Anthony Bourdain captured my attention and enraptured me several years ago by his brilliant story telling. He described cultural practices of other peoples as joyful discoveries, ending mostly with the food they consumed and the traditions that gave rise to the particular dish. He visited places that I would never see, tried dishes that I would never taste, related cultures that I would never experience, all with a rare gift of dialogue and expert camera work that brought to life the country, its traditions, its people and its food. As he was investigating foods and restaurants in Queens, New York, he discovered the birdmen of Guyana and devoted part of an episode on Queens to them. Relating this story, is the best way that I can think of paying tribute to Anthony Bourdain.
There is no time that I do not remember not being revolted by the caging of birds. Whenever the occasional report appeared in the press of a Guyanese being caught by the authorities smuggling birds to New York in the horrendous conditions that smugglers do, I would unsympathetically turn the page, considering the method of smuggling and the life of captivity of birds too painful to contemplate. But the darker reality of the ‘pastime’ came to me a short while ago when I was told that not far away from my home a motor cyclist stopped, dismounted and attempted to rob a passerby of a bird in a birdcage in his hand. Weeks after, it was reported that a young man on a motor cycle was shot dead as he tried to rob someone of a bird being carried in a birdcage. I don’t know if it was the same motor cyclist. Upon inquiry, I was told that a bird can fetch up to $200,000.
It is with trepidation that I venture to write about an issue such as this, which invokes controversies from all sides. To deal with it realistically though, I have to reflect on another contentious aspect of our recent history, which continues to drive fear into the minds of a vast number of people. The results of the 1992 elections alone, ignoring all the other evidence, prove beyond any conceivable doubt that all prior elections in Guyana as an independent nation were rigged. The failure of the PNC to acknowledge that past, and its role in it, has left more than a lingering sense of suspicion in the minds of a large number of people. The suspicion is, that with the PNC once again in power, rigged elections are back on the agenda. Some PNC members, supporters and sympathisers don’t seem to understand this, or if they do, don’t care about it. Rigged elections in the past aggravated ethnic disharmony by creating the feeling in one section of the population that its vote was either being stolen or was worthless. Hence the controversy over employment practices at GECOM. I am not saying anything that is not widely known and accepted, although many would not wish to acknowledge it.
Guyana’s population has had decided preferences in terms of employment. We have always had African Guyanese tending towards employment in the state sector. In the private sector, they are mostly located in administration, rather than as entrepreneurs. Notwithstanding 28 years of PNC rule, during which African Guyanese were encouraged to go into business, followed by 23 years of PPP rule, during which Indian Guyanese were encouraged to seek employment in the state sector and particularly the security services, the essential employment preferences at the time of Independence has remained largely intact today. These employment preferences are rooted mainly in history.
I will stay away from the continuing controversies between the current and past Attorneys-General. To coin a phrase, when elephants rumble, it’s the insects in the grass who get trampled. I will likewise stay away from the merits or otherwise of the Chief Justice’s decision ordering the Minster of Legal Affairs to bring the Act into force. It is likely to be appealed and the Court of Appeal will decide. But why is the Judicial Review Act important to the public?
There is an area of law called ‘public law.’ While much law notionally exists for the protection of the public, ‘public law’ more directly protects the rights of the citizen in his or her relations with the state and public bodies or authorities by holding them to account. The instruments used by the courts in public law are of ancient origin, initially directed against the King, and are called writs of certiorari – to quash a decision, mandamus – to order something to be done, prohibition – to prohibit an act and the lesser known, quo warranto – challenging the right to hold an office. The writ of habeas corpus – ordering the production of a body, is linked to these. They are called ‘prerogative’ remedies issued by courts on the application of citizens for ‘judicial review’ to enforce their rights against the state or public authorities. Currently, these are the only remedies available in public law.
The total electoral devastation of the Democratic Labour Party(DLP) and the political exit door shown to former Prime Minister, Freundel Stuart, by the Barbados electorate at the elections last Thursday, is an apt and decisive answer to the vicious attack Stuart made on the Caribbean Court of Justice earlier in the week, when referring to the judges derogatorily as ‘politicians in robes.’ It is not unusual for politicians to be peeved by court decisions. Guyanese politicians have expressed ‘concern’ about issues relating to the CCJ on several occasions in the past, including the recent past.
In the UK, the developed country from which we inherited our laws and jurisprudence, and whose precedents are the most influential in the CCJ, judges and courts are regularly criticized, as they should be. But Stuart did not merely criticize; he unjustifiably attacked the CCJ for political bias and undertook to withdraw from the Court. Had he won the elections, Barbados’s withdrawal would have dealt a crushing blow to Caribbean unity and, worse, would have weakenedCaribbean jurisprudence and the rule of law in the region.
I am not a monarchist, a trait I share with many British people, including Jeremy Corbin, the leader of the Opposition Labour Party, although his views on this matter are now muted. I believe that heads of state should be elected. I hasten to add that if elections were held in Britain for head of state, Queen Elizabeth would win hands down. Not being British, my views are of little consequence. But Guyana has had a sympathetic view of the British Monarchy because we were a colony of Britain for 150 years during which we were indoctrinated into loyalty and support for the Monarchy. Since Independence we have been in the Commonwealth of which Queen Elizabeth has been the head, which is soon to be Prince Charles. In recent years Queen Elizabeth and members of the Royal Family, including Prince Charles, Prince Andrew on a private visit and Prince Harry, have visited Guyana. Therefore, Guyana’s connection with, and even respect for, the British Royal Family is long and enduring and remains current.
The entry of Princess Diana into the Royal Family by her marriage to Prince Charles in 1981 added a dash of glitter and glamour to an otherwise conservative, staid, reserved, unsmiling, unadventurous, stiff upper lip, emotionless operation, referred to by its members as the “firm.” Her charitable work and the causes she undertook, both before and after her acrimonious divorce from Prince Charles in1996, catapulted her into international stardom. Princess Diana embraced the underprivileged and disadvantaged, ended the myth that AIDS was transmissible by contact by shaking hands with AIDs victims and highlighted the dangers of land mines. Her iconic life and good deeds after her divorce attracted worldwide support and attention and it has been suggested that her presence in the Royal Family and separation therefrom started the process of bringing it into the modern world.