I’ve always had mixed emotions when I think about our “independence”. I am old enough to have experienced firsthand the violent wrenching apart of our peoples that preceded this supposedly blessed state and left it in quotation marks for me ever since.
I was in short-pants as the police fired tear gas to clear “peaceful protesters” squatting on my primary school’s steps at Uitvlugt during the 80-day strike of 1962.
It was an open secret, known even by schoolboys, that the British and the US wanted the PPP out and that the independence that was to come to Trinidad that year should have then been ours also.
By 1963 we had three schools in the three sections of my village as the madness continued – mainly in Georgetown – but I remember collecting paper “axes” at a UF Rally as they excoriated the “communist PPP” and demanded that the latter should “axe the tax”.
Then, of course, there was the denouement of 1964, as Cheddi (as even schoolboys referred to him) made one last-ditch, eventually futile, attempt to reverse a history written (and funded) by “the best and brightest” of the West. 1964 saw ethnic cleansing in our country even before the term was invented. We became more segregated than South Africa.
Even then, I had my doubts that “independence” could deliver us to the promised land of economic development and political equality, which the politicians had promised could be ours once the “white man” was gone.
It didn’t strike me as likely given the deepening divisions that I experienced all around me every day in every activity – whether in school or in the wider world. Everything was defined as “us” and “them”.
I found the announced “national” motto “One Nation, One People, One Destiny” rather ironic – even as an aspiration, given the continued opportunistic ethnically centred politics. The rigging of the 1968 elections deepened my scepticism.
We were attempting to achieve an end-state in Guyana that our model – Britain, Europe and the US had achieved only after undergoing, sequentially over many centuries, three massive macro-societal revolutions – centred on national identity, political participation and economic distribution.
That we had inherited a state and not a nation was supposed to be solved by a “motto”.
England and the other European states had honed a “national” outlook in their peoples after centuries of often brutal persecutions, inquisitions and pogroms that suppressed expressions of differences.
These methods were rightfully rejected by the time of our independence and it ought not to surprise many that the lack of a ‘national” will has proven to be our Achilles heel in our quest for “development”.
What has been surprising is the stubborn refusal by our elites, even in the present when it has been demonstrated even in our putative models that suppressed identities cannot be obliterated and must be given expression.
Our politicians, steeped in Marxist-Leninist lore, defined us as homo economicus and concentrated on “economic” development as if that could be disjunctured from the need for identity and group worth.
The strand of thought that suggested that “man does not live by bread alone” was derided as “backward”. Eusi Kwayana became a voice in the wilderness, when he raised concerns about race and identity.
The present crop of politicians has hardly progressed on this issue. What has also been surprising is that these politicians expect us to act as ‘one people’ when in their mobilisation initiatives, they plunge into activities that exacerbate the divide and even spill over into open hostilities.
The opposition could not join cane workers protesting against the government in Berbice but prefer to raise old fears by breaking barricades to march in Regent Street.
How were we expected to pull together directly after independence after the ethnically directed violence and ethnic cleansings of the early sixties?
How were we expected to pursue common goals after rigged elections disenfranchised half of the population after 1968?
How could we chart a common course when “kick down the door bandits” were allowed to engage in ethnically directed depredations for over a decade in the late seventies and eighties?
And in the last decade, how can we come together when ethnically directed violence by criminals and state-backed private contractors have created a killing field on the East Coast of Demerara?
It is the actions and reactions of our politicians that continue to direct our differences down destructive paths.
The divide and rule policies of the colonial powers had ensured that the various ethnic groups were differentially incorporated into the power relations of the society and this led to the earliest struggle to determine which group would capture power (that’s how the independence movement was seen) with the departure of the British.
There was never any “struggle” for independence – just the struggle for accession to office.
The ethnic balance in the PPP of 1950-1953 was quickly torn asunder by ethnic fears.
This differential incorporation has never been satisfactorily addressed and continues to drive our political competition as each group struggles within the rules of the political system, to take the reins of power, which most see as a prerequisite for economic security, and also as an end in itself.
That the political system we inherited was possibly inappropriate to our circumstances given our lack of cohesion as opposed to that of the bequeathing state – Britain – was also ignored. The Westminster majoritarian form of democracy was practiced within the framework of Liberalism, with institutions developed over the centuries to deal with British contingencies.
When the absence of those mitigating institutions exposed the dilemmas that such a political system can deliver because of our ethnic, non-homogenous population, we callously ignored (and still ignore) them. This was partly because the majoritarian model had been applied into an ex-colony that had been ruled by authoritarian methods from its inception and the governments (both PNC and PPP) after independence preferred this form of rule.
After all, destinies had to be ‘moulded” as the economic revolutions were sought to be achieved through “radical” methodologies such as “co-operativism” or other variants of Marxism.
The national and political and revolutions were defined away under the new dispensations.
After all, when elections are rigged, who can object when it is shown that the “western” view of political rights is no more than “bourgeois” piffle? Mr. Burnham simply took this type of thinking to its totalitarian extreme.
But we never received the promised benefits of the economic revolution and with the increased compilation and circulation of economic statistics since independence, it becomes apparent even quicker when economic development is not equitably distributed, ethnically or otherwise, and by what manner that has been done.
In Guyana, during the PNC regime, Indians could point to such statistics to buttress their claims of being discriminated against.
That, more than anything, fuelled their resentment against the PNC and led to heightened tensions from their perspective.
With the installation of the PPP/C, from 1992 there has been just as persistent cries from the African Guyanese segment that they are being “marginalized”.
While the figures do show that there is no correlation between ethnicity and economic standing (with the notable exception of the Amerindians) they ignore the role of identity and the “national question” in the equation. And we have arrived at the full circle to “independence”.
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