Further talks with US on hold until democracy project shelved -Luncheon

Labelling the US’ decision to proceed with the USAID-funded Leadership and Democracy (LEAD) project “provocative,” government yesterday said there would be no further talks on the initiative unless it is suspended.

Head of the Presidential Secretariat Dr. Roger Luncheon said the time has come for government to insist on its stance. “The basis for our re-engagement was that we were not re-engaging under duress,” Luncheon told a press conference yesterday at the Office of the President.

Stabroek News has learnt that the LEAD elements are currently being implemented as planned.

The Donald Ramotar administration had remain-ed unrelenting it its stance that the $300M project must be halted before any talks could begin on the project. It said it subsequently went into talks without knowing that the project was still being implemented. Upon learning at the meeting that the project remains on track, the administration yesterday reaffirmed its initial position against continued engagement unless the programme is suspended.

At the same time, the top official assured that relations between the two countries would not deteriorate over the LEAD project that the US has assured was geared at creating greater citizen and political participation in the affairs of Guyana.

Luncheon informed that the US Ambassador Brendt Hardt met with government’s delegation, President Ramotar, Foreign Affairs Minister Rodrigues-Birkett, and Presidential Advisor Gail Teixeira, on April 9th.  He, however, explained that government became aware that the programme was still being implemented in its entirety and saw this as a premeditated act.

When contacted by Stabroek News , the US Ambassador said, “The discussions were positive and constructive, and the parties agreed to meet again as soon as feasible to continue the dialogue with a view to finding a mutually agreeable way forward within the framework of our longstanding cooperation through USAID on democracy and governance.”

He reaffirmed US interest in active government engagement in and support for the programme, which he said aims at enhancing consensus-building in the National Assembly, strengthening the citizen engagement with the National Assembly, supporting civic and voter education on local governance and local government elections, and expanding women and youth participation in civic processes.

Hardt, when asked in February at a Rotary function if the programme was continuing, had said that it was. He explained that since it was a budgeted programme, contracts were already signed with employees and the contractor implementing it, the International Republican Institute (IRI), had specified project timelines.

However, he echoed previous statements saying that he was open to talks with government at any time and that it was free to “get onboard” the project whenever it saw fit.

Government had said that there were areas of concern with the programme, including its belief that political parties could receive financial support through the project—an assertion denied by Hardt. Luncheon stressed that the laws of Guyana do not provide for state funding, much less foreign funding. “There is nothing like that in the law or in the practice. The Americans came in this project and invited what is a profoundly sensitive issue that has not been dealt with by this government or governments as far back as the day from independence—public support for political parties. That, indeed, represented a usurpation of our authority,” he had stated.

Another area of concern, Luncheon has claimed, is that the project supports activities for the formulation of policies that may lead to constitutional reform. “We don’t amend the constitution that way. I don’t call in America to help us to amend the constitution. And activities that address constitutional important roles and activities obviously can become part and parcel,” he said.

The US Ambassador had stressed that there has been misinformation in some sections of the media that the project will give financial aid to political parties. “We want to make clear that we do not provide funding to parties,” he said. This was also stated in correspondence to Luncheon.

“First of all, let me make clear what LEAD is not: LEAD will not provide any funding to political parties. It does not seek to promote any changes to the Constitution. And, it in no way threatens Guyana’s sovereignty. What it does do is seek to promote understanding, consensus building, strengthen the National Assembly, and encourage greater citizen engagement,” he had told the Rotarians.

He asserted that the core elements of the programme were proposed after extensive consultations with the government and other stakeholders over the course of the past year.

The first component, he said, endeavours to encourage consensus-building in the National Assembly and facilitate more effective interaction between the Assembly and citizens. It envisages cross-party negotiation workshops; speaker evenings for Members of Parliament; workshops on issue-based policy development; and multi-party issue fora where all parties select a representative to speak about a topic of public interest.

He said the second component seeks to bolster the effectiveness of the National Assembly and broaden citizen engagement with Parliament. “Here, it will work to strengthen the capacity of Members of Parliament and National Assembly staff to investigate and research issues, draft legislation, and conduct analysis of legislative initiatives. To enhance legislative transparency, it will support enhancements to the parliamentary website to ensure it includes current proposed legislation and schedules of committee hearings to facilitate the participation of experts, civil society and interested citizens. LEAD also seeks to support the establishment of a “Women’s Parliamentary Caucus” consisting of women from each of the parties represented in the Assembly. The caucus would offer a forum for the discussion of women’s issues in Guyana and a means to bring such issues to the Assembly in a collaborative way. There is also a proposed internship programme for three UG law students to provide research and drafting support to the National Assembly,” he explained.

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