by Nigel Westmaas
Guyana’s recent general elections, held on March 2, remains mired in an implausible and very suspicious delay that is hardly transparent. It is already one of the most contentious and potentially dangerous elections since independence. The country now awaits a formal supervised recount but at certain moments it seemed as if the society would erupt into chaos and violence. The country is still on the brink.
Political parties are the main forum and fulcrum in which the two main ethnic groups in Guyana engage in a highly racialized socio-economic and political contest. The 2020 election is no different. The focus in the public arena has centred on the moral and practical issues of the election, that is, the calls for recount and transparency. And when the issue of “race,” the elephant in the room, is highlighted, there is disclaimer by some voices in the opposition. “This is not about race, this is about free and fair elections,” they affirm. When the opposition leader Bharrat Jagdeo and his camp repeat the proclamation, “this election has nothing to do with race, or an ethnic issue” they are being disingenuous.
Those who dare to be frank about race and the background context on the evasions on race are either accorded blanket silence or scattershot condemnation for bringing ‘race’ into what, to them should just be a matter of free and fair elections.
This is most unfortunate. Although it is quite logical, essential and expected for the opposition and the international community to call for a “pure”, objective and dispassionate response to the election result or non-result/recount etc., race and racism are very much embedded in public (spoken or written) discourse and debate on the 2020 elections. While Guyanese have always been aware of race and racial vibes, the era of social media has weaponised the racial commentary – from the subtle to the most offensive – on Facebook, Whatsapp and other social media.
In a previous Demerara Waves opinion, I offered other points bearing on the root of our consistent problem with race, especially at election time. I alluded to the general lack of unrelenting effort (public education) and openness on discussions of race.
I mean by this there has never been any active and sustained anti-racist education within the main political parties in Guyana’s history. The Working People’s Alliance (WPA) launched its political calling on the basis of multiracialism but when it came to elections even the WPA realised that its goals for multiracial unity had it limits and was aspirational rather than practical. The AFC attained some of those goals in multiracial organising in 2011 and 2016.
There have been many interventions by social scientists and historians in published documents on the subject of race in Guyana. Dr. Melissa Ifill, in a recent post on Facebook, provided a useful summary of the positions of some of the main contributors on race. She identified Walter Rodney, MG Smith, Robert Moore, Ralph Premdas, CY Thomas, Brackette Williams and George Beckford. To these I would add Eusi Kwayana, Andaiye, Eric Phillips, Vishnu Bisram, Brian Moore, Ryhaan Shah, Alissa Trotz, Tacuma Ogunseye, Baytoram Ramharack, David Hinds, Rohit Kanhai, Judaman Seecomar, Frederick Kissoon, Percy Hintzen, and Ravi Dev (among many others). All of these perspectives from many sides of the ethnic equation have enriched and also provided a wide fount of information over time. Yet, to what extent are these voices and printed words digested and utilized in debates in the society, in parliament, political parties or public fora?
In 1999 Eusi Kwayana published No Guilty Race which, like his previous booklet Next Witness, published in 1962, dared to record public instances of racialized elections in 1961 and in the 1990s. But public knowledge and a close readings of all these useful contributions to race in Guyana are very seldom recalled and or utilized in public debate or in negotiation for power sharing. Instead, we are more familiar with letters and commentary on social media and television that often rely on anecdotes and sound bites as opposed to sober, responsible analysis and potential solutions to the decades long issues related to race in Guyana.
To make matters worse, the most malignant racial stereotypes of each racial grouping, as identified by Brian Moore in the 19th century and those of more contemporary vintage, have been deployed in 2020.
The colonial power that supervised the racialised socio-economic polity called British Guiana knew exactly how to divide and conquer. They did so while re-producing their own white supremacist notions of power. No modern gloss machine on Britain’s colonial legacy now being disseminated can hide that sordid history. For example, in 1925, BG Governor Sir Graeme Thomson wrote to the Secretary of State for the Colonies stating: “no film is to be exhibited in which there is the least suggestion of intimacy between men of the Negro race and white women.” The Governor was said to be “motivated by a desire not to bring ‘the white race into derision…or disrespect’ ”
In addition to this record of historical intra group stereotyping, one of the more sobering developments in the current electoral moment is the level of anti-black and anti-Indian invective that has erupted on social media. In the few weeks after the election, comments directed to Afro-Guyanese supporters of APNU-AFC went beyond the traditional stereotypes and drew from some of the most racist tropes that emerged from Atlantic slavery and the Euro-American colonial exploitation of people of African descent. Many of the commentators who focus on the current electoral impasse have ignored the emergence of this nastiness or dismissed it as an “aberration” disconnected from the current impasse.
Why are these “racial chants” and stereotypes still so prevalent more than 50 years after independence? It is the collective memory (and rivalry) of both groups filtered through either the trope of the “1960s” (and the race riots) or more recent events, elections, social and racial violence in two separate regime clusters, PNC (28 years) and PPP (23 years). GHK Lall, in his book with the eerily prophetic title of Sitting On A Racial Volcano (Guyana Uncensored) identified the racial stereotyping very clearly. For him, racist discourse is reproduced “out of earshot”, that is in families, bars, intra political party meetings, and words on the wind from the past and numerous other everyday sources.
According to Lall many Indian Guyanese perceive the “black man as lazy, unproductive, hostile, aggressive, predatory, criminally inclined, focused on conspicuous consumption, instant gratification, and government subsidy.”
And many African Guyanese, states Lall, see Indians as “passive, covetous, corrupt, tricky, manipulative, and lacking in intestinal fortitude.”
The current situation where one side of the ethnic equation is in general ‘celebrating’ victory and the other side relapses into indignation and despair has obviously been simmering for decades and at elections there is, amazingly, ‘surprise’ at the animosity on all sides. It is in this context that I believe the Moses Bhagwan- Eusi Kwayana open letter intervention in March was important. Bhagwan and Kwayana (among others) have been at this gritty, thankless work for decades, work that has included constitutional proposals, multiracial work on the ground, and interventions tiny and grand, in and out of election season. To quote Bhagwan: “I can only say that from the sixties there has not been any season in which proposals for national unity have not been timely.”
The late social activist Andaiye, whose “not in my name” expression has been repeated during this election cycle, was indeed explicit in her criticism of the actions of any political regime and/or movement. Andaiye was concurrently a champion of progressive socio-economic change, women’s rights and multiracial unity and saw them as all connected and was continuously in contact with the WPA and likewise engaged constituents on all sides of the equation at a private level.
In fact the search for unity is more varied than our fickle collective memory allows. Space allows only a brief, partial list of these public attempts
* In 1961 Eusi Kwayana (then Sidney King) called for “Joint and equal premiership” or partition (as a last resort) after the elections of that year.
* In 1973 in a booklet titled “Election Thoughts” Guyanese icon Norman Cameron stated: “Something is definitely wrong in ‘BG’. I am with those who believe that a National Government, either a coalition of all parties or nominated and representing all interests, will solve our problems much more readily than a government inclined to a single party state.”
*1975: A report by journalist Rickey Singh noted that Burnham and Jagan agreed on a “peace plan”, PPP to be represented on all boards, corporations” (part of the critical support dialogue),
*1976-1977: Secret PNC-PPP talks on National Patriotic Front (Belfield House); at least three meetings.
* 1978: Constituent assembly – the Trades Union Congress (TUC) led by Joseph Pollydore put forward power sharing proposals that were rejected by the ruling party at the time.
*1979: Citizens letter called for broad based government of national reconstruction.
*1979: WPA’s call for a Government of National Unity and Reconstruction (at the time this proposal omitted the PNC).
*1982: Guyana Council of Churches meeting/proposal for a broad based government.
*1982: Vanguard for Liberation and Democracy (VLD) statement in “Defence of a broad based anti dictatorial government.
*1985: Power sharing talks on potential unity government between PPP and PNC.
*WPA initiative late 1990/9—letters to all parties including PNC for caretaker government to take the country into elections. WPA met officially with PNC for the first time. Hoyte agreed to caretaker government, says will discuss modalities if Jagan agrees.
*1990: ROAR and Ravi Dev attempt to hold all party talks with the PPP, PNC and WPA.
* 2002: Talks between 5 party coalition
This summary of the aspirational attempts at one form of power sharing or other only consists of some of the major exertions on this front. But if all these failed what is the solution? What is the best way to confront race without contributing to a war of words (and denial) that would worsen rather than heal the divide especially at elections?
The country is still far off from ethnic security and the oil discovery has compounded the problem of who will hold the state resources in the wake of the elections. The insurmountable difficulty has been inaction and the failure of representatives and leadership of the two major racial groups to be honest on racial division. Each stubbornly insists that theirs is the party that has managed to “solve” the race issue through one form or other of racial tokenism. And it is a seemingly herculean task to connect with the vast majority of Indians and Africans without going through their political leaders. As Martin Carter memorably stated, in Guyana “we have leaders who follow from in front.” In practical terms, after a result is formally announced, the 2020 elections will require truly national leadership on a scale we have never witnessed before for “power sharing” to be achievable.
I still hold to the idealism of the past in terms of multiracial unity undergirded by power sharing. But the decades have taken their toll. It is easy to be cynical as present events have shattered the facile confidence invested in formal election bodies supervising transition. There have been other ruptures, not only restricted to still fragile ethnic relations. Irrespective of timing, and to repeat the obvious, I believe the only way out of the impasse is through some form of power sharing after an election recount and accepted result. “Power sharing” in its broad embrace should or can include:
- Open public education about the real concerns and dilemmas of each racial grouping in Guyana including Amerindians (history to be taught about the roots of racial division especially from the modern period since independence)
- A commitment by political parties to embrace and elevate frank conversation among their members and supporters to help tackle racism and stereotyping in the ranks
- Constitutional ‘revolution’ not reform
- Power sharing procedures overseen by independent sectors (if these still exist)
- Cross community dialogue from the grassroots embracing culture and frank discussion of ethnic fears etc.
- Inter-political party talks
The sum total of past failure in debate and action in power sharing and concurrent absence of fundamental constitutional change (along with the unanticipated global coronavirus) essentially means, to paraphrase a widely misunderstood comment by black activist Malcolm X, that the chickens have come home to roost in 2020.
Nigel Westmaas is Associate Professor of Africana Studies at Hamilton College in New York, U.S.A.