Former presidents’ benefits

It would be hard to imagine former President Jagdeo giving away 90% of his salary and living on a ramshackle farm when he was in office, let alone now that he has retired. It would be equally hard to imagine his only personal asset as being a 1987 Volkswagen Beetle and his security detail on the farm as consisting of two policemen and a three-legged dog. But that, apparently, is the lifestyle of President José Mujica of Uruguay, whose salary is now more or less equivalent to the contents of the average Uruguayan pay packet. “I have lived like this for most of my life,” the BBC quoted him as saying; “I can live well with what I have.”  A former Tupamaros guerilla, he spent fourteen years in jail, an experience, the BBC reported, that shaped his outlook on life.

Exactly what shaped the outlook of our present crop of politicians can only be guessed at, but for some of them, particularly those in the ruling party, it was clearly not the modest style of Cheddi and Janet Jagan – or Desmond Hoyte, for that matter. When Dr Jagan first came into office he was very keen on the idea of people giving their skills to the nation for the nominal sum of $1 a year. It was never a practical suggestion as was pointed out to him at the time, although his wife did represent Guyana at the United Nations for a while on that basis. His private house was certainly not extravagant, and Mrs Jagan continued to live there after she ceased to be president. As for Mr Hoyte, he lived in his unprepossessing North Road home throughout the period of his presidency, and was still living there in retirement when he died. What can be said of all of them was not just that at a personal level they were scrupulously honest where money was concerned, but that they also viewed office as representing something more than what they could get out of it for themselves.

That is not the impression that some of those currently in office convey; as far as the public is concerned, they give every appearance of being in it for what they can get out of it, and yet perversely they still seem wedded to the notion that they are the ones the nation needs. Perhaps they persuade themselves that they are owed something for their 24 years of exclusion from office by fraudulent means, and that the fulfilment of this entitlement does not interfere with their capacity to govern. If so, it is a rationalization, and a not very good one at that.

But what other reason could there be for their voluble defence of former President Jagdeo’s benefits in retirement than the fact that like them, he is entitled to these, and to defend him is to defend some of the party’s nouveau riche membership? The PPP’s earlier justifications did indeed reflect an allied approach when spokespersons emphasized that he was deserving of the benefits for all he had done for the country. However, we are now at a point where Mr Carl Greenidge of APNU has tabled a bill amending the Presidents’ Benefits and Other Facilities Act of 2009, and sooner or later the governing party will have to confront whether or not it should change its approach on this issue.

When the matter was raised via a parliamentary motion some time ago there was an attempt by some government representatives to confuse matters by suggesting that the opposition was seeking to reduce Mr Jagdeo’s pension, which would also affect the pensions of other public servants. This was deliberate misinformation. There are two separate pieces of legislation involved, the one covering (among others) the head of state’s pension, per se, which is not encompassed by the present Bill, and the second, dating from 2009, dealing with the president’s additional benefits in retirement, which is. It might be noted that Mr Jagdeo’s basic pension, which is non-taxable, and amounts to $1 million a month, is generous by any standards.

And where the benefits and facilities which he enjoys are concerned, at present there is no cap on the number of domestic staff, security staff, clerical or technical personnel the former president can employ at taxpayers’ expense. As such, therefore, the Bill tabled on the 22nd of last month limits the first-named of these to three, the second, to two and the third, to three, none of whom can be engaged in political work. Similarly, in the case of utilities for which there is also no cap, the Bill places a ceiling on the monthly payments the state will meet, and defines which members of a retired president’s family will qualify for medical treatment, among other things, funded by the taxpayers. The proposed legislation also stipulates that a former head of state shall cease to be entitled to benefits and facilities if s/he “engages in business, trade or paid employment or is charged with a criminal offence or is cited by any court in Guyana for such infringements of the law.” The Bill also seeks to limit the benefits to a maximum period of ten years.

At an earlier stage too, government defenders of the 2009 Act had industriously researched the situation in other countries, more particularly the United States, which given the size of its population and economy one might have thought was not exactly comparable. Be that as it may, the US most certainly does have caps on benefits provided to ex-presidents. (Where sitting presidents are concerned, it might be noted en passant that President Mujica is not the first head of state in this hemisphere to give away his salary; according to the BBC there are two American presidents who gave their paychecks to charity: John F Kennedy, who came from wealth, and Herbert Hoover who came from a much less privileged background although he was not poor when he entered the White House.)

Contrary to what has been suggested, no one expects a current or former president not to be able to live comfortably, let alone give away 90% of his earnings or pension, and reduce his security detail to a three-legged dog – although if he gave a home to one it would certainly be something to be commended.  As it is, Mr Jagdeo sold what was to all outward appearances a comfortable house for a vast sum, and built an enormous one for the purposes of his retirement. Leaving aside the land issues, etc, related to this, it does not suggest someone in touch with the sentiments of the nation, including the PPP constituency, and smacks of more than a little grandiosity.

Of course the present arrangements regarding benefits and facilities do not apply to him alone; they apply to every retired president who follows him – unless the current Bill is passed. The PPP/C might try to filibuster it in various ways, or mislead the public as to its contents, or drown out discussion of it in the public arena with clamour about other issues. Even if it is passed, of course, President Ramotar could refuse to sign it. In the long run, all of that would not help the party, because the terms of the 2009 Act are impossible to justify to the public, more particularly in a low-wage economy such as this one. If those who govern us cannot see that, then they are more divorced from reality than anyone could ever have suspected, and such estrangement will have a political price.

Their best course of action would be to quietly agree amendments to the 2009 Act with the opposition, and then let the Bill be passed unanimously in the House. That way, everyone would win some brownie points with their constituencies, and President Ramotar could pass the Bill without political qualms. The country is tired of the recent high-decibel political exchanges, and wants to see some movement in Parliament. With an eye to the next election, the PPP wants to sell to its supporters – both current and ex – the proposition that the opposition has made government impossible; it is therefore trying to ensure that on every front it thwarts progress on specific issues or impedes the implementation of agreements. It may find, however, that this strategy will come back to haunt it, and the matter of former presidents’ benefits may well mark the boundary of its credibility as far as the voters are concerned.

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