President David Granger has finally appointed a new Minister of Foreign Affairs, after Mr Carl Greenidge was required to resign because he held dual citizenship. The name of Dr Karen Cummings, the new incumbent, is not the first one which would have come to mind when cognoscenti discussed the matter, if it came to mind at all. She is being transferred from her position of Minister within the Ministry of Public Health, and as is generally known, her background is in health, as is her working experience. Before becoming a Minister, she had served as a Government Medical Officer, the Doctor in Charge of the David Rose Health Centre, the Regional Medical Superintendent of Region Four and the Medical Registrar at the Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation. It is not a curriculum vitae, which on the face of it, at least, immediately recommends itself as reflecting a foreign affairs forte.
As we reported on Friday, when President Granger was asked what led him to make the appointment, he replied: “The deciding factor is that the country could not be without a foreign minister and I felt in my considered judgment that she was the fittest person to hold that portfolio.” This could hardly be described as a very informative response, since he was not at all forthcoming on why he considered a medical doctor with no previous exposure to the fields of foreign policy or diplomacy to be the “fittest person” to be foreign minister.
In fairness to Dr Cummings, she did not lay claim to any foreign affairs experience at any level. “It’s a learning curve for me,” she said modestly, “and I look forward to working and making myself available and to serve with distinction.” The problem is it is a very complex portfolio, and the learning curve she refers to is excessively steep. In addition, she arrives in Takuba Lodge at a time of crisis in our western neighbour, the evolution of which is hard to predict, even for Venezuelans, and which has serious possible implications for Guyana. There is too, the border controversy case which the International Court of Justice is currently considering whether it will hear, as well as oil matters and our maritime space, among many others.
While the new Minister did tell reporters that she was aware her new portfolio entailed a great deal of hard work and that she was prepared for this, it has to be said that the intricacies of our border issues in all their multiplicity is not something which any newcomer will assimilate quickly. Furthermore, foreign ministers are required to speak out when incidents occur, and in our little universe, not least in relation to boundaries, they occur with some frequency. Ministers in such situations require some background before outlining a position or answering questions on a sensitive matter, since one slip can be a source not merely of major embarrassment to a nation, but also of misunderstanding with another country.
As it is, Minister Cummings will find herself thrown in at the deep end with no background, no experience and no familiarity with the sometimes arcane conventions of diplomacy.
Dr Cummings also told the media that her appointment came as a surprise to her “to some extent”, going on to remark that as that day would be her first time on the job, she was hoping to see Mr Greenidge there. “I still think that he can be my coach,” she was quoted as saying; “It’s a new area and so I look forward to working with him.”
Well this is interesting; clearly the former Foreign Minister cannot linger around the ministry unless by invitation, and the phrasing of her comment would suggest that she had not invited him. Otherwise it would have to be within some framework set up by the President, possibly through the agency of the Ministry of the Presidency.
It might be observed that on April 25, President Granger had announced that Ms Dawn Hastings-Williams had been appointed Minister of State within the Ministry of the Presidency (Mr Haimraj Rajkumar was appointed Minister of Business and Ms Tabitha Sarabo-Halley as Minister of the Public Service in the Ministry of the Presidency on the same occasion). Subsequent to that, however, Mr Joseph Harmon, the former Minister of State of the Ministry of the Presidency, was made Director General of the latter ministry, and one can only presume, therefore, that under a new guise, he will continue his traditional role for the most part, and that Ms Hastings-Williams’ responsibilities will not encompass many of the duties he used to perform.
We must further presume, therefore, that similar arrangements are in train for the other three ministers, including possibly Mr Greenidge. When asked if that were so, President Granger told reporters that he had had discussions with Mr Greenidge and Dr Roopnaraine. We quoted him as saying, “I hope that they continue to assist the government. Minister Greenidge, for example served under President Burnham and President Hoyte, [so] he has tremendous experience and I hope that he would continue to serve. It is up to him. Minister Roopnaraine, as well, has brought a lot of experience as an academic. It’s up to him [but] I would like him to continue to work…”
Rather enigmatically, the President added that it was not a question of offering them a job, but of whether they wanted to continue to serve; “I would like to have them onboard, yes,” he said. One is constrained to remark that it is indeed a question of offering them a job, since it doesn’t matter how willing they would be to serve if he doesn’t offer employment. Or is he trying to suggest that they may not be willing to serve?
At a post-Cabinet press briefing, Mr Harmon also said that the President had met with Mr Greenidge. We quoted him as telling the media, “Therefore, there are some ongoing discussions that are taking place. There is some discussion taking place with former Minister Dominic Gaskin as well as some discussion taking place with former Minister Dr Rupert Roopnaraine, so these are all works in progress and once the situations have been clarified and decisions made we will keep the public informed.”
One cannot think that at a time like this, the Head of State would have catapulted a complete neophyte into the top spot at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, unless he had some back-up plan. Even if he has such a back-up plan and it involves Mr Greenidge − let us say theoretically in some kind of advisory capacity − it is not immediately apparent how that might work unless decision-making for foreign affairs were to be transferred to the Ministry of the Presidency. In that way, direct guidance could be given to Takuba Lodge which would have to be followed, whereas an advisor appointed within the ministry could not outrank a minister. An analogous kind of arrangement happened before under the PPP/C government. When Dr Cheddi Jagan came into office in 1992, he held ultimate responsibility for foreign affairs, although Mr Clement Rohee was appointed foreign minister.
President Granger told the media and others that the ministerial resignations “had necessitated a rebalancing of the executive”. Nevertheless, he assured his audience, “The Guyanese nation can be assured and can continue to look forward to the smooth functioning of their government as a result of these changes.” In the light of all that is happening, particularly to our west, the Guyanese nation will be watching how smoothly the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in particular will be functioning.