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.”
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.
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.
February is African History Month originally designated to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas on February 12 and 14 respectively. It is noted and marked in Guyana.
The African people of Guyana have contributed the most, not only to making Guyana the habitable place that it is, but also to the historical narrative of revolutionary resistance to oppression that is now our common heritage. This heritage bequeathed by our ancestors from Africa has inspired Guyana’s quest for freedom and justice. While it is important to bring the story of Guyanese of African origin to public notice, as I have done in the case of Jack Gladstone and the pivotal role he played in the 1823 rebellion, there are many others from other countries who filled my teenage and early adult years and inspired me.
The basis of Guyana’s political outcomes has remained static for many decades. With deeply entrenched ethnic voting patterns, Indian Guyanese, originally constituting close to 50 percent of the population, would always have the upper hand. The two elections in 1957 and 1961 demonstrated to the African Guyanese political leadership that if it wanted political power, it would have to obtain it in coalition and later sustain it through electoral malpractice. And so, after the 1964 elections, in which the PPP obtained the plurality, the PNC and UF, together holding a majority of the seats in the parliament, formed a coalition government. The coalition ended in 1968 and the PNC resorted to electoral malpractice thereafter to maintain political power.
In 1957 the PNC merged with the United Democratic Party (UDP). The UDP, led by John Carter, a prominent lawyer of Mixed heritage, represented the interests of the Mixed and African middle and professional classes. At some point between 1973 and 1985 the support of these groups for the PNC started to wane. But it mostly returned with the election of Desmond Hoyte as President. These groups showed their electoral clout in 2006 when a section of it abandoned the PNC and supported the AFC. Many of these votes went back to the PNC after the election of David Granger as its leader, but it is believed that a significant number remained with the AFC. At the 2011 elections the APNU obtained 40.81 percent of the votes, much in line with its record in free and fair elections, and the AFC got 10.32. The AFC benefited from the loss of between 5 to 7 percent of its votes from previous elections. It obtained 48.60 percent.