Sometimes in political life, movements that promise relief to the majority of the population fail to perform and are left to flounder and crash. In the case of Guyana, there was much hope in the air when the Alliance for Change and A Partnership for National Unity reached an agreement under the Cummingsburg Accord to enter the 2015 elections. Establishment of the coalition promised changes in several major areas of national life: ending governmental abuse at local and national levels; doing away with the seething corruption which was eating away at the fabric of the national culture; addressing the frequency of extra-judicial killings and bringing the perpetrators to justice (in excess of 400 citizens, mainly Afro-Guyanese youth, gunned down during the reign of the previous government); transforming the country into a constitutional democracy, through much needed reform; creating a sustainable people-centred economy; and in the words of then presidential candidate, David Granger, ending “mediocrity.”
These were and remain lofty ideals which Guyanese at home and abroad embraced and supported. As foundation members of the Working People’s Alliance, we have watched from the sidelines and with growing unease as this government committed error after error. Some of these errors, we felt, resulted from a newly sworn in coalition administration having to respond to situations which many of its Ministers did not yet have the experience to address. Others may have been the result of the normal difficulties of coalition politics. But recently, we were shocked beyond belief when severance notices were handed out to sugar workers at the start of the Christmas season, without a plan regarding the future of the workers, their families, their communities, and the wider economy of Guyana.
This disastrous decision cannot be explained away with reference to inexperience. It is callous, foolish, ill-advised and economically unfeasible. The economy of Guyana has revolved around sugar since 1815, when the decision was taken to create a one crop economy. In that vein, the diversity that enslaved Africans had introduced through the cultivation of provision grounds came under attack. Some normalcy was restored to the people’s economy through valiant struggles in the 1840s after the abolition of slavery when the village movement was formed. Over the long and protracted history of the second half of the 19th century, these villages supported the everyday existence of the mainly East Indian indentured sugar working communities. The wages from sugar workers resident in Indian and African villages was important to the survival of all the villages. The structure of economic and social relations in rural coastal Guyana is related to the integration of these two communities. For two hundred years, the wages paid to Indian and African workers on the sugar estates have helped in no small manner to sustain and bring vibrancy to every other industry and enterprise in Guyana, including the ice seller, the flutie producer, the hairdresser, the farmer, the haberdasher, the mechanic, the fisherman. This decision to shut down sugar is being taken as if it does not strike at the heart of the household and community economies of both those directly engaged in sugar production and those for whom there are ripple effects. This decision will affect every political constituency in the country. It will even affect the viability of the National Insurance Scheme (NIS).
The decision to hand out severance letters disrupts the micro economy of the working people, and is already affecting major sections of the country. We believe that Cabinet is duty bound to explain in plain language when the decision to issue severance letters was taken, when the decision to implement the decision to hand out severance letters by Guysuco became government policy, what were the consultations and deliberations and with whom, what alternatives were discussed, why Cabinet did not consider a more reasonable phased approach, why for instance proposals from citizens’ groups such as the National Farmers Organization for managed diversification were not given any attention and due consideration. Cabinet should also tell the public how much of the yearly subsidy was used to pay super salaries of Guysuco officials.
The problems of the sugar industry are not new. As early as 1990 President Hoyte had raised concerns about its future, and had intimated the need for national consensus on the way forward for sugar. But this mostly fell on deaf ears, except for the WPA which made its position clear at the time. The WPA position then was that divestment of the industry should not mean and must not involve disposal of the sugar lands – they must remain public property. In 1990, Booker Tate was invited by President Hoyte to manage the industry on a management contract, an arrangement that came to an end in 2009. From that point a new Guysuco management board was reinstated. The current government owes the people of Guyana an explanation for why it maintained the structure of a top-heavy management board, even now as thousands of sugar workers, who have known nothing but sugar, are being sent home with no viable plan for their future.
Under normal circumstances, governments are expected to be even-handed . Given the lack of information on whether severance letters are also being handed out to the top heavy management board, we ask the question – How could the people who are part of the problem be relied on to find solutions? In light of the tragic news of two reported suicides by sugar workers since the layoffs, and to lessen despondency, uncertainly, and anxiety among sugar working families, it is well past the time for the government to fully explain its plans for the industry going forward. What plans, if any, are in place to meaningfully involve people in the communities in figuring out the future of sugar, the sugar lands, and the sugar assets? The time is never too late to change course. Government is serious business.
Government is serious business period. In a country that now notoriously boasts the second highest suicide rate in the world, government must be more than serious business. In a country where domestic violence, and violence against women is now a sub-culture, government must be more than serious business. In a country where the families of the more than 400 young men who were murdered extra-judicially still wait for justice, government must be more than serious business. In a country where the top .5% of the population owns and controls most of the wealth and decision making, government must be more than serious business.
As a country we can do better. The certainty that we could do better was the reason for the formation of the Working Peoples Alliance in 1974, and to see a government which includes the WPA falter on the most basic of ideals, gives us cause to pause and question. We think it necessary to remind our colleagues from the WPA in the government, that for decades our slogan was “BREAD AND JUSTICE.” Further, when the Economic Recovery Program (ERP) was put in place in 1989, the WPA called for investment in the people. It was not for nothing that the people renamed the ERP the Empty Rice Pot. Today, the government is following through on the approach of its predecessor, and is investing in the top .5% of the population to the detriment of the people. They invest in politicians, contractors, consultants, and those who seek to leech off the sweat of the working people. We remind those in power today of the APNU-AFC Manifesto for the 2015 elections, where they committed to “establish and entrench an inclusionary democracy through the appointment of a Government of National Unity which would create opportunities for the participation of citizens and their organisations in the management and decision-making processes of the state, with particular emphasis on the areas of decision-making that affect their well-being.” We ask the government, were these empty promises?
We say now, and we say boldly, if this government does not recognize the wrong turns it has made, if it does not change course, if it does not embrace and lift up those most downtrodden among the population, it is doomed to failure like its predecessors.