To the sounds of Buju Banton and the echoes of the Wismar and Sun Chapman massacres, Guyana celebrates it 53rdIndependence Anniversary. Our political and economic future are as uncertain as they were 53 years ago. Guyana’s emergence from authoritarian rule in 1992 was not only a major landmark in its post-Independence history. The promises at the time were of “the dawn of a new era” and of “winner does not take all” politics. in the midst of economic reforms that promised a better life and the emergence of this newspaper that presaged freedom of expression, anticipation was high. After 27 years, half of our life as an Independent nation, hopes have been dashed. Our people have been kept in thrall to the logic of ethno-politics. No one now believes that either the APNU+AFC coalition or the PPP/C, by themselves, whichever is returned to office, has any intention of allowing this nation to unshackle the chains of domination politics.
Guyana’s political scene is thankfully uncomplicated by the ideological and political divisions sweeping many countries today, causing uncertainty and concern. But we do not live on an island and international developments do influence our views. This newspaper in its editorial yesterday high–lightedthe drift to “Europe’s illiberal future” in its editorial. The USA has already gone that way under Trump, who equated neo-fascists with anti-fascists, saying that there are good people on both sides. Australia’s right wing government has been unexpectedly returned to office. Boris Johnson, Trump’s buddy in the UK, Boris Johnson, may win the leadership of the Conservative Party and become Prime Minister. Nigel Farage’s Brexit party, a neo-fascist outfit, is expected to win the UK-European Union elections. While these developments do not directly affect us, we cannot wholly eliminate potentially negative influences. They can lead todevelopments here by encouraging a hard line against the compromises that may be necessary to effect changes.
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.”
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.
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.
In the critical years of the 1970s and 1980s, three major issues engaged the attention of my political colleagues – restore democracy, advance social progress and avoid civil strife. We firmly believed that Guyana could make no progress unless full democracy through free and fair elections were restored. Our analysis was that it was the lack of internal democracy that was responsible for what we then saw as the failure of the economic reforms in the 1970s and 1980s to lead to economic and social progress. The PPP saw this and gave a lifeline to the PNC more than once. The most notable was the National Patriotic Front under which, after free and fair elections, the largest political party would take the prime ministership and the second largest the executive presidency. The PNC would not hear of it. Even if democracy had not been restored in 1992, developments in the world would have ensured that by today we would have been living in a democratic Guyana.
The victory of democracy in 1992 has resulted in substantial economic and social progress for Guyana. But this progress gave rise to other problems. The incipient problems of corruption and lack of transparency and accountability exploded, with little effort to resolve them. Also, the intractable issue of ethno-political domination was put aside because of the unremitting, and sometimes violent opposition of the PNC, as well as some degree of triumphalism within the PPP. Attempts to work through and resolve differences between the PPP government and Desmond Hoyte and later Robert Corbin failed. The PPP government was mainly responsible. When the real opportunity of embracing unity presented itself in 2011, the PPP did not even consider forming a coalition with APNU. The reticence today of both parties in embracing constitutional reform which would diminish the impact of ethno-politics is the next hurdle the Guyanese people have to overcome.