Thursday, 28 May 2015

National Unity in Guyana: the time has come

Seeing is believing

One had to allow it to sink in. To make up one’s own mind that despite the collective euphoria of Guyanese people at home and abroad that it was all real. It still feels surreal. And were it not for the blow by blow accounts of what was happening, particularly via social media we in the diaspora wouldn’t feel so connected, as though we were there. My cousin’s WhatsApp of our new President David Granger, leading the coalition that defeated the PPP/C came almost immediately after the official announcement, following a long wait for the results. The caption under his official, smiling face simply read: President. Another image was of the jointly raised hands of the African Guyanese President and the new Prime Minister, Indo-Guyanese Moses Nagamoottoo; together symbolising racial and national unity.

That bone of scepticism, the tendency to not fall easily in the line, but keep a relative critical distance, consider properly what it all really means have given way to the dreaminess of it all. Like most thinking Guyanese, who would honestly argue that the last 23 years under the PPP/C have been marred by ridiculous gangster style corruption, racism, nepotism, high unemployment, poor educational attainment and aspirations for young people, untold abuses of women (including that experienced by the former President Jagdeo’s wife, Varshnie Singh by the man himself) and most heinous of these the extra-judicial killings of over 400 Guyanese, most of them African young males, I join in the cheer.

It’s still not well known that Guyana’s land mass is the same size as the UK (England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales put together). Whilst this population is 64 million, the population of Guyana is circa 740,000 (we have a large diaspora residing in the US, UK, Canada). Again, that’s SEVEN HUNDRED and FORTY THOUSAND people in a country the size of the UK. With such a small population, for there to be over 400 murders in the past 23 years characterises the dark days now being overshadowed by the promise of change – and the reason for which many Guyanese feel they can exhale. This because those dark days were sanctioned by a government who threw funds at the GDF (Guyana Defence Force) to establish “Death Squads” bordering on the likeness of Haiti’s terrifying ton ton Macoutes to repress crimes, sinisterly in areas where Africans were predominant.


The link with Haiti doesn’t stop there. Like Haiti, Guyana is considered one of the poorest countries in the region (of Latin America and Caribbean). The somewhat misidentification as being ‘Caribbean’, and even ‘Latin America’ whereas it is in mainland South America positions Guyana in either what might be thought ‘unique’ or ‘confusing’ when it comes to identity. This ‘economic indicator’ as one of the world’s poorest countries always strikes a note of frustration and disgust, because Guyana has everything to make it an oasis of prosperity in said region, and one which can easily share its resources to develop the region. Rich in gold, bauxite, diamond, timber; able to export rice, sugar, fish; having one of the world’s largest single drop waterfall (Kaieteur); a well preserved rainforest make it possible for Guyana’s economic indicators to yield growth. Good governance and true vision would make this possible.

It’s not easy to have vision, though it’s inherent in political rhetoric. I recall during my first return visit to Guyana in 1994 being baffled by several things:
-low wages for workers
-observing at a Guyana expo the clean paddy-free rice bound for export compared to the gritty, dirty rice sold to resident Guyanese
-many roads had not changed much since I left (1980); plenty potholes from poor development, failure to recognise the might and abundance of the rains
-continuous black outs - used to not mind these for telling jumbie stories - but really, those stories could still be told by candlelight - with folk choosing to do so?
-no potable water and shortages in certain areas at certain time; water running red
-high cost of living – just buying a bag of groceries for a family was costly – luxury fruits like ‘ice apples’ (red apples we get here) cost much more than we’d pay here - didn't understand why they were promoting these so much anyway - and grapes!
- fattened foreign chicken imported and costing less than the local one - in fact the local version, naturally grown (organic you might say) was almost scorned.
-transport system that was a hideous hustle – a feeble attempt to nationalise this system that just didn’t work

Yet, fast forward 10 years, and then 20, things became much worse. Superficially, Guyana seemed to be ‘developing’ if we class new homes being built, traffic lights (even if cheaply bought and not so fit for purpose), new banks opening; the advent of eco-tourism in the country; a spate of new shopping malls (some of them fronts in truth); crazy amounts of imported cars – including a pseudo New-York style yellow taxi influx; that Mariott Hotel to compete with Pegasus, the big Casino and so on as ‘development’ and ‘progress.’ But this paint job didn’t hide the overriding poverty experienced by the masses of Guyanese. Already racially divided, over the years the Indo-Guyanese would appear to fair better than the second majority population of Africans in Guyana. But this too was superficial – blind allegiance to the ruling Indo-led government made it difficult for those Indo-Guyanese not able to splash out at splashmins every Sunday, eat out on the top level of New Thriving restaurant to see sense and acknowledge that they too were suffering. The native, Amerindian population would be given concessions - jobs in the city, for example, changing the dynamic I used to see when I returned the first time – for I now saw more Amerindians in security jobs. They appeared more ‘visible’ even though this was the same time that the once loved Timehri Airport (named as homage to the Amerindians under Forbes Burnham) was disrespectfully renamed Cheddi Jagan International Airport. But the ‘visibility’ of the Amerindians would also lend credit to the international acclamation bestowed on Bharrat Jagdeo by the United Nations. This article, titled – ‘Extra-Judicial Killings in Guyana: “Champion of the Earth” Presides over Death Squads’ sums up the bizarreness of this, ‘no matter how environmentally correct Jagdeo appears on the world stage, Champion of the Earth is no title for a man who heads one of the most corrupt and repressive regimes in the Caribbean and South America.’

Rising from the mare

It had seemed like the longest nightmare. Protests and demonstrations over the years seemed to fall on international deaf ears. It had become too familiar, too hopeless. Tensions were always high and peaked that year the previous government thought it made sense to cripple the African Guyanese community of Linden by raising electricity prices 70%. Naturally Lindeners said ‘hell no’ resulting in the killings on July 18, 2012 of three African men by the Guyana Police Force. The outcry of Guyanese at home and in the diaspora was immense. It was a domestic affair, that’s true and intervention by outsiders had to be certain the apparent accusations of state sanction killings were provable. In truth, intervention didn’t and wouldn’t come because what would be the interest, the benefits to the players, the world’s leading nations who oversee the affairs of every country in the world and intervene when they feel threatened by them or when they smell something to gain. But the people of Guyana and those outside who still adore their country persevered, wanted justice, had tired of the stupidness;expats wanted to go back home, if not for good, to do some good and exchange some of their earned skills in the hope of restoring Guyana to those days that I am too young to properly remember as being ‘golden.’ For it’s not easy to think there really were such dreamy days; of walks in the promenade gardens, the canals being unblocked and clean, the pavements being less burdened by sellers of all kinds of plastic wares along which lovers holding hands could stroll without the ‘rat poison’ guy and ‘check yoh body weight’ seller or the middle aged woman vendor of small packets of biscuits or anything she could get her hands on to earn her family’s crust; the sea wall being rid of the nastiest litter in a country whose president won an award for environmentalism.

One must arise from the nightmare and boldly believe in the dream. Or should we keep one eye open?

Following the election on May 11th and after nail biting four days of waiting for the results, it finally came. It took a coalition of previously opposing parties, including the former opposition Peoples’ National Congress Reform (PNC/R) and the Working Peoples’ Alliance (WPA) to marginally defeat the PPP/C. A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) and the Alliance for Change (AFC) won just 50.3% of the 412,000 votes cast. Incredible! It was the only strategy to get rid of the regime everyone (who were not motivated to side with them based on racial affinity alone) recognised as embarrassingly/blatantly corrupt. I must note that when I say everyone, it's troubling that despite the corruption this government clearly exercised, the support for them is incredible - and the present government barely defeated them.

Open spotlight

In my lifetime, I’ve not witnessed a more welcomed change of government in the country of my birth. I know it would have happened when Cheddi Jagan took power after the PNC’s reign ended in 1992. And in fairness, during those 23 years of PPP’s rule Jagan’s quality of leadership marks a distinction between then and what we came to know. As Nicholas Birns convincingly writes, ‘for a generation the PPP had attracted worldwide progressive sympathies.' This was because the party had been ‘eclipsed’ by two decades of Burnham’s regime. Though Burnham and Jagan had been former allies under the PPP’s historical national liberationist government, they became divided along racial lines; ‘as one of the few non-ideological antagonisms in Latin America and the Caribbean during the Cold War Epoch,’ according to Birns, with the suggestion that the end of the Cold War made his election victory possible (US and UK could ease up, not intervene as they had done in 1953). The world has changed considerably especially in relation to technology since 1992; back then there was no social media. Whether the coalition made use of the resource or whether this was just down to the widespread support and dissatisfaction with the outgoing government doesn’t matter. This is how the world saw the reception to the regime change in Guyana on May 16th when the former army general David Arthur Granger was sworn in as the 9th President of the Cooperative Republic of Guyana.

And he did something feel-good hours after his swearing in; or rather the thing was done and again paraded on social media. Images of a drive to clean up the city; black bags and cranes hauling muck from the filthy canals in Georgetown was a welcome sight. The message was clear, this government will renovate, restore, uplift, clean up and give the people a real fresh start.The people too, must be ready to do their part; with such a fragile margin of victory, and given that the country belongs to the people, the 'new look' and serious changes cant be left to the government alone.

Of course, the dreamer must believe in our new President when he says, 'the time has come to end winner-take-all politics, corruption, nepotism and the squandering of our resources.' What use is it to remain sceptical, like some doubting Thomas when Granger goes in hard and hits home those sweet sound-bites all Guyanese really want to hear; for they speak to the needs of the people, shows an empathy with their suffering. He does so with the high regard he has for the constitution, for democracy. That pretty wordy, 200 page document surely warrants another revisit, though, given the lawlessness and ‘disrespect’ that took place in the last four decades following independence. One example is that there has not been a locally held election since 1994, when these are supposed to be held every three years!

A ‘president for all the people,’ is the sentiment of the new leader. We agree that’s what’s needed; so maybe half open the other eye? He will be a president whose promises are the stuff of our long awaited Guyanese dreams for real, heading a ‘multi-racial inclusionary democracy’ as a way of stemming historical divisions. Open the eye more fully and believe it will really happen, that he will reverse the script of atrocities of ‘high crime rates, armed robbery, arson, rapes, road fatalities, murder, people trafficking, squandering of state resources on exorbitant but misconceived meta projects; high cost of living, high unemployment particularly among the youths,’ and the association with drug trafficking. What basis is there to disbelieve, especially when the man is of and for the people; and given the plausible and pragmatic broadcast to the world; the ‘clean’ image/record, the open declaration by this new President that Guyanese can look forward to ‘women working for living wages to cope with high cost of living, and elders receiving adequate pensions and being protected; where our young people can attain higher education standard and find satisfactory jobs when they leave school.’ Under his leadership we’ll see a new ‘society in which our women and girl children can look forward to living in safety and be protected from abuse and violent crime.’ And since none of us thinks it makes sense to have a corrupt opposition, either the PPP is disbanded, maybe after the successful indictment of Jagdeo and some of his gangster ministers for their crimes whilst in power – (he has been ordered not to leave the country until the trial now in swing is over) or it takes up Granger’s ‘extended arm of friendship and join the great movement for national unity.’

The new cabinet.
Right on time

The timing was perfect, as though somehow scripted. The President’s inauguration took place amidst a swell of national pride at the National Stadium on May 26th, the date of Guyana’s 49th year of independence. The rain didn’t stop anyone who had the will to make it to the stadium to witness this auspicious flag raising day; with all the pomp and ceremony befitting the occasion; celebrating and displaying Guyana’s stateliness, its ability to ‘dress it up!’ How timely, Divine Order, I hear my mum say, though she didn’t cry as I imagine many young and elder Guyanese have been doing the past few days. Here, in London, the usually well attended Guyana Folk Festival, probably saw a record high attendance on bank holiday Monday 25th May as the pride reached fever pitch. Local elections, in Guyana are promised to take place before our 50th year of independence. How much hotter can the energy get next year? What greater surge of emotion awaits Guyanese then? How can we remove the stench and blood stains and show that ours is no failed state after all; that economic growth is but a clear vision in the making on an enchanting horizon? Will we remember always to hold our leaders accountable; remind them of their promises for which we gave them permission to lead us, and take responsibility of enabling them to make good of what collectively we feel is right for the people and the country?

It’s an emotional moment, which can cloud judgement so I think it best that single eye stays slightly open. A tenuous statement by Nicholas Birns leaves me wondering what move our new President will make at an international level. Though the PPP has been chewing sour grapes and found it difficult to give up their long-held reign, Birns notes that as an opposition they might have something to contribute to Guyana on the world stage ‘as indicated with the relatively friendly relationship between (former) President Ramotar and Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro, which could help Guyana continue to be in proportional dialogue with both Venezuela and the United States’ (my italics). There’s something unsavoury about this. Is Guyana to be considered some bridge to foster relationship between these two rival states? Is this then the ‘good seat’ taken up by Granger? From a socialist perspective I see this as the curious interplay of forces for and against neo-colonialism. Venezuela, headquarters of ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the People of our Americas), and formerly led by the progressive Hugo Chavez is clearly anti neo-colonialism, and the capitalist US. Will Granger curb the geographical obscurity, the wayward economic indicators of Guyana by exploring opportunities with ALBA? Its members, include, Venezuela, Cuba, Antigua and Barbuda, Bolivia, Dominica, Equador, Nicaragua, Saint Lucia, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines; it was recently joined (in 2014) by Grenada and St Kitts and Nevis; Suriname is a guest member.

Joining ALBA, exploring how this ‘intergovernmental organisation working toward social, political and economic integration for Latin America and the Caribbean’ seems to me to make sense; if Guyana really means to take its ‘independence’ to a next level, that is. Will the new government regard this as a progressive move particularly given the existence of PetroCaribe, established by ALBA to offer ‘preferential oil trade between countries in the region’; and a television service, ‘TeleSur’ that, for obvious reasons aims to compete with US networks? Importantly, will the new government consider the possibilities of SUCRE (Unified System for Regional Compensation), a currency adopted by ALBA as an alternative to the US dollar for international trading?’ After all, what’s presently the value of the Guyanese Dollar? Clearly it’s too early to say, and I can’t pretend to know Granger and the new government’s broader politics. My cousin reminds me that though Granger's former role as Chief of Staff to the Guyana's Defence Force would bring needed discipline to Guyana, he'll face some serious obstacles during his term. These include the Guyana Sugar Corporation (Guysuco), bauxite, rice, timber industries, the health care system among many others. But he's there now, has the chance if he yields to vision.

So finally I trust these burdens rest on a man whose shoulders can handle it; I know the vision has to be more far reaching than those immediate promises, especially if Granger intends to maintain his popularity against determined opposers. For now, with my fellow Guyanese I say congratulations to the newly elected President of Guyana. You’ve given us the hope we needed right now and if those heartically expressed promises are not merely intended to romance the foolhardy you and your wisely selected ministers will have our continued blessings and support.

Shout Out

IMAGES courtesy of facebook posts.

Some links used

Guyana election BBC News: Ex-general David Granger wins Guyana election

Swearing in video of Granger; refer for citations from him in the above.

FCO Minister comments on Guyana election results

Nicholas Birns citations.

Results breakdown by region

Extra Judicial Killings in Guyana: “Champion of the Earth” Presides Over Death Squad Regime

Guyana constitution

A time to heal

About ALBA