Last week Monday, Guyana observed 48 years of political independence from Britain. But unlike the first few years or so when Guyanese participated with gusto at flag-raising ceremonies, street parades featuring the police band and schoolchildren, and the singing of national songs at open spaces and in schools, the occasion these days has taken on a toned down ceremonial ritual without a true sense of meaning and purpose. Many Guyanese who lived through the late ’60s might even tell you, those days were better than these days in every sense of the word.
And although Mashramani Day was introduced in 1970, literally displacing Independence Day as a day of national celebration, with spectacular costume competitions, float parades, masquerade bands, and dancing in the streets to the accompaniment of steel band music and calypsos, Independence Day should really have been the more celebrated of the two.
While political independence speaks of the coming of age of a nation, as when a young person comes of age and moves away from his or her parent, indicating a sense of readiness for individual responsibility and purpose, Mashramani, an Amerindian word, speaks of a celebration of a special event, which was really the attainment of Republican status, as Mash Day literally replaced Independence Day as The Day!
But here we are, 48 years after independence and 44 years after becoming a Co-operative Republic and the question is: Given our present state of affairs, what exactly are we celebrating or even observing? A secondary question is: Are we better off under local leadership versus foreign leadership?
Guyana was supposed to get better for Guyanese under Guyanese leadership. That much was promised us by Cheddi Jagan back in the 1950s and Forbes Burnham in the 1960s. It did not happen and is not even happening as I write, despite the PPP regime’s constant boast of economic growth, national development and national exports.
If there is one thing Guyana is exporting, in a backhanded sense, which other nations really want are skilled, professional and hardworking Guyanese who become useful to the host countries. I really don’t know what the general consensus is of how other nations are faring after attaining political independence over the decades, but while Guyana and Barbados attained political independence the same year, Barbados is economic light years ahead of Guyana and even a home to thousands of Guyanese. Do I need to reference economically buoyant neighbouring Suriname, also home to thousands of Guyanese?
I am not even going to attempt to produce migration figures to Caribbean nations or Canada, England and wherever our people are scattered, but the point must be made that Independence Day, which is supposed to always stand out as the most important national holiday for all Guyanese, regardless of race or religion, has been reduced to a disappointing ritual as over half of Guyana now lives abroad, including countries which are governed by people our leaders once decried as too horrible to govern us.
And the crux of this migration matter is people’s sense of political and economic worth. While the PPP and PNC have screwed us politically, in 1970, forty-seven US cents was exchanged for one Guyana dollar in Georgetown. Today, it is US$1=G$205. When people cannot earn enough to make life livable they will borrow, steal or run, and so political independence has produced a nation of migrants.
Guyana’s population reportedly almost doubled from 375,000 in 1946 to 700,000 in 1970, and 758,000 in 1980, yet the population now stands at around 800,000, if we include foreigners becoming naturalized citizens and hustling a living in Guyana. So did we stagnate in the area of population growth between 1970 and now?
No! Almost half of Guyana now calls some foreign country home, despite Guyana being geographically big enough to accommodate up to 60 million people and despite having the agricultural potential to feed itself and the entire Caribbean.
It depends on who is your source, but anywhere between 350,000 and 450,000 Guyanese call America home, with New York City claiming 140,000 alone. That excludes the suburbs and other cities/states and so-called ‘illegals.’
It is one thing to blame the PNC for starting the massive flight of professional and skilled personnel or the deterioration of socioeconomic conditions, but after almost 22 years in power, what else does the PPP need to start turning around the fortunes of the country to stop the exodus? Where are the incentives created by this government to give people a reason to want to stay (or return) and build as opposed to survive until the door opens to exit the country? What good is it to try and educate children just so they can go and develop another country because they cannot find decent paying jobs in Guyana after leaving school, or be forced to take jobs that come with political attachments? Boasting about GDP growth that fails to positively impact ordinary people is useless.
Bunrham and Hoyte studied Law in London. Jagan studied Dentistry in Chicago. His wife was an RN (from Chicago). Jagdeo studied Economics in Moscow. Ramotar spent 10 years in Czechoslovakia. And we wonder why so many Guyanese are racing overseas to better themselves when all these leaders gained some sort of overseas training and experience?
Those of us who lived through the era of the attainment of Independence now have a right to ask: Independence from whom and for whom? We went from chasing the white man from doing business in Guyana to inviting the Chinese man to do business in Guyana, and Guyanese are not even lining up at the Chinese Embassy for visas to China! Looks like reverse dependence to me.