Dr. Hinds’ nonexistent ethnic trap

Contrary to what Dr. David Hinds says, none of our pre- or post-independence governments has been in an ethnic trap of any sort (Guyana Chronicle 23/04/2017; Guyana Chronicle .30/04/2017). I believe that Dr. Hinds is faced with a situation (which to his credit he has frequently criticised) where the government he supports has been operating sub-optimally; far short of the expectations of its supporters. In order to make sense of this situation which has proven baffling to others (`Given the numerous follies being committed, does APNU+AFC have a plan to thwart the will of the electorate in 2020?’ – SN:09/05/2017), he has come upon this notion of an ethnic trap, but fortunately it is nonexistent. In the post-independence context, all of our governments have taken Guyana down dangerous but relatively easily avoidable paths. So, let us attempt to examine Dr. Hinds’ thesis by trying to decipher how he arrived at it and then quarrel with some of his conclusions.

For Dr. Hinds, the transfer of wealth to supporters of the PPP and PNC is a natural outcome of the way our two larger racial groups feel about ethnicity and their relationship with the leadership of the two political parties, the PPP and PNCR, that represent them. Accordingly, while Africans tend to have ‘a simplistic attitude’ towards race and ethnicity, Indians tend to be ‘much more aggressive on these issues’. The African elites are mostly urban and out of step with the ‘cultural motions of their followers’ and for them ethnicity is essentially a means to political office. African leaders have little confidence in the ability of the mass of Africans to develop themselves. As a result of this kind of world view, the African political elite makes minimal effort to deliberately empower their group and tends towards the position that Africans will develop proportionately with their society.

Dr. Hinds believes that being themselves rural people, the PPP leadership is generally very close and more sensitive to the ‘ethnic reflexes’ of their Indian followers. As a result, unlike the African leadership, who believe that their group will grow in tandem with society, they are disinclined to believe that ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to ethnic empowerment and thus are ‘much more ethno-racially literate’ than the African leadership.

He asserts that while the PNC did discriminate against Indians, it did not seek to set up an ethnic political society. The PNC state was autocratic but the evidence does not suggest that it sought to protect and advance specifically African interests. On the other hand, from the inception, the 1992 PPP government set about dismantling the African political power bases in the military, civil service, etc. and transferred state assets to the old and new Indian bourgeoisie. By the time the PPP left office in 2015, the Indian elites were in total control of the society. The PPP has deliberately ‘left Guyana in an ethnic trap that would stymie any effort at correcting the PPP’s wrongs. What this has meant is that any turning back of the wrongs committed by the PPP has had ethno-racial consequences. Correcting sugar and rice means walking into an ethnic trap.’

Dr. Hinds’ presentation leaves many questions unanswered. For example, and firstly, when he says that the ethnic trap was ‘deliberately set by the PPP’ what does he mean? It is one thing to agree that the PPP deliberately transferred wealth to those Indians who supported it but quite another to claim that its intent was to deliberately set a trap for APNU! Secondly, most of us are hoping that Guyana grows into a modern society with universal values, e.g., treating each citizen equitably and voting on policy rather than race, but instead of seeing the more particularistic values of Indians as obstacles to this development, he appears to view it as a virtue: speaking of Indians being more ‘ethno-racially literate’ than African whose values are more universal. Thirdly, I have always suspected that the tendency of the African leadership to blame their followers for their relatively poor economic condition is usually the leadership’s excuse for their failure, after decades in office, to transform Guyana into a more economically balanced society.

Fourthly, it appears to me that Dr. Hinds missed a huge part of the story, for it is possible to construct a narrative that states that the PNC government controlled some 80% of the economy. If, as he said, the African elite controlled the state, they would also have controlled this huge section of the economy. Perhaps Forbes Burnham and his PNC saw socialism as a means of putting this massive portion of the economy into Africans hands! Like the PPP’s attempt at political dominance, the effort may have failed, but on this interpretation, what are we to make of Dr. Hinds’ notion that Burnham’s autocratic state ‘did not explicitly seek to protect and advance African-Guyanese interests in an ethnic-specific manner’?

Finally, if we accept, as I do, that the APNU+AFC government is not to be blamed for attempting to dismantle aspects of the PPP/C state after the latter had some 23 years to pack it with its supporters, we must also accept that the PPP/C had a similar right after 30 years of PNC government. It should also be noted that dismantling of these extant states do not necessarily mean one had the intention of proceeding to use them to enrich one’s supporters and/or entrench oneself in power.

Once this differentiation is allowed, the PPP/C’s taking ownership of the 1992 PNC state could legitimately be differentiated from its post-Cheddi Jagan drive for political dominance, which was a stupid response to its extant political context. Talk of an ethnic trap is only a step away from this regime taking us on some similar dangerous course.

Dr. Hinds knows that no one party could possibly gain the level of national consensus to develop an equitable, inclusive, democratic Guyana. To overcome this structural difficulty, he never ceased to propose and the APNU+AFC promised in 2015, a government of national unity (GNU) inclusive of the major political parties. He told us that: ‘Despite what the sceptics say, there are at least four clear benefits of a GNU … the foremost benefit of a Government of National Unity is its potential for ensuring that no ethnic group dominates … a second benefit (is) … the enlarging of multiethnic space. … A third benefit of a Government of National Unity is its potential for the enhancement of democratization …. A fourth benefit of a Government of National Unity is that it … (denies) the government the excuse that it is under siege and the opposition of charges that its supporters are ethnically marginalized’ (SN: 06/10/2011).

Come on Dr. Hinds, you are providing this government with an excuse for it has so far not put sufficient effort into creating the ‘policy space’ for it to sensibly fulfill the wishes of its supporters. Rather than defining the position in which it now finds itself as an ‘ethnic trap’, all progressive people should be urging it to immediately be more proactive about constitutional reform in search of a more consensual operation framework.