Richmond Hill, Queens, New York has the largest concentration of Indo-Guyanese people outside of Guyana. I like to describe it as a Guyanese village in Queens. The leader of the parliamentary opposition, David Granger dropped in for a visit, on Saturday May 24. He walked the busy Liberty Avenue business district, greeting Guyanese on the avenue; did a Town Hall meeting at Richi Rich Palace; then dropped in at my house for dinner and talks on Guyanese politics.
Shock waves went through the village. One local village leader, dubbed the local Prime Minister called my house two days before the event and demanded: “Who is bringing Granger to our district?” Fearing the wrath of this ha’penny, uncrowned PM, I said I had nothing to do with it. The PM said: “Mike, I hear you hosting him to dinner.” I said “I am.”
“Where?” he demanded.
Within minutes Mr PM posted on Facebook: “Mike Persaud would be hosting Granger to dinner at his house on Saturday at 6 pm.” Another local village activist called to say: “Mike, the calls are flying fast and furious – (he mentioned several names including a most revered Pandit as being very concerned) – and people are angry and desperate to find out who is bringing Granger into this district.” (My unspoken wonder: What country and what century are we living in? Are we still shackled to that 1960’s idea, ‘Betrayal of one’s race’?)
Saturday, May 24: At 6 pm Mr Granger and his small entourage of two, Dr Terrence Simon and his Yale-educated nephew Kevin Granger arrived. Some twenty-five invited guests: several long-time personal friends, some acquaintances, and two long-time buddies I first met on the picket line going back to the 1970s (Chuck Mohan, Mel Carpen) also arrived – all took up any available berth in my living and dining rooms. Some sat on sofas, others on folding chairs squeezed in little spaces. We all shared one thing in common: Being Guyanese and harbouring a deep concern for the quality of democracy and governance as practised in our homeland.
I spoke for no more than 20 minutes, explaining my concept of a multi-racial democracy which I have enunciated in numerous letters in the independent press (KN, SN) over the last 20 years. Here is short summary: (1) Need for a sizeable pool of swing voters comprising all races; (2) need for perceived ethnic parties – PPP and PNC – to transform themselves into genuine multi-ethnic parties. (I have often called on the PPP to elect one of their loyal African long-suffering members to be their leader and the PNC to do the same as a way to create a new dynamic that would forge a new multi-racial image for both parties). (3) In a real democracy the baton of power must pass from one party to another or a coalition of parties every few election cycles, without which you cannot have accountable and responsible governments.
Dr Dolly Hassan, attorney-at-law read a four-page paper in which she called for an apology from the PNC leader for the stolen elections and many excesses during its 28-year reign. She explained that an apology should be sincere as well as serve as a strategy to help the process of reconciliation and healing between two divided racial groups, and in turn help get a conversation started with the disaffected Indian group.
Mr Granger spoke of his work as parliamentary leader and the many topical issues in Guyana: anti-money laundering bill, lack of transparency in numerous multimillion dollar construction projects – airport, Marriott hotel etc. He also said he would support the idea of a Commission of Inquiry to inquire into all aspects of “excesses” by both the PPP and PNC.
Many of us came to the table with the premise that racial voting pervades our culture. And we wanted to discuss with Mr Granger ideas on how the Guyanese people can break the spell of racial voting. In reply to questions, Mr Granger appeared to circumvent the idea that race plays any part in the thinking of voting Guyanese. We did not hear Mr Granger admit that fact – perhaps he cannot as leader of a political party. In fact, he took pains to deny that race is any factor. And, if there is no racial voting, then no need to talk about a solution. He referred to his own multi-cultural, multi-racial family and to the people he knew as “mixed.” He also referred to the fact that even in a country where there is one race, there are problems.
The racial question was tossed aside.
Mr Granger seems to believe that it is only the older population that is hung up on race. He relates a story of a young girl, who at the end of a lesson went up to the headmistress and asks, “But who is Walter Rodney?” He relates that story with relief to demonstrate that the younger generation does not remember the past. One might argue that the schoolmistress did not do her job well. That student should have been taught to recognize that Dr Walter Rodney is one Guyana’s distinguished sons, historians and political leaders. We do not have to agree with Dr Rodney’s policy to acknowledge that. As Guyanese, we should remember our history and learn from it.
The apology thing was a huge elephant in the room. There were a few members who urged Mr Granger not to apologize on behalf of the PNC because to apologize would mean the PNC did something wrong. Is that not the essence of an apology? One does not diminish one’s stature with an apology; one enhances it. Yet, one of those same voices would like Mr Granger to transform into the likes of Benschop and David Hinds and take to the streets. To his credit, Mr Granger, the statesman, did not take that bait. And, he wisely remained silent when one soul tried to say that the PPP rigged elections even worse than the PNC did. Mr Granger knows the truth.
Dr Tyran Ramnarine, former history lecturer at UG asked this question: If some group in the army does not like the outcome of the upcoming 2016 elections, what is the likelihood that the army would intervene? Mr Granger, being the military historian and scholar he is, said the officer corps of the army were all trained in military academies where they were taught to respect civilian rule. What about the rank and file? He said he would hope they would keep their ears close to the ground and listen to what the citizens are thinking and feeling. He also went on to praise the army of Guyana for keeping out of politics – and that Guyana was the only country in all of Latin America that has never had any sort of military intervention or coups. He also sounded very professorial when he explored the theme briefly of how several countries suffered terribly, one, Somalia disintegrated, when their armies intervened in their daily politics. (He is the author of several books on the subject.)
For the record, I will say Mr Granger possesses a very likeable personality, sounded very statesman-like at times, is very knowledgeable and is very detailed on the national issues he deals with daily as leader of the parliamentary opposition.
If he disappoints me – and he has – it is on the question of an apology for the excesses during that long reign of the PNC. (His position may be a reflection of the internal politics of his party.) A ‘political apology’ from a head of state for a war his nation waged on another 50 years ago not only brings healing but opens up conversations and opportunities for trade and better relationships. Similarly, an apology from a party leader for the “excesses” of his party which ruled 30 years ago can do the same for disaffected racial groups – promote healing, restart conversations and most importantly, win support – and much needed votes in a new round of elections.
Mr Granger and the PNC have got to face squarely the racial and political arithmetic of Guyana: Africans at 30 per cent, Indians at 44 per cent of the electorate, and the fact that the majority vote race. In New York City, a candidate running for city-wide office has to devise a hundred strategies – one for each of a hundred different ethnicities and nationalities. In Guyana the PNC needs only two – one for the Amerindians and one for the Indian-Guyanese. The PNC, to have a decent shot at any upcoming elections must set a target of winning at least 10-12 per cent of the Indian vote. And, trust me on this one – it is not in the Guyanese people’s DNA to vote race. They are no different from any other people on planet earth. Ten to fifteen to twenty per cent of the people will vote on issues. If they haven’t in the last 60-years, it is because the founder-leaders of parties stayed on until death and we the people turned them into deities – and also because of the excesses of the long reign of the PNC. You need an electoral strategy to make your candidate and party appealing to your target constituency.
One question that should have been asked: Should Mr Granger win the next election and become the next president, and assuming his prime ministerial candidate is an Indian-Guyanese, would he/she be allowed to succeed to the presidency in the event of the president becoming incapacitated for any reason? Has the culture within the PNC changed sufficiently to make this event possible? (We know what happened in the ruling PPP – twice the presidency became vacant, and the African Prime Minister could not succeed to the presidency, all because he was of the wrong race.) The window-dressing concept has become deeply embedded in our politics. And it is time end it.
Post-meeting reflection: It appears this meeting was significant not for what was discussed – but for the fact that a taboo has been broken. An African-Guyanese leader wasn’t supposed to ever to come to Richmond Hill, Queens and parley with Indo-Guyanese. If Indo-Guyanese continue to hold these views, the concept of a Guyanese nation will exist only superficially, and the idea of a genuine multi-racial democracy will never be given a chance to take shape.