Guyana’s Political Tragedy

By D. Alissa Trotz and Arif Bulkan June 30, 2020

Guyana is in a most profound crisis. This crisis has been in the making for over 50 years – ever since the declaration of independence that came on the heels of the collapse of a multiracial anticolonial movement, the intervention of the joined imperialist forces of the UK and US and the convulsive coastal racial disturbances of the 1960s that delivered almost unshakeable constituencies of African and Indian Guyanese to the two major political parties in Guyana. This has persisted through 24 years of rigged elections. It has persisted in spite of the return to elections that were free and fair in 1992 (but, if we are to be honest, never really free from fear of the racial other where these two groups are concerned). It has persisted across 23 years of PPP rule, five years of coalition government and it has now erupted in plain sight four months after the March 2nd election that has as yet failed to deliver a result. 

Legacy of 1960s

As Guyanese, we have not ever found a way to comprehensively reckon with the legacy of the 1960s. It is the Achilles heel that will continue to destroy Guyana, and that has paved the way for the latest form of resource extractivism, with untold environmental consequences that will be felt across generations. The destruction of the seabed – otherwise known as deep sea drilling for oil – has drastically raised the stakes for this miserable election. It has also put Guyana firmly in the sights of Western powers, a community intent on making an example of Venezuela and for whom Guyana is of immense geopolitical strategic importance, a community that has never acted in the interest of the region’s sovereignty (cases in point, Guyana’s 1953 elections; the combined efforts of Canada, the United States and France to remove democratically elected Haitian President Jean-Bertrand-Aristide on the 200th anniversary of Haitian independence; the meeting that took place in Jamaica this past January between the US Secretary of State and several Caribbean leaders that clearly sidelined CARICOM). International business headlines discuss investor confidence in this small South American country on the brink of political disaster. But for Guyanese, the fundamental issue is how vulnerable our ongoing polarisation makes us to this latest chapter of multinational resource extraction and exploitation, to those who once again stand to profit from our intractable division.

In a recent statement in which she stood by the report of the CARICOM observer team which concluded that “the recount results are acceptable and should constitute the basis of the declaration of the results of the March 2, 2020 elections,” Barbados Prime Minister and CARICOM Chair Mia Mottley noted that following the declaration of the winner, “[t]here must be room for all regardless of who wins and who loses.” This is precisely the crux of the problem, the ongoing legacy of Westminster winner-takes-all politics in a fractured society like Guyana. To be sure, in the heat of electioncampaigns and when seeking votes, these political leaders promise a new dispensation but once a winner is declared, shared governance is baptised ‘Coalition’ or ‘CIVIC’ and draped in party colours of green and yellow or red. And that is the end of the story. Until the next election. The opportunity to reach for something different when the PPP was handed a minority government in 2011 was squandered. In the 2015 elections, a government of national unity was prominently featured in the APNU-AFC political manifesto, until it won. The PPP promised a new dispensation in 1992, but cannot explain to the Guyanese people why the most authoritarian elements of the same constitution they keep calling the Burnham constitution were never addressed during their 23 years in office. Nor was anything done in the five years since the coalition came to power even though constitutional reform was also an explicit manifesto promise. As it turned out, the problem is not with the so-called Burnham constitution, but with the fact that politicians only have a problem with it when they are not in power. Rory Fraser noted, in a letter to the Stabroek News of June 29, 2020 in which he “fully expect[s] the inevitable result will be based on the GECOM verified recount and sanctioned by CARICOM…[that] in retrospect, I realized Guyanese were unfortunately left to choose between the very bad and the least worst of two parties ordained by a constitutional and electoral framework they (PPP and PNC) contrived.”

Rock and Hard Place

At the end of the day, the coalition blatantly refuses to even acknowledge that they are feared and distrusted by significant numbers of Indian-Guyanese supporters of the PPP, just as the PPP blatantly refuses to even acknowledge that they are feared and distrusted by significant numbers of African-Guyanese supporters of the coalition. In this they are equally delusional. This coastal story that we seem doomed to repeat has sucked the oxygen out of other stories, including and especially those relating to our hinterland communities and peoples. This is the rock of Sisyphus and the awful harder place. And it feeds into the racial hate that is circulating on social media from supporters of both political parties, rhetoric that should make us all ashamed to be Guyanese. There is little to no space for questioning. And if you do, you stand to be targeted in the most vicious ways by either side of the choir. What will be left when the dust settles? The racist, classist, misogynist and homophobic attacks are unending, and some of the most public recent targets have been women – GECOM Chairperson Claudette Singh, CARICOM Chair and Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley and Eslyn David, in whose name the recent challenge to the Court of Appeal has been filed. Each side chooses its own victims, invests in its own innocence and is largely silent or defensive when the attacks come from ‘one of theirs’. This has a history and it is high time we learn it if we are to deal with and move beyond it. If for example we look at what political leaders, former President Cheddi Jagan and current president David Granger have written about 1964, in publications that should be made available to all Guyanese, we will see how deep these separate narratives run.

According to the late social activist Andaiye in an unpublished keynote lecture given in 2010 at Spelman College, Atlanta, Walter Rodney had indicated that he would not return to Guyana until he had seen a way past the zero-sum racial divide and two party model, until “he could see a way of organizing with Indo- and Afro-Guyanese working people together.” In fact, Rodney returned to a country where – and likely in large part because – some of that work had already started, including bottom house community conversations on race organised by the Indian Political Revolutionary Associates and the African Society for Cultural Relations with Independent Africa, and the mobilisations to secure land for working class Guyanese across race divides. We have moved so far away from that promise of unity. We would do well to heed Rodney’s warning that “[t]hose who manipulated in the 1960s, on both sides, were not the sufferers. They were not the losers. The losers were those who participated, who shared blows and who got blows. And they are the losers today.” With the election stakes so much higher given the promise of ‘Oil Dorado,’ who will be the losers? We need an audit of who has benefited from this polarised status quo, and those of us who are academics must begin to dispassionately collect this information to demonstrate the wealth and racial and gender inequalities that this has produced. And we must make this audit public, so that we can clearly see the few who have reaped the benefits at the expense of a divided population in post-independence Guyana. 

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Next Steps

So now what? And what comes next? Both sides are dug in. On the one side, there is APNU-AFC’s insistence on the GECOM CEO’s report and the coalition’s refusal to concede in the face of the recount, the CARICOM observer report, and an overwhelming international consensus that it should step aside. On the other side, there is the PPP’s insistence on the results of the CARICOM observer report on the recount and categorical rejection of the GECOM CEO report. And while we await the judgment from the Caribbean Court of Justice and hope that there is a swift declaration and conclusion to this sorry state of affairs, neither the courts nor a declared winner will guarantee that we do not end up here again in five years, with a ridiculously bloated voters’ list, a winner take all system, a politicised Elections Commission and limited if any constitutional reform. In his Stabroek News column of June 24, Henry Jeffrey pointedly remarked that “[w]hat our political structure and culture have produced are essentially counterfeit democrats who are unable to negotiate political differences and thus resort to an adversarial court system that is not geared to political healing.” Moreover, in this tense environment, the language currently being used by leaders of the two main parties of ‘the triumph of good over evil’ and ‘we will never concede’ variety only takes us closer to the precipice of political disaster while revealing that they believe themselves to be the anointed and sole deliverers of and for all things Guyanese. If we are prepared to listen, past the fraudulent triumphalism, past the yelling and the noise, past the racist stereotypes that Indians are scheming and want to grab power and keep it for themselves, or that Blacks lie and steal elections and have a monopoly on violence, perhaps in our quieter moments we will understand that this is the mandate that the Guyanese electorate has handed down, in 2011, in 2015 and now in the March 2nd election. Neither of the two political behemoths is to be fully trusted with a mandate to govern.

In a column on March 25th, Henry Jeffrey concluded that “…neither the misplaced self-interestedness of the PPP nor the duplicity of the PNC [is] sufficient for me to in any way help and restore the winner-take-all system. When the current crisis ends it ends but it will do so without my intervention unless the proposed changes are for the better.” We agree with Jeffrey that we should “all unite to create, what is rarely possible in this kind of context; a win-win situation for all,” but unlike him we would not begin by calling for these same parties to “sit around the table and with the help of our international partners, who must be quite weary of our generations-long ethnic quarrel, build a more cohesive society out of one of the worlds’ most protracted problems.” The political parties have demonstrated that they cannot be trusted to challenge a system that they have played such a fundamental role in creating and maintaining. We take our point of departure instead from Andaiye, who commented (in a video that can be found on the website dedicated to her life’s work,, that “too many Guyanese these days have a narrow view of politics, because politics has become so overcentralized in Guyana that everything is supposed to be about political parties and government so that we don’t even have what we call politics at the local level or in the sector or in the community or wherever that you live.” She goes on to say that we must work to “change the political and electoral system because they…are not flawed, they are destructive in the way that they are organized… so that’s the work to be done after the election.” Will Guyanese, as Andaiye wryly concluded, do “as so many groups in Guyana often do, and that is when elections are over, you take a rest until the next election?” Or will we finally recognize that the majority of Guyanese will continue to be the sufferers, will continue to get a piece of use, will continue to take blows until this rotten system is dismantled?

Genuine National Dialogue

What is urgently called for is a truly national dialogue of all social forces, a conversation that does not exclude anyone, an engagement that finds a way to invite everyone to take part in reckoning with our painful legacy so that we can finally find ways of living with, through and beyond it. A space where we can begin to reach for and see each other, across our differences. In short, instead of the platitudinous rhetoric that it currently is, Article 13’s objective of an inclusionary democracy with ‘increasing opportunities for the participation of citizens, and their organisations in the management and decision-making processes of the State’ should truly be the foundational pillar of our multiracial society. We know that this will be difficult and that it will require much commitment, but it is doable, as impossible as it appears now. When our electoral crisis is no longer in the headlines, when those friends who believe that this story is just about the winning have disappeared (perhaps to reappear in five years if nothing has changed), this will be the long, hard but necessary work to be done.

[{Graphic – From Stabroek News]

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