Guyana Politics: Navigating Guyana’s Muddy Waters – By Evan Ellis

Navigating Guyana’s Muddy Waters – By Evan Ellis | Global Americans

Evan Ellis

From February 19 through 27, 2019, I traveled to Georgetown, Guyana, to speak with individuals in the government and the private sector about the nation’s security challenges and internal dynamics. The country is in a potentially explosive political crisis with at least some similarities to the polarized situation in Washington, DC. In the midst of legal battles with consequences for who controls the country, intelligent, sincere people are convinced that the taking – or continuation – of power by their political opponents will be destructive for the nation and their own interests.

Behind the Current Political Struggle   

In Guyana, people of Indian and African descent are the two principal ethnic groups, and the relationship between ethnicity, power, and the spoils flowing from control of government have always been complex. While Guyanese founding fathers Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnham built the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) on multi-ethnic principles during the independence struggle of the 1950s and 1960s, ideological differences became intertwined with racial identity.     

Driven in part by the leftist orientation of Cheddi Jagan, the PPP was viewed by many Afro-Guyanese as disproportionately representing Indo-Guyanese interests, particularly poor rice and sugar farmers. As a result, Forbes Burnham ultimately led the disgruntled faction to form an alternate party, the People’s National Congress (PNC), which disproportionately attracted Afro-Guyanese, particularly those in urban areas and mining.

Many Indo-Guyanese believe that the PNC, with U.S. and British support, hijacked the supervised pre-independence elections in 1964, in which the PPP received the plurality of votes, but the PNC was invited by the British, after a procedural change, to form a coalition government with the United Force led by Peter D’Aguiar. The PNC went on to rule for 28 years until 1992, bolstered, especially in the eyes of some Indo-Guyanese, by rigged elections and other undemocratic practices.

For their part, many Afro-Guyanese believe that, once the PPP captured power in 1992, it similarly built a system rigged to sustain itself in power – including not holding local elections during its 23 years in power – and disproportionately benefitting its own politicians and affiliated – typically Indo-Guyanese – businessmen and farmers.

The PNC recaptured power in 2015 by incorporating other parties to broaden its base; by calling itself “A Party for National Unity” [APNU]; and by forging a coalition with a new splinter party drawing heavily on Indo-Guyanese voters, the Alliance for Change [AFC].

The December 2018 defection of Charandass Persaud, an AFC parliamentarian who joined the PPP opposition in a no-confidence vote against the government, has set the stage for new elections and unearthed a new high-stakes conflict between the two primary ethnic groups.

During the APNU-AFC administration of former Brigadier General David Granger, an international oil consortium led by Exxon Mobil enjoyed a remarkable string of successes in discovering oil in the waters of Guyana’s Exclusive Economic Zone. The discovery has positioned the country to receive an oil bonanza that will begin next year, and by 2025, could provide the government $1 billion or more per year in oil revenues to benefit its small population, which numbers approximately 800,000 people. The party in power when the oil money starts to roll in will likely hold onto power for a generation.

The Current Struggle

Persaud’s vote with the opposition to bring down the government is understandably seen by many in the ruling coalition as a PPP dirty trick, particularly on the eve of the oil windfall, although suggestions that Persaud was bribed have not been proven.

In fact, the downturn in Guyana’s sugar sector, which caused the government to close several sugar estates in Persaud’s rural district of Berbice, is a plausible reason for turning against his own government. Still, it is suspicious given Persaud’s on-record speeches praising the government just weeks before.

In the eyes of the PPP, the Granger government has done everything possible to avoid or postpone the election that the Constitution says has to occur within 90 days of the no-confidence vote. For example, it has challenged Persaud’s ability to vote, due to his dual citizenship – forbidden by the Constitution, but a violation also shared by various other members of parliament, including members in the governing coalition.

It has also unsuccessfully challenged whether the 33 votes received for the no confidence motion in the 65-seat parliament constituted a “majority”, and further sought, also unsuccessfully, to suspend the running of the electoral clock while an appeal on the matter was considered by the Guyanese judiciary.

Perhaps most troublesome, the Guyana Electoral Commission (GECOM), which was explicitly created to prepare for and conduct elections at any time; and to continuously update the voter registry; now says that it does not have the money to hold an election, and cannot do so without first conducting a manual house-to-house update of the registry. Such a manual count would push the country far beyond the March 19 deadline for holding elections, and could possibly delay them until 2020.

The PPP dismisses the GECOM position as unacceptable stalling, since by law the current registry is technically good until the end of April. It notes that GECOM just conducted elections in November 2018 – albeit at the local level – without significant complaints involving the registry. Moreover, when roles were reversed in 2015, and the PPP government was forced to call elections, it successfully held them without significant delays.

PPP leaders further note what appears to be partisan behavior of GECOM; in five recent votes, the three PPP-appointed electoral commissioners voted one way, the three government-appointed commissioners voted the opposite way, and the government-appointed head, James Patterson, broke the tie in support of the government’s position. The PPP has challenged Patterson’s appointment in the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) with a ruling possibly to be handed down within the next several weeks.

Under the circumstances, even without the house-to-house update of the voter registry, the election will not be able to take place before the 3-month constitutionally-mandated deadline expires. Yet while the constitution provides for an extension of the timeframe, if approved by the Assembly, PPP leaders argue that without signs of good faith – such as a concrete commitment to hold elections by a specific close-in date such as June – they are prepared to allow the “clock to run-out” making the government “illegal” in their interpretation.

The PPP clearly hopes that in the process, the international community, including the United States, which they believe the Granger government relies on as its supporter and protector, will pressure the government to commit to elections, and perhaps sanction it if it is seen to have violated the electoral provisions of its own constitution.

PPP leaders are careful to express their support for Exxon, and it is the party’s intention to honor the contracts Guyana has signed under the Granger government while complaining that the government did not get as good of a deal as it should have.  But the PPP emphasis on the “illegality” of the government after March 19 indirectly pressures Exxon and other players in the sector by casting doubt over any contractual proceedings that they enter into with the government, as the possible start of oil production in 2020 draws closer.

If a time-consuming house-to-house verification of the voter registry goes forward, Guyana’s political and contractual crisis could also affect the approval of the 2020 budget, leading to a possible government shutdown. PPP leaders argue that, following the no-confidence motion, the Granger government cannot take new actions beyond implementing decisions already made. With a paralyzed Constituent Assembly, complicated by a fight over whether certain parliamentarians are ineligible to vote because of their dual citizenship, approval of a budget for 2020 could be delayed, reducing the government’s capacity to monitor and mobilize actions necessary to begin oil production.

Washington’s Role

In the context of Guyana’s current constitutional crisis, Washington has both an important role to play and a complex set of strategic imperatives to consider in doing so.

The U.S. has significant historic baggage in its relationship with the PPP. Many Guyanese, particularly PPP members, perceive that the U.S., along with the British, acted to prevent the PPP from taking power after the party won the most votes in the 1964 election. Under the PPP governments of Bharat Jagdeo and Donald Ramotar, relations were strained, owing to a combination of differences over foreign policy, the rapid advance of relations with the PRC, and concerns over corruption and undemocratic practices. Matters hit a low point in July 2014 when a PPP functionary harshly and publicly reproached outgoing U.S. ambassador to Guyana Brent Hardt for his criticisms of the PPP government, during what was supposed to be a pleasant send-off for the ambassador at his own residence.

Under President David Granger and the APNU-AFC government which came to power in May 2015, the relationship with the U.S. strengthened notably, due largely to the latter’s cooperation on anti-corruption and other good-governance matters, as well as the government’s positive relationship with Exxon.

PPP leaders believe rightly or wrongly that the U.S. has been willing to overlook corruption and undemocratic practices in the Granger government, just as it had for PNC governments in the past, while criticizing PPP ones.

To a degree, Guyanese views on the current political crisis, including the role of the U.S., is strongly shaped by their perceptions of the past. The belief that the U.S. blocked the assumption of power by Jagan over fears he was a communist arguably drove the PPP to a disproportionate effort to convince Washington that they are now a responsible party of businessmen.

Reciprocally, memories of the role of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter pressuring the PNC government on elections, ultimately facilitating the capture of power by the PPP in 1992, color PPP hopes that U.S. NGOs such as the Carter Center and the U.S. government itself will similarly pressure the Granger government.

The shadow of the U.S.A., going back to before 1964, is long in Guyana. The statement from President Trump regarding Guyanese democracy, delivered while I was in Georgetown, received remarkably close and widespread attention from my Guyanese colleagues. In our conversations, I noticed that they had weighed every word of the speech, asking whether President Trump’s positive statement reflected support for President Granger’s position in the political crisis, or alternatively, if it was a polite warning that the U.S. could reconsider that support after March 19, the end of the constitutionally-specified 3-month deadline for holding elections, if the APNU-AFC government does not more clearly embrace a path to a vote in the near term.

Perhaps nothing convinced me more of the PPP’s concern over Washington’s intentions than the enormously generous time made to talk to me – a mere professor employed by the U.S. Army – in separate interviews granted by Guyana’s most recent two PPP presidents, as well as its current Presidential candidate, two of its leading contenders for Prime Minister, and various other senior party functionaries.

I found myself wrestling with the disconnect between the intelligent, articulate, seemingly reasonable and responsible persons with whom I spoke, and the stories of corruption and nefarious actions that I had heard about these same persons elsewhere. Yet whatever the truth, the PPP is clearly intent on communicating that, if it returns to power, it wants to work with Washington, as well as China and others, and wants to reassure Washington that it does not represent a threat to U.S. interests.

In its campaign of reassurance, for me, the PPP is missing the point. The U.S. concern, misplaced or not, is not the Cheddi Jagan era fear of “communism”. It is about the risk to Guyana and the hemisphere of unbridled corruption, magnified by the arrival of unprecedented oil wealth and the opportunity to work with Chinese companies and financiers who do not ask difficult questions if the deals advance their interests.

As demonstrated tragically by neighboring Venezuela, the real threat for the U.S. is the possibility that such corruption, from leaders who cloak themselves in the rhetoric of national self-determination and past U.S. errors, opens the door to economic malaise, rampant criminality, and the unhealthiest types of engagement with actors such as Russia and China in the hemisphere.

Whatever the character of the current PPP, the United States does have reasons to feel good about the Granger government, even if its record on economic management, fighting corruption and other issues has been mixed. As one colleague in Georgetown put it, although the government has only taken “baby steps”, there is a budding new perception that corruption is “wrong” … and possibly even punishable.

Yet while President Granger’s time in office has been positive for strengthening of the U.S.-Guyana relationship and incrementally advancing good governance in the country, recent APNU-AFC attempts to avoid or postpone an early election do not, for me at least, seem to pass the common-sense test.

The challenge for the U.S. is not to allow its good relationship with the Granger government to lead it into condoning behaviors that could undermine the credibility of advocacy of healthy democracy elsewhere. At the same time, the U.S. must be careful not to pressure a friend in a way that enables something worse.

The only realistic solution is to proceed cautiously, evaluating each step that both sides take, against Guyana’s own constitution and principles of democracy. If, in the end, the PPP returns to power, the United States should embrace the opportunity to work with it, respecting their choices on foreign policy and economic management, but watching closely, and insisting that they live up to the commitments to transparency, good governance, and respect for the rule of law that they are now so eloquently making.


R. Evan Ellis is Latin America Research Professor with the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute. The opinions expressed here are strictly his own. The author thanks Guyanese Vice President Carl Greenidge, Ambassador Riyad Insanally, Ambassador Ronald Sanders, former Presidents Bharat Jagdeo and Donald Ramotar, Ralph Ramkarran, Anil Nandllal, Brigadier Mark Phillips, Hugh Todd, Dr. Ivelaw Griffith, Dr. Fitzgerald Yaw, Captain John Flores, John Chester-Iniss, Russell Combe, Brian Chinn, Raymond Hall, Wallace Ng-see-Quan, Jerry Guevarra, Mark Wilson, William Walker, Mike Singh, David Lewis, and Ronald Gross for their contributions to this article.

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  • Rosaliene Bacchus  On March 6, 2019 at 12:50 pm

    Interesting analysis.

  • Clyde Duncan  On March 6, 2019 at 2:32 pm

    US President Praises Guyana’s Respect for Democratic Institutions

    Denis Chabrol | Demerara Waves

    United States President, Donald Trump, said his country recognizes Guyana’s systems of democracy and governance.

    “As your government and the people of Guyana assess the future direction of your country, know that the United States recognizes and honors Guyana’s respect for the principles and integrity of democratic governance and institutions,” Trump told President David Granger in a letter on the occasion of Guyana’s 49th Republic anniversary.

    The American leader made no reference to Guyana’s current political impasse over the holding of general elections stemming from the National Assembly’s passage of a no-confidence motion on December 21, 2018.

    However, the American leader’s remarks came two days after top American, British, Canadian and European diplomats met with the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) to find out about its preparedness for general elections.

    The Carter Center recently mounted a fact-finding mission to Georgetown for the almost identical purpose.

    The seven-member GECOM, by majority, earlier this week decided that elections could not be held by March 20 – within the 90-day constitutional time-frame that elections should be held unless two-thirds of the National Assembly decides to grant an extension. Instead, the Commission decided to hold house-to-house registration this year in keeping with its 2019 workplan.

    Opposition Leader Bharrat Jagdeo has vowed not to support an extension “at this time”.

    The governing coalition and its three elections commissioners have always insisted on the need for fresh house-to-house registration to remove the names of the deceased and migrants.

    The opposition People’s Progressive Party (PPP) has accused GECOM of conspiring with government and its commissioners to push back the preparation and holding of general elections within 90 days.

    The PPP had maintained that elections would have been possible in 90 days if GECOM had begun preparations immediately after the no-confidence motion had been passed.

    In his Republic Day congratulatory message to Guyana, President Trump singled out this South American nation’s role in the Western Hemisphere.

    “Guyana is one of the United States’ most important partners in ensuring the Americas remain a zone of democracy, freedom, and security. We look forward to a continuing collaborative partnership going forward, supporting the security and economic interests of both our nations,” he said.

    The US has already endorsed Guyana’s sovereignty over all of its 83,000 square miles, and its oil-rich Exclusive Economic Zone and continental shelf.

    Washington also recently scolded Venezuela for its naval interception of a seismic research vessel that had been collecting data in Guyana’s waters for the American oil giant, ExxonMobil.

  • Clyde Duncan  On March 7, 2019 at 11:14 am

    A brief history of instabilities in Guyana: 1953-2019

    Freddie Kissoon | Kaieteur News

    The year 2019 has come at an uncertain time. Guyana is facing an egregious Constitutional monster that is making every citizen in and out of the land nervous.

    There are more than a million Guyanese in foreign lands and they have loved ones living right here, so they too will not want to see ugly crises engulf the land.

    Guyana drifts from one explosive imbroglio to another. This has been long before Independence. Guyana became independent in 1966. Yet way back in 1953, problems, troubles, confusion, terrible tensions, instability visited the land, and since then the runaway train is still in runaway mode.

    In 1953, the Constitution was suspended, its elected government disbanded and several of its leaders including Dr. and Mrs. Jagan were jailed by the colonial government. Then came the cataclysmic split between Jagan and Burnham, and thus the birth of the PNC. From thereon, the zero-sum battle between these giants has exacted a humongous toll on Guyana’s social health.

    I grew up seeing the permanency of instability in Guyana. The beginning of the sixties witnessed horrible ethnic and political violence. This still remains the worst period of mayhem in Guyana. I would rate it as the worst, because the violence in Buxton between 2002 and 2006 did not engulf Guyana, the way the conflicts from 1960 to 1964 did.

    The three saddest incidents of political violence in Guyana’s history outside of the torture and execution of slave rebellion survivors remain in the following order; the bombing of the Son Chapman ferry on its way to MacKenzie in which 38 African Guyanese lost their lives; violent attacks on Indians, also in Mackenzie, in which rapes, murders and displacements took place; the unspeakable Abraham family incident in which Arthur Abraham, former PS in the Office of Premier Cheddi Jagan had his home bombed . He lost his life and six of his children perished in the inferno.

    We got Independence in 1966, yet soon after, political conflicts dominated the landscape. That period, one could say, culminated in the death of Walter Rodney.

    In 1979, Guyana braced for the Rodney Revolution when it was anticipated that there would be a huge showdown between supporters of Walter Rodney and the WPA and the State under Forbes Burnham. It wasn’t to be. The next year, 1980, Walter Rodney was murdered.

    President Burnham died in 1985 and a scandalously rigged election followed.

    More crises arose. Elections were due in 1990, but weren’t held, precipitating another national moment of unnerving anxiety. The long rule of the PNC ended in 1992, but Guyana saw an exchange not a change. The cries of ethnic discrimination that echoed in the sixties African people when the Indianized PPP ruled and that echoed in the seventies when the Africanized PNC ruled, returned after 1992.

    The period 1997 onwards saw tragic moments of discrimination from the ruling side and unruly and violent political ethics from the opposition. Those writing on this period will no doubt devote some attention to the catch phrase of that time – “mo fyaah, slo fyaah.”

    Our neighbouring CARICOM countries came in and settled things in a covenant that has gone down in the history books as “The Herdmanston Accord”. Moreover, once more, the people of the Caribbean wondered who or what was this country named Guyana.

    The period 2002-2006 was traumatic, violent and internecine. The heinousness of this section of the evolution of Guyana has only one parallel as mentioned above – the violence from 1960 -1964. Guyana was virtually paralyzed by violent gunmen operating with impunity from Buxton. Guyana dug one hole to fill another. To confront and defeat the Buxton conspiracy, ruling politicians gave extra-judicial latitude to a notorious drug lord.

    Instability is the permanent friend of this country. We saw a unique situation develop on December 21, when a majority government lost a no-confidence vote (NCV). We are currently swimming in the consequences of that process in the Guyana Parliament. We are in the middle of a crisis that, any minute now can precipitate more rounds of instabilities. Yesterday, the nation held its hope high, so high, that as Barry Manilow sang, in one of his songs, “the stallion could touch the sun.”

    An anti-climax occurred yesterday. There was no agreement between the Opposition leader and the President on the implication arising from the NCV way back on December 21, 2018. What happens to Guyana if the Court of Appeal rules that the NCV was valid and the Caribbean Court of Justice upholds that ruling? It would mean that the APNU+AFC government cannot remain in office.

    So what happens then? Simply – another round of the instabilities generation after generation have grown up with.

  • Ron Saywack  On March 7, 2019 at 5:27 pm

    The author laments:

    “So what happens then? Simply – another round of the instabilities generation after generation have grown up with.” Last para from the above article.

    All effort must be taken to ensure that the current electoral instability is resolved peacefully and civilly.

    Guyana simply cannot afford to lapse into another dark and reckless period of violence and horror like that of the 1960s — a period which sadly resulted in a painful and regrettable atmosphere of lingering distrust and discord, in addition to decades of crippling economic, social, infrastructural, intellectual and other stagnations.

    It is about time that we move forward collectively as one people, strong and united for the common good of the country.

    Best regards,

  • wally n  On March 8, 2019 at 11:06 am

    “It is about time that we move forward collectively as one people, strong and united for the common good of the country” and now, we open for suggestions,HOW?

  • Kman  On March 10, 2019 at 2:48 pm

    This mere army professor makes a good argument for those not knowing a bit of political history about British Guiana. The white English speaking world is screaming for democracy all over the non white countries. But let us not forget that it was the British who deposed a legitimate and democratically elected government in 1953, and jailed the leader of the PPP and others. This election was done according to British rules and scrutiny. The author may have left this out intentionally or may not know at all. This is not hearsay, these are facts, and can be researched by anyone.

    This guy is a CIA plant. People have to wake up. America may be the ‘best’ country in the world, but if one were to focus on what goes on in America, one would find that things are not that rosy as it seems.

    All kinds of people were put on this earth so that we can all get to know each other, and respect each other, and live in peace and harmony. We have yet to scratch that surface.

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