Guyana Chronicle
February 29, 2004

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AS BARBADOS and Guyana were adopting different approaches in pursuit of a common objective - compulsory and binding arbitration under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) process, the main opposition People's National Congress/Reform seems to have been missing in action.

Or, more precisely, its leader, Mr. Robert Corbin, who, having earlier boycotted official functions for the recent state visit of President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, could not be reached by phone.

Nor, from all reports, to be contacted by his own colleagues, in time for a meeting with President Bharrat Jagdeo - ahead of his broadcast to the nation last Wednesday on why the government had opted for the UNCLOS route against Suriname.

Neither the sense of patriotism nor commitment to the preservation of Guyana's political sovereignty and territorial integrity of the PNC/R is being questioned.

It is just that in the post-Hoyte phase the PNC/R, perceived as the alternative government, seems too wedded to an old, divisive approach to national politics that could also impact on Guyana's efforts in relations with border neighbours.

Boycotts and violent street protests have been twin pillars of the PNC/R for a long suffering period for Guyana, following the party's loss of political power after 28 years in government.

While there have been some encouraging signs with Corbin's rise as new leader - the moving away from a violent, confrontational path being the most significant of the shifts - the boycott weapon continues to have high priority in the party's political strategies and tactics.

Consequently, using as the excuse the controversy surrounding Home Affairs Minister Ronald Gajraj over allegations of "death squad" politics, the PNC/R leader was to boycott not only the swearing in of the members of the newly constituted Police Service Commission.

He was to engage in the same kind of boycott politics when it came to Winston Felix's oath-taking ceremony as Guyana's new Police Commissioner - a moment long in the making.

Like his predecessor, Floyd McDonald, who acted in that post under a most challenging period of criminal upsurge and threats to national security, Felix has distinguished himself in the Force which he now heads. But ongoing negative politicking was to get in the way to excuse PNC/R's absence for that significant oath-taking moment.

In the circumstances, it was not surprising to discover that in his current 'boycotting mood, the PNC/R leader opted not make himself available for an emergency meeting with President Jagdeo - ahead of his broadcast statement on Guyana's initiative against Suriname under the UNCLOS arbitration process.

In Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago - two CARICOM states locked in their own maritime resources and maritime boundary delimitation dispute - both ruling and opposition parties avail themselves for meetings, as necessary, or participate in public and radio talk shows to help cool tempers while, at the same time, taking principled stands in favour of their respective countries.

Here in Guyana, the PNC/R is arrogant enough to assume that having been in power those many, many years, the Guyanese people should know that it remains opposed to both Suriname's and Venezuela's claims to Guyana's land and sea areas. No need, therefore, for 'consultations' or any supportive statement that could aid the government's own efforts on those national issues.

Instead, the PNC/R has now claimed that the Jagdeo administration was involved in "desperate manoeuvrings" in its referral of the maritime boundary dispute with Suriname under the UNCLOS arbitration process.

In a dispute of this nature, as Barbados has stated in defence of its own initiative against Trinidad and Tobago, timing is of the essence.

If, indeed, there has been any semblance of "desperation", it would most certainly have been in Guyana's national interest. The PNC/R must prove otherwise.

The PNC/R cannot really be that ignorant of what it took, and the people who became involved, to arrive at the point of making public last Wednesday, the UNCLOS route in dealing with the maritime boundary dispute with Suriname.

Had the PPP failed, while in opposition, to avail itself of the consultations requested with the then PNC administration under the rule of the late Forbes Burnham when the necessity arose in relation to aggression from Venezuela and subsequently Suriname - events covered by this columnist as a journalist working in Guyana - it would have been castigated as being unpatriotic, or giving encouragement to the "enemy".

Foreign Minister Rudy Insanally - by no means a stranger to the PNC/R - has had to point out how very "misleading" it is for that party to suggest that the Guyana government has given to Venezuela the right of veto over projects in the Essequibo region. This is a most startling claim.

Call for evidence
The leaders of every representative sectors of Guyana - Labour movement, private sector, civil society organisations, as well as the minority parliamentary parties - have a moral obligation to call on the PNC/R to make public the evidence to back up that astonishing claim of anti-national behaviour by the Jagdeo administration.

Failure to do so would expose the outrageous allegation for what it is, and further add to the credibility problem of the PNC/R that should not be so unmindful in insulting the intellect of even its own significant support base.

Meanwhile, Trinidad and Tobago and now Suriname have been left to respond to the respective UNCLOS initiatives of Barbados and Guyana.

First, on February 16, Barbados made the surprising disclosure of going the UNCLOS route in its maritime boundary row with Trinidad and Tobago. Then nine days later, Guyana announced a similar course of action in its maritime dispute with its neighbour, the former Dutch colony of Suriname.

In between those two developments, and amid continuing tension in Barbados-Trinidad and Tobago relations, Guyana and Barbados made public on Tuesday this week the text of a joint statement that disclosed their signing on December 2, 2003, an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) treaty for a legal regime by which they will exercise their jurisdiction.

Foreign Minister Insanally was quick to dispel any notion that the Guyana-Barbados EEZ treaty - signed in London in December last year - had anything to do with the row between Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados over the twin-island republic's 1990 treaty with Venezuela that also has implications for Guyana's territorial integrity.

Anxious that the wrong message is not conveyed either to Trinidad and Tobago or Venezuela, Insanally also explained that the recent official visit to Guyana by the Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was on the planning board long before the eruption of the public verbal sparring between Bridgetown and Port-of-Spain.

In his broadcast address to the Guyanese nation on Wednesday, President Jagdeo was keen to stress that the UNCLOS arbitration process against Suriname was being pursued not in an "adversarial" manner but "with the highest standards of international amity".

Perhaps there may yet be a change in mood - from boycotts to consultations - on the part of the opposition PNC/R.

In which case, the PPP/C must be willing to respond in a manner not to score political points, but in good faith as it sets about encouraging a more conducive climate for national dialogue.