– Talks up anti-corruption fight, fair governance
(This is the final in a series of articles featuring presidential candidates of the main parties heading into this year’s general elections. This week, Donald Ramotar of the ruling People’s Progressive Party discusses his campaign messages, fighting corruption, and how the PPP will manage an elections without the Jagans for the first time in its history)
By Neil Marks
A political heavyweight buoyed by what he sees as the ruling party’s stellar record of economic and social recovery over the past 19 years, together with the experience of outgoing President Bharrat Jagdeo which he plans to tap into, Donald Ramotar insists he is ready to hit the campaign trail and ensure the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) chalks up its fifth consecutive victory at the polls this year.
And according to him, he is doing so confident of the leadings of the spirit of the Jagans, who founded the party the very year he was born.
Ramotar’s transition to become General Secretary of the PPP, with the death of the party’s founder President Cheddi Jagan in 1997, was not an easy task, and neither was his selection to be the Presidential Candidate of his party.
When the others who were contesting the nomination gave up in the end, Ramotar received the unanimous vote in a decision the party said reflected its “leadership commitment to maintaining Party unity, continuing progress in Guyana and building stronger unity at all levels of the Guyanese nation.”
His own acknowledgement that the road to the elections will not be easy has already seen him urging the party faithful not to see it as an idle race, but one that would entail hard work – a job that he himself is prepared to do in order to sit at the Presidential Complex in New Garden Street.
Ramotar is no ordinary politician, having spent almost five decades in the PPP. You could almost say he was born a politician, with the PPP running through his veins.
Ramotar, whose middle name is Rabindranauth, was born at Caria Caria, a community along the Essequibo River that was supposedly first inhabited by the Amerindians but saw the infiltration of African slaves.
It is believed to have once been a cotton plantation. Ramotar’s father, Sam Ramotar, had moved to the village to help his brother run a timber grant and shop that served the community. There, the senior Ramotar fell in love with Olive Constantine, whose parents were of African and Amerindian lineage.
Donald was born to Sam and Olive Ramotar on October 22, 1950, the same year that the PPP was formed as the first mass-based political party in British Guiana, with Dr Cheddi Jagan, his American-born wife Janet, and the charismatic Forbes Burnham at the helm.
Ramotar’s father loved politics and would tune his radio to the BBC to follow developments around the world.
In 1955, the PPP split along ethnic lines, with Jagan attracting mass support of East Indians and Burnham, Africans.
Ramotar’s father was a staunch supporter of the PPP under Jagan, and in time, as he attended the Caria Caria Congregational School, the Jagans and other heavyweights like Boysie Ramkarran and Brindley Benn, stayed at their home and kept political meetings.
When the PPP started publishing the Mirror newspaper, young Donald would go along with his father by boat to pick up copies of the newspaper on the island of Wakenaam.
He would read those newspapers, and particularly enjoyed the “Straight Talk” column written by Dr Jagan. He liked it for the simple language and the conviction with which Dr Jagan wrote.
Ramotar’s earliest memory of elections in Guyana was 1961. He remembers it easily because those elections were held on the eve of the birth of his last sister, Deborah.
The young Ramotar started campaigning for the PPP in 1964, when he was yet still too young to vote, distributing leaflets and other paraphernalia for the PPP around Caria Caria and on the Essequibo Islands with his father.
Caria Caria wasn’t a PPP village. In the elections of 1961 and 1964, the majority of the votes went to the United Force.
When it became apparent to his father that proper schooling would be a problem at Caria Caria, Ramotar was sent to live with his friends Harry Hansraj and Alma Perreira in Georgetown. As a result, Donald Ramotar grew up in Princes Street, Wortmanville, and attended St Andrews Kirk, located opposite the Parliament Buildings.
After completing high school, Ramotar moved on to the Government Technical Institute (GTI). It was there that he took note of Deolatchmee, a young girl from Huist T’Dieren.
He tried to “tackle” the beautiful lass, who was studying “commercial” at the institute, but she “played basgar,” shrugging off his amorous intentions.
By this time, Ramotar had already joined the PPP. He had come to Georgetown in 1966, and joined the party the following year, getting involved in the Campbellville Group of which Harrynarine Nawbatt, now High Commissioner to Canada, was Secretary.
Ramotar campaigned for the PPP in the local government elections of 1970, and served as polling agent for the party even though he was not yet 21 and therefore not eligible to vote.
Following the elections of 1968, when he says the elections started to be rigged under Burnham, it had become clear the voter’s list was padded. His job included going from house to house to determine who eligible electors were.
The most glaring evidence of non-existent persons on the voters’ list, were those who were listed as “seaman.”
“Looking back, I guess the PNC listed them as seamen so when we went to the addresses, the excuse for them not being there was that they were out at sea,” he laughs.
Later, Ramotar participated in educational programmes of the party and was sent to the Soviet Union in 1972-1973 to study political science.
When he returned to Guyana, he got involved in party work. It was a trip to Bartica on PPP business that made him come into contact again with the young woman he was attracted to at the GTI.
He met Deolatchmee on the ferry back from Bartica and the two of them later struck up a serious relationship. They duly got married in 1974. Their union produced two boys – Alexei and Alvaro – and a girl, Lisaveta, named for a character in an Alexander Puskin novel he had read.
As time passed, Ramotar moved up in the ranks of the PPP by sheer recognition of the fact that he worked tirelessly on the ground.
Between 1966 and 1975 he worked at GIMPEX, the commercial arm of the PPP. In 1975 he was appointed Manager of Freedom House, a position that he held for eight years. From 1983 to 1988, he served as a member of the Editorial Council of the magazine ‘Problems of Peace and Socialism’ and as the International Secretary of the Guyana Agricultural Workers’ Union (GAWU) between 1988 and 1993.
Ramotar has been in the leadership of the party since 1979 when he was elected to the Central Committee. He became a member of the Executive Committee of the PPP in 1983 and assumed the position of Executive Secretary of the party one year after the PPP was restored to office in 1992.
He has personal reasons for not accepting a job in the PPP government after those historic 1992 elections – an election that, for Ramotar, was a roller-coaster.
He had gone through a series of elections widely regarded as having been rigged, but the concessions that were being made by President Desmond Hoyte in the run-up to the elections, along with mounting international solidarity with the cause for free and fair elections, gave hope of a PPP victory.
For Ramotar, the greatest glimmer of hope of victory came when Hoyte agreed that votes would be counted at the place of poll, even though he had previously said doing that would be impossible, “a logistical nightmare.”
But even with that, and the elections being delayed by two years, Ramotar and others still felt that the PNC was taking time to devise new means of rigging the elections.
Ramotar was sent to Bartica with another colleague to oversee the proceedings there. It was a busy period for Ramotar, and his real chance to savour the victory was four days after the October 5 elections when he was called out of Bartica to attend the inauguration ceremony.
With Cheddi Jagan president, and attempting to spur economic and social development, Ramotar continued his political work and continued studies at the University of Guyana, where he eventually graduated with a degree in economics.
When the elections were held in 1997 and he became General Secretary during one of the testiest periods in the country’s political life – when Dr Jagan’s American-born widow ran for the presidency – no one thought of posting Ramotar anywhere else than managing the affairs of Freedom House.
He has represented the party on numerous occasions overseas and published a number of articles and is a regular columnist for the Mirror newspaper.
He was also a member of the ACP-EU Joint Parliamentary Assembly and a Bureau member of that organisation and a serving member of the National Assembly since 1992 and has also served on several Corporate Boards.
“The Spirit of the Jagans”
Ramotar, as was mentioned earlier, is leading the PPP to the polls with the absence of the Jagans for the first time. Mrs Jagan’s death in March 2009 left the party without its matriarchal figure who guided the party after the death of her husband.
However, the ideals of the Jagans are so indoctrinated in the minds of Ramotar and the PPP membership, that he rests assured of their guidance yet still after their deaths.
“I don’t think the Jagans are totally absent. I think they have made such an impact in the life of this country and the party that I think the spirit of the Jagans will definitely be part of this campaign.”
He says the party was prepared for the inevitability that the Jagans would not always be there, but their guiding principles remain, and their fight and struggle for Guyana remain an inspiration, not only for him, but other party leaders as well.
“I don’t think the Jagans would be absent from any elections in Guyana.”
Ramotar is heading to the polls on the record of the PPP/C government. It is one he has full belief in, a record he says the people will vote on.
“We have a record to stand on; we have delivered,” he states emphatically.
He insists the party has worked hard to deliver on its campaign promises.
“We have worked hard to deliver; what we couldn’t fulfill one time we did eventually.
“We are a party that doesn’t depart from our words. We can be trusted, I think, and that’s a big advantage.
“We did what we said we would have done and that can be proven by any examination of our manifestos.”
Among the major achievements that have affected the lives of Guyanese in a real way, Ramotar says, is the massive, ongoing housing programme.
“We have given out 80,000 house lots, which is an amazing thing by any standard.”
Ramotar also boasts of what he says is the transformation of the education sector, both in terms of access and delivery.
He is more particularly proud about the improvements in access to education, with those in far-flung areas no longer disadvantaged, having access to higher education in their communities or nearby.
Ramotar is equally proud of developments in the health sector. To show the stark contrast, he cites the example of a Stabroek News article pre-1992 which stated that part of the hand of a 5-year-old girl was bitten by rats in the hospital.
“Such was the condition of the health sector. Of course you can still find problems now, but the situation is now light years ahead of what it was.”
He also talks up the fight against HIV/AIDS, which has received monumental support from the international community. Guyana has moved from being one of the countries with the highest infection rates, to one that has now stablised the epidemic.
Together with these achievements, Ramotar points to infrastructural developments that have transformed the landscape of the country.
But more than that, the PPP presidential candidate sees as a greater accomplishment the freedoms enjoyed by the citizens of Guyana.
“We probably have one of the freest societies in the world today,” he says, putting that in the context mainly of free and fair elections, which reached a non-violent stage in 2006 and was hailed as the most peaceful of its kind in recent memory.
Further, Ramotar sees Guyanese as being free to express themselves as never before, even if criticisms against the government have come in for a bludgeoning by President Jagdeo.
As far as Ramotar is concerned, it is natural for the President to be critical of unfair commentary, “but he is not jailing anyone for writing.”
He says that while the President and other government officials might disagree about what is written against the government, it has always been the policy of the PPP to defend the right to free expression.
Ramotar assured that the government is trying to push through woefully delayed Freedom of Information and Broadcast Legislation before the end of the current Parliament.
But Ramotar admits all is not well, particularly when it comes to the PPP’s record with respect to corruption.
“I know there is corruption in the society,” he acknowledges, but he quickly adds his view that corruption is exaggerated in media.
First, Ramotar says the government is not given enough credit for many of the things that have been done to fight corruption. He says when the PPP got into government, a tendering process was absent. It was the PPP that put in place the tendering system, even if “sometimes these things are subverted,” he says.
Also, when the PPP came into office the Public Accounts Committee was in place but had no work to do, since there was no Auditor General Report to look at it.
Under the PPP, that has changed, Ramotar boasts, and it is in fact those reports that have brought to light irregularities which the government is then attacked for.
The irregularities identified mean more work has to be done to fight corruption, Ramotar says, and he promises to vigorously pursue an anti-corruption policy if he is elected.
“I don’t think we can find a silver bullet, but we can improve the system and work for the elimination of corruption.”
With that promise, and the record of the PPP, Ramotar heads to the polls confident that Guyanese have matured and would vote on the vision of political parties rather than on race, which has been almost a hallmark in Guyanese politics since the Jagan-Burnham split in the mid 50s.
Ramotar even chooses to go as far as saying that the country has come a far way in eliminating racial voting. He says evidence of this is seen in that the margin of votes for the PPP has increased in every Afro-Guyanese village. He cited the mining town of Linden, for example, where the PPP secured 4% of votes in 1992 and achieved 23% at the last elections.
Further, while the PPP has not earned more than 50% of votes in Amerindian dominated regions like Seven and Eight because of the split in votes, it is now receiving the single largest bloc of votes.
“Therefore, I see that there are a lot of crossover votes, because we have conducted the business of this country in a fair way. We don’t have a policy for any one segment of the population but for all the peoples of the country.”
This is despite what his main political rivals would have to say.
Ramotar heads into the elections confident of steering the PPP to victory, and if elected, he promises to ensure that only national policies that meet the needs of all Guyanese are pursued by his government, as far as resources allow.
Early on, Ramotar holds out an olive branch to those in the opposition, saying if he is elected, he would push for a more inclusive form of government.
He also sees a role for President Jagdeo, though neither of them has discussed how that role will be defined.
“President Jagdeo has accumulated an enormous amount of experience and knowledge in government. He started in difficult times and he has ensured economic growth at a time when the international community is in recession. Jagdeo is a resource that I don’t think anyone will not want to tap into.”
So Ramotar heads to the polls a formidable political giant ready to stand on the PPP’s record in office since 1992. And he is prepared to make a promise he hopes the electorate will trust him on: “I would be a fair president in every area and I would try to uphold the dignity and sovereignty of the country.”
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