There are frequent, frustrated, refrains from observers that it is Guyana’s political parties that are mainly responsible for promoting the culture of ethnic dominance and without it, Guyana’s politics would not be dominated by race and instability. This is not true. Guyana’s main political parties reflect the social, economic and political aspirations of the people of Guyana. The fundamental feature of Guyana which determines these aspirations is its ethnic composition and history. This has been characterized mainly by separate struggles against employers and the colonial state for survival. The lesson that has been learnt is that whoever controls the state controls the distribution of its limited resources. The struggle for control of the state was a natural outcome of the nature of our main political parties and their fundamental, though unspoken political objective – ethno-political dominance.
By the time the first popular political party, the Peoples’ Progressive Party (PPP), emerged, it was recognized that ethno-political dominance, which had already reared its head after the second world war, was a negative phenomenon that will hinder Guyana’s political development and its main objective of Independence from Britain. The PPP was therefore organized with a multi-ethnic, multi-class, leadership. It attracted widespread support. However, as is well known, colonialist intrigues and internal opportunism led to what was in effect a departure of the “moderate” faction of the PPP. That faction later became the African led Peoples’ National Congress (PNC) which got its support mainly from the African Guyanese workers and farmers. Its merger shortly after with the United Democratic Party (UDP) brought support from mixed Guyanese and African middle class. Indian Guyanese gave their support to the PPP.
Leaking information to the press is an old and revered tradition in a democracy. In the United States today, leaking is an essential element in the controversies surrounding the Trump presidency. It was leaks by “Deep Throat” that exposed the Watergate scandal that brought down President Nixon in 1974. It is therefore not surprising that the AFC is mad at its Canadian leaders for leaking emails that somewhat contradicted its leadership’s contention that it was not consulted about the appointment of the Chair of the Elections Commission (Gecom) by President Granger.
The AFC drew support across the ethnic divide. But it was its support from Guyanese Indians that enabled the APNU+AFC coalition to breast the tape at the 2015 elections. Despite this, the AFC has shown a palpable lack of understanding of the depth of fear of Guyanese Indians, and others, at the perpetual presence of the elephant in the political room, the fear that APNU will rig the next elections. The unilateral appointment of a Chair for Gecom exacerbated that fear. And the AFC knows that they believe the evidence which caused the fear. First, APNU in its PNC form, has a history of election rigging from 1968 to 1985. Second, the PNC by itself has never won more than 42 percent of the vote in free and fair elections. Third, the AFC has lost substantial support and its contribution to the coalition at the next elections will be very modest. Fourth, this will keep the coalition below 50 percent. Fifth, in a two-party contest, the PPP will win. The answer? Rig! The AFC’s insensitivity to this scenario and its failure to persuade, or seek to persuade, the President to adopt a different approach to the appointment of the Gecom chair, has lost it substantial credibility. This is what the dispute with its Canadian leaders symbolizes.
The drive for ethnic dominance is an unavoidable consequence of our social history. It manifests itself in numerous ways and appears in discourses relating to social and economic policy. More importantly and fundamentally, it appears in political competition. Ideas of ethnic dominance have always shaped our society, and politics could not have escaped it even if it had tried. Our main political parties understand this reality but have each constructed an historical narrative that tells an alternative story. The narratives have subsisted together with and have had a parallel trajectory with the drive for ethnic dominance.
Even the youthful leaders who formed the early political movement, the Political Affairs Committee of 1947 and the Peoples Progressive Party in 1950, did so with the understanding that ethnic unity was a vital pre-requisite. The split of the PPP in 1955, although overtly between ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists,’ were led by an African Guyanese, Burnham, the ‘moderate’ and the walkout was against the Indian Guyanese, Cheddi Jagan, the ‘extremist,’ resulting from a demand made by Burnham for ‘leader or nothing.’ But within a short time the split inevitably developed into ethnic dimensions. The ethnic violence of the 1960s and two decades of authoritarian rule have together ensured its rigidity and sharpened its significance as a factor in Guyana’s politics unlike, say, Trinidad and Tobago, and have brought home the need to create political and constitutional structures that would undermine its political potency.
Membership of our two main political parties does not necessarily imply that one is a racist or subscribes to an ethnic approach to politics. The leaderships of both parties seriously strive, largely unsuccessfully, to broaden the leadership and membership of their parties. That they have not been successful has not modified their efforts. In the past when there was a clearer ideological distinction between the parties, it was even easier to justify the assertion that motivations for political activism were not ethnic, at least overtly. But supporters are recalcitrant.
While no leader would tolerate ethnic slurs made by their supporters, they are always conscious of the fact that unacceptable language or characterizations in referring to another ethnic group is a common feature of Guyanese life and their supporters might falter. Strong measures should always be taken against such behavior. When Bill Maher, the white US TV host/comedian, liberal and strongly anti-racist, who donated US$1 million to Obama’s election campaign, recently said light-heartedly while interviewing someone that he should not be considered a ‘house n***’, there was a national outcry. He barely kept his job and had to apologise and publicly atone. One of his guests in his next show, the African American actor and rapper, Ice Cube, said that when that word is used in any context, except by African Americans who are now the owners of the word, and presumably are permitted to use it, ‘it’s like a knife.’ Words of racist abuse feel the same way to every race and they do reflect a ‘personal philosophy.’
The government is silently leaning the economy towards Burnham’s socialist control system, to cooperativism and poverty, where the sugar workers suffer and the private sector has no influence. The past government’s policies favoured drug lords, the criminally inclined and business crooks. While these two parties are in existence racism will never die in Guyana and the problems outlined above, and more, will never be resolved. Guyanese have a decision to make, or not to make and to live with the consequences. That decision is whether or not to support a political party for the next elections to be soon announced by Mr. Craig Sylvester, whose views, as set out in a letter in yesterday’s KN, are summarized above.
The dominant narratives in and about Guyana are conditioned by slavery, indentureship and their consequences. One major consequence is the existence of two ethnic blocs which have been socialized differently and separately. Guyana consists largely of two different societies, in watchful competition, but largely at peace, existing under the same national roof.