By Nigel Westmaas
Guyana’s national election was held on Monday, March 2. We are now more than a week away from that date and there is still no declaration of a ‘winner’. The elections were held under conditions of decades and decades’ long ethnic and racial division and suspicion of the other.
The confusion that descended on the country in the days that followed made international news.
I am one of those Guyanese denizens who live abroad (whose voices are in that complex bind of being both wanted and unwanted) who could not vote but supported one of the major contesting entities, that is, the APNU-AFC.
Like others who have spoken, I call on all parties to respect the verifiable count — even if that count results in an electoral ‘win’ for the opposition. But the election arithmetic of “winner takes all” has proven to be untenable as we have witnessed over and over again.
Many people in the official opposition, civil society and international observers rightly want an immediate condemnation of any hint of electoral fraud. And if all parties go into election on an agreed formula then the result must be respected. However, the supporters of both ‘sides’ on and off the streets are expressing a deep, profound need for living in an equitable society. And “elections” periodically heightens the all consuming fear of being excluded ‘forever’ on the basis of ethnic numbers.
Paradoxically, even though one might have hoped there would be full agreement and peaceful transfer of power on the basis of verifiable results in the aftermath of Election Day — the court action brought by the opposition – might just give the country a chance to breathe — for the opposition party and the incumbent to hold back and find a peaceful transitional way forward. even with the declaration of a verifiable winner. It might just be that glimmer of hope — a chance to finally confront and grapple constitutionally and morally with the untenability of “winner-takes-all politics” and the reality that ‘free and fair’ in Guyana really results in one or more groups feeling excluded.
One of the striking things about this country is that there is a general on-going suppression of honesty about race, ethnic insecurity and the history of racial division. When the ‘race’ issue is raised there is almost an inevitable refrain of impatience, a desire to push the subject away for fear of offending or openly articulating one’s own racial fears or insecurity. This failing to confront candidly and honestly a matter that is at the frontal lobe of the nation is the reason for this nightmare of an election. The root of the problem is historical in origin and the blurred historical memory and absence of ongoing education about race leads to suspicion of the motives of the other. And the political parties who ‘win’ fail to assist the situation when they continually stack their cabinets and parliamentary representatives with “their own”. The main political parties almost never extend their hand for shared governance except at the very superficial level (read Prime Minister candidate of the ‘other’ race.).
As far as I know there is no public education on the issue of race relations and racial security for all (especially the main groups, Indians, African and Amerindians). As far as I know none of the two major political party behemoths in Guyana have ever carried out anti-racism or ‘cultural sensitivity’ (for want of a better phrase) training in their respective political parties. Both parties have historically given lip service to the view that they are racially dispassionate and above race. Both find the convenience of an individual or individuals of other races scattered conveniently in their ranks as “proof” of being above reproach and “openness” to the other “side”. Again, and again, this have proven to be a fiction. Everyone else and the political parties in their own right know very well the opposite is true. This negative ‘racial literacy’ and passion at the existential level overcomes every public façade of unity in the respective political organisation. At national elections these passions become manifest and can be deadly to the survival of the country.
Long after the foreign observers have gone Guyana will be back to confronting its all-consuming racial problem.
In about 2011, I started documenting what I call a “Bibliography of Race and Race Relations in Guyana.” I listed approximately 2,000 published documents inclusive of letters to the press, books and newspaper reports among other sources dating back to about 1839. I have barely scratched the surface. Despite this published history of discussion and intervention on our racialised society, we have gone nowhere. This indicates that the source(s) of this racial impasse lies both in the absence of frankness about race and the lip service given historically to constitutional and other forms of social and political redress that allow for all groups to breathe without fearing racial domination of the other.
The racial epithets that emerged on social media (and I must state this, especially anti-black racist invective) was most distasteful and horrific and underlines the events on the days after the peaceful voting on election day.
This 2020 election is probably the most significant moment in our history. What we do in the coming days will narrow the choice between horror and hope.
Nigel Westmaas is Associate Professor of Africana Studies at Hamilton College in New York, U.S.A. Westmaas has published articles in numerous periodicals, including the Stabroek News, a Guyanese newspaper. Westmaas is co-editor of a UNESCO-assisted booklet on a directory of Guyanese periodicals. His research for and contributing co-written article to the Marcus Garvey Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers Caribbean series project was published by the University of California Press. He also published a chapter in Black Power in the Post-Independence Anglophone Caribbean (University Press of Florida, 2014). Other research interests include the history of the newspaper press, pan-Africanism and the rise and impact of political and social movements, mainly in the Anglophone Caribbean. He earned his doctorate from SUNY Binghamton.