Sep 11, 2017
By Frederick Kissoon
For decades now, once there was a destructive hurricane heading for the Caricom islands, a satirical wind would blow all over Guyana, whether in the rum shop, municipal market, at home at the lunch table or anyway where Guyanese are gathered. And it would go like this; “We don’t get natural disasters, only man-made ones.”
That would be followed up with the words: “Those people will recover, but our man-made hurricane won’t go away.”
It has been the same with Hurricane Irma. A colleague at Kaieteur News said that the phones will get fixed in a couple of weeks in the affected islands, but if any hurricane brings down our telephone and electricity poles, it will take decades to fix them. This is the permanent satire about our man-made disaster. It takes the form of race and politics. You cannot separate the two; they are permanently intertwined.
For the past week, friends have been joking about Guyana missing Hurricane Irma but we have to deal with our two hurricanes that come not from the oceans and seas, but from the womb of the country. One journalist, in discussing the destruction caused by Irma said to me that Guyana is a blessed country that never gets hurricanes, but look at how race and politics are destroying us.
Once there are hurricanes in the Caribbean islands the cynicism, satire and humour among Guyanese is about our unnatural hurricanes. They say that Guyana is stuck with its man-made disaster. After the performance of the two year old APNU+AFC regime, the problematic of race and politics takes center stage in any discussion on the future of this country. The closure of the majority of sugar estates and the decision to sell Skeldon factory, coupled with change of personnel in both the civil service, the public sector and the parastatals have further aggravated the endemic race/politics tensions.
It is outside the scope of a newspaper column to trace the evolution of our racial/political complexities, but they began long before the nationalist movement in the fifties split between a faction led by a Black lawyer, Forbes Burnham and the other group led by an East Indian dentist, Cheddi Jagan. Anyone who has read Alan Adamson’s, SUGAR WITHOUT SLAVES and Walter Rodney’s A HISTORY OF THE GUYANESE WORKING PEOPLE, 1881-1905 would know that the colonial machinery’s use of race manipulation was the cornerstone of its divide and rule policy. Sadly, the nationalist movement that brought Burnham and Jagan together couldn’t hold the multi-racial bandwagon to together. It has been a man-made hurricane since then.
The contours since then have been one of a poison chalice where a deadly brew of race and politics has created a sarcoma, whose destruction to Guyana may be more enduring than any Caribbean hurricane since the fifties, right up to September 2017. The Cheddi Jagan Government, 1957-1964, was never supported by the African peasantry, the African security forces and the African proletariat. Their rejection of Jagan cost him to be out of power for twenty eight years.
The PNC Government, 1964-1985 birthed a deadly anti-Burnham and by extension an anti-African feeling among East Indians in and out of Guyana. This psychic mistrust of the PNC and Black Guyanese runs very deeply. There are egregious, unpopular things the Burnham Government did that have left a permanent feeling of dislike among local and diaspora Indians, three of which stand out most infamously- the sudden imposition of compulsory National Service for UG students, the banning of certain foods that Indians considered a part of their religious and cultural heritage, the construction of the National Cultural Centre with money from the indenture fund. Now important to note is not whether these three policies could be justified. Maybe they can. The fact is that they caused deep, psychic resentment among Indians.
The intertwining of politics with race did not help the Desmond Hoyte presidency. Breaking with the past and wanting to reach out to the Indian capitalist class, President Hoyte appeared to have pursued a serious multi-racial agenda. But Indians rejected him at the 1992 poll where they gave the Indian PPP a majority. The multi-racial platform of the WPA of the great Walter Rodney also took a beating at the 1992 elections. Indians and Africans stayed with their own ethnic organizations, virtually devastating the WPA’s presence on the political landscape.
“Play it again Sam,” the African Guyanese cynically sang when the PPP came back to power in 1992. From 1992 until it lost power in 2015, the PPP virtually reduced African Guyanese to second class citizens in their own country. Now since 2015 with the return to power of the PNC, some unnerving signs of racial tinkering are appearing.