By Khemraj Ramjattan,
The legendary Argentine writer, Jorge Luis Borges, during the first populist regime of Juan Peron, summed up the political atmosphere of repression under the dictator thusly:
“Dictatorships breed oppression, dictatorships breed servility, dictatorships breed cruelty; more loathsome still is the fact that they breed idiocy. Bellboys babbling orders, portraits of caudillos, prearranged cheers or insults, walls covered with names, unanimous ceremonies…”
As Bharrat Jagdeo’s regime comes to a close, it appears that the worst aspects of 1950s Peronism have amplified and drifted northward to 21st century Guyana. Instead of just bellboys babbling orders, we have dubiously qualified people in senior positions in every sector of the state machinery; instead of portraits of our own caudillo and his would-be successor, we have entire billboards of them; instead of prearranged cheers and insults we have NCN and Guyana Chronicle and Guyana Times singing the government’s praises while shamelessly attacking the least criticism.
And on Friday, we had the grandest ceremony of all, the President’s Appreciation Day. Even as it was launched, the organisers were forced to be on the defensive, with questions about the organizing committee, the funding, and the propriety of the event. The event itself has not put those concerns to rest.
We at the Alliance For Change find as highly unethical that Chairman of the Ethnic Relations Committee, ‘Bishop’ Juan Edghill, would be involved in this. From a theological perspective, Edghill’s citation of biblical support – given at the first press conference on the event – is tenuous at best when he says that “The Bible establishes that all persons in authority are there because God wants them to be in authority and there is no way appreciating a president who’s about to demit office could be deemed taking sides.”
By the good Bishop’s logic, the God of the Bible takes an uncritical view to political authority, and so the administrations of Stalin and Hitler were equal in God’s eyes to those of Václav Havel and Nelson Mandela.
We should notice that PPP Parliamentarian and fellow clergyman, Reverend Kwame Gilbert stayed away from endorsing Edghill’s position in his nevertheless shameless endorsement of the Appreciation Ceremony in a letter to the Guyana Chronicle last week. We leave it to the respective congregations of Edghill and Gilbert to judge the Christian value of these two gentlemen’s celebration of a President whose tenure has been marked by unpunished corruption and a flourishing of the vicious and murderous narcotics trade.
More important to the country at large is that Edghill, as the de facto Chairman of the Ethnic Relations Commission, would be so bold-faced as to claim that his organizing of the event should be seen as impartial. The very reason for setting up the ERC in the first place was because of the devastating effect that race-based politics – as perpetuated by the two major political parties – was and still is having on Guyana.
The ERC Chairman’s supposedly objective involvement conveniently ignores the fact that the President is the highest-ranking Central Committee member of a race-based party – the PPP – that is contesting a national elections. He also ignores the fact the Presidential candidate of that party, Donald Ramotar, continues to enjoy the enthusiastic endorsement of President Jagdeo. Edghill’s involvement cannot be seen as anything less than the ERC Chairman’s endorsement of Ramotar by proxy, and at the height of the elections season – it is indecent, unethical and immoral.
Then there is Minister of Housing and Water, Irfaan Ali, asserting that no state resources were being utilized in the execution of the event. Ali complains that interrogation of the minutiae of the funding and other support of this private event – whether or not State resources are being used – is an indication of the slide in journalistic standards in Guyana.
Someone needs to remind the Minister that the interrogation of “minutiae” is the heart and soul of public accountability of taxpayer funds, even if it is not adhered to by the good minister himself. It is the purview and duty of any decent media to interrogate who paid for the gas used in transporting material and people for the event; who paid for the aviation fuel used in the paratrooping exercise; and who paid overtime and meals for the many government workers used in coordinating this event. We trust that the organisers, in the spirit of openness and accountability – a sine qua non of the sort of great leadership they claim to be celebrating – are going to release the final expenditure of what was spent on Friday, as well as a human resource audit of those involved.
Outside of direct and indirect financial costs attached to the project, we know for a fact that staff of several state entities, including the Ministry of Culture, were subject to direction of members of the organizing committee. When the so-called ordinary citizen, or even extraordinary citizens, can insert themselves at will into the structure of executive authority of a taxpayer-funded government entity, then our democracy and our rule of law would have failed.
Secondly, that the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Guyana (FITUG) should not only take part in this, but also claim this initiative as originating from it, is beyond shameful and absurd. Let us put this fiasco into the perspective that Carvil Duncan and his colleagues at FITUG seem to be missing:
Our intelligence says that – and the organizing committee is of course free to release figures to refute this – some $120 million was spent to pull off the Appreciation. That money could have paid the salaries – at $40,000 a month – of 50 teachers, or policemen, or firemen, or nurses, or sugar workers for the next five years. This is the same Carvil Duncan, who earlier this year on Labour Day committed to be vigilant in protecting the interests, financial and otherwise, of workers. Of course, Mr. Duncan may argue that the money has been raised privately – we leave it to him to explain to his membership the working class logic of taking from the rich and giving to celebrate the richer.
That said, even the concept of the exclusive private funding of Celebharration – were it completely true – was almost unbelievably obscene in its execution. While Edghill, Duncan, and Ali – gentlemen with whom tact and sincerity have not been known to be fast friends – claim with a straight face that there has been no duress on the business community, the AFC has learned firsthand that several contributors have made donations not out of support but of fear of the aptly demonstrated vindictiveness of the Jagdeo regime. A band of 19th century, protection-racket era, New York gangsters – complete with requisite official, clerical, and teamster support – could not have come up with and implemented a better ‘fund-raising’ scheme.
Then there is the role of the PPP Presidential Candidate, Donald Ramotar in all of this. Of recent, Mr. Ramotar – even while hanging on to President Jagdeo’s coattails in and out of Guyana – has adopted a strategy of a nuanced ignorance and increasingly implausible deniability when it comes to the excesses of the man he is trying to succeed: the damning cables reveal ‘nothing new’; and while he heard of convicted drug dealer Roger Khan, it never crossed his mind to ask Jagdeo about the exact nature of the relationship, despite Khan’s taking out several full page ads in national newspapers claiming to be working with the security forces of the country Mr. Ramotar’s party governs.
Mr. Ramotar is proving to be the ultimate straw candidate, and has lost any moral claim to campaign as a successor to the policies of Cheddi Jagan. By his endorsement of this parade of arrogance and insensitivity to the plight of the average Guyanese citizen, the PPP General Secretary and Presidential Candidate – Mr. Jagdeo’s current shadow and future proxy – has given us a clear indication of what life under his regime of “continued progress” will be.
Finally, there is the President himself. Leaders across the world leave office after their constitutionally mandated limit is up. They do so with humility, pride at their tenure of service, and gratitude that they were given an opportunity to serve the people. That is what they were elected to do. US Presidents George W. Bush. and his predecessor Bill Clinton both stepped down after their constitutionally limited terms of office, and were not celebrated for doing so, either in or out of office.
Or, if it is that the People’s Progressive Party would like an example closer to its bosom, when Janet Jagan stepped down from the Presidency in 1999 – which act saw the ascension of Jagdeo – it was after almost a half-century of involvement, leadership and self-sacrifice in the politics of Guyana. She was not awarded any grand public parade nor would she have wanted one; neither would have Cheddi Jagan – we challenge Donald Ramotar to tell us differently.
Of course, the argument has been made by the committee that Jagdeo deserves celebration for signing into law the term limit which would affect him and prevent him from running for the Presidency again. This is an insult to every single parliamentarian and member of civil society that worked on the Constitution Reform Commission – as President of Guyana, it was his job to sign into law the consensus arrived at by national lawmakers, particularly one aimed at further refining the democratic process; he was not some divinely mandated ruler, despite what Edghill and Gilbert would have us believe, stepping down from the throne of heaven in the interests of his people. He wasn’t doing Guyanese any great favour – had he not signed, he would have been in defiance of Parliament and would have faced massive opposition from every quarter of society.
A truly great leader – if it is that a group of independent and well-meaning citizens sought to honour him – would have humbly suggested that the funds raised be donated towards some worthier cause benefitting the legions of poor people whom his much-touted “sound macro-economic fundamentals” have yet to touch. Instead, Bharrat Jagdeo believes that the most fitting send off for him would be a $120 million going away party, after which he will retire on a $3 million a month salary, plus other lifetime benefits paid for by the taxpayer.
If there is anything the organisers of this shameless spectacle are right about, it is the claim that this is indeed precedent setting. It sets a precedent for hubris. It sets a precedent for presidential self-indulgence. It sets a precedent for quisling complicity – by so-called religious and working class leaders – in an indecent and immoral spectacle of waste and extravagance. It sets a precedent for the blurring of the lines between the whims of political cronies and sycophants, and the legitimate authority of the state.
Friday needs to be remembered as a Day of Shame for all Guyana. It showed the failure of our state systems, the spirit of our Constitution in particular; it showed that many of our corporate citizens were being subjected to a Mafioso-like extortion by a sickening, debased cabal of government members and Presidential yes-men; it showed the blatant and unapologetic usurpation of our State resources. Friday, September 16th, 2011 was the day our fledgling democracy failed.
We in the Alliance For Change are calling on all right-minded Guyanese – including those few still left in the corridors of Freedom House – to recognize this downward spiral for what it is, and join us in our struggle to end it now. We are all involved, and we can all be consumed.
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