What are the direct benefits of independence for Guyanese?

Dear Editor,

Given what has played out in local politics after the British politicos left Guyana in May 1966, I can’t really think of anything significant which we can celebrate, thus rendering any thought of a 46th anniversary celebration one more of symbolism than of substance.

It may be a paradox that exists in many other ex-colonies that attained political independence, but it would be interesting to learn what the latest studies are showing the pre and post-independence thoughts of people, as well as comparative analyses of socioeconomic and political conditions before and after independence in ex-colonies, from sub-Saharan Africa to Central Asia to Latin and South America and the Caribbean.

For example, neighbouring Barbados (166 sq miles and 288,000 people), which attained independence on November 30, 1966, from Britain (six months after Guyana), is exemplary when it comes to political stability and social and economic progress. In 2010, it ranked first among 193 countries in political liberties and civil liberties. Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index 2011 ranks Barbados as 2nd in the Americas and 16th among 183 countries.

The Index of Economic Freedom 2011 ranks Barbados as the 4th freest economy in the Americas and the 37th in the world, while the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2011-2012 says Barbados is the 3rd most stable banking system in the Western Hemisphere. Should I impress you with more astonishing facts about tiny Barbados just to make the point?

Okay, so let me move on to a stark contrast. Actually, there are so many, it is difficult to pick one to illustrate the point, but between sub-Saharan Africa and Latin and South America, we can find prime examples of what went wrong with these politically independent nations, and the two words that readily jump out at us are ruthless dictatorships and systemic and endemic corruption in government, resulting in dismal economies.

In Guyana, we had the late Cheddi Jagan leading the fight back in the late ’40s to end British colonialism, but it appeared as though he was leading us from colonialism to communism, which was an ideology being promoted universally by the former Soviet Union. When the late Forbes Burnham got help from the West to engineer the ouster of Jagan via a change to a PR voting system, and then a PNC-TUF coalition in 1964, the hope was that Guyana would be spared communism and its dictatorial propensity.

But then Burnham wound up leading Guyana to independence in May 1966, creating a euphoric atmosphere in the country. In February 1970, he made Guyana a Cooperative Republic and later embarked on state ownership of the commanding heights of the economy, starting with the nationalization of Demba in July 1971. In December 1974, he embarked on a bloodless socialist revolution, and we can pretty much conclude that it was rapidly downhill from there for Guyana and Guyanese.

When he died in August 1985, his successor, the late Desmond Hoyte, changed the political trajectory of the country, and while there were discernable signs of progress, his efforts were undercut by calls for free and fair elections, which
resulted in the Jagan-led PPP taking power in October 1992. After Jagan died in March 1997, his wife captained the ship of state, from December 1997 to August 1999, when Bharrat Jagdeo took over and presided until November 2011.

Throughout the entire foregoing period after independence, Guyana and Guyanese experienced fleeting moments of stable and sound living, despite the socioeconomic constraints associated with a poor country, which was, nevertheless, sitting on untapped natural resources. But the true meaning of political independence never seemed to resonate deeply with Guyanese, in so far as political and civil rights, economic and social justice were concerned.

Burnham became increasingly autocratic. Jagan went from staunch communist to strangely confused. His wife seemed more enamoured of communism and the PPP than Guyana. Jagdeo, a symbol of youth, energy and hope replicated Burnham in many respects, except that whereas Burnham was overcome with political greed, Jagdeo was overcome with personal greed.

So what exactly was the purpose of political independence? Where are the direct benefits of independence for Guyanese? It would seem that political independence benefited politicians and their associates rather than the people of Guyana, but nothing is more disturbing about the seeming failure of political independence than to recognize Guyanese now in countries under governments run by white people whom our political leaders spent decades vilifying. What an indictment against our political leaders!

No one seems to know the exact numbers, but we are told that over 500,000 Guyanese live abroad. From the much despised Britain, to the disparaged America to the delicately detested Canada, Guyanese can be found living their dreams in another land. And what is worse is that even after the PPP returned to power in 1992, not only did its support base not return home in droves as expected, but the base keeps migrating from a country that is 83,000 square miles in size, with less than 1 million in population and untapped economic potential.

But even if we were to agree in unison that political independence has not delivered because our political leaders failed, how can the leaders not get the message from the people on November 28, 2011, that they want the government to change the way it does business? November 28, 2011 could well be as symbolically significant as May 26, 1966, if only the political leaders could, for once, put the people’s interests and concerns first. For once, symbolism can finally become substance!

Will the PPP blow the opportunity November 28, 2011 has presented, the same way the PNC blew the opportunity May 26, 1966 had presented? After all, we should be celebrating November 28, not wondering about its possible consequences!

Yours faithfully,
Emile Mervin

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