Guest Column

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Is Race an Enigma to Guyana's Political System?
by Tony Jones

Posted June 16th. 2005

Since the People's Progressive Party/Civic ballot triumph in 1992, general elections that Western observers hailed as free and fair, political victimization and recrimination have become the modus operandi of an anti-democratic regime. For many Guyanese, life in this tiny South American country has turned out to be a petrifying experience. Racial intolerance now threatens social peace or the once fragile ethnic co-existence, and risks unraveling years of albeit racial harmony. Ethnic insecurity particularly for Afro-Guyanese is certainly a real dilemma.

According to Dr. Clive Thomas, general elections in Guyana could best be characterized as having come to mean the defeat of one race by the other and the victory of one race over the other. Since the PPP/Civic came to power there has been a marked increase of racial intolerance. Some self-serving political activists had deliberately exploited East Indian racial fears for their own personal aggrandizement.

In order to gain political traction these race-baiting agitators exacerbated the racial problem in the mid 90s, with a calculated plan of fomenting racial animosity among PPP/Civic supporters. While their efforts earned them marginal electoral success, the damage done to race relations in Guyana is immeasurable and could have dire consequences for future generations. The prevailing conditions make it difficult for critics to deny that the post PNC/Burnham era has emerged as a period of profound social inequity, economic paralysis, social degradation and political malaise with little hope of substantitive change.

In retrospect, external intervention apparently had a greater impact on the final outcome of the 1992 general elections than Guyanese were originally led to believe. Many international observers caught up in the elections euphoria, proclaimed that democracy had returned to Guyana without a thorough assessment of alleged widespread voting irregularities. The late Dr. Cheddi Jagan was praised as a champion of the working class and a leader who would restore economic prosperity and political stability to a disillusioned populace.

Contrary to campaign promises made by leaders of PPP/Civic, Guyana is rapidly becoming a totalitarian state. One that disregards the Rule of Law, violates human rights, dismisses parliamentary democracy, denies free speech and fervently resists political dissent. The current administration has succeeded in using politics-of-fear as its strategy to intimidate opposition groups. In the absence of full and complete debate, parliamentary proceedings are often conducted in a sinister manner, which renders opposition legislators as ineffective and frequently perceived as weak if not politically impotent.

In recent years, Guyanese at home and abroad have witnessed a regime that has provided ineffective governance and displayed contempt for public accountability. For the most part these sordid deficiencies have been manifested in deteriorating infrastructures, massive corruption, dilapidated institutions and pervasive public lawlessness. It seems many citizens are resigned to a life of despondency, engendered by prolonged poverty, and regrettably are obliged to survive in a country predominated by ethnic indifference.

Since Burnham's unexpected death in 1985, this country once touted as the food-basket of the Caribbean, which gained its independence from Great Britain in 1966, has been in a perpetual state of decline. Except for a brief period in the early 1990s, the economy has remained virtually unimpressive much to the frustration and indignation of many citizens looking for productive employment and a better quality of life. Even more disturbing is the complete collapse of the social fabric of this once proud nation.

The horrendous societal transformation is very disconcerting because it once again allows racial enmity to surface, rekindling memories of the 60s, when racial tensions escalated and spiraled out of control. Between 1962 and 1964, widespread race riots claimed more than 176 innocent lives, 920 injured persons, 1,400 homes destroyed by fire, and about 15,000 persons forced to move their houses to settle in more secured ethnic communities or comfort zones.

It is important to note that while there has not been a repeat of violence on such a broad scale, the psychological scars of the 1960s had concretized the country's racial and political divide. However, unlike that period of bloodshed and chaos, the present deplorable conditions are enmeshed with discrimination and attempts to dehumanize Afro-Guyanese who make up about 35 percent of the population.

It appears the PPP/Civic government has become emboldened by a PNC/R that is in disarray and lacking a succinct plan or strategy to be a genuine alternative for the electorate. Moreover, the current administration bolstered by inept opposition parties has manipulated public institutions to solidify socio-political and economic dominance for specific constituents and regions of the country. A harsh reminder of the racial injustice and social inequality, which helped polarize the nation prior to the attainment of Independence in May 1966.

Many Indo-Guyanese now openly advocate establishing a cultural of life analogous to the majority race, while others advocate partition. If proponents with such constricted mind-set were allowed to prevail what would become of the widely regurgitated claims of Guyana having six racial groups. In any pluralistic society, differences should be encouraged and allowed to flourish not eliminated or dismissed as irrelevant

RACE AND POLITICS

According to Mr. Duncan Sandy, the British Secretary of State for the Colonies, 'the root cause of British Guiana's troubles lay in the development of political parties along racial lines'. His recommendation to Guyanese political leaders (1962 London Constitutional Conference) was to form political groupings along multi-racial lines. He also determined that a system of proportional representation be used, and set the voting age at twenty-one. By acceding to the PNC and the United Force (UF) demands, Dr. Jagan, leader of the Peoples Progressive Party (PPP) was denied his proposals among others-single-member constituencies and voting at eighteen. By setting the voting age at twenty-one the British Government, made it more difficult for the PPP to win any pre-Independence Elections along racial lines.

However, for many years Guyanese politicians have deliberately used and succeeded in being elected to office by making race a primary determinant for electing public officials/governments. During the 1957 election campaign the late Dr. Cheddi Jagan, introduced race with the now infamous slogan 'apanjaht', a Hindi word meaning 'support your own race'. The injection of race in Guyana's body politik has been and continues to be a major problem. As long as citizens find it appropriate to vote along racial lines, rather than the policies and programs of political parties, Guyana's destiny will remain imperiled.

Since the PPP/Civic surprising ascendance to power, racial intolerance has reached unprecedented heights. It is excruciating to contemplate the future of young Afro-Guyanese citizens, as their prospects for gainful employment quickly dissipates. Prior to 1992 this was something many supporters of the PNC did not have to be concerned about. With political power, adherents with little or no experience or qualifications benefited from patronage positions and political appointments through nepotism.

Ironically, East Indians also benefited in a similar manner under PPP governments. Perhaps this should not come as a complete surprise because from 1957 to 1961, East Indians were promised and given opportunities for advancement. Educated Indians understood that a PPP government would enable them to be nominated to the Public Service Commission and therefore be in a position to make appointments to the civil service. East Indians, who aspired to become teachers, realized their dreams when Jagan's government took over denominational schools and threatened to abolish the system of dual control of schools. During that same period Indian rice farmers were recipients of over 90,000 acres of new land as well as extensive agricultural credit. Indo-Guyanese merchants also profited from new markets in Western Europe, which were made accessible to them during Jagan's tenure. Paradoxically, because many if not all East Indian businesses were allowed to flourish unimpeded for several decades, they amassed enormous wealth and political influence under PNC governments.

Unlike the PPP strategy to dominate private sector businesses with person of their ilk, the PNC governments failed to recognize the importance of, or refused to place greater emphasis on Afro-Guyanese entrepreneurship. By failing to adequately assist their supporters to compete with and or diminish Indian owned businesses, Afro-Guyanese now face the daunting task of surviving in a society without economic or political control. Without significant power the PNC will be incapable of making an impact or even change the present course, which this regime has embarked upon. The resultant effect is total dominance by East Indians in every facet of Guyanese life-Political, social, economic and judicial, all of which have been consolidated if not vastly expanded by virtue of wining the crucial 1992 elections.

POLITICAL MATURITY

If Guyana is to overcome the blight of racial politics that has plagued this country's political system, Guyanese must recognize the importance of national unity. Despite the rhetoric of those who would have us believe that Guyana's multi-racial society is best advanced by the majority race dominating every sphere of life, history would show that racial segregation is a recipe for disaster. There are many countries where minority groups have entrenched rights and legal protections to preserve their culture. The demographic of Trinidad and Tobago affirms that two ethnic groups can co-exist even with the Prime Minister being a member of the minority group. Canada's protection of its French-speaking minority is another positive example of respect for cultural minorities and the pre-eminence of national unity. Guyana's recent history has proved that citizens could unite despite racial or political dissimilarities, when confronted with national crises.

This was aptly demonstrated during the Rupununi Up-rising, and when Venezuela invaded and has still occupied the eastern half of Ankoko, an island in the Cuyuni River. During those difficult times Guyanese everywhere had coalesced as 'ONE PEOPLE ONE NATION ONE DESTINY'. Again, it is difficult to dismiss as irrelevant the display of patriotism and national pride when Guyanese around the world witnessed the lowering of the Union Jack at midnight on May 25, 1966 and the raising of Guyana's national flag-the Golden Arrowhead.

It is fallacious to suggest that Guyanese of all racial backgrounds and political affiliation did not stand side-by-side in 1970 as the Burnham government announced to a jubilant crowd at the National Park, its commitment to nationalize the Demerara Bauxite Company, a subsidiary of the Canadian based multinational corporation, Alcan. Neither can critics turn a blind eye to public events when Guyanese celebrate together embracing every conceivable national symbol.

What is needed more than ever before is political maturity, rooted in our common desire to make Guyana once again the beacon of hope and opportunity in the Caribbean and beyond. Afro-Guyanese must acknowledge that as a collective, they have lost the proverbial battle-of-minds to fashion or chart a course of civil affairs in Guyana. If and when this realization is accepted then all necessary steps should be taken to re-empower supporters for retrieving socio-political and economic power in full or in part.

Afro-Guyanese can take solace from Bob Marley's lyrics, 'you never know yo strength till yo back is against the wall,' and 'you never miss the water till the well runs dry.' But until and unless PNC supporters could fully comprehend the enormity of having 28 years of political governance, Black people will continue to make colossal mistakes like their forefathers Cuffy, Accabre and Atta (1763 Berbice Slave Uprising).

Those who failed to understand the importance of hard work and sacrifice and now experience the humiliation and indignity of being treated in a manner less befitting the human race, might reflect or ponder over Burnham's pleas for self reliant and self-sufficient. It would be inappropriate for Afro-Guyanese to blame anyone but themselves for their present appalling conditions. While the PNC was in power, attempts to create an egalitarian society permitted supporter's unfettered access to all fields of endeavor they wanted to pursue. Those who comported themselves well obtained ample technical and professional skills: education and financial security, which have allowed them to cope with the existing austere conditions.

The people that are suffering or complaining because of their deplorable circumstances must blame themselves. Afro-Guyanese who took advantage of the PNC benevolence and squandered those opportunities or others who failed to accept the charity cannot accuse the PNC government or the East Indians. Individuals that lacked personal responsibility must accept the consequences of their poor decision-making.

Another problematic area of concern relates to the intra racial struggles within both major ethnic groups. These should be expected as the political dynamics continue to unfold and psychological adjustments take root. It should not surprise anyone when East Indians revel in their newfound dominant position or exude confidence and openness to reach out to Afro-Guyanese. Such attempts and the reactions should be determined not merely as accepting possible overtures but indicative of the new political status of Indians. Probably, such efforts might have already commenced in some quarters but when observed irrespective of the form or substance, could reflect an apparent desire to mend if not begin the process of political healing.

On the other hand it is likely that some Indo-Guyanese might be prepared to assert their power in a more aggressive way. At times some may retort, 'we run things now so all non-Indians must comply with our whims and fancies'. Perhaps it is not inconceivable to encounter incidences of retaliation whether subtle or deliberate as a means of settling old scores. Such actions may be designed to instill in the minds of Afro-Guyanese, that their role from hence is that of being subservient to East Indians.

It should not be overlooked that Indo-Guyanese are still firm adherents of the current regime and have always felt neglected by PNC governments. There is no justifiable reason for them to voluntarily undermine their dominant role by relinquishing power to the PNC. Because the PPP was in the political-wilderness for 28 long years, Afro-Guyanese should anticipate and adjust to being in a subservient situation for many years to come. Any attempts at regaining political power would require the PNC to become more relevant and attractive to East Indian voters.

The government must be proactive in combating racial injustice and become sensitive to the overall well being of disadvantaged citizens. Every effort must be made to marginalized groups and individuals that engage in racial politics. Detractors of national unity that propagate partition as a panacea for Guyana's ills should be exposed and reviled as anti-patriotic. Politicians of all persuasions must vehemently condemn provocateurs and extremists on both sides of the political spectrum before more damage is done to secure long lasting racial peace.

The road to economic emancipation and political tranquility are inextricably linked to racial harmony. For nation building to succeed it will require unity of purpose and Guyanese working assiduously in race neutral society.

There is nothing incongruous in being a unitary or federal state and preserving the customs, traditions and culture of minority groups, for many constitutional and parliamentary systems around the world have embraced these fundamental human rights of minorities.