LAST Sunday evening I visited the home of my cousin and as customary with this family, discussions are fluid and frank. Sitting at the dining table as their preparation for Christmas Day was winding down, enjoying local passion fruit drink and eating freshly baked fruit cake, NCN was broadcasting the weekly GuySuCo programme and our conversation shifted to sugar. I made no bones to this household my disappointment with the government and GuySuCo’s handling of the industry’s reform, including the mixed messages from both.
Sugar is an industry of which GuySuCo forms part. This industry has private cane farmers — small, medium and large — and GuySuCo’s role is not only confined to producing sugar, but also by-products such as molasses, which is used in the liquor industry, and waste which it sells to the community as fertiliser. GuySuCo has a co-generation operation at Skeldon that sells electricity to GPL and also has responsibility for the maintenance of drainage on the coastland within Demerara and Berbice. This is a complex industry and any decision taken on its future cannot only factor in the cost of sugar, but has to include impacts on communities, workers and the services it provides.
As the discussion continued, while it is understood and appreciated that decisions have to be made on a way forward for sugar, I maintained what must not be lost sight of is the manner in which these are being made, and their impact on the welfare of those to be affected, given that the industry is politically charged and lends to creating opportunities for further polarisation between the two major races. Thereabout it was said to me, repeatedly, by a member of this family that “you are opposition and you are anti-government.” Whether this statement was said in jest or not is beside the point, for it has become a staple among supporters and members of this government, from the Cabinet down to the ordinary man and woman in the street.
Allegations of this nature has followed me throughout my life as a trade unionist. When the PNC was in office I was so accused, likewise when the PPP/C was, and frankly it comes as no surprise to me to be accused today, for evidently, I have to be doing something consistent that all these groups when in office would consider me opposition and anti-government. Interestingly too, when they are in opposition I am considered ally or foe, depending on my position on issues, though the principles that continue to inform my views have remained as fixed as the North Star.
When this administration announced the decision to close a number of sugar estates, I spoke out against its approach in dealing with the matter and also wrote the subject minister on the issue. The sugar unions initially invited me to address their rallies against these closures. At those rallies while I called for an inclusionary approach to handling the industry’s future, no bones were made that the current state of the industry has to do with the PPP/C’s failure to put in place a feasible plan to address the decline, and sugar workers must demand of the party that it lays before the nation such a plan today.
After addressing a few rallies, I became persona non-grata and this can only be because my criticism of the APNU+AFC government’s handling of the industry was being viewed as opposition and anti-government, and when criticisms were levelled at the PPP/C, as government and opposition, I became pro-APNU+AFC and anti-PPP/C. When it comes to matters of citizens/workers’ welfare, the only politics I’m driven by is the one that considers people and their development and the principles by which these are grounded can be found in universal declarations, international conventions and charters, the constitution and laws of Guyana.
It should be noted that in 2013 under the PPP/C government when GuySuCo was developing a plan on the industry’s future, Komal Chand, GAWU President, had cause to condemn the exclusion of the workers’ representative from consultation in the process, yet in 2017 when the same treatment is being meted out to the sugar unions by the APNU+AFC government the PPP/C condemns it. The problem here is that within our politics are those who lack principles and consistency, for when in government they do one thing and when in opposition demand what they refused to respect when in government.
And this brings me to another issue of the PPP/C strategy of non-cooperation and the government’s publicly claimed position of working towards social cohesion. Last Thursday government made public the contract with ExxonMobil and citizens must take credit for making this possible through their unrelenting militancy. This administration erred by not engaging the stakeholders, including the opposition, civil society, trade unions, the private sector, etc, when it was engaging ExxonMobil before arriving at an agreement. Their conduct went against the grain of inclusionary democracy by which they had campaigned to govern and as required by the Constitution (Article 13).
This matter of the oil-and-gas industry is of national import, given its likely impact on the society and welfare of citizens. Had a PPP/C government treated the APNU and AFC opposition in like manner the groups would have been offended — not without justification — as they were when the agreement for exploration was signed and stakeholders were excluded. No government has to like an opposition to respect that it has a constituency and was elected to represent and advance such interests. More particularly in our society where it is split almost down the middle, it is counter-productive to social cohesion to exclude the other half.
Our politicians have departed from an important element that is vital to serving their constituencies. This nation no longer sees negotiation and bargaining from this group of leaders, but exhibitions of ego and turf control. The standard of achievement is now measured by how much you cussed down the other side and justify their exclusion. This issue of the petroleum industry should have seen us rallying as one, moreso in light of its potential threat to the environment, and the territorial controversy. ExxonMobil should have known in no uncertain terms, as it was for Bookers, Alcan and Reynolds during the nationalisation of sugar and bauxite, that the government and opposition are one on this matter.
Cheddi Jagan’s support for Forbes Burnham’s agenda, though the former called it “critical support,” was underpinned by shrewd negotiations that derived benefits for his constituents and also required on the part of Burnham some degree of give-and-take. The skill, talent and will that come with negotiation and bargaining are either devoid from the present cadre of leaders or not valued as a smart approach to governance, which leaves the door open to non-cooperation, threats to social cohesion, and perpetual conflict. This is also evident with politicians treating with trade union issues, the private sector, and practically every group or individual that does not sprout from within or toe the line.
The government should have seen it as its duty to have the PPP/C present at Thursday’s forum when the contract was made public. I don’t buy the argument that they were invited and should have turned up. These persons were elected to office and represent a constituency, and while they may have publicly proclaimed non-cooperation, the government should have put systems in place for an emissary to work out the modalities with the objective of securing their presence. It was important for this nation that partisan politics was set aside and the politicians had come together as a cohesive group on this new economic venture that has serious consequences for the nation and their constituencies.
I attended that function on behalf of the Guyana Trades Union Congress and wished it could have been more inclusive and representative. Notably absent were Christopher Ram and Anand Goolsarran, who continue to find significant ways to empower society on this sector; likewise, Freddie Kissoon, Ramon Gaskin, David Hinds and some whose names cannot be recalled that publicly championed the release of the contract. I can only hope they were invited and were unable to attend.
When the trade union began the fight for internal self-government (1926), we were conscious of the centuries of indignity and disrespect the people/workers had suffered having been subject to slave, indentured and colonial masters. The right to political self-determination, achieved in 1966 and 1970, should have removed the element of leaders seeing themselves as rulers and intolerant of others, to that of accepting under the new dispensation that all have an equal stake; they are representatives of the people and therefore are in service to the people. Doing otherwise stands in antithesis to what governance ought to constitute. I am not opposition nor anti-government; I’m anti-poor governance and am opposed to treating people with disrespect.