By Dr. Mellissa Ifill
This article examines and reconceptualises the issue of democracy in Guyana by placing it within a larger global perspective. Guyana experienced two periods of democratic transitions – during the early to mid 1960s and the early 1990s and this article contends that the applications of liberal democracy in the 1960s and the 1990s were not designed to generate possibilities and practices of genuine participation and equity but rather were aimed at pre-empting the looming explosion of protest against colonial and dictatorial governance while simultaneously serving the interests of global capital.
In both of Guyana’s democratisation waves – in the 1960s and 1990s – the pace, tone and structure of the emerging democracy were determined by external forces whose aim was to protect or enhance the prospects for international capital in the local economy. Liberal democracy in the 1960s as it existed constituted a threat to western political and economic interests and therefore had to be redesigned to ensure those continued to be advanced. Corres-pondingly, minimalist liberal democracy that was based upon state withdrawal from the economy served the interests of global capitalism in the 1990s.
In other words, this article argues that it is crucial that the links between the local political/ethnic events and circumstances and the wider global process of political and economic transformation be explored. Exploring the links between the ‘local’ and the ‘global’ becomes even more important when it is recognised that the decolonization experience in the 1960s and the 1990s economic and political reformulation processes experienced by Guyana mimicked the adjustments in the global economy during the corresponding periods.
The post 1945 global environment witnessed democratisation being partially and openly externally directed as allied powers built associations with sympathetic local elites who also embraced liberal democracy. Cold War realities meant that democracy at the time of Guyana’s independence could not be locally ‘owned’ if a communist regime would govern the new state. An alternative version of democracy was therefore submitted by the withdrawing colonial power with the ultimate aim of strengthening the political, economic and social status quo that privileged international and domestic capitalists.
The events surrounding the acquisition of independence in Guyana exemplify that democratisation – a liberalisation of politics and the practice of multiparty elections – has not simply been a domestic concern that stemmed from social pressures and developments within Guyana, but rather, democratisation reflected and occurred within the context of the evolving dynamics of the world system. Thus the liberal democratic institutions adopted were not locally determined but the withdrawing ex-colonial powers decided what systems ought to be implemented.
The United States waged a dedicated campaign to prevent Cheddi Jagan from leading an independent Guyana. The United States supported two key political parties, the PNC and the UF, applied pressure on the British government to delay the hand over of power and the Central Intelligence Agency funded the striking trade unions during the early 1960s. The PPP administration was unable to quell the political agitation and rioting forcing the British army to intervene. Jagan’s failure to guarantee political order undermined his bargaining position at the conference held in Britain to consider the conditions of independence. The British were then quite willing to succumb to American pressures and arrive at a final resolution on the terms of independence that enhanced the opposition chances of electoral victory.
The aim of this article is not to minimise the tremendous and heroic efforts historically made by local individuals and groups to increase their participation in their own governance, however this article argues that the gains secured in these efforts must be examined within particular global contexts. Increased participation by non Europeans was generally facilitated only in those instances where the continued dominance of global capitalism was guaranteed. As noted previously, even in the fight to gain political autonomy, only a certain brand of democracy was permitted. This brand of democracy was committed to capitalism and refused to accommodate communist sentiments. Democracy in Guyana at this important juncture in the nation’s history was not owned by locals but it was intentionally manipulated and designed by the British and Americans to reinforce the needs and direction of global capitalism.
An unprecedented global wave of democratic transitions occurred commencing in the late 1970s in Portugal. Numerous countries in southern Europe, Asia, and Africa under dictatorial and socialist rule experienced democratic transitions in the 1980s and 1990s. The 2003 Minorities at Risk report ‘Peace and Conflict’ noted that by early 2002, eighty-three (83) countries were recognized as democracies, which was almost twice the number of democracies identified in early 1985 (42). Of the eighty (80) countries labelled as autocracies in 1985, only twenty-eight (28) were so labelled by 2002. Meanwhile the number of countries in the ‘middling’ category of neither democratic nor autocratic increased from sixteen (16) in 1985 to forty-seven (47) in 2002. In the current discourse, democracy is celebrated as freedom, and the latter is connected to economic freedom, which is identified with free market economy. In other words, democracy and the free market economy have in essence become one and the same. Democracy has become the political expression of capitalism, that is, the outcome of the capitalist free-market system in politics.
Western governments and multilateral international organisations embrace this liberal economic and political agenda and limit democratisation to the establishment of the rule of law and multi-party competitive elections. International financial and developmental institutions including the IMF and the World Bank have been accused of using their authority to steer the democratisation process in developing societies toward an even more minimalist variant of liberal democracy than that applied in the West. These institutions have depoliticised and redefined democracy as economic liberalism, first by reducing it to governance and then by reducing governance to the technical political policy prescriptions needed for structural adjustment programmes: the rule of law, transparency and accountability.
The U.S. and European Union (EU) member states have unequivocally stated their support of the global democratic agenda and have tied aid and preferential market access programmes to political and economic liberalization. Consequently, the introduction of liberal democratisation was not necessarily to fulfil the desires for ‘rights’ and ‘representation’ but rather was intended to underscore the triumph of capitalism over socialism and deepen the incorporation of formerly socialist and nationalist states into the global economy.
As in other indebted developing states, the thrust for democratisation in Guyana was closely linked to demands for trade liberalisation, privatisation and other forms of deregulation. Confronted with an unsustainable debt and a united creditor community, the Hoyte administration arrived at an arrangement with the international community led by the IMF, World Bank and the IDB to reorganise the economy into one that welcomed local and foreign private capital. A privatisation programme was started which witnessed a number of government managed industries and sectors sold, closed, leased or prepared for complete or partial privatization by international, regional and domestic corporations over a three year period.
Structural adjustment programmes as a prescriptive package subsequently became transformed by and subsumed into the broader agenda categorised as ‘good governance’ during the early 1990s. This broader agenda also placed emphasis on restructuring the political sphere in Guyana, especially as it related to electoral democracy. From early 1990, several external actors (both governmental and nongovernmental) applied their individual and combined influence and pressure on the Hoyte regime and demanded sweeping electoral reform. They all publicly and unmistakably linked the sustenance of structural adjustment programmes and the continued disbursement of aid to electoral democracy.
Local groups meanwhile were given increasing external support after 1989 from the major western donor countries (the US, UK and Canada) and the Commonwealth Caribbean. Not unexpectedly, explicit support for electoral reform from major Western donors, in particular the US, was not forthcoming until there were explicit statements from the political opposition, namely Cheddi Jagan, rejecting a radical leftist, anti-capitalist stance and accepting the principle of laissez-faire in economic affairs. As Dr. Jagan told one interviewer in 1991, at this point in Guyana’s history, “socialist programmes…are out of the question”.
After securing political power in 1992, Jagan kept his commitment to not reintroduce a socialist type economy in Guyana and his government announced in a July 1993 White Paper that “as a matter of national policy … the government has decided to adopt a privatisation strategy … for reducing its presence in the economy … in order to create a more competitive and market driven environment”. The actions of the PPP reinforced its pledge since the governing party divested, in whole or in part, within five years the shares of 15 public corporations and leased out the assets of one other.
Arguably therefore, the democratisation processes were not ‘owned’ by locals since in both periods the tone of the democracy implemented, which was individualistic, minimalist and liberal in character, and the pace of the democratic transitions were managed and approved by core western states and their agents such as the IMF & World Bank, who were first and foremost securing their own economic, political and ideological interests.