The first elections under universal adult suffrage was held in British Guiana on April 27, 1953. It was won by the Peoples’ Progressive Party which had been formed in 1950 during an era of anti-colonial upsurge in the British Empire, particularly in South Africa, Malaya and Kenya. Cheddi Jagan had expressed solidarity with the anti-colonial struggles in these countries in his speech at the opening of the Legislative Assembly on June 17, 1953. Many at that time, and for the rest of his political career, would have preferred that he remain silent about the foreign domination and oppressed.
The government lasted until October 9, 1953, when the constitution was suspended and the government removed from office. The historical background and secret communications surrounding this traumatic event has been well researched and publicised. The Government held office at the sufferance of the British Government whose local representatives were merely watchful and cautious. But anti-communist agitation by leaders wedded to colonial privileges, perfidiously exploiting the hysterical atmosphere created by the Cold War, one of whose architects, Winston Churchill, was the Prime MInister, resulted in the suspension of the Constitution. History has already delivered its judgment on the events of 1953 and the leaders of the PPP, but profound and relevant lessons remain for the Guyanese people.
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.
Two Fridays ago a seminar on Constitutional Reform the Process, was held at the University of Guyana. The event, which was well attended, was organized by the Carter Centre and facilitated by the British High Commission. The PPP and a cross-section of civil society were represented, but conspicuously absent was any APNU or AFC party or Government representatives. The discourse focused on why there should be constitutional reform and the process by which it should be undertaken. The event was not intended to have a formal conclusion but to have Guyanese ownership.
Many ills of the society that needed redress were identified. There were concerns that elected officials were interfering in the democratic right to protest, of political intermeddling in Amerindian affairs, of the need for equity in the society, of implementing the existing provisions of the Constitution, of educating young people about the issues, and everything in between. The debate around the issues raised was lively and energetic. The fact that the audience remained attentive and engaged throughout the three-hour event suggested that there is much interest in constitutional reform and scope for more debate.
Three of the four dailies on Friday headlined the second oil find by ExxonMobil at a well called Payara-1. Past predictions about the presence of petroleum deposits in off-shore Guyana were confirmed when ExxonMobil’s announced its world class discovery, the largest for 2016, at its Liza well. If the Payara-1 turns out to be large, then the predictions of much greater deposits in the area could be accurate and much more oil could be found.
The amount of petroleum deposits that have already been found is enough to transform Guyana. But somehow Guyanese do not yet appear to be impressed. Casual conversations with Guyanese suggest that the cynicism that has developed from decades of promises based on Guyana’s agricultural potential, that Guyana could become the bread basket of the Caribbean and Guyana’s failure to take off economically, continues to exist. When told about the prospect of oil wealth for Guyana, and what it could mean for the future, many Guyanese are dismissive and unbelieving.
The truth is that Guyana would be transformed and we need to choose how. It would not happen overnight, of course, but by 2025 Guyanese would be feeling the impact of the oil income, which would continually increase. The Government appears to be making preparations to establish the legal framework and institutional mechanisms. There is no evidence that it is making any effort to reach out to the Opposition to build consensus from the earliest stage. If the Government wants political and national consensus going forward, it needs to start consultations with the Opposition early or face the possibility of a perennially contentious situation for our oil industry. Former Minister of Energy of Trinidad and Tobago, Kevin Ramnarine, speaking in Guyana recently, urged the establishment of a national oil and gas company to manage the oil industry, whose leadership should be insulated from politics. While this is easier said than done, it can be accomplished if the effort starts now.