Last week, with his customary flair for the melodramatic, Opposition Leader Bharrat Jagdeo held a press conference to announce that his party had found evidence of a “people smuggling racket” in the Department of Citizenship aimed at inserting the names of foreigners into the voting list.
What is known is that on two separate occasions, naturalisation notices for two applicants who had different names and addresses, were appended to the same photo when they were published. The first of these appeared in the February 5 edition of the Guyana Chronicle, where it was stated that Gabriel St. Juste of Burma, Mahaicony was applying for naturalisation. Two days later, another notice to the same effect appeared attached to the identical photo, but this time in the name of Daniel Garcia Farres of 10-10 Norton Street, Cemetery Road, Georgetown.
The second case related to the March 27 edition of the state newspaper, where a notice applying for naturalisation in the name of Rubesh Abdus of Lot 0 Tabatinga, Lethem was published accompanied by a photograph. The same photo then reappeared in the March 29 issue of the Chronicle, only this time in relation to an application by Hajime Beltran Abreu, of Lot 39 Owen Street, Kitty. Mr Jagdeo also drew attention to a notice in the name of Julio Antonio Beltran, which oddly listed Abdus’s address as his place of residence.
As we reported on Friday, Stabroek News visited the Georgetown addresses listed in the notices. At the Kitty address, a Cuban woman nodded her head in recognition when shown Beltran’s photograph. She did not, however, recognise the photograph of the other man who gave that location as his address.
Our report further stated that people living nearby told this newspaper that the owner, who lives abroad, would normally rent out her property. One woman said that those who came to stay there did not have contact with persons in the community. On being shown a photo of Beltran, she recognised him, adding that she recently saw him in the yard and that he had raised his hand. He did not say anything, however, and her assumption was that he was not an English-speaker. She did not recognise the other two men.
We also reported that the Cemetery Road address had been locked when we arrived, but a man working nearby had told us that recently two foreign nationals had come to the worksite. No one, however, could understand what it was they were trying to say.
Whatever has happened, it is a rather peculiar story, not adequately clarified by the agencies involved. The one to take responsibility for the appearance of the duplicate photographs in the end, was the Guyana Chronicle, although it did so in a rather idiosyncratic way. In the first place, its explanation appeared on its Facebook page, not, one might have thought, the recommended approach considering it represented a response to serious allegations made by the Leader of the Opposition. There should at least have been a formal statement released through the official public channels. Facebook in relation to such a matter is not an avenue with authorised status.
That aside, the General Manager (ag) of the Guyana National Newspapers Limited (GNNL) Donna Todd, was quoted in the post as saying that the incorrect information published on the individuals seeking naturalisation in Guyana was corrected within days after the notices were first carried.
On February 6 and 7, 2019, she posted, a notice in the form of an advertisement bearing Farres’s name was published in the newspaper. That information was the correct version of another advertisement which had been published on February 4 and 5, 2019, where the photograph of Farres had been incorrectly placed next to the name Gabriel St. Juste, of Mahaicony.
A similar mistake, it was said, on March 27 and 28 relating to a naturalisation notice in Abreu’s name, when his information had appeared next to the name of Rubesh Abdus of Tabatinga, was also corrected by the insertion of another notice in his name on March 29 and 30. Nothing was said about Mr Jagdeo’s reference to a Julio Antonio Beltran giving Abdus’s Tabatinga address as his residence. Was that an error too?
We reported the Facebook post as then going on to enquire how Mr Jagdeo’s research team could have missed the corrected copies of the notices which were published. They didn’t, of course. They simply did not put Ms Todd’s interpretation on them. But then why should they? If there is no indication – and there isn’t – on the republished notices that these represent corrections of previous errors, then, at a minimum, they are simply adding to the confusion, and at a maximum, providing evidence to substantiate suspicions others might harbour that some irregularity was involved. Surely the state newspaper of all organs knows that if you make a correction, you have to tell the public you are doing so, otherwise it is simply not a correction.
And exactly how, Guyanese must be wondering, did the paper make these ‘mistakes’ in the first place.’ It was, said the Facebook post, “A mix-up in the computer system at the Advertising Department of the Guyana Chronicle.” One is constrained to remark that there could have been no ‘mix-up’ in the computer system which would have produced such a result, although there conceivably could have been a ‘mix-up’ at the level of human input.
If Ms Todd did not exactly flood this somewhat murky zone with light, then the Ministry of the Presidency lit it up with a bit of fire. In a press release on Thursday, the Ministry emphasised that the Citizenship Department plays no part in the publication of naturalisation notices; under the provisions of the Guyana Citizenship Act, it is the applicant who bears that responsibility. “The Department has nothing to do with what appears in the newspapers,” Minister Felix was quoted as saying.
The release went on to state that the Ministry took “umbrage” at the Leader of the Opposition’s spurious allegations and half-truths. During his press conference, Mr Jagdeo had made accusations about non-nationals being given “fake” documents to influence house-to-house registration, and had referred to his party’s “grave” concerns about corruption given the number of people passing through Guyana, making specific mention of Haitians and Venezuelans. In his view, there was a people smuggling racket going on, and the Department of Citizenship was part of it.
If there is corruption where the issue of naturalisation is concerned, it certainly didn’t start with the current administration. Mr Jagdeo should recall that over the years during the period of his presidency, all kinds of questions have been raised about Chinese nationals and Brazilian miners, among others, acquiring Guyanese citizenship. At that time, the matter fell under the purview of the Ministry of Home Affairs, so it is not beyond the boundaries of possibility that corrupt officials are still in place and continue to provide services for a ‘consideration’ outside the ambit of the regulations. As such, their actions might theoretically have a connection to the voters’ list, or they might be independent of it.
In any event, if it were the case that there were functionaries in the system who were unscrupulous, it would not help the Ministry of the Presidency to say that the Citizenship Act puts the burden on the applicant in relation to newspaper naturalisation notices. By definition, if a bureaucrat from the Department of Citizenship were to operate outside the law, then it would be irrelevant what the Act actually said.
As things stand, the authorities have provided no enlightenment to the public about what is a rather strange occurrence. The Guyana Chronicle’s deficiencies in this instance have already been mentioned, but the Ministry of the Presidency also needs to satisfy itself that all procedures on its side were punctiliously followed in relation to these particular applicants, more particularly since the details of the stories do not inspire confidence. As for the public, they would like to know on what grounds all these individuals are being considered for naturalisation, in addition to information on how many applicants and of which nationality have been granted citizenship over the last ten years, say. This is in addition to a more coherent account of what happened in the cases cited above. If that at least is not provided, suspicions will not dissipate.
Mr Jagdeo has political reasons in terms of the balance of constituencies for making speculative allegations, but he should not do this without hard data, and that data should not be secret, including for his period of office. Certainly, the evidence his team has adduced in this instance does not in and of itself amount to anything as large scale as “people smuggling.”