By Kiana Wilburg
Guyana has gained Independence from British rule for almost 50 years now. But upon reflection, is this all that Independence has come to signify? In fact, what has the country significantly gained since? What has it done with its freedom? What do Guyanese really have to celebrate for its 50th Independence Anniversary?
These questions still haunt many of the country’s most knowledgeable minds. Kaieteur News interviewed a few of the nation’s leaders and this is their take on how things are.
Special Technical Advisor on Tertiary Education, Vincent Alexander: When one talks about Independence, one is talking about a nation becoming sovereign. This means that the nation is in a position to be the ultimate decision maker in relation to its affairs and that there should be no control by a third party over the decision making process or the decisions of that nation. That’s a classical definition of what Independence means.
Now nothing is absolute and so independence is not absolute in its character. But the things that constrain or “circumscribe” your independence are things in which you can make a decision. Look at Cuba for example, which is highly independent but as a consequence of its high independence, it is under all sorts of pressures which impose hardships on the people of Cuba…
Human beings are social, material and psychological and when one talks about independence we have to look at all of those things. The psychological element is that you are free and are to think for yourself. And through that psychological state, we have been able to do things for this country that have not been done before. Independence has brought us elements of equality that we did not have. In the olden days, Britain determined who was going to be in the hierarchy of the civil service and you could not aspire to be there because that was there domain but it is no longer the case. Now there are more opportunities and there is an element of liberation. In the olden days our banking system was controlled by foreigners and we have gone through a process of independence and the banking system was transformed. Now you the GBTI, the Scotia Bank, the Republic Bank and this was unheard in those days. In that time it was Royal Bank and Barclays and in those banks there was a hierarchy that only certain people could have gotten into. And so that is not there anymore and I think there are certain benefits with our Independent status we have taken for granted. I believe that Independence is a continuum and there is still a struggle for all the characteristics of that ideal. I believe that people often judge where they are against the ideal and not where they came from and that prevents you sometimes from understanding how much you have achieved and have to celebrate.
Former President Donald Ramotar: Independence was the dream of Guyanese. In modern history it is clear that the PPP played the leading role in that fight. Dr Jagan was probably the first to call for independen
ce. In the process we came up against great resistance both from the colonialist and their local allies who resisted independence for our country. When Independence came, we still did not win the freedom we fought for. We got independence with a state of emergency in place and political
prisoners. CV Nunes was the most prominent. The PPP continued the fight. The freest period in our history was the 23 years the PPP Civic was in office. Now we have a military government in civilian garb in power and every day they are undermining our democracy. Racial and political discrimination coupled with witch hunting are the main characteristics of this regime. Squandermania and wastage underpins their economic policies. It is all about jobs for the boys and self aggrandizement with all those salary increases for Ministers even though they claim that we left them with a Consolidated Fund in heavy overdraft….so there is essentially nothing to celebrate this year. We are once again going back to the undemocratic rule which obtained under the PNC. The meaning of Independence is degenerating under the APNU+AFC administration.
University Professor, Dr. David Hinds: Political Independence in our context meant that at the political level we were now a sovereign country with our own constitution, our own national symbols and the formal power to determine our own political and socio-economic destiny. At the cultural level it meant a formalization of our own sense of nationhood and the freedom to
define what that means. In the final analysis, Independence meant self-determination and freedom from domination. In a larger sense it was a formal severance of ties to plantation-hood, which had characterized our condition for centuries. Above all, it was the fulfillment of the promise of Emancipation and the creation of new promises of freedom.
In a practical sense, no recent post-colonial country is fully independent. When Guyana became independent in 1966, we entered a world-order that was not created for us and so did not cater to our particular condition. We had gained formal independence, but that independence was tempered by a global order that was hostile to the notion of Independence on the part of ex-colonies.
We have had political independence, but we found it and continue to find very difficult to translate that into economic independence. Socio-economic development has been dependent on forces outside of our control. We are still, after 50 years of independence, dependent on the narrow economic base we inherited in 1966. We still continue to produce mainly for the consumption of others. Our economy continues to respond not to the needs of our people, but to the wishes of the global market over which we have no control. That said, it must be pointed out that there were attempts at economic independence in the early years, but these were frustrated by anti-nationalist forces and by our own internal ethno-political problems.
I wish to point to three areas in which we have failed our Independence.
First, for a country like Guyana to survive and carve out some little space in the global order, it needs national consensus. And we have failed miserably in that regard. We have not been able to overcome the barriers inherent in plural societies like ours.
Our biggest Independence failure has been our inability to surmount our ethnic difficulties. After fifty years we cannot point to any overriding set of political and cultural values which our ethnic groups mutually embrace. There is no National Ethos in that regard.
We will go through the motions this year of celebrating “One People, One Nation, One Destiny”, but it would be lie. While there have been moments of national solidarity that cut across ethnicity, there has not been an inter-ethnic national community. And this is disappointing, because we do have the potential to do more in this regard. But we don’t seem to have the courage to strike the balance between ethno-political allegiance and national commitment. While the politicians are not the only culprits, they have been the primary ones. Our Independence has bred a flawed class of politicians. For the most part, they have little sense and knowledge of history, politics and their place in that continuum. This sickness cuts across ethnicity, sex and generation.
The second Independence failing for me is in the area of political culture. We have developed a culture of spite and revenge that is intolerant of dissent and deeply authoritarian. Our Independence State is a product of that culture—it has been a violent State. For a small society, there have been far too many victims of State Violence these 50 years. It is as if we have moved from being historical victims of State Violence to the purveyors of that very violence on one another. In this regard our retaining the Colonial State apparatus and in some instances upgrading of it are very instructive.
The third Independence failure is the way we have treated the poor and the powerless in the society. Fifty years later, the majority of our people are still mired in poverty. Social inequality has worsened since independence. That for me is a major indictment. Women and children are still prime targets for institutional violence. The passage of legislation has not put a dent on this scourge. There is too much violence in the society, but the violence against the poor at all levels is nauseating. You can be Independent and simultaneous be a site of violence. Independence from Slavery, colonialism and Indentureship meant, in part, independence from the violence which characterized those systems.
WHAT TO CELEBRATE?
Despite our failings, there is still something to celebrate. We have to celebrate our survival as a people—a survival of the harshness I have pointed out. It is our people, the sufferers who have always showed us the way in this regard. We are a Survival People and we must always celebrate that. So for me, if we must celebrate Independence we must celebrate our people, especially our poorest—the least among us.
Despite our failings we have still given ourselves and the world the gift of our collective imagination—our song, our dance, our written word, our intellectual products, our sport. Yes we have to celebrate our cultural products and cultural workers.
We have to celebrate our working people who till the soil, man the factories and the office, teach our children, look after our health, cook our food, bring us the news, cut the cane, harvest the rice. They have toiled for little to nothing, but they have persevered.
Many of us have moved from the social bottom to positions of authority and high status in the society. Even if some of us misuse our new status, there is need to celebrate social mobility.
PPP Executive Member Irfaan Ali: I think we have fought hard for democracy and our independence came with
tremendous struggle and sacrifices.
We have our unique culture that we should be proud of. However the same questions that confronted us 50 years ago are even more relevant today. Many recent actions of this Government make us vulnerable.
And the public outcry about ethnic and political discrimination continues to increase.
The pronouncement by Government that rice is not their business when the entire regions depend on this is also damning along with the imminent closure of the Wales Estate.
These are all issues that would dominate the agenda as we celebrate our 50 years as an independent state.