OPINION: The Struggle to Dominate “Exxon Guyana”: The Strategy and Tactics of the PPP State

Last Updated on Saturday, 10 June 2023, 21:14 by Writer

By Dr Nigel Westmaas

Professor Nigel Westmaas

In recent years, the political landscape in Guyana has been marked by a transactional approach to governance, primarily driven by the influence of former President Bharrat Jagdeo, who assumed office in 1999. What I am calling the new transactional model operates through broad and specific political actions and intent, but it is characterized by control, control, control over everything, and what can’t be controlled, is sequestered, destroyed, or marginalized. This transactional approach also involves consolidating the party’s embedded ethnic support base through cooptation and the reduction, destruction and humiliation of other main ethnic groups and the organisations and people representing them. These actions are based upon gaining, maintaining and absolutizing power and wealth, often at the expense of ethical norms. This hostility is also reserved for Indian Guyanese who do not conform to ‘expectations” of support for an ethnically based party. 

The fairly recent change in government in 2020, following the APNU coalition’s attempt to rig the elections, has resulted in a new dispensation that aims to gradually transform the State to serve the ruling party’s interests. This approach is now bolstered by substantial oil revenues while Guyana is plagued by societal decay at all levels. This pattern of governance reveals itself on a daily basis and is more and more resembling the form and content of governance embodied in that of authoritarian democracies worldwide, which Arif Bulkan described in a 2019 text as the “architecture and production of authoritarianism.” In such systems, the ruling government employs various tactics to suppress opposition parties, limit freedom of the press, and exert control over civil society organizations to maintain its hold on power. Although citizens have the right to participate in the political process, these rights are often undermined by the government’s actions. Examples of countries currently described as authoritarian democracies include Russia, Turkey, India, and Venezuela. The influence of global political dynamics with leaders like Trump and other authoritarian leaders can likewise shape the behavior and actions of politicians in Guyana, contributing to a shift towards more authoritarian tendencies. This highlights the need to examine the broader context and international influences when discussing the behavior of politicians and the state of politics in Guyana.

The Jagdeo strategy is designed to solidify the PPP’s power over Guyanese society, all the while making minimal or no concessions to an inclusive and compassionate political culture or system. This approach contradicts the principle of “with malice toward none,” which should serve as the foundation for a healthy political culture that fosters national unity. Instead of fostering a culture of “people’s power,” the strategy actively pursues dominion reminiscent of a “join the PPP in red color” mentality, where money and opportunities are directed towards those who pledge loyalty to the party. 

Jagdeo’s political trajectory is notable for its departure from the traditional mold of Guyanese politicians. While many of his predecessors were entrenched in the country’s political culture and history, Jagdeo’s emergence coincided with the era of globalization (he was once employed under former President Desmond Hoyte – the latter known for his zealous neo-liberal implementation of IMF decrees), which inclined him towards pragmatic politics rather than ideological affiliations. As a result, he and the party-state distanced themselves from their party’s original Marxist-Leninist ideology and old-style politics, with one notable exception: Jagdeo learnt, adopted and fused together certain principles already embedded in the Peoples Progressive Party and from the other political party, the PNC and Burnham’s pragmatic political philosophy. 

In sum, Jagdeo’s tactical framework is typical of embedded tendencies in autocratic rule, that is, politically adaptable and ideologically uncommitted strategies that seeks to control the economy and dismantle any challenge to the PPP’s support base. The strategy is chiefly aimed at co-opting specific sections of civil society and ethnic enclaves.

The PPP and its tactics on Race

One of the significant challenges that the PPP faces is the deeply rooted issue of race within Guyanese society, particularly in the political and electoral arenas. While financial gain seems to be Jagdeo’s primary motivation, the ideology is firmly rooted in racism, which it tries to conceal using “plausible deniability” tactics. These tactics are similar to those employed by the Republican party in the United States, in other terms, projecting a non-racial or multi-racial image by highlighting certain key individuals from the Black community. However, in both cases, these tactics appropriate elements of marginalized cultures or movements while ignoring or erasing the struggles and experiences of those communities. In Guyana, this practice involves showcasing symbolic representatives of diversity, without actually addressing systemic and historically produced inequality, which reinforces the power dynamics and uneven relations within society.

In Guyana, African-Guyanese individuals aligned with the PPP wear “red shirts”(the party colour) to demonstrate their loyalty, but this often involves suppressing any expression(s) of African pride or culture. This has been evident in actions and statements made by African-Guyanese PPP supporters who, in general, have distanced themselves from identifying too closely (if at all) with Black history or ethnic affirmation. In essence, African-Guyanese individuals feel compelled to suppress their African pride or cultural expression. It suggests that the affiliation with the PPP may come at the cost of embracing and celebrating one’s racial or cultural heritage. This tension can create challenges for individuals who seek to navigate their political engagement while also asserting their racial identity and cultural heritage inside the ‘new’ outfit.

The PPP’s main strategy is to mobilize its ethnic base by making racial insinuations “out of sight and earshot,” as GHK Lall pointed out in his book “Guyana: A Racial Volcano.” Those African Guyanese who do not support the PPP (among them traditional supporters of the PNC) are often stereotyped into three broad categories: election riggers, violent street protestors, and partygoers. The PPP’s token gestures, such as a not so recent radio program, have been criticized for perpetuating the racist stereotype that “black people like to party” and can be easily pacified with material rewards instead of being treated with dignity. These token gestures do not address the underlying issues faced by the Black community and instead reinforce harmful stereotypes.

Additionally, the PPP and the state rely on “soft” racism by blaming the main challenger, the opposition party (the PNC), and simultaneously attempting to fragment the main opposition group and black organizations to erode their traditional Black political support. This strategy was also perpetuated by the PNC in their time and is a form of racial window dressing. It is a bait and switch strategy. It is essentially an exchange of ‘One Nation, One People, One Destiny’ with ‘One Guyana.’

It is crucial to acknowledge that a state or political party in power has the right to reach out to other racial groups that may not have traditionally supported them; in fact, such initiatives are welcome if we are to achieve a genuine and inclusionary multiracial democracy. However, the problem arises when this outreach takes on a manipulative format that aims to destroy the cultural and political identity of the African community (including organisations and causes they support) without acknowledging their collective consciousness and dignity. This behavior is not done for the betterment of society of multiracial democracy, it is the part of the process of the reproduction of power. 

For instance, the PPP and the state are officially attempting to dismantle the agency of African Guyanese organizations like IPDADA-G, along with attempts to bribe or influence communities like Buxton. Instead of addressing the issue of race and working towards a more inclusive and equitable society, the party and government’s tactic is to subsume racial contradictions to uphold the ‘paramountcy of the party’ as utilized under the post-1980 Burnham regime.

Variations of these tactics are also extant in the indigenous community where “opposition” indigenous groups are sidelined while the state attempts to coopt and control broad indigenous support. 

Jagdeo the de facto President will follow the same logic as it did in the previous election cycles and is essentially the sequestration of the state in the service of the hegemony of the PPP.

Assaults on public opinion 

In spite of a relatively restrained media body in the country, the party in government is likewise hypersensitive to media operatives and media criticisms. 

The PPP has historically struggled with public relations, and their credibility has diminished significantly in the years after 1999. As a result, they have resorted to hiring a now resident academic advisor, Dr. Randolph Persaud, to coordinate their media response to challenges from the opposition and individuals, all of whom are summarily dismissed by state representatives as ‘opposition’ and ‘anti-government.’ Persaud is now aligned with a coterie of government ‘attack dogs’ including his tag team partner, the newly refurbished Frederick Kissoon at the state-owned Guyana Chronicle. The Chronicle itself has never maintained independence under the two parties that have controlled the society since independence and has gained notoriety for its biased coverage and censorship of opposition voices, even extending to letters.

In small societies like Guyana, opponents can be silenced through the transactional employment of former foes who use their supposed influence to exert pressure. These politicians (now in power) may seize upon instances of attempted rigging, such as during the 2020 election, and condemn it with fervor, despite having been enthusiastic supporters of the same political party when it had rigged elections in the past. Kit Nascimento’s letters and statements serve as a prime example of this bipolar conduct, as he has come full circle from his fervent anti-communist and anti-PPP stance in the 1960s to supporting his old foes in the current government without any hint of self-criticism for his past public relations support of repression against opposition organisations and defense of rigged elections by the other Guyana political behemoth, the PNC. 

Unfortunately, recent attacks on media houses, journalists, and others are symptomatic of the PPP’s attempt to browbeat all sectors of society into submission. This tactic is designed to stifle dissent, deflect attention from open questions being asked all toward maintaining the party’s grip on power, with the enticement of oil power.

Control over Security Forces

One clear indication of the PPP’s attempt to control the security services is the placement of key personnel based not necessarily on their professional aptitude (with a few exceptions) but rather on their loyalty to the ruling party or its operatives and who are consequently leapfrogged into strategic positions at the helm of the force. This has been particularly evident in the case of the police. Moreover, in a country where the military has been criticized historically for its general uni-racial nature, the PPP has promoted personnel from the military who are loyal to the party and carry out its instructions.

The PPP, in its pursuit of absolute control over the oil economy in Guyana, employs various tactics, including the use of legislative and legal power to intimidate potential opposition within the security services and suppress unrest. Bribery is another tool utilized by the party to maintain control over the upper echelons of the military and police, with the party utilizing oil resources in both the short and long term to achieve this control. Additionally, the PPP extends its control by issuing “challenges” to the security forces to act on behalf of the state. The recent push for a legally entrenched national intelligence service underscores the party’s future objectives to spy on opposition groups and individuals both domestically and abroad. These developments are concerning, and the potential rise of an Orwellian surveillance state in such a small society is alarming. 

Political Narrative of the PPP

An allied aspect of the PPP’s power is its desire to control the intellectual legacy or narrative of the party’s historical role in Guyana. Traditionally, the PPP has seen itself as historical “victim” in Guyana, but the PPP’s adverse political culture over time and especially in the period between 1999 and 2015 contradicts this claim. During that time, there were high levels of social violence, corruption, and the use of paramilitary forces to control the crime situation, including the killings of mainly Black men and a few high-profile executions of political opponents that remain unsolved.

The PPP relies heavily on its ‘us vs. them’ mantra and the demonization of anyone not in the PPP camp, as exemplified by Attorney General Anil Nandlall’s comments after the 2020 elections about the triumph of “good over evil”. This statement is concerning because it implies that the party in power sees itself as incapable of fault and not open to any criticism or self-reflection. Moreover, it perpetuates a completely one-sided narrative of victimhood that ignores the historical and contemporary realities of the country’s fraught political divide.

Recent events, such as the demonization of Tacuma Ogunseye (the spectacle of leg chains intact), the harassment of media personnel, attacks on individuals and civil society groups and now the proposed creation of a spy agency, demonstrate the consequences of the “good over evil” narrative. This suggests that the party may use this narrative to justify strategic prosecutions and other actions that further their agenda, rather than promoting the best interests of the country as a whole.

The resulting fear generated by this pressure can compel ordinary people to either remain silent or comply to survive, ultimately leading to a breakdown in civil society in Guyana. As a result, many groups fail to consistently speak out against these tactics.

In conclusion, local pundits have the right to express their opinions on the 2020 elections, but they should do so while acknowledging the actions of the PPP from 1999 to 2015. It is important to recognize that the PPP is as guilty for the country’s tribulations as the other main political party. If national unity and sharing of the country’s wealth is the ultimate goal this will not be achieved by one political party’s dominance as evident in the party’s pursuit of social and political hegemony. We must remain wary of the dangers of arrogance and self-righteousness, which can lead to authoritarianism, and insist instead on upholding democracy in our pursuit of a united and prosperous nation.

In addition to the need for national unity, it is essential to address income inequality and environmental degradation in Guyana. Despite the potential now visible with oil resources, Guyana’s income distribution remains highly uneven, with a large portion of the population living near the margins of existence while a few enjoy immense wealth. Addressing this issue is crucial to achieving true unity and prosperity in the country. However, this will not happen through bribery of certain population groups or political maneuvers such as manipulating ethnic support on the “auction block.”

The recent national tragedy in Mahdia and the subsequent response from the state exemplify a concerning absence of a moral compass and a genuine moral commitment. Rather than harnessing the overwhelming empathy expressed by all sectors affected by the tragedy, the authorities chose to monopolize the mourning process and exploit it for political gain. This self-serving approach lies at the heart of the State’s strategy. Their so-called governance approach will ultimately lead to a national tragedy of greater proportions.