October 22, 2016

Race matters

While in New York towards the end of July at a reunion of overseas Guyanese from Skeldon, referring to the situation “back home”, Opposition Leader Bharrat Jagdeo was reported to have said, “There is an assault on our democracy. There is an assault on people of Indian origin. There is an assault on supporters of the PPP. What we thought would never return to Guyana, in just one short year has returned with full force, and even worse in some regards than the Burnham era.”

Honing in on the section that referred to “an assault on people of Indian origin”, a statement issued through the offices of the Prime Minister and Presidency “condemn(ed), in the strongest possible terms, the irresponsible, hateful race baiting and malicious fabrications and falsehoods uttered by Opposition Leader Mr Bharrat Jagdeo”. In the following days, a sharp debate has erupted on the claims and counter claims that, unfortunately, followed the lines of cleavage where race and politics coincide in Guyana.

Those that supported him in the press and social media pointed out that what he stated in New York was in no way different from what he and other members of the PPP had said in Guyana. They pointed out, for instance, the dismissal of a wide swathe of Indians from the Public Sector and Government corporations. The abrupt announcement of the closure of Wales Estate was cited as affecting mostly Indian Guyanese workers, as did the Government’s contention that it was not responsible for finding markets for rice, even after it refused to renegotiate with Venezuela to resuscitate the lucrative “Oil-for-Rice” Petro-Caribe deal.

What the debate confirms is that matters of race still elicit strong emotions in Guyana and the country cannot sweep the issue under the carpet. The platitudes about “not exploiting” race will not solve anything. As in the present brouhaha, who determines what is “exploitation” of race and what is not? Several commentators have asserted that the Government’s response to Jagdeo’s New York statement was opportunistic and could also be tagged as “race baiting”.

What is most depressing about the episode is after claims of “race baiting” by politicians have bedevilled Guyana for half a century, an Ethnic Relations Commission (ERC) was constitutionally mandated in 2000 to deal with this and other contingencies that may arise out of our racial/ethnic cleavages. The ERC emanated from the Herdmanston Accord which Caricom brokered between the PPP and the PNC after the latter launched street protests following the December 1997 elections that resulted in ethnic riots in Georgetown.

Article 212 (d) of the Constitution outlines 24 functions of the ERC, among which are to (3) “Discourage and prohibit persons, institutions, political parties and associates from indulging in, advocating or promoting discriminatory practices on the ground of ethnicity;

(4) Foster a sense of security among all ethnic groups by encouraging and promoting the understanding, acceptance and tolerance of diversity in all aspects of national life and promoting full participation by all ethnic groups in the social, economic, cultural and political life of the people.”

While the Government identified the need for “social cohesion” as one of its primary goals after the elections of May 2015, and launched a Ministry that is supposed to bring about that happy state, they have been accused of using this vehicle, which is totally an Executive creature, to sideline the ERC which is composed of representatives of a wide cross-section of Guyanese institutions, including ethnic ones.

The methodology of the Ministry of Social Cohesion to craft its Five Year Strategic Plan has served to confirm the suspicions of its critics that a process that is totally under the control of one “side” to the racial/ethnic cleavage would lack wide legitimacy. While the Government must go ahead with its efforts to increase social cohesion, the ERC must be constituted forthwith to directly address contentions related to race.