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.
An extensive debate is currently raging in the media on the Government’s lethargic approach in preparation for the oil industry. Among the contentious issues are legislation for local content, the sovereign wealth fund, petroleum legislation, the department of energy. The most glaring deficit appears to be the lack of expertise in Guyana on oil and gas and the deep concern that these issues will not be addressed in time for 2020 when the production of oil is due to begin. Mr. Imran Khan’s eloquent defence of the government’s efforts recently on an Al Jazeera television programme which included Messrs. Christopher Ram and Jan Mangal, has not diminished concerns.
The Leader of the Opposition, Mr. Bharrat Jagdeo, issued an invitation to President Granger to debate race, in the context of which political party in government has done more for African Guyanese. The immediate issue was the rejection by the casting vote of the Chairman of the Elections Commission of Vishnu Persaud as Deputy Chief Elections Officer, which the Leader of the Opposition described as ‘unfair.’ The issue spawned accusations and counter accusations of racial discrimination.
The KN reported on Mr’ Jagdeo’s challenge as follows: “I am prepared to debate race relations and which party has contributed to worsening race relations in Guyana. I can talk to him (President Granger) about this fallacy and the myth that they keep perpetuating that they have done more for Afro-Guyanese than the PPP…” He stated that he is prepared to match the record of the People’s National Congress between 1964 and 1992, and then from 2015 to present as against the PPP’s 23 years in office… According to Jagdeo, the debate can be on several grounds, including employment practices, access to wealth, land and businesses… “I am sure that you will see a pattern with Afro-Guyanese having fared better in that period under the PPP than ever under the PNC rule. I am prepared to debate that openly.”
Divided societies like Guyana suffer from a phenomenon whereby historic events which, when they occurred, gave rise to allegations of ethnic bias, never seem to go away. The West Indies Federation, which lasted from 1958 to 1962, is one such. It is an historic event which is hardly relevant to contemporary Guyana today. Yet the debate on Jagan’a attitude to the Federation rages, as if the event occurred yesterday, and not more than 50 years ago. It is contextualized to the current ethnic controversies, one of which is to seek to continually paint Jagan as a racist, or at least to allege that he was motivated by ethnic considerations. His role in the establishment of the University of Guyana has become another. But that is for another time.
An editorial in the Stabroek News of December 19, 1986, on ‘Regional Integration’ stated that ‘…others, notably Eusi Kwayana (then Sydney King) attributed Jagan’s opposition [to the Federation] to his unwillingness to be swamped in a predominantly African grouping. C.L.R. James is also reported to have made a similar assertion. In response to the Stabroek News editorial, Jagan replied as follows: