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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