Today is Independence Day in Guyana. It has been just over four and one half decades since Guyana attained its instruments of independence from Great Britain.
But despite gaining our independence we were still tied to England, the last nation to colonize us. Forty six years later most of our trade is with Europe. We are in fact so dependent on Europe that when a few years ago that continent decided to the slash the price it paid for sugar, Guyana bawled like a baby, bemoaning the loss of revenue and predicting difficult times for the sugar industry.
In the eighties, mismanagement led to problems in the sugar industry. Faced with a crisis, the then government took a decision to invite back a British firm to manage the sugar industry. And around the same time, foreign companies took control of the bauxite industry which had been nationalized with great fanfare.
Guyana ended up mismanaging both the sugar and bauxite industries to the point that today without foreign support these industries will collapse. Yesterday, the government graciously accepted billions of dollars in support provided by the very people who cut the sugar prices.
During the fight for Independence, the British were reviled. They were accused of all manner of things. Yet in the early days after Independence, Guyana found comfort operating with a Westminster political system.
Then suddenly there was an aborted uprising in Trinidad which sent shivers down the spine of Guyana’s leaders. It was then they realized that the system of foreign ownership of the commanding heights of the economy was not bringing benefits to the average man. It was a Eureka moment. The then government decided that it was time to change direction. It turned left.
It began by signaling the nationalization of the commanding heights. But under relentless pressure from the Americans, it ended having to pay for the nationalization of the bauxite industry. And this was after the foreign owners had de-capitalized the industry and moved significant assets out of the country.
The then government forgot that the system of cooperative socialism that was being experimented with required a political system other than the Westminster system. In 1980, it tinkered with the system by creating an executive presidency but retained all the features of Westminsterism. With Independence came an even closer attachment to the trappings of the former colonial order.
True we did attempt to make shirtjacs the national dress. Today when the president dresses simply he is criticized for not donning a suit and tie in a country where even on a rainy day the temperature does not drop below a high of 30 degrees Celsius.
It was decided under this hazy system of cooperative socialism where cooperatives never made any impact that it was time for another big announcement, another big plan: the country would grant free education from nursery to university.
The result was a virtual collapse of the education system. Many students being forced to accept a substandard secondary education and others having to attend primary tops since there were insufficient places in the secondary school system. The price for increased access to certain levels of education was an overall reduction in the high standards left by the British.
Socialist education was supposed to create the new man. The new man emerged in the form of suitcase traders rescuing the economy by travelling to other countries to get goods that were in short supply; teachers having to sell sugar cakes and fudge in order to make ends meet and a huge migration of the middle class, ironically to non-socialist countries.
While all of these changes were taking place, the school year was still based on the British system, breaking for summer and Christmas as is the case in England. It still is.
The winds of change also affected the health system with Guyana attaining the notorious distinction of having to temporarily close down the main operating theater at its main hospital because of its insanitary condition. Without the help of international organizations which the socialists liked to describe as “imperialists” the entire system would have collapsed.
The courts somehow avoided the rot. The courts were supposed to be, like in England, independent. But one day somebody had the idea that the flag of the ruling party should fly over the Court of Appeal, signaling that state institutions were to become under this new system, subservient to the government of the day.
Twenty years after independence, Guyana found itself bankrupt and heavily indebted. Things were not slowly falling apart. They had fallen apart. Foreign credit was evaporating. The country was marking time, like it did in 1953.
In the early eighties after having condemned the IMF and World Bank as imperialists, a decision was taken to engage these two institutions for a bailout. But when shown the prescription and having seen what this medicine did in Jamaica, the remedy was rejected.
By 1987, the socialist government found itself cornered at home and isolated from both sides of the ideological divide. With the economy grinding to a halt, the socialist government suddenly found faith with the IMF and World Bank and swung from left to right.
In 1992, the Guyanese people through free and fair elections put an end to their misery by electing a new government after years of being denied this right because of rigged elections.
The new ruling party raised fears in the West. It had strong ties to the communist parties that ran the Soviet Union and Cuba and had never hidden its admiration for socialism. But on the eve of elections, it announced boldly, and without explanation, that the building of socialism was no longer on the cards.
Today, the ruling class is the capitalist class and the ruling party is in bed with this class. Those who caused the British to suspend the constitution in 1953 and the Americans to destabilize its government in the sixties are now sleeping with the local capitalist class. It is this class that is calling the shots.
In the meantime, the ruling party refuses to formally abridge references of Marxism- Leninism from its constitution and enthusiastically waves around statements by the IMF and World Bank praising its management of the economy. Nothing is heard of the Socialist Internationale.