilised environment in which we can realise our dreams.” And he recalled his own words spoken in Kitty in 1997, that all Guyanese dreamed of having a stable career, good paying jobs to take care of their families and savings to own a house and to provide a good education for their children.
There had been many suitors for Mrs Jagan’s position and only a few days after the inauguration, Head of the Presidential Secretariat Dr Roger Luncheon was quoted as saying that Jagdeo was not necessarily the party’s presidential candidate and mentioned Ralph Ramkarran, Moses Nagamootoo and himself as possible candidates.
At the inception, the question of a cabinet reshuffle was alive and well. Dr Luncheon again only two days after the inauguration told reporters in his own inimitable way “.... I have also had some reservations about how particular ministers at particular points in time have discharged their mandates. You can’t dismiss it (cabinet reshuffle) out of hand.”
In fact there was no cabinet reshuffle, which many believed showed Jagdeo did not yet have the authority to instigate one. A letter in Stabroek News noted that “the PPP makes collective decisions. Jagdeo belongs to that collective leadership. One man decisions are alien to the PPP executive and the PPP/Civic cabinet.” But Jagdeo’s decision to keep control on the Ministry of Finance would reflect a tendency to centralise power within the Office of the President.
He eventually appointed the largely ineffectual Saisnarine Kowlessar as Minister in the Office of President with Responsibility for Finance. Geoffrey Da Silva was appointed as Minister for Trade, Tourism and Industry taking over from Michael Shree Chan who was suffering from cancer. A shuffle did come but it was only to the permanent secretaries, eight of whom were replaced. Jagdeo stressed that the object of the changes was to make government more results oriented and responsive to the needs of the population.
He set a fearsome pace with countryside cabinet meetings and a rash of promises including that the Essequibo road, an eight-year $2.8B project would be finished by year end.
But first he had to accept the arbitration ruling on the public servant’s wages which were more than anyone could imagine: 31.6% for 1999 and 26.67% for 2000 - a cost to the government of $1.3B. Jagdeo jokingly could be accused of precipitating the dispute given that as Finance Minister he had disallowed duty-free concessions on Xmas alcohol for the GPSU! The alcohol was eventually fed to the fish.
Jagdeo fused the office of Go- Invest with the Guyana Export Promotion Council and warned the employees that they were answerable to him for failing to help investors. This had little effect and it was only when Geoff Da Silva was named CEO that GO-INVEST became more responsive and proactive in attracting investors.
Under his tenure some US$110M has been invested and 3,300 new jobs created through agency aided projects.
Jagdeo also held a one-day summit with business leaders. Hailed as the first of its kind, the summit produced an immediate agreement to waive the consumption tax on locally made garments. Other proposals discussed there including the US$60M Berbice River Bridge and plans for a Private Sector Development bank are still stalled and are not likely to start for another couple of years. An investment code asked for by the Private Sector Commission turned out to be a fiasco with charges that the government had eliminated parts of the draft bill that took the granting of concessions away from the Cabinet.
At the beginning of 2000 Jagdeo set out a legislative agenda which included the passage of Acts for Money Laundering, Copyright, Broadcasting, Land Registration, Health Facilities, the establishment of a tourism authority, civil aviation, AIDS, traffic, Fisheries, the Integrity Commission Act, the Drainage and Irrigation Act, the Shipping Act, the Environmental Protection Act, the New Building Society Act and the Income Tax Act. Many of these have been passed.
Meanwhile much parliamentary energy was expended on the Herdmanston Accord reform to the constitution reflected in the passage of the two constitutional amendment acts and the Elections Laws Amendment Act. The 171 recommendations to an altered Constitution were eventually passed but the question of the allocation of regional seats in a new electoral regime caused the PNC to boycott Parliament. To many spectators the reforms to the electoral system were an unimaginative fudge, a tinkering around the margins, by both main parties designed to keep the status quo. Many of the committees created to give more power to the legislative body exist today in name only as both parties continue to wrangle over the appointment of seats.
Meanwhile reforms to the customs and income tax departments by putting them under a single Revenue Authority have failed to rid the agencies of corruption and ineptitude. Jagdeo at the time said “We all know there is corruption in that department...” and said customs officers would be required to declare their incomes. A public spat only a few months ago demonstrated that under invoicing was still rampant. The government has also dragged its feet on much needed tax reform called for by the private sector. This becomes more urgent as the FTAA regulations will see revenues from tariffs reduced. However it is hard to conceive the successful implementation of a value added tax as is being proposed.
Government’s efforts to pressure GT&T into relaxing its monopoly control on telecommunications in face of the new technologies has also gone awry and a US$22.5m information and communications technology project is now on hold.
The Beal Deal is an episode the government would rather forget. It signed away 26,000 acres of land in the Waini river area at US$3 per acre and gave the company a 99-year tax break only for the Texas-based aerospace company to later say it had abandoned all plans for the project.
The deal had also raised the ire of Venezuela’s maverick President Hugo Chavez who beat the war drums. In fact border problems plagued the PPP in 2000.
Suriname’s armed removal of the CGX oil rig which was drilling for oil off the Corentyne River caused a flurry of intense diplomatic negotiations which went on a movable feast around the Caribbean, which served only to enrich some five star hotels. This distracted the administration for months, away from serious domestic matters including a looming crisis in the rice sector. The CGX matter was never resolved despite Foreign Minister Clement Rohee’s early prediction that “we were more or less there.”
2001 and to a chaotic present
The 2001 elections were no less eventful than those in 1997 and solved nothing in terms of legitimising the government in the eyes of the PNC though observers across the board agreed that the elections were fair. Protests were prolonged and after Dr Luncheon was re-appointed as Head of the Presidential Secretariat, the PNC/R blockaded the Office of the President and in the ensuing chaos Kissoon’s Furniture City was burnt along with other stores in Robb and Regent Sts while crowds shouted “Mo fyah!.” One lady was also found dead from gunshot wounds in an empty lot near to Freedom House.
For the record the results were PPP/C 34 seats, PNC/R 27, GAP/WPA two, ROAR one and TUF one.
Riots in Buxton made the public road impassable and many Indo-Guyanese were beaten and robbed. Eventually on April 24th Jagdeo and Hoyte met in what would be the first of constructive and surprisingly relaxed set of talks. They settled on a raft of measures and the PNC/R agreed to recognise the Bharrat Jagdeo government without prejudice to an election petition. “All pending constitutional legislation will be passed within one month of the convening of Parliament.”
The violence subsided but in June the PPP/C was faced with protests from its own constituents when a crowd besieged the Albion police station in Berbice complaining of police neglect .One protestor was fatally shot. Meanwhile the Cabinet appointments supposed to demonstrate Jagdeo’s vision, saw many ministers retain their posts or be shuffled around. Twelve of the former ministers retained their portfolios with four of these assigned new ones. Clement Rohee, former foreign minister was made foreign trade minister and other ministries were created which many saw as unnecessary. Jagdeo assured the nation there would be continuous changes in his cabinet.
Then the promising dialogue between Jagdeo and Hoyte broke down. Hoyte’s demarche on Jagdeo declared that he and his government had failed to keep the promises that the two leaders had agreed on in many areas. He listed these in a long letter to the President and despite numerous efforts the talks have not restarted as the PNC/R is insisting on a dotting of the i’s and crossing of the t’s.
Days earlier on February 23, 2002, five dangerous prisoners had escaped from the Camp Street jail killing a prison officer in the process. Months of robberies, killings, kidnappings and drive-by shootings have erupted epitomised by the assault on the town of Rose Hall by a group of armed men shortly after the President had passed through the area at the conclusion of the PPP congress. Just last month, four people were shot dead in Natoo’s bar by heavily armed men. In that attack the Director of Public Prosecutions, Dennis Hanomansingh was injured. The Jagdeo administration now faces the worst security crisis the country has seen in decades and his government has been accused of failing to take decisive action.
Ten years on, it is hard to see how the state of the nation has improved. Yes schools have been built, roads repaired; more people have water and electricity and new homes. Some may have more money in their pocket. But the important reforms to the tax system, the judiciary and the police have yet to happen.
Neither has the economy diversified away from one dependent on volatile commodity prices for its fortunes.
And at the time of writing the PNC continues to boycott Parliament, Indo-Guyanese shudder on passing Buxton on the East Coast for fear of being killed, extrajudicial killings are swept under the carpet and armed bandits hijack, kidnap, and murder with impunity.
The country is deeply divided and the best and brightest continue to leave.
Whatever the reasons, this is happening under the PPP/C government.