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Guyana’s Departing President Leaves Legacy of Perpetual Violence and Incompetence

January 30th 2011

Latin American Topics - Bharrat Jagdeo

Stagnation, violence, corruption, arch-sectarianism, and unfettered crime—this is the heritage that Guyanese President Bharrat Jagdeo will bequeath to his country. Now that Jagdeo has announced that he will not seek a third term in the upcoming August election, he may well ask, as a New York mayor once did, “How did I do?” The answer, in this instance, must be: “terribly.” Chosen by former President Janet Jagan to succeed her in office, and supposedly held in high esteem by Guyana’s founding father, the illustrious Cheddi Jagan, Jagdeo could only receive the lowest of marks from any independent evaluation. Through his tolerance of crime, racism, and dismal social progress, President Jagdeo has turned in a fifth-rate performance as president of one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere. As the Guyanese use every strategy, legal and illegal, to flee the dysfunctional country, Jagdeo will go down in history as a man who did almost nothing for his nation while in office.

As Guyana was wrestling with ever-present ethnic and political tensions, Jagdeo ascended to the presidency in 1999, not by election but rather through the anointment of his predecessor, Janet Jagan, thus taking the helm with no popular electoral mandate. To his credit, Jagdeo has led Guyana on a path of considerable economic growth in the last ten years despite a devastating flood in 2005. The Guyanese economy, which is heavily dependent on the export of six main commodities—rice, timber, gold, bauxite, shrimp and sugar—has expanded at an average rate of 3 percent over the past decade. Sadly however, despite this incremental improvement in the Guyanese economy, government officials have been either unwilling or unable to share this modest prosperity with average Guyanese citizens.

Indicative of this trend is the fact that the allocation for education as a percentage of government spending is significantly lower than it was ten years ago. Public spending on education dropped to 6.1 percent of total GDP in 2007, down from 8.5 percent in 2000. Because of this lack of adequate spending on public education, the percentage of primary school entrance-age children enrolled in such schools dropped from 91.8 percent to 62.0 percent. While it is difficult to speculate precisely what effect these substantive budget cuts on education have had on childhood literacy rates in the country (owing to a lack of data collected by Georgetown officials), there could be pernicious social consequences if education continues to take a back seat on the Guyanese agenda.

On healthcare, there have been some positive results including an increase in life expectancy and a notable decrease in infant mortality. Many exigencies however remain unaffected. For instance, about a fifth of the Guyanese population still lacks access to clean sanitation facilities. And the World Health Organization estimated that Guyana has one of the highest prevalence rates of HIV/AIDS in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Perpetual Violence

Jagdeo’s tenure will also be remembered for the spike in violent crimes experienced throughout Guyana, an issue exacerbated by repeated extrajudicial killings on the part of state authorities. Since 2001, “Phantom” death squads with alleged connections to government agencies—also called the “Black Clothes Police”—have been linked to some 400 murders. “A clear pattern is emerging,” said a member of the opposition People’s National Congress Reform (PNC). “The Black Clothes Police have constituted themselves accusers, judge, jury, and executioners, and have been gunning down people with impunity.”

The Jagdeo administration shocked the region by rejecting a request by the United States, Britain, and Canada to do an independent probe of what amounted to repeated human rights violations. “We are very concerned about the allegations and we believe that the integrity of the government is something that is at question here,” said British High Commissioner Stephen Hiscock Amnesty International wrote an open letter to President Jagdeo in 2001 demanding prosecution of any officials involved in extrajudicial violence, and saying that the Guyanese government had “repeatedly failed to ensure the protection of the internationally recognized fundamental right to life—and to take measures to prevent such killings.” Although several officers were indicted for their participation in extrajudicial killings in 2004, none were convicted.

Some have responded in kind to the state violence, such as in the notorious Rondell Rawlins case. Rawlins, who accused the government of kidnapping his girlfriend, waged a campaign of terror in Guyana seeking her return. This resulted in the shocking deaths of 23 people. Jagdeo’s tumultuous presidency was also beset by a series of fatal bombings over the past several years, including one attack on the Ministry of Health in 2009 and two additional assaults in 2011—one at the Stabroek Market and the other at the residence of Philomena Sahoye-Shury, a leading member of President Jagdeo’s People’s Progressive Party (PPP). As one editorial in Guyana’s Stabroek News put it, “The security situation grows murkier by the day and it is in this milieu that there has been a rash of dangerous events.”

Ethnicity and Frustration

The violence in Guyana is all the bitterer for the ethnic undertones that color it. Guyana’s motto—‘One People, One Nation, One Destiny,’—only seems a cruel joke in the face of the stark division that has long seized the country—a division that Jagdeo has done almost nothing to address.

Party affiliation in Guyana falls almost directly along ethnic lines. Jagdeo’s PPP overwhelmingly receives the vote of the Guyanese of Indian descent, while the opposition PNC garners the support of the country’s African descendents. One study of the 2001 elections called the crossover votes between ethnic groups “insubstantial” and concluded that “[PPP] is still, for all practical purposes, an Indian-dominated party.”  Even after the 2006 election, Jagdeo’s efforts to diminish the trend were nowhere to be seen. One editorial in the Stabroek News in 2010 commented that the two main parties still remain within their ethnic platform. It said, “Both [the PPP and PNC] follow an unwritten rule that their leader must be from a particular ethnic group and both derive a high percentage of their support from a single ethnic group.”

Often, crimes in Guyana take on a racial dimension, reflecting the continued perception of the longstanding Afro-Guyanese exclusion under the PPP. In 2007, Andre Douglas, an alleged murderer of African descent who was eventually killed by police after escaping from jail, placed his own crimes in the context of social marginalization and inequality. He called himself a “freedom fighter,” and said, “Look into innocent black Guyanese problems or unrest will not finish.” In other words, Douglas would keep terrorizing Guyana until the social problems of the Afro-Guyanese were alleviated. The large turnout at Douglas’s funeral showed that his frustration resonated with the country’s Afro-Guyanese community. Thus, ethnic division remains a challenge that disrupts quotidian life in Guyana, and that President Jagdeo has not effectively taken steps to resolve.

Conclusions

On balance, Jagdeo has failed during his presidency to advance the freedom and fairness of Guyanese public life, or the inequities of the Indo-Guyanese dominated society. Increased economic growth is futile if it does not translate into a greater sense of prosperity within the entirety of society. Jagdeo’s two-term presidency fell woefully short on that point. Social needs remain unmet due to inadequate spending on education and a lack of efforts to improve the quality of healthcare. Furthermore the perpetual presence of criminal and ethnic violence threatens the fabric of Guyanese society, and, if anything, has been aggravated by the indiscriminate violence of public security forces in response.


It is not yet clear who the candidates will be in the upcoming presidential election, but whoever inherits Jagdeo’s position must work to tackle these persistent issues, and to clear the air of hopelessness when it comes to improving life in one of the hemisphere’s poorest and most forlorn countries.

Robert Cavooris and Elcin Chang are research associates at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, from where this article is adapted.


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