Jagdeo was no Lee Kwan Yew

Dear Editor,

I was in the ninth grade when I decided to study economics. Truthfully, I was inspired by then-President Bharrat Jagdeo, whose fluency in matters of economic policy and professed passion for economic development I found captivating. After the CSEC examinations in 2010, I had the distinct honour of meeting one-on-one with the President. By the time of our meeting, I had just enrolled in the Economics programme at the University of Guyana, and it was a motivating encounter that energized me at the start of what would be a hard four year slog.

During the course of my studies, however, I would come to learn that Mr Jagdeo was not the development guru he styled himself as. He was no Lee Kwan Yew. Granted, Mr Jagdeo’s 12 year tenure, was marked by high economic growth, macroeconomic discipline, and tremendous socioeconomic improvements. It would be remiss, however, to not give some credit to the tailwinds that coincided with his presidency.

Firstly, the Economic Recovery Programme (ERP), a package of reform measures overseen by the late President Desmond Hoyte to ease the economy away from decades of debilitating “cooperative socialism” and towards a market oriented economy, was beginning to pay dividends.

Secondly, the United States’s globally unpopular war in Iraq and its subsequent descent into the Great Recession created a perfect storm of political and economic conditions that would redound to Guyana’s benefit. The Iraq War created an opening for anti-American populist socialists like Hugo Chávez, who used his country’s immense oil wealth to curry favour with smaller countries in the Western hemisphere to try to isolate the United States. A central plank of this oil diplomacy was PetroCaribe, a bilateral arrangement under which Guyana would supply rice to the Venezuelan market in exchange for oil. Under the arrangement, Guyana’s rice was valued at 20 per cent above the world market price, a boon of a subsidy for a rice sector that could not otherwise compete with major rice producers for a share of the global market.

More to the second point, the 2007-08 financial crash in America was a net positive for Guyana. Even as remittances from the US ebbed, the spike in gold prices more than made up for this. As investors fled a swooning stock market, funds piled into safe haven assets such as US Treasury bills, platinum, silver, and, yes, gold. The local gold rush of the last decade set off a wave of consumer spending as well as investments in other sectors of the economy such as real estate and retail.

Even as he benefited electorally from the booms, Mr Jagdeo did not do much to parlay what were known short- term phenomena into long-term growth. The country’s electricity supply, while better than it was, was still unreliable to the point where business owners asserted that having to invest in backup generators was a major barrier to investment. Red tape actually increased and deliberately so, as Mr Jagdeo ostensibly claimed that additional layers of bureaucracy were installed to protect ‘the little guy’. The University of Guyana was in a perennial state of decline and as a result of deliberate neglect, was ill-equipped to shape the skilled workforce in the way a modern, dynamic economy requires. Instead of using his stewardship of the country’s  radio spectrum to empower a nascent media and IT industry with the airtime and bandwidth to thrive, Mr Jagdeo turned it into giveaways for contractors and political allies.

Moreover, Mr Jagdeo squandered the proceeds from the commodities price surge as well as the roughly US$1 billion aid package from the European Union granted in compensation for the impending 36 per cent cut in the preferential price for Guyana sugar heading to the bloc. Mr Jagdeo’s big bets on the ill-advised Skeldon Sugar Factory and Marriott, for instance, have come at tremendous opportunity cost when one considers what other investments could have been made to diversify the economy and cushion the blow from the inevitable stabilization of the world’s oil, agricultural and metals markets. Oil prices are now lower than they have been in more than a decade and Venezuela is in no position to continue its international welfare scheme. The US economy is in the middle of an eight year long upswing and stocks are 235% higher than they were in 2009, so gold is no longer as attractive an investment as it was in the middle of the Great Recession.

That Mr Jagdeo, therefore, now holds himself out to be the Champion of the Rural Poor, as he did very prominently at last year’s Albion Reunion Day in New York City, is downright laughable, at best, and hypocritical, at worst. From 1992-2015, the years during which the PPP were in power, roughly 100,000 Guyanese migrated to the US legally. Irony must be dead, therefore, if Mr Jagdeo could, in a speech to expatriates from the rural village of Albion, credibly evade any responsibility for the economic circumstances that precipitated their departure. His characterization of the economic misfortunes of rural dwellers as a coordinated “assault” on Indo-Guyanese by a government that, up until that point, had only been in power for just over a year, was woefully and deliberately devoid of context.

The mendacity of Mr Jagdeo’s remarks at the July, 2016 event flared brightest in his assertion that the government was “snatching people’s land that has transport”, an apparent reference to the foolhardy revocation by President David Granger and the Mahaica-Mahaicony-Abary Agricultural Development Authority (MMA-ADA) of leases granted by former President Donald Ramotar to rice farmers in the West Coast Berbice region. Judging by the theme of Mr Jagdeo’s speech, the ex-President is implying that that too is another salvo in the current government’s economic war against Indo-Guyanese.

Had Mr Jagdeo shed the ethnocentric lens in his glasses through which he perceives Guyanese politics, he would have noticed that nine of the plaintiffs in the two court cases which eventually reversed the revocations are Black farmers.

Mr Jagdeo’s remarks, which have been receiving renewed prominence on social media, were not only an affront to the liberal, cosmopolitan ethos of the city where he made them, but an insult to the collective intelligence of the Guyanese people. Whatever residual regard he had upon departing from over a decade of public service, now lies shattered on that trail of misinformation he continues to blaze.

Yours faithfully,

Saieed I Khalil

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