Guyana’s development is being stymied by disunity
In a recent interview Dr. George Norton, (“Indigenous people could hold the ‘swing vote’ in next election – Norton:” SN: 12/09/10), raised a number of important issues, some of which demand further elucidation.
There is no doubt that Indigenous people are the most deprived of our peoples and I agree that it is urgent that they put “themselves in a position where they can call the shots.” All governments have made Indigenous developmental interventions, but the mere fact that persons could still argue that Amerindians are no better off today than they were 20 years ago (“Amerindians are not better off today:” SN: 15/09/10), is an indication that widespread poverty is still prevalent.
As I have indicated before (“Amerindians need to develop their specific political organisation and agenda:” SN: 11/09/09) I believe that this situation persists because, except for a brief period during the late 1950s early 1960s, the indigenous people were not considered a core constituency of any of the political parties/individuals seeking office. Indeed, I venture to say that the activities of the United Force during the above period, though that party became mired in the geopolitical struggle against communism, are indicative of the kind of leverage Amerindians could now have if they are mobilized in their own interest.
In colonial times a paternalistic/protective but still exploitative veil was cast over Amerindian communities. During the PNC regime, votes and voting were more or less irrelevant for all sections of the population. The first PPP/C regimes could depend essentially on the Indian vote but with the decline in that, indigenous support will be critical in the 2011 general elections. However, given the bifurcated nature of our society, this opportunity is likely to be transitory: consider the following scenarios.
If the PPP/C, with the support of the indigenous people is able to win the next elections, the status quo will remain and this will do nothing to remove Amerindian marginalisation nor ease Afro-Guyanese alienation and the present conflictual/debilitating conditions will continue and perhaps even become worse. Secondly, as already been noted in some quarters (“Lack of unity by the AFC will be their downfall:” Kaieteur News: 13/09/10), some members of the AFC may be harbouring the ambition of holding a balancing position after the next elections. Of course, unless the AFC is able to win a large amount of the core support of either the PPP/C or the PNCR (this appears mere wishful thinking at this stage), an alliance with it by any of the major parties will not ease communal disassociation and the result will be continued Amerindian marginalisation, national stagnation and possibly decline.
Thirdly, normally politicians and their parties want to provide for their people: they want to be successful and to be praised. In our ethnically polarized society, any arrangement that excludes the PPP/C or the PNCR will lead to the kind of ethnic mobilisation that has been so disruptive of the development process. Therefore, if after the elections the PPP/C needs a coalition partner it might most likely turn to the PNCR and vice-versa. A PPP/C-PNCR arrangement would provide the necessary developmental space but the possible negative impact upon our democratic process should not be overlooked. Here again, Amerindian interest will be marginalised but all is not lost.
It is now widely accepted, that Guyana’s development is being stymied by disunity as a result of the ethnic division in our society. Notwithstanding our abundant resources, sensible people and the promise of the Hoyte and early PPP/C years, today we remain the second poorest country in the CARICOM region and this is felt at every level of our society.
Others and I have argued that what stands in our way is this disunity, rooted as it is in ethnic insecurity and that it could only be sufficiently mitigated by way of constitutional reform that allows all groups to participate equitably in the management of our country. Since the ruling party is at present most unlikely to acquiesce to the required changes, efforts must be made to attempt to win the next elections.
Given the present political configuration, this will require a national partnership of all opposition forces, and more specifically the support of the indigenous people, who should use this opportunity to institutionalise policies to end their marginalisation in the politics, management and the allocative arrangements of the country.
That said, in the current national discourse about political alignment we hear, for example, of the right of all Guyanese to become president regardless of race; the need to choose candidates based on their competence; our duty to eschew racial patterns of voting and the tendency of mendicancy in the political process. Idealised, these are worthy objectives that the vast majority of us will support, but to be useful in our political context, they must be nuanced.
Firstly, it is partly because of our public advocacy of these “higher moral values” that political mobilisation in Guyana takes place at the universal and particularistic levels. Few national politicians will publicly acclaim racial voting but as we all know, the message is quite different at the bottom houses. So accustomed are we to this that it is now viewed as a tactic which makes no difference as to how people cast their votes.
I recognise the conundrum here: of necessity, national leaders and all of us need to speak against all explications of racism if it is to be reduced and finally expunged!
Secondly, if I were Mr. Norton, I would go easy on the charges of Indigenous mendicancy. Before national mobilisation by the PPP in 1953, a similar level of mendicancy existed on the coast. Votes were routinely bought and sold by those who wanted them and those who had them. With the introduction of universal adult suffrage these efforts continued on a broader scale. After the suspension of the constitution in 1953, the interim government still sought to bribe voters from the PPP and Jagan, but as I wrote in a 1986 book: “Jagan’s supporters in the rural areas were major beneficiaries of the regime’s attempt to bribe them away from the PPP but the attempt had the reverse effect as people came to realise that it was the very existence of the PPP which made such bounty possible” (Guyana: Politics, Economics, Society: Colin Baber & Henry Jeffrey). Once the Indigenous people become conscious of their real interest, what has been identified as mendicancy will gradually abate. Indeed, the challenge for any national partnership is to provide a dynamic vision that will facilitate this process.
Finally, most political parties are formed around some basic positions and all other issues (programme details, nature of the candidates etc.) are for the dialectical melting pot that focuses on winning power. In our context, the race and competence of any individual are melting pot issues. We should seek the most competent possible winning candidate but not the most competent person if that person is likely to lose – unless by “competence” we include the capacity to win.
Mr. Norton said that in his estimation, the majority of Amerindians now support the PPP/C and I have argued that this is not in the long term interest of the Amerindian people. Simply put (in Marxist terminology), if the indigenous people do not soon begin a serious transition from being a people in themselves to being one for themselves, their road towards equitable development will be long and arduous!
Henry B. Jeffrey