OPINION: Independence and modern Guyana: conditional celebration

Last Updated on Sunday, 26 May 2024, 11:40 by Writer

by Dr. Nigel Westmaas

Professor Nigel Westmaas

National independence is often heralded as a definitive step towards self-determination and the realisation of a country’s aspirations. However, in the case of Guyana, like many post-colonial societies since formal independence, the promise of true autonomy and directed post-independence progress remains superficial in several ways. When Guyana gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1966, it was envisioned as a turning point towards greater national control, cultural and political renaissance, and national unity.

Yet, the political landscape of independent Guyana has been marked by ethnic divisions, election rigging, hegemonic moves, hostility and/or indifference to constitutional reform, and partisan conflicts that undermined the country’s ability to forge a cohesive national identity and policy direction, leaving the concept of independence feeling somewhat hollow. Socially and culturally, while independence enabled the celebration of Guyanese identity through the display of the national flag, anthem, along with political speeches by successive governments on the day itself, the significant gap between the lofty promises of independence and the actual experiences of many Guyanese highlights the superficial nature of the independence achieved. It suggests a façade of autonomy, behind which lies ongoing dependence on external forces and unresolved internal discord.

In recent times, there have been hints of national unity, but these were in a sense “external” to the body politic, such as the support for the Palestinian cause with the events in Gaza and unity against the existential threat from Venezuela. And supporters of the regime currently in power have waxed lyrical about realpolitik in any other sphere except the domestic. For instance, there have been calls for normalisation of ties with Israel (before the recent horrors in Gaza) and calls for a US base on Guyanese soil (so far, we have had the spectacle of a fly over of US jets). But what about internal realpolitik?  Would this not be even more efficacious in not only building national unity but would paradoxically, raise the status of the ruling party? Yet they continue to choose self-defeating hegemony, exclusion, and authoritarianism. 

Both regimes that have held office since independence love the spectacle of aimless commentary about natural resources and national unity but below the surface one can notice the superficiality. The current regime stresses “One Guyana,” which in essence is another version of PPP Guyana. And the signs are obvious.

Case in point: Co-opting individuals and organisations with Exxon money (coupled with fear) – in essence, a measure to miniaturise any existing opposition with an approach that suggests only the ruling party and state matters.

Case in point: hostility towards labor unions that continue real advocacy for their workers. Those who previously advocated for “class analysis” now remain silent, and the state’s response to the teachers’ strike illustrates this shift. Instead of acknowledging the strike as a legitimate call for redress from educators, the government has politicised the issue, treating it as a mere political maneuver rather than addressing the underlying grievances of the teachers.

Case in point: The continuation of what a previous regime deemed “Development support journalism,” indicative in the content of the Guyana Chronicle and the television outlets under government control.

Case in point: foot dragging on constitutional reform and the delight in the same old Burnham constitution with its vast powers of the president and executive overreach. 

Case in point: Treating parliament as a sideshow referral institution.

Case in point: In an era where the Guyana skyline is increasingly dominated by the gleaming façades of new hotels, we must pause and reflect on the priorities that truly matter. The construction of luxurious accommodations might stimulate economic activity and create jobs, yet, if these developments come at the expense of the fundamental needs of the people—such as fair salaries and essential services—can’t the people question such progress? Hotels stand tall, as symbols of economic prowess and potential for tourism, but they can also cast long shadows over the basic needs of the local populace and can undermine the psychological well-being of the masses, who feel overlooked and undervalued.

Another case in point is the use of dancing and photo opportunities with “the other,” a tactic steeped in political tradition. This age-old strategy, employed by countless politicians throughout history, involves public displays of unity with diverse groups to project an image of inclusiveness and cooperation. These orchestrated events are designed to garner public favor by superficially bridging cultural or social divides, yet often they do little to address the underlying issues or bring about real change. This approach, while perhaps visually appealing as a “potential” for national unity, typically serves more as a political maneuver to enhance image rather than to forge genuine connections or solutions.

The only area of national life that appears thus far to be independent from the self-absorbed tentacles of the state is the judiciary.

There are also very few critiques of the global class system as witnessed in the past. We are in essence, in an age of passivism, of acceptance of the ravages of global capitalism, and the “normalisation” of acceptance of the power of big corporations. To be fair, this is not only a Guyana problem, but the dominance of global capitalism has also ensured certain forms of compliance (or “reality” as some infer) to Western (and increasingly Chinese) economic and political power.

Concurrently, environmental degradation represents another area where the concept of national independence seems increasingly superficial. Environmental catastrophe recognises no borders. According to a report in The Guardian dated October 27, 2023, the world’s leading climate scientists have warned that the planet is perilously close to an “‘irreversible’ climate breakdown,” and that “time is really running out very, very fast.” Amidst this urgency, the question arises: where are the so-called “champions of the earth” now? Guyana stands on the brink of receiving substantial oil revenues that can alter the lives of its people. However, this raises a critical question: to what end in the long term, if climate change is universal and multinational corporations continue to prioritise their relentless pursuit of vast, cascading wealth, even at the cost of human survival on the planet? The crucial question that emerges is: which societies will have the resilience to withstand the impending ravages of climate change?

In any event, to echo a familiar sentiment, Happy Independence Day—but we urgently require more. Guyanese policymakers must move beyond routine statements and clichés and embrace a genuine passion and a comprehensive strategic vision to effectively combat poverty and dependency and acting with other nations in a collective push back against those powerful nations and multinational corporations that continue to pillage and destroy the planet. The celebration of independence must transcend the typical, uninspiring stump speeches that often repeat the same old rhetoric. Instead, it should ignite a spirited commitment to real and substantive national unity, nurturing through difficult outreach to the opposition and other sectors of society not necessarily supporters of the government, a sense of unison and purpose that genuinely reflects the aspirations and potential of the nation. Anything else will be narrow, mean-spirited, and ultimately catastrophic. 

Dr. Nigel Westmaas is a historian and politician.