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.
When I read the headlines in SN yesterday morning, ‘AFC says constitutional reform still a priority,’ I could not feel a sense of elation. Instead, I sunk into a dejected mood of déjà vu. The headline itself subtly editorialized that it was not impressed with the promise. It added to the main banner ‘though no progress over three years.’ I believe that the AFC earnestly wishes to have constitutional reform but is faced with implacable resistance in the form of inactivity by APNU.
But more importantly, constitutional reform for the AFC, as well as for APNU, whenever it desultorily renews its fading undertaking, no longer seems to mean what it promised in the coalition’s manifesto. By omitting to refer to the manifesto promises, it appears that constitutional reform is being treated as a box to tick before the next elections comes along. It can then boast of fulfilling its election promise.
On Wednesday last the public was treated to a brilliant and expansive lecture by the former Chancellor (ag) of the Judiciary and now Distinguished Jurist-in-Residence at the University of Guyana, Carl Singh. The subject was “The Constitutional Guarantee of Fundamental Rights and the Citizen. The lecture, to a packed hall and attentive audience at Herdmanston House, was the third in the series “Conversation on Law and Society.” Chancellor Singh started by pointing out that while citizens may not always be cognizant of what their right are, they are certainly aware that the Constitution guarantees them, which they are often prepared to aggressively defend. He related the story of a visitor to a hospital in Georgetown who was being prevented from entering because the visiting hours had come to an end. During the argument between the visitor and the hospital staff, the visitor loudly proclaimed that it was her constitutional right to enter the hospital to visit her relative!
Chancellor Singh explored a wide range of issues, not all of which can be examined here. A few are selected.
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:
Cheddi Jagan returned from studies in the United States to a British Guiana in 1943 that was a cauldron of poverty. The report of the Moyne Commission, which investigated poverty in the region in the 1930s concluded that “for the laboring population, mere subsistence was increasingly problematic.” The report was so explosive that it was not published until 1945. It weighed heavily in subsequent developments. In 1946 Cheddi Jagan, Janet Jagan, Jocelyn Hubbard and Ashton Chase, the latter two of whom were active trade unionists, formed the Political Affairs Committee (PAC). In 1947 Cheddi Jagan fought and won a seat in the Legislative Council.
The cauldron of poverty was being stirred by decades of intensified industrial unrest, prompted by the new found strength of organised labour. The British Guiana Labour Union (BGLU) was the first to be registered in the British Empire in 1922. The Man Power Citizens Association (MPCA) was registered in 1937 and represented sugar workers. The Transport Workers Union (TWU) was established in 1938 and superseded the BGLU as the largest and most militant in the city. In 1947 bauxite workers went on strike. In 1948 the successful Teare Strike led by the TWU, stopped the trains and boats and closed down the country for two weeks – unprecedented in a colony. In 1949 the Enmore strike of sugar workers took place during which five sugar workers, who became known as the Enmore Martyrs, were shot and killed. This heightened labour activity was also a feature in the Caribbean region and was prompted by a decline in sugar prices on the world market which further exacerbated poverty.