In a letter published in another section of the media, Gordon Forte, the former head of a snack food distribution company, recalled that in 1977, his company received an enquiry about the possibility of supplying plantain chips to a Puerto Rican firm.
In those days, under the Burnham dictatorship, if you wanted to do any business involving imports or exports, you had to have government’s sanction. This was because you would have needed licences to import your equipment, proof of access to foreign exchange, a commitment to remit some or all of your foreign exchange earnings and licences to export the finished product.
The government had a tight rein on business. When the Thompson group wanted to sell their shares in the Graphic newspaper, they required permission from the government. Burnham said no, and he nationalized it instead, thereby seizing control of the print media.
It was therefore not unusual for the government’s permission to be had for the proposed plantain chips factory, and why Cabinet, in those days, would have had to sanction this project. Nothing moved unless it was sanctioned by Burnham. This is why Forte was told by the Minister of Economic Development, Desmond Hoyte, that his proposal had to go to Cabinet
The project was attractive. It would have involved the local company sourcing the raw materials, plantains, locally, processing them and then exporting the finished product, thereby creating employment and earning foreign exchange for an economy direly strapped for foreign exchange.
The PNC government rejected the proposal. Forte felt racial considerations were involved after one Minister told him, “Plantains is Black people’s food. We can’t allow the price to increase. You can grow and fry your own plantains.”
The rejection, it was felt, was based on the idea that if the company purchased plantains locally, this would drive up the price of the product on the local market, and this would disadvantage the constituents of the ruling party.
The rejection of this proposal shows the myopic vision of not just the ruling, socialist PNC government but of one of its Vice Presidents, Desmond Hoyte, who has since acquired a mythical status as an economic liberalizer. Yet, a mere eight years before he took office, he and his government’s policies were shortsighted and counterproductive to national development.
His government felt that a plantain chips factory would affect his party’s support base, because it would raise the price of plantains on the local market. He did not conceive that there were hundreds of small ground provision farmers, who were supporters of his party, who would have benefitted from the increase in demand for their produce.
The government could not envisage the benefits of a guaranteed market and the higher prices for the produce. The government could not comprehend that the establishment of the factory would have created hundreds of jobs and earned valuable foreign exchange at a time when the supermarket shelves were empty.
The problem was not racial. It was ideological. The PNC government had miniaturized the private sector. It was extremely averse to private investment and private property.
In 1960, speaking in the National Assembly, Burnham had equated Marxism with hatred for private property. He said any Marxist who admitted that he did not say that he hated private property was saying that he was not a Marxist.
And in an address to a public gathering organized by the Jaycees in Linden on May 22, 1975, Burnham attacked the movement’s promotion of economic justice through free enterprise. He called on the local body to either rewrite their mission statement or dissociate themselves from their parent body.
It was this sort of blinkered economic thinking and blind ideological dogmatism which was responsible for the economic rut which Guyana found itself in from the mid-1970s. It was this obsession with state control which allowed for the denial of an economic venture which would have helped to ease the economic woes of the country.
Hoyte is widely credited with implementing policies of economic liberalization. What many people did not realize was how cautious he was in this approach, even though he was faced with very few other options. The legal revocation of the Exchange Controls Act and the amendments to the Trade Act were left to the PPPC when it took office in 1992.
The irony of it all is that the very neo-liberal policies which Hoyte is credited with launching, affected his party’s supporters negatively. It wiped out economic activities associated with artisans and small-scale farmers who could no longer compete with cheaper foreign imports.
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