In Guyana, it is customary that prices of certain commodities soar at this time of the year. People enter the marketplace and suddenly find that they do not have enough money when just a few weeks ago the same sum could have procured what they wanted.
Each year eggs, poultry meat, certain condiments, some grains and some food imports suddenly cost more. It is as if the merchants decide that this is the season to fleece people. We see articles of furniture suddenly costing more than at any time of the year and we wonder at this phenomenon.
This continues right up to the day before Christmas when most of the prices fall. The ornaments in the stores and on the street corners, certain things like the lights and the decorations and some foods suddenly become cheaper.
Guyana abolished price controls about two decades because the International Monetary Fund, as part of the economic package it drafted for Guyana, contended that free market enterprise was the way out of the country’s economic woes. At the same time while the price controls were in effect, the government practiced a system of subsidies.
Again the IMF concluded that it could not give a country money to allow that country to use that money to cushion its people from the harsh realities of the marketplace. In Guyana today, the absence of controls, even by a monitoring body allows for the exploitation of the shopper.
Christmas is a time when the business community would make some fifty per cent of all profits. It is this drive for profits that encourages the price gouging. What is surprising is that people go along for the ride. Perhaps it is the spirit of the season that makes them turn a blind eye to the extortion.
In many other countries, the smallest price rise would bring a major protest from housewives. In Texas a few years ago, the price of beef rose by a cent (what the Americans call a penny). Immediately, the housewives refused to buy beef. The commodity wouldn’t sell and the beef industry took a hammering. The farmers found that they could not sell beef; the supermarkets had freezers full and nowhere to dispose of beef.
It was not long before the price fell. Those who contemplated the increase, if only to offset expenses attributed to rising costs, had to cut their losses.
Similarly, when gas prices rise people take action. In Jamaica, when the government announced a rise in gasoline prices the people took to the streets. Some of the protests turned violent. In the end the government wavered. The same thing happened when increases in prices for wheat flour were announced.
Guyana is a different kettle of fish. The most that has happened was that people muttered. Some avoided making purchases but not for long. People have many choices but they refuse to use them because they restrict or confine themselves to one set of things. The late President Forbes Burnham found this to his chagrin when he attempted to promote import substitution. People were accustomed to the imports like split peas and wheat flour and sardines. The ban on these commodities almost crippled the Burnham Government.
It is this insistence on a certain diet that causes the people to accept the higher prices even when these are unconscionable and certainly unjustified. But the merchants and vendors know Guyanese very well. They therefore take them for granted. That is why when word went around that some people have called for a boycott the merchants panicked. They turned to their representative body and caused that body to implore that there be no boycott.
All of a sudden, the price gouging merchants presented themselves as the victims rather than as the abusers. One would have expected that when the threat was removed the merchants would have recognized the importance of the buying public.
Certainly lessons are not learnt easily so the merchants and the vendors continue to do what they do best—fleece their customers.
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