If you ask any Guyanese whether he or she respects freedom of conscience, they will say yes. If you then ask them whether they respect the right of an individual to belong to a political party of their choice, they will say yes.
The reality, however, is that most Guyanese do not practice what they preach. Freedom of conscience is treated as freedom not to change one’s ethnic allegiances.
Persons claim to respect the right of a person to belong to a political party of that person’s choosing, but when African-Guyanese join or pledge support for the PPPC they are treated as traitors and when Indians associate with the PNCR they are treated as outcasts.
Freedom of conscience no longer becomes the unfettered right to join a political party of one’s choosing. It is now conditional on support for your own ethnic group. This is what the majority of Guyanese hypocritically practice.
There are many Indians who can testify how they were treated, by their fellow Indians, because they joined the PNCR. Similarly, there are Africans who are harassed because of their decision to join the PPPC.
The PPPC was once a communist party. The PNCR, formerly the PNC, was once a socialist party. There are persons who left the PPPC and went across to the PNC because of ideological differences. Eusi Kwayana broke with the PPP, even though he had once strongly supported Jagan when Burnham tried to seize the leadership of the party from Jagan. He became General Secretary of the PNC, but eventually parted ways with Burnham.
PPP supporters said ugly things about Kwayana when he went across with Burnham. But that image, which the PPP cultivated of him, disappeared when he became a member of the WPA and joined in the fight against Burnham’s dictatorial rule.
Martin Carter suffered a similar fate when he became a Minister of Education under the PNC. He was ostracized among PPP supporters. He departed from Burnham and made the famous statement, “The mouth is muzzled by the hands that feed it.”
Similarly persons from the PNCR who went over to the PPP have been treated as pariahs. Nasty things were said and done against them. This is the political culture which has been cultivated by the supporters of both these parties, and which has been passed on to the younger generation.
It is not the political parties which have to change the political culture. It is the people. They are the ones who exhibit political and racial hypocrisy. They are the ones who refuse to accept persons who cross the floor or who decide to change their political allegiances.
Racial political allegiance is not going to end until this hypocrisy ends. And each election season we keep hearing how the young people will break with racial voting. But they never do. They fall right into the same trap.
The ideological similarities between the two main parties did not help. The PPPC started out as a socialist party and this failed to attract middle and upper-class support. Burnham, who described himself as a socialist democrat, capitalized on this for a short period before himself embracing a most perverse form of socialism.
The PPPC moved closer to communism in the late 1960’s, mainly in order to survive. And the PNC, in the wake of the Black Power riots, dropped completely its open market policies in favour of nationalization and embraced party paramountcy.
Africans and Indians really had little to choose from in terms of these two parties. But it is not as if there were no right-wing parties. They were. But the Africans and Indians were not interested in right wing or left wing politics. They were keen on ethnic solidarity.
The situation is not dissimilar today. Both the PNCR and the PPPC embrace a neo-liberal economic orientation. There is no difference in their general approach to the economy. The PNCR, however, is mishandling the economy, but even that fact is not going to allow for PNCR supporters to cross over in large numbers to the PPPC. There will be the occasional ‘switchers” who will be harried for daring to change political sides.
When persons’ racial allegiances become hardened – as has been the case for so long in Guyana – it is almost impossible to reverse course. This is quite unlike persons who can more easily maneuver between competing ideological positions.
We are therefore once again headed towards another ethnic census. It is officially called elections. Young people are being sucked into this vortex. And this is the ongoing tragedy of the country, which not even oil can change.
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