Sunday is Independence Day. It has been fifty-three years since Guyana attained its instruments of independence from Great Britain.
During the fight for Independence, the British were reviled. They were accused of all manner of things. Yet in the early days after Independence, Guyana found comfort operating with a Westminster political system.
Then suddenly there was an aborted uprising in Trinidad which sent shivers down the spine of Burnham. It was only then that he realized that the system of foreign ownership of the commanding heights of the economy was not bringing benefits to the average man.
It was a Eureka moment. The then government decided that it was time to change direction. It turned left. It began by signaling the nationalization of the commanding heights.
But under relentless pressure from the Americans, it ended having to pay for the nationalization of the bauxite industry. And this was after the foreign owners had de-capitalized the industry and moved significant assets out of the country.
The then government forgot that the system of cooperative socialism that was being experimented with required a political system other than the Westminster system. In 1980, it tinkered with the system by creating an executive presidency but retained all the features of Westminsterism. With Independence came an even closer attachment to the trappings of the former colonial order.
Some big plans were unveiled. The country was declared a cooperative republic. Afterwards, it was decided under this hazy system of cooperative socialism where cooperatives never made any impact that it was time for another big announcement, another big plan: the country would grant free education from nursery to university.
The result was a virtual collapse of the education system. Many students being forced to accept a substandard secondary education and others having to attend primary tops since there were insufficient places in the secondary school system.
The price for increased access to certain levels of education was an overall reduction in the high standards left by the British.
Socialist education was supposed to create the new man. The new man emerged in the form of suitcase traders rescuing the economy by travelling to other countries to get goods that were in short supply; teachers having to sell sugar cakes and other confectionaries in order to make ends meet and a huge migration of the middle class, ironically to non-socialist countries.
While all of these changes were taking place, the school year was still based on the British system, breaking for summer and Christmas as is the case in England. It still is.
The winds of change also affected the health system with Guyana attaining the notorious distinction of having to temporarily close down the main operating theater at its main hospital because of its insanitary condition. Without the help of international organizations which the socialists liked to describe as “imperialists” the entire system would have collapsed.
The courts somehow avoided the rot. The courts were supposed to be, like in England, independent. But one day somebody had the idea that the flag of the ruling party should fly over the Court of Appeal, signaling that state institutions were to become under this new system, subservient to the government of the day.
Twenty years after independence, Guyana found itself bankrupt and heavily indebted. Things were now slowly falling apart. They had fallen apart. Foreign credit was evaporating. The country was marking time, like it did in 1953.
In the early eighties, after having condemned the IMF and World Bank as imperialists, a decision was taken to engage these two institutions for a bailout. But when shown the prescription and having seen what this medicine did in Jamaica, the remedy was rejected.
By 1987, the socialist government found itself cornered at home and isolated from both sides of the ideological divide. With the economy grinding to a halt, the socialist government suddenly found faith with the IMF and World Bank and swung from left to right.
In 1992, the Guyanese people through free and fair elections put an end to their misery by electing a new government after years of being denied this right because of rigged elections.
The new ruling party raised fears in the West. It had strong ties to the communist parties that ran the Soviet Union and Cuba and had never hidden its admiration for socialism. But on the eve of elections, it announced boldly, and without explanation, that the building of socialism was no longer on the cards.
The economy was restored to health but an oligarchic class seized control of the economy. And under a ruling party which has claims to be working class.
In 2015, the people decided through free and fair elections to opt again for change. But instead of change all they are getting is exchange.
That is Guyana’s independence journey in a nutshell. We do not wish to admit it must Independence exposed the underbelly of the country’s post-Independence political leadership – ordinary men who are capable only of ordinary things. This is why the journey has been one of contradictions.
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