Edited by Rishee Thakur
Institute of Development Studies, University of Guyana
A review by Christopher Ram
The immediate reaction of the reader to the topic Consociationalism in the Guyana context would be one of at least mild surprise, if not boredom. As Guyana experiences a phase of much welcome calm, political discourse is placed firmly on the back-burner while large numbers of Guyanese of various ethnic backgrounds, class and political preferences take the exit strategy of migration. The tepid reaction to any serious discourse on Consociationalism is reinforced by the very contents of this issue of Transition with papers ranging from the writings and ideas of Liphart and Horowitz, analyses by academicians Ryan, Premdas and Thakur, proposals by ethnicity conscious individuals and political activists Ravi Dev and David Hinds to policy pronouncements by the Working People’s Alliance, the People’s Progressive Party and the People’s National Congress.
Perhaps the title is a bit misleading for the publication covers not only Consociationalism but given the range, depth and interest of the contributors and sources Transition 38 includes an assessment of the social and political landscape by Thakur over the period 2002-2004 when it seemed that Guyana was firmly in the control of the drug lords and phantom killers; a discussion by Professor Ryan of the University of the West Indies describing the Burnham era in less than flattering terms and Professor Premdas who is reported in the Trinidad press as pronouncing that “Guyana is finished. A pragmatic solution cannot resolve it. The only alternative is the Bosnian solution of forced intervention by a third party. If not there will be genocide or partition”.
Ravi Dev, who briefly threw his hat in the political ring argues that in Guyana, race “transcends class as the dominant cleavage and suffuses politics as well as most other social interactions”, a fact not acknowledged by the politicians who, desiring to be “national leaders”, engage “in ponderous textual hermeneutics of their imported, unadapted “isms”, to declare that ethnicity has no objective existence.”
The Indian Rights activist traces the historical conflicts rooted in colonialism between the former African slaves and the Indian indentured labourers and posits that “Any proposed solution to Guyana’s problem must address this fundamental fear of the African Guyanese: the fear of being swamped and subordinated.” Dev, perhaps influenced by an American education is a firm believer in the federalist model and argues that an unwillingness to deal with the insecurities of the two major races will cause Guyana to “remain mired in a Sisyphean paradigm.”
David Hinds, a longtime executive member of the Working People’s Alliance co-founded by Walter Rodney remains committed to the idea of power-sharing first mooted by Eusi Kwayana back in the fifties and taken up by his WPA in the seventies. In his contribution Power Sharing: The Way Forward, Hinds acknowledges that while power sharing is not a perfect system, “it has the potential to do for Guyana what other systems have not done: allow both our major race groups, through their elected representatives, to share the burdens of governance.”
But Transition 38 is much more than a collection of essays by these prominent individuals whose voices and ideas have largely been crowded out in the fight for political space by the major contending parties in Guyana. The introduction surveys and describes the panoramic and at times tempestuous landscape of critical political events in modern Guyana, reflecting the dreams and aspirations of a people experiencing for the first time the right to vote and their inebriation with the first taste of multi-racial unity in the fifties, the flirtation with co-operative socialism, flawed and contested elections from 1968 to 1992 and the fight for political supremacy or ethnic security between the two major political forces. This introduction is as useful for the student of political history as it is for the ordinary citizen or academic seeking solutions to what after the halcyon days of the fifties seem as elusive as ever.
The story of modern Guyana is a tantalizing game of seeking solutions at the knife’s edge and yet coming away only with scars of varying depth and seriousness. In that respect conflict resolution in Guyana may be seen as more successful than in many other countries, some of which have witnessed decades of internecine conflicts such as Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Sri Lanka, Haiti and India when measured in terms of lives lost. Yet that cannot be the only measure but rather the rate of outward migration of Guyanese that ranks among the highest in the world and causes us to lose often forever the skills of our best and brightest. For Guyanese migration has served as the ultimate resettlement mechanism.
What makes Transition 38 especially worth reading is the rich variety of points of view and arguments advanced by contributors who are certainly not shy in challenging each other. The stage is set by Liphart who not only argues that “power sharing has proven to be the only democratic model that appears to have such chance of being adopted in divided societies” but that Horowitz’s claim that power-sharing democracy is a crude “one size fits all” model, is disproved by the power-sharing systems adopted prior to 1960 (cited earlier), as well as more recent cases, such as Belgium, Bosnia, Czechoslovakia, Northern Ireland, and South Africa.
In turn while warning against the purchase of off-the-shelf varieties of constitutional deal-making as a bit dangerous, Horowitz prefers the tailor-made versions to which there is still the opportunity for those with less experience profiting from consulting those with more.
Transition 38 makes very useful reading and is a minefield of information and ideas. It is comprehensive in its thoroughness, diverse in its range of possibilities, united in agreement for a longer term solution and spans more than two generations of experiences of what we would call the modern history of Guyana. The contributors are all familiar with Guyana and with their topic and pack a mixture of emotion and logic in their arguments. Liphart and Horowitz are internationally known for their work in the subject area while the contributions by the Guyanese and Caribbean writers reflect their passion and their frustration that the lessons and experiences seem so difficult for our politicians to absorb. What a pity! The politicians that is, not the richness of the contributions.
Transition 38 is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding why Guyana has been described as a country that will always be rich in potential.