If one of the two main political groups in Guyana, the Peoples’ Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) or the A Partnership For National Unity + Alliance For Change (APNU+AFC) achieves an absolute majority at the March 2 general elections, one half of the population will feel alienated. This alienation has been the signal feature of Guyana’s politics since 1957. It has grown progressively worse since then, aggravated by and/or resulting in Guyana’s history of electoral manipulation, discrimination, and criminal and civil violence since 1962.
To eliminate this albatross, Guyana needs a political system where the main political parties alternate in power every two terms, or one where the two political parties share power equally. Since the former is difficult to constitutionally structure under a system of free, but adversarial, elections, the latter appears to be the only route out of a political dilemma which has emerged from the existence in Guyana of two large ethnic blocs that manifest their insecurities in fixed electoral choices.
During last week, the Stabroek News published an article (Akola Thompson “Towards a post-racial future” and a letter (Ryhaan Shaw “Little hope of a post-racial future for Guyana any time soon”) on the future of race in Guyana. Race is a difficult issue to discuss because of its complexity and intractability. But a peaceful and productive ethnic future for Guyana depends on how, and how urgently, we deal with the issue of race. Unless we do so soon, the sore of race in its several manifestations will continue to fester, producing infected material, draining the energy of Guyana into bad governance, marginalization and discrimination, crime and corruption.
Ethnic hatred, born of prejudices developed over centuries, having their bases usually, but not always, in economic factors, is difficult to eradicate, even as conditions of discrimination are alleviated by laws and social measures, as experience in the US has shown. Guyana’s situation may not be unique. Trinidad developed in a similar manner. Both countries have two large ethnic minorities that make up the large majority of the population. But our politics developed differently. The Peoples’ National Movement traditionally had a significant enough Indo-Trinidadian vote that kept it in office for decades during the era of Eric Williams. After that coalition fractured, Trinidad maintained a sizeable floating vote, comprising all sections of the populations, which resulted in periodic alternation between the parties, despite maintaining fairly rigid ethnic voting patterns and sensitivities.
Many Guyanese are in despair arising out of the political deadlock and the failure of our politicians to resolve it. Many understand that relying only on the judiciary can only result in winners and losers. One round of the perpetual ethno-political competition would be over with the completion of the court proceedings. Whatever the outcome, the next round would come with the elections, whether held this year or next year. In this sense, the decision of the CCJ will solve nothing that is fundamental to the reality of Guyana’s existence and its challenges.
Whatever the CCJ’s decision and whenever the elections are held, Guyana’s problems will remain and would be no nearer to a solution. The economic slowdown will persist, poverty and unemployment will continue to increase, a high crime rate will perhaps get worse, corruption will grow by leaps and bounds and the ethno-political contest, an important driver of most of the above, will be no nearer to a solution.
Of all the other Caricom countries, Guyana has enjoyed the closest relations with Trinidad and Tobago. Language, common colonial history, ethnic make-up, common cultural patterns, similar systems of government and laws and long established people to people contact have all come together to keep us close.
During the period of the 1970s to 1980s when Guyana’s economy was flatlining, Trinidad and Tobago continued to supply Guyana with petroleum products on credit. During the 1990s, at the conclusion of the debt forgiveness process under the Paris Club arrangements for Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago forgave Guyana the single largest amount of debt of hundreds of millions of US dollars. This largesse should not be forgotten. Even though it has been almost impossible for Guyanese business people to get permission to invest or for professionals to get jobs or to reside in Trinidad and Tobago, relations between the governments of Guyana and of Trinidad and Tobago have always been cordial.
On Friday last the New York Times published “The $20 Billion Question for Guyana.” It was a lengthy review of Guyana and the impact that the oil discovery by Exxon and its partners in offshore Guyana is likely to have. Two recent articles by the Wall Street Journal and Foreign Affairs, of world-wide reputation, like the New York Times (NYT), were published and reprinted in Guyana. Few Guyanese would recognize the description of Georgetown by one of them as ‘sleepy’ or by the NYT as a ‘musty clapboard town…which seems forgotten by time.’ Notwithstanding these unflattering first impressions of Georgetown by foreign journalists, the articles helped to highlight, not only the amount of financial resources that will become available to Guyana, but how those resources can be used or misused.
Guyana is described as an unlikely setting for the next oil boom. It is ‘one of the poorest countries in South America can become one of the wealthiest.’ The NYT article said that all the talk in Georgetown is about a sovereign wealth fund to manage the money. It underlined Minister Raphael Trotman’s comment, perhaps speaking hyperbolically, if he indeed said so, that we have been given a chance to get things right because ‘the Chinese cut down our forests and dug out our gold and we never got a cent…we could end up with the same experience with ExxonMobil.’ Whatever the dangers, Rystad Energy is quoted as predicting that Guyana will get $6 Billion by the end of the 2020s. But this is a modest estimate with a production of eventually 500,000 barrels a day. Doug McGhee, Exxon Operations Manager, predicted better social services and infrastructure, ‘if the government manages the resources right.’