Posts made in March 2017

The Masses at the Gate: What’s Behind the People’s Movement in Guyana

By: Vivian M. Williams, Esq., LL.M.
For decades Guyana abandoned the principles of a merit-based society, opting instead for a system of political patronage. The country’s private sector followed in the shadows of the ruling political elites, elevating patronage and nepotism above merit and competence. Though One People, One Nation, One Destiny, the probability of success on the merits eluded generations of a hardworking and ingenious people. For more than quarter of a century, talented people have been falling through the cracks, the trajectory of their lives altered during adulthood precisely because of their ethnicity, thoughts and political association or lack thereof. Several generations of brilliant and extraordinarily talented people have been ostracized, marginalized and deprived even after the tides of colonial exploitation receded. These are the masses at the gate, trampled and systematically abused but still clinging to hope for a better day.

Vivian M Williams outside a New York Courthouse

The masses at the gate are weary and fed up of a system that excludes them, talks down to them and treats them as passive dwellers in a lopsided state built on a center-periphery model and greased by a top-down mentality. They have grown accustomed to barricades erected across the city, keeping them at bay from the Parliament when that deliberative body is in session. Barricades that jolt their quest for social and economic mobility are everywhere. For those who have been trying to climb out of the cracks for decades, time is running out. People are desperate, angry and very impatient, so when they heard the rallying crying “it is time” a few years ago, they jumped on board with great expectation.

The Cry for Justice is Deafening 

The exigency embodied in the mantra “it is time“, with its open-ended exhortation, lit a fire in a forest of discontent and secured a victory for the governing Coalition. Now in power, the Coalition should NOT expect great expectation to be displaced by feel-good rhetoric. Anxiety and uneasiness are part of the mood of the country. The masses at the gate expect transformative governance that produces structural changes that open up the gates to opportunities and prosperity. The people need social and economic justice and they need it fast. This is a reason why justifications premised on flashbacks are not going to satisfy public relations goals. The government has got to learn to sell a vision of change and governance of a new and distinctive quality.

Part of the great expectation is for a change in the fabric of the society and the way things are done. It requires new-direction-innovation not improvement-innovation. Improvement-innovation is useful to fix deficiencies in a sustainable system. It provides patch work and corrective action for weak links in a chain. This is useful when the overall vision and trajectory are ideal and progressive. Guyana does NOT have a system that needs fixing. The system needs to be uprooted and replaced with a completely new System. In a country where systemic marginalization has been the norm for decades, the need for a vision that drives new direction-innovation is so pellucid, it should be regarded as an undisputed fact.

When social and political activist Dr. David Hinds wrote that the government is a modified version of its predecessor, he is echoing the argument that the Coalition has NOT sufficiently reformed the processes of governance. Instead of taking note, the government pouted instead of introspecting. The response was anyone who compares it with its predecessor must be out of his mind. While campaigning against the PPP administration, President Granger who was the Leader of the Opposition at the time, was more attuned to the circumstances of the time. He poignantly summed up the nation’s flirtation with poverty. His own words then were:

“It is a modern-day miracle that many mothers manage their
families on their meagre earnings in the face of massive
impediments in Guyana today. Poverty is spreading, not shrinking.
The number of homeless and destitute persons continues to rise.
The solution is to reduce poverty, rather than increase the number
of institutions such as drop-in centres…”- David Granger

PUTTING VAT, PARKING METERS AND LICENSING FEES IN CONTEXT

The statement is an indication why social and economic justice should top the government’s agenda. The government should not be distracted from this goal.  To avoid derailment, attention must be paid to the unintended consequences of the various actions and policies being implemented. Surely, poverty would not be reduced by heaping and all kinds of expenditure on the poor. Though various forms of taxation increase revenue for the government, the local and central government should expect fierce resistance if they keep dipping into poor people’s pockets at every turn.

Historically, taxes and licensing fees have been used to marginalized various groups in society. In Guyana, these tools were used to maintain class structure through discriminatory policies.  Half a century of Independence did not change the fundamentals of social and economic marginalization. The persistence of the structures of inequalities and hostilities is captured in the unpublished play “The Deeds of State” in which one of the characters muses:

After all these decades of Independence, why are we still in this Gawd damn mess? Tell me why the seeds the slave masters planted in the back-dams of yesterday’s are still flourishing in the towns today:-  Vivian Williams’ Deeds of State

The usual response is that the two dominant political parties are maintaining the status quo but there is more to it than meets your eyes. In a forthcoming article I explain how organizational and social-structural anchoring are key contributors to partisanship in Guyana. Organizational basis of partisanship includes linkages to associations and institutions such as trade unions, that impact public opinion and political association.

In Guyana, trade unions are politically aligned and there are structural divisions within the workforce. Rural Indians are primarily employed in the agricultural sector and are represented by unions such as the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers’ Union (GAWU) and the National Association of Agricultural Commercial and Industrial Employees NAACIE. These unions are aligned with the PPP. On the other hand, Afro-Guyanese supporters of the PNC are concentrated in government jobs, represented by unions such as The Guyana Public Service Union (GPSU) and Guyana Teacher’s Union (GTU). These unions historically support the PNC which is the dominant partner in the current coalition government.

The organization and structure of Guyana’s workforce contribute to marginalization and partisanship in two ways. First, a government could discriminate against and marginalize an entire segment of the population through the adoption of policies and allocation of resources. The ongoing debate on how the previous government destroyed bauxite while propping up the sugar industry is a good example. In an article titled Do Suh Nah Like Suh, trade unionist Lincoln Lewis examined this issue. This is the reason why the current furor over the fate of the sugar industry goes way beyond mere economic considerations.

Dysfunctional organizational structures also contribute to the anchoring of partisanship in Guyana. Various institutions such as the trade unions, the private sector and even the media do not act as a check on the political elites or effectively convey to the ruling political elites, the real concerns and interests of their constituencies. Instead, they maintain the partisan status quo through narratives combined with ambient stimuli that compels political loyalty. This is one of the reasons why there is often a disconnect between public officials and the people they serve. With a top-down mentality, what passes as consultation often takes place in echo chambers. There is an absence of an effective mechanism for the views and priorities of people to work their way up to the top and be reflected in policy decisions. This has produced disenchantment on both sides of the political spectrum.

Walking on Eggshells: Prado Ville -Prosecuting the Top Brass of the Previous Government

 

When you consider that PPP demitted office with unemployment as high as 59 percent in its stronghold and the APNU/AFC took the reigns of power with as much as 50 percent unemployment in its strongholds, you would understand why the implementation of parking meters was met with fierce resistance. The most important task for the current administration is the dismantling of the structures of oppression and building new pillars of prosperity. For those people who have fallen through the cracks for decades, the government must toss a lifeline not stick its fingers in their pockets. When the government looks back it must do so to change to the fundamental wrongs that are holding people back and open gates to prosperity to masses. It is time!

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Walking on Eggshells: Prado Ville -Prosecuting the Top Brass of the Previous Government

By: Vivian M. Williams, Esq., LL.M

Flashback

It was the late 1990s and a near-sighted government, believing all it needed to govern was a mandate at the polls, was brought to its knees. Tear smoke filled the streets of downtown Georgetown as the government cracked down on dissenters, seeking to break the back of a resistance movement that had paralyzed the government in the capital and was quickly spreading to hotspots on the outskirts. Sirens of emergency response vehicles ruptured the peace and quiet at a constant rate. Members of the Fourth Estate stared down eyes of fear and felt the jitters of a nation on the edge of a precipice. Stifled by vengeance, anger, fear and uneasiness in the rising clouds of tear smoke and rebellious arson, people couldn’t see further than their nose and their government was blinded by power.

Vivian M Williams outside a New York Courthouse

The generation that matured in that time of conflict, has seen how quickly political arrogance ignites racial hostility. A generation before bears the scars of racial hostility in Guyana, a country blessed with beauty and natural resources. Guyana’s identity and character were forged out of resistance and rebellion. The country is a story of triumph over state sponsored oppression and excesses. Only briefly though, was there racial harmony. In the land of many waters, racial tension bubbles beneath the surface like red hot lava from the Soufriere Hill volcano.

Towards the end of the 90s, as a new millennium dawned, stubbornness, leftover-arrogance from the 20th century and a “we have power now” mentality had brought the government to a stand still and made the country ungovernable. The intervention of CARICOM and an accord known as the Herdmanston Accord, pulled the country back from the brink. Herdmanston provided a cooling period for the country to regain its balance. The stubborn and near-sighted government that fanned the flames of rebellion, continued to cling to power for almost two decade after Herdmanston. The people then transferred the mandate to govern to the opposition that led the resistance. So here we are today. The tables have turned but the tension and hostility that underpinned resistance are present. It is only the roles that have been reversed. The critical question though, is whether the “we have power now” mentality also persists.

Foreshadowing

If you look closely in the horizon you would see clouds of discontent, disquiet and resistance gathering in Georgetown. There is ongoing street protest by sugar workers, rice farmers and an influential upper/middle class group that is calling itself a citizens movement to terminate the introduction of parking meters in Georgetown. Uneasiness is brewing in the capital and the country side. On the surface, the tension and anger are nowhere close to what existed for the 23 years the previous government clung to power but there are clear signs that danger lurks just beneath the surface. President David Granger seems aware of a crisis that is brewing. Speaking to the nation’s security forces just after the mass arrest and questioning of the top brass of the former government, he cautioned:

“Threats might arise … from elements who wish to undermine internal security. Reckless remarks about an uprising and provocative calls for the mobilisation of foot soldiers have the potential to rip apart the fragile fabric of social cohesion that we enjoy” :- President David Granger

The truth is, what exist in Guyana is more like ethnic tension rising to the surface than a fragile fabric of social cohesion. Governments in Guyana like to windowdress the fragile state of racial harmony. They like to say it is not about race when racial sensitivity is always at the heart of it. It is in this context of seething anxiety and what appears to be an orchestrated campaign to pierce the veil of cohesion, that the government, moving to the beat of thunderous applause from hardliners, arrested and rounded up the top brass of the previous administration upon the allegation that they bought land below market value. The move echoes the deafness and arrogance that brought about the demise of the previous government. It leaves the country walking on eggshells.

Photo Courtesy of Kaieteur News

Even a political novice would tell you that when the economy in a plural society with a crack down the middle, is in crisis and tension and resistance are building, you do not inflame the situation by arresting or seeking to prosecute the entire top brass of your political opponent  ALL AT ONCE. The opposition commands about 50 percent of support from the electorate at last count and the cleavage is along ethnic lines. Under the circumstances, any attempt at mass prosecution or jailing of the top brass of the opposition will give rise to selective listening, selective retention and a strong dose of dissonance. It will result in a crisis.

Crises don’t just spring up from nowhere. They have a seed, a root and a stem that mutates into many branches that become uncontrollable. If you look beyond the horizon you will see the seed, the root and the stem of instability already swaying in the wind in Georgetown and the country-side. To push forward with its agenda and move Guyana forward, the government needs to extinguish the lingering threats before picking another fight. It is true that Opposition Leader Bharat Jagdeo and his henchmen ruled with an iron fist and showed signs of mercilessness in their dealing with opponents. He stirred up a great deal of anger among his opponents who would love to see him and all his henchmen hauled away in handcuffs but such a mass prosecution would grind the productive and economic sector in the Capital and countryside, to a halt. As much as Jagdeo and his henchmen are hated by their opponents, they are revered by the dominant ethnic group in Guyana.

Arresting Top Brass of  FORMEr Government NOT Prudent

Creating Hysteria:

Every government should take a tough stance against corruption but it should avoid unnecessary hysteria that could spiral out of control and result in the country being ungovernable. The mass arrest or rounding up of the top brass of the previous government will have exactly that effect. Everyone who has the slightest undertstanding of the enormous influence the two major political parties exert on their constituencies, know that supporters of neither party would sit back and watch the top brass of their party being hauled through the courts into a jail cell. It is the reason why the PPP avoided going after its political opponent when it was in power.

Reflecting on current tension U.S. President Donald Trump and his predecessor, Barrack Obama, U.S. presidential historian Douglas Brinkley puts it this way, “There are these kinds of things that have happened in the past, but nothing to the degree where a sitting president would charge his predecessor with a felony,” adding that “It creates a feeling of instability in the United States.” This is even worse in a society such as Guyana where there is deep ethnic division.

Undermining Government’s Agenda:

The political theatre that has seen the arrest and rounding of up Two former President and almost the entire top layer of the previous government will undermine the coalition government’s agenda. Coming at a time when the economy is floundering and the government is implementing austerity measures, this drama couldn’t have been more untimely. It is beyond dispute that major investors and even small businesses make investment decisions based on a forecast of their operating environment. If trouble or any disruption of the operating environment is forecast, investors will shrink their footprint in the economy.

The mass rounding up of the top brass of the former government gives rise to such a forecast and will result in the economy contracting further. The government is shooting itself in the foot by pandering to the extreme wing of its political base. No government benefits from even a fear of instability so it is difficult to comprehend why the Granger administration is stoking fears of instability. Anyone who believes rounding up the top layer of the previous government and dangling the prospect of a mass prosecution and incarceration will not stoke fears of instability is in deep sleep. In the end, the government will have to decide whether its top priority is to revive the economy, move the country forward and secure a second mandate or visit its political opponents with vengeance. The two spectrums of possibilities are not concurrent.

Reduces Likelihood of Success: 

The mass rounding up of political opponents is made worse by the extent to which it undermines the government’s own likelihood of success. Successful prosecution requires the commitment of significant resources. Even in wealthy countries with sophisticated prosecutorial resources, prosecutors do NOT pursue several high profile cases at the same time. Resources should be consolidated to adequately and effectively prosecute a case. That cannot be achieved, particularly in Guyana where resources are limited, by prosecuting a battalion of high profile politicians with deep pockets and the most competent lawyers in the country. When the pool of competent lawyers retained by these high profile defendants dries up, the government wounldn’t even be able to assemble a large enough team of competent special prosecutors even if it wanted to. A handful of special prosecutors cannot effectively handle all of these high profile cases.

Already, the state is bursting at the seams with the volume of litigation it is ensnared in. The government already has a significant docket of high profile cases that it is struggling to keep up with and there are other high stakes cases that could significantly impact the state, looming. While the government was rounding up the potential defendants its Attorney-General was being ordered to pay cost to his opponent in another high profile case brought against the state by embattled Chairman of the Public Service Commission, Carvil Duncan for what the Kaieteur News reports as unpreparedness in that case. According to the local newspaper, an affidavit which the court granted the Attorney-General leave to file over a month ago was not filed. You may also recall that the appeal of the decision on former President Jagdeo racial incitement case was dismissed because of blunders in that case. These events are indicative of the extent to which the government’s ability to cope with the burden of litigation, is stretched thin. Adding more than a dozen high profile and high stakes cases to the docket, all at the same time, is a poorly thought out strategy.

Parked in a Legitimacy Gap: Why The Georgetown Parking Meters Controversy is a Political Millstone

There comes a moment in time when a government must turn its gaze to the future.  There is that moment when history must serve as the beacon for a people to clear the path to prosperity not as a sword of vengeance. As a beacon, history is potent and valuable. As a sword of vengeance, history could be destructive and counter-productive. In divided plural societies, political leaders are under tremendous pressure to pull hard towards the extreme wing of their base, pandering to anchors of partnership. If the APNU/AFC government pulls too hard to the extreme right, it could unwittingly open the crack down the middle, leaving a gap so wide, it would be impossible to reconcile. The applause, laughter and excitement could quickly be replaced by despair. It is imperative that the government tackles corruption with a tough hand but it should focus on now and the future. If it keeps looking back it may end up like Lot’s wife.

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