Lou Rawls croons, “What’s the matter with the world/ Has the world gone mad/ Nothing’s wrong with the world/ It’s the people that’s in it.” These lyrics are used to draw an analogy with our political system and our response, or lack thereof to it. Many will admit Guyana is far from being a perfect society. But so too are many other countries, including the most developed. However, should time be taken to examine and emulate what creates the sense of perfection often admired in other countries and what continues to blight ours we will find one commonality – human behaviour.
For right-thinking persons, politics is about people and people’s development. And while it is correctly believed that politics is about seeking and retaining power, such power does not have to operate to the exclusion and oppression of others, nor involve the plunder of the nation’s resources. For instance, the USA, often used as a model country for democracy that continues to secure the admiration of many at home, has inherent imperfections and a contract with the people, via the constitution, to create a perfect society where all are treated equally and can pursue a life of happiness and liberty. This is a promise the citizens take seriously, as is evident from their constant struggles, or “civil wars” as they are called by Chris Matthews, MSNBC’s “Hardball host”.
And whereas a similar assurance of a ‘perfect nation’ is guaranteed us in the Guyana Constitution, the quest to maintain and secure the contract are seen as a hindrance and disturbance to the social order by the dominant few. So while the USA celebrates these normal trends in human evolution, they are condemned and shunned at home. Some such struggles are for racial, gender, worker and sexual equality, facilitated by free speech and freedom of assembly and association which are protected in both constitutions, although at home there is a disparity in terms of activism and respect for such activism.
Further examination of the two constitutions reveals stark similarities and differences. For instance, while present in the Guyana Constitution is the female pronoun and the protection under Article 149F of entitlement to “equal rights” and the outlawing of “All forms of discrimination,” since 1923 women in the USA have been fighting for the said insertion and equality under the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). And whereas women in the 2012 USA elections celebrated the historic gain of 20 per cent in the Senate, leading to heightened public conversations on the struggle for gender equality, at home even though Article 160 of the Constitution and People’s Representative Act guarantee women at least one-third representation on the party lists, the political leaders do not ensure that this translates to one third female MPs in their respective parties in the National Assembly, and few speak out against the injustice.
The superiority of the Guyana Constitution to the USA on women’s issues is clearly evident yet the violations of women rights intensify even as we are empowered to end them. And while it will require more battles to make the ERA a reality, this has however not prevented the passing of laws or presidential actions in relation to gender equality. Some examples are the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, Equal Employment Opportunity laws, Violence Against Women Act, while more women are now holding leading positions in the judiciary, executive and legislature and elsewhere. The same case is made on sexual orientation, race and other workers’ welfare.
It is understood that these are not easy or pleasant topics for many. But our failure to address these matters in an honest and forthright manner that respects the constitutional right of all to be protected from discrimination even as the USA and other countries fight these battles and celebrate victories, are an indictment of our attitude to struggling for what is just and fair, regardless of who is affected by, or benefits from our actions.
Change is never easy, nor does it come without a struggle. And whereas November 28, 2011 brought a change, in many ways, this is still to prove rewarding as noise replaces nuance, inanity trumps initiative, and substantive understanding is lost in dealing with the new dispensation.
And whereas the presidency/executive in both countries can be secured based on a minority vote, Guyanese are in a quandary about adapting to this reality. Equally, confusion and misinformation hold sway because the legislature is not in the control of the party that forms the executive. The inherent possibilities these opportunities present to advance accountable and prudential management of the country are lost to many. Further, whereas both constitutions guarantee the “Independence and Administrative autonomy of the Courts” (Guyana Constitution Article 122A) we await action from our legislative arm to insulate this body.
Additionally, on the signing of bills into law, both countries vest the authority in the President (Guyana, Article 170; USA, Section 7). Unfortunately at home this gives rise to arguments about a ‘flawed’ constitution, the ‘supremacy’ of the president, and the president being given the impression that he can refuse to assent to bills at his whim and fancy, absent an explanation/objection to the legislature as both constitutions require.
Both constitutions vest ultimate power in the people, something that is generally taken seriously in the USA with many fighting to protect it. At home, however, excuses abound why the people must not apply their power, and this hinders our struggles for empowerment and advancement. So as other countries take the right to self-determination seriously and leaders are reminded they represent the people’s interests and are so held accountable, Guyanese are being socialised to think self-determination is only political independence.
Unfortunately too, many are being conditioned to see democracy only through the prism of so-called free and fair elections, yet such elections are marred by political and racial intimidation, and have seen political parties robbed of their parliamentary seat (AFC 2006), and almost lose their seat (APNU 2011); as well as by unbalanced campaign finances, the abuse of state resources, media marginalization, and vitiation by the High Court (1997). Ours is a ‘democracy’ that is also plagued by the wanton denial of fundamental rights, freedoms and liberties; political leaders are contemptuous of the people, and governments are allowed to plunder our resources.
Finally, the blame for the political tyranny and degeneracy in this society does not reside in the constitution, it resides in the gross misunderstanding of it, the failure to implement and adhere to it, and the people not using the power vested in them under this supreme law to stand up for what’s theirs. For were we to uphold the constitution and emulate the admired Americans this society would have been further along the continuum. And as Lou Rawls continues, “Attitudes have to change/The way we think must be re-arranged/ Sacrifice for a better way of life…You and me we can make it better, we can make it right.”