Guyana’s A Partnership for National Unity-Alliance for Change (APNU-AFC) government is in danger of losing power after a no-confidence vote was passed against it in parliament on December 21st, 2018. While the world’s attention is transfixed by that federal government shutdown in the United States and the collapse of Theresa May’s Brexit plan in the United Kingdom, a country where the UK and US’ imperial ambitions have long held sway is also in the midst of turmoil.
The main focus of this vote has been the coalition Member of Parliament (MP), Charrandass Persaud, who as a member of the AFC was expected to vote “no” with the coalition against the motion along partisan lines but in a shock to the nation voted “yes.” After losing seats in parliament in the local government election where the AFC ran separately from the APNU the dangers of a the no-confidence vote passing against the coalition were clear, but in the lead up to the vote coalition members that no one would cross party lines with Minister of Health Volda Lawrence declaring that, “We are not for sale” which made the Charrandass vote even more of surprise. This poses a situation where the current government is obligated to hold elections in the next three months with no guarantee of a victory given the ruptures in the coalition reflected in the passing of the no-confidence vote.
In the small arena of Guyanese politics it is very easy to focus the lens on every detail of Charrandass’s personal and political life to probe the depths and origins of his betrayal and this has been part of the local news coverage. The no-confidence vote reaches so deep into every level of Guyanese society that only a few days after its passage Blaize Antonio, who is like Guyana’s modern day rapping calypsonian, released the popular track “Seh No” detailing Charrandas’s Judas like betrayal, with the apt line: “This one drop like a bomb.”
The Charrandass affair, however, has also raised questions fundamental to the existence of Guyana’s political and social order. One of the most intriguing of these issues is the fact that Charrandass was discovered to also hold Canadian citizenship, which, according to Guyana’s constitution, disqualifies him from serving as an MP because holders of dual citizenship are ineligible to serve in parliament.
Members of the coalition government sought to invalidate Charrandass’ vote based on his dual citizenship but it turns out that Charrandass is not unique in this regard and there are several MPs in both the coalition government and the opposition People’s Progressive Party (PPP )who are also Canadian and American citizens. This revelation comes at a very unique moment in post-colonial Guyanese history. Those seeking a sober analysis in the face of this tantalizingly dramatic scenario should be asking what it means that even the country’s political elite must seek citizenship and residency status abroad to achieve social mobility.
It is important to consider the social, political and economic developments which occurred under three years of the coalition government. The most import of all these considerations of course is the coming extraction of oil in Guyana’s coastal waters which is scheduled to start in 2020. Corruption plays such an important part in the enrichment of the political elite in Guyana and other neo-colonial states that the prospect of a financial windfall from oil revenues has upped the ante in the competition between the coalition government and the PPP for power. This has also led to cracks in the coalition as evinced in Charrandass’s betrayal.
Not only has the coalition government been accused of giving unnecessarily general terms to Exxon-Mobil in the profit sharing agreement but the President went so far as to create a constitutional crisis through the unprecedented unilateral appointment of the chairman of the Guyana Electoral Commission (GEOCOM.) And now that fresh elections are possibly on the agenda within the next 3 months, pending the outcome of a legal challenge of the vote in the High Court, the opposition PPP is accusing the coalition government of relying on their head of GECOM to get an unfair advantage in the coming elections.
To add more disarray to this political situation, in November of 2018, it was announced that incumbent President Granger was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma and is currently undergoing treatment. Given the poor quality of Guyana’s healthcare system, the president, who assures us that he is getting the best care, has been forced to seek treatment in neighboring Cuba. Tellingly, in the same way the political elite can escape abroad to secure their financial feature, they also have access to medical care abroad that is financially unavailable the average working person. On top of this, the chairman of GEOCOM, the unilaterally appointed 85 year old retired Justice James Patterson, has also taken ill and is requiring treatment in the Intensive Care Unit of a local hospital. Taken together, these events have led to the postponement of scheduled GEOCOM meetings.
So this is the political context within which the coalition government was brought low by a surprise vote. The fact that Charrandass was then secretly spirited away from Parliament to the airport, with assistance from a member of the Canadian High Commission, and then to Canada has added more drama to the whole affair. However, those seeking a sober analysis in the face of this tantalizingly dramatic scenario should be asking what it means that even the country’s political elite must seek citizenship and residency status abroad to achieve social mobility.
What does it mean for those Guyanese who are unable to emigrate? Guyana has the highest youth unemployment rate in the Caribbean which means that those youth who graduate from high school and university face bleak prospects of finding gainful work and many often work towards building a future outside of the country. This has led to the scenario where Guyana’s population living outside the country is almost the same of number of Guyanese within the country’s borders. Politicians like Charrandass, tasked with charting the course of the country’s economic and social revival have such little faith in their own efforts that they maintain citizenship and residence in the imperialist metropoles as insurance against the chronic mismanagement and underdevelopment of Guyana’s economy.
When new elections are held can either the opposition PPP or the coalition government be trusted with administering the oil economy in a way that will lift the broad masses of Guyanese out of poverty? Will the winner of the elections commit to the infrastructural development needed to build roads, bridges and housing? Will the electricity grid be upgraded to avoid the constant blackouts which plague the country on a daily basis?
The PPP has recently selected Irfaan Ali as their presidential candidate and he has boldly promised 50,000 jobs, 50,000 house lots and to reopen three of the sugar estates closed by the coalition government. All this of course Ali claims will be backed by coming oil revenue, however, Ali was part of the same PPP government which made similar promises in the past while continuing to administer austerity programs, including the scaling back of the sugar industry which began before the rise of the coalition government.
The Socialist Workers Alliance has pointed out since 2016 that despite the differences in rhetoric between the PPP and the coalition, in practice they have both governed in the interest of the country’s economic elite while dutifully fulfilling the wishes of Guyana’s international creditors. This has led both the PPP and the coalition to institute austerity measures against the working people such as wage cuts and increases in utilities while relying on the racial division between Indo-Guyanese and Afro-Guyanese for continued political support.
As Guyanese eagerly await the outcome of the High Court hearing on the no-confidence vote, which is expected to occur by the end of January, those looking for an alternative to the PPP and coalition can take a first step in that direction by demanding that all political parties — old and new — which promise a way forward, commit to the repudiation of all austerity measures and a moratorium on debt payments (which made up a whopping 50.7 percent of Guyana’s GDP as of 2017). Parties which refuse to take up this demand should be asked to explain how they expect to both manage such debt payments without making the kind of cuts the coalition government has made in the last three years, and that the PPP made while they were in power for seventeen years.
A second no-confidence vote in the space of three years shows that Guyana in entering previously uncharted political territory made even more volatile by the prospect of an economic bonanza from oil extraction. The government has rarely changed hands so often in the post colonial period. After being ruled by the People’s National Congress (PNC) from independence in 1966 until 1992, Guyana was the run by the People’s Progressive Party from 1992-2015. The ascension of the coalition government came after a no-confidence vote in Donald Ramotar’s PPP government forced a fresh round of elections. Now the same fate has been visited upon the coalition government through the saga and scandal of the Charrandass affair.
Most people are dubious of Charrandass’s claim that he is unbought and was moved to his vote by a troubled conscience. However, as the nation holds its breath in anticipation of the court ruling of the court ruling on the no-confidence vote it has become clear that there is little confidence in either the PPP or the coalition to make the qualitative change needed in Guyana.