GUYANA POLITICS: Why I do not write articles on Guyana – By Hubert Williams

— (Editor’s Note: This article was written nine years ago in 2011. It is long but very informative)

By Hubert Williams –

Boston, Massachusetts, October 30, 2011 — I wouldn’t have thought that it mattered very much. Or that anyone would bother to notice. Until I visited New York to participate in family celebrations over the 2011 Labour holiday weekend.

Godfrey Wray, a journalism colleague from way back and now based in the “Big Apple”, remarked on the absence of writings by me on political, social and economic developments in Guyana.

Nonetheless, Godfrey’s inquiry is haunting: why don’t I write on Guyana?  I just don’t… and have never thought I needed to explain why. However, it is my view that one has to live the reality of Guyana to write informedly about its current affairs. We who reside abroad are mere ghosts of times past.       

My communication system is being inundated with articles and other material on Guyana (via Guyanese Online feeds) under the hand of persons living abroad but presuming to know or seeking to dictate what should be done in Guyana, with all of them making their comments and sharing their prescriptions from the relative safety and comfort of a foreign domicile, mostly the United States and Canada.

That to me is a usurpation of the prerogative of Guyanese who either…

(1) Have absolutely no desire to leave their country

(2) Cannot but remain in their country

(3) Can leave, but are holding on hoping for better times in their country

(4) Migrated, but have voluntarily returned to their country.

The future of Guyana is in THEIR hands.

And that was a prerogative I claimed and defended a long time ago when resident in Guyana by disagreeing with the grant of the vote in national elections to overseas-based Guyanese by the People’s National Congress (PNC) government of Forbes Burnham.

Therefore, if I wished to be re-involved in the process, I would return to Guyana; bear its pains, its challenges, its trauma, its sufferings, test its opportunities and help to determine its political/social/economic/cultural processes and direction…. in other words, live the Guyana experience day by day, in a way that it cannot be lived by people born in Guyana but securely ensconced elsewhere.

However, repatriation (except by deportation) is highly unlikely. Periodic visits, yes, but permanent relocation, no. Guyana’s future rests in the hands of its young, and, evidently, my youth is ages past.

But all of the foregoing does not adequately address the entirety of Godfrey Wray’s inquiry about my thoughts on the Guyana situation, particularly the Afro-Guyanese/Indo-Guyanese divide. This remains the country’s biggest challenge, and the most resistant to early resolution. So, I will comment, but feel some unease in trying to prescribe.

For a long time to come Guyana’s political culture will continue to reflect its national demographics – not quite aphan jhat, but not very far from that, on both sides. Some measure of cross-over has been achieved during the past two decades, but, really, not that much.

Political ideology in the country has been less radicalized over the same period, and this is understandable, given the dramatic collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, capitalism’s seeming invincibility during the Reagan/Bush Sr/Clinton years, and Guyana’s own economic degeneration to levels higher than only Haiti’s in this hemisphere, according to figures from reputable international development finance institutions.

No one now hears Guyanese politicians prattling about communism, scientific socialism, people’s capitalism, cooperative socialism, and the like. Long gone are the days when Brindley Horatio Benn, then a government minister, could boast that it might be easier to stop tomorrow than to stop communism.

In the early, 1960s agents of political parties initiated attacks in communities which had long been shared by Afros and Indos, leading to racial violence in which hundreds of people were killed and to the departure of weak minorities in villages where the other group was a strong majority.

As is now no longer disputed, the racial problems were exacerbated by deliberate Anglo-American governments’ policy. These externals pandered to Forbes Burnham’s lust for power and held Dr. Jagan on a tight leash as they sought to undermine his political base. Their fear was that as an unapologetic socialist, he would, if at the helm on independence, create of Guyana a communist entrepot to South America.

It should be remembered that Guyana’s ideological predisposition predated Cuba’s by almost a decade; and, so, well before Fidel Castro emerged from the Sierra Maestras, Dr. Jagan was being styled the enfant terrible of the hemisphere.

British duplicity ultimately thwarted Dr. Jagan, and with the introduction of a new electoral system of proportional representation, control of the country devolved upon Burnham who then proceeded to make a mess of his stewardship.

During the closing decades of the 20th century, as bureaucratic state control and mismanagement by the PNC administration strangled the country and much of the middle class migrated, there was the phenomenon of wealth creation despite parlous times.

The disparity between Guyana’s ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ not only widened, but increasingly began to assume a racial character, i.e., more members of its Guy-Indian (Indo) segment (the largest single group (44%) within the population of about 800,000) seemed to be reflecting acquired wealth, and more members of the Guy-African (Afro) segment (34%) appeared to be drifting into an existence just above the poverty line. (UPDATE 2012 Census: Indians 39%; Africans 29%; Mixed 19%; Amerindians 11% with Mixed and Amerindians expanding the fastest)

I have on occasion during visits to Guyana driven along the East Coast Highway from Georgetown up to the Berbice West Coast. The difference in the physical evidence between villages was stark… one almost always could determine which racial group was dominant in which village. There seemed to be communal prosperity in the one, but not in the other.

And a friend has advised that if I wished to witness real evidence of what he said was amazing progress I should visit the Corentyne Region in the north-east, near the border with Suriname, which has the appearance of the country’s most prosperous urban centre.

These physical characteristics reflective of economic and social progress in the rural setting were a dramatic reversal of the state of the two ethnic groups from their mid-20th century condition in the rural areas.

I well remember those progressive overwhelmingly Afro villages in which as a child I used to spend happy holidays with relatives: Plaisance, Beterverwagting, Buxton, Golden Grove, Nabaclis (where I lived for a while), Cove & John (where I went to school), Victoria, Belfield, Ann’s Grove, Litchfield, No. 40 Village, Rosignol.

They were well-administered and competing little jurisdictions. But their rhythm and development pace were disrupted principally by two factors:

(1) the Burnham administration’s politicizing and assuming central control by abolishing the local government system in individual villages, and

(2) discontinuation of the railroad which had been a lifeline to the communities along the Atlantic coast between the Demerara and Berbice rivers..

There has been transformation as well in Guyana’s main urban centre, though less dramatically so. The capital, Georgetown, itself has experienced a surge in the Indo segment of its population and an explosion in their influence in its political, economic, financial, educational and cultural activities.

It was a revelation to walk the streets of the city by night during celebrations for the Hindu festival of Diwali (Deepavali) – this festival of lights commemorates the return of Lord Rama from exile – and note the extent to which Georgetown seemed to have vastly altered demographically. Diwali lights are just about everywhere.

Arguments presented for the respondents in a current libel case brought to the Supreme Court by the country’s president against a newspaper and one of its columnists have pushed to the fore a number of race-based issues that are of concern to segments of the population, foremost among them being that Indos have been the principal beneficiaries under the group (People’s Progressive Party/Civic) which has governed the country since 1992. The claim is that favouritism has been deliberate and palpable.

While the court has the power to uphold or negate the libel claim, a court decision by itself will not cement a bridge across Guyana’s racial cleavage nor halt the rapid pace of Indo advance in all areas of the country’s life, even as the Afro segment’s former dominance diminishes. In a number of areas where Afros could be said to have had a head start, the Indos now firmly control.

In Georgetown, Afros were the first heirs to the withdrawing British, they were also the first local migrant groups into London, Toronto and New York, well ahead of their Indo countrymen; and, locally, in both the sugar and rice industries, Afro involvement as freed men was decades ahead of the arrival of the indentured inflow from India. Now, in all of these cities and industries Indo enterprise, industry, control and wealth accumulation far outstrip the achievements of their Afro countrymen.

Part of the problem is that these are two distinctly different groups co-existing within the same state, and tending to react differently to the same stimuli.

Because of religion, there was greater, more rigid, discipline in Indo family life: youths generally respected the authority of the elders and did as they were instructed; though there was a relatively high incidence of suicide among post-pubescent girls resistant to historical strictures and wedlock without affection, in other words, arranged marriages.

Afros’ home life was far less controlled, discipline among the youth less rigid, and generally lifestyles and habits strongly patterned those of the former colonizers, one likely conclusion being that Afro youths wasted much more of their time than did their Indo counterparts.

When the People’s National Congress’ Afro-dominated government ruled for 28 years (1964-1992), the Afros seemed to have benefited much less than they might have had the right to expect; indeed many of their well-qualified middle class migrated.

On the other hand, the enhanced affluence of Indos has been significant in the past 19 years under the present government, and I have little doubt that this dominance will be extended with the coming general elections on November 28., 2011.

It is a victory that will present another fact of the country’s racial disunity, with its politics continuing, regrettably, to reflect the national demographics; and the fact of the matter is that once general elections continue to be democratically held and are perceived by the international community to have been free and fair, there is not likely to be any significant change soon in Guyana’s political status quo.

Indo ascendancy has been marked, very visible, but also predictable. Many of my generation have observed the gradual advance since we were boys when East Indians struggled near the bottom of the socio-economic scale.

Even at school, there was such a difference between us!  We had shoes; they mostly came bare-footed. We were dressed-up; they weren’t. We laughed when they came humbly bearing gifts (fruit, vegetables and the like) sent by their parents to our teachers. Our parents said the teachers were paid and didn’t need bribes. They became teachers’ pets, but they also did their work.

And following that phase of our education, most Afro-Guyanese sought paid employment… we went into jobs (paid labour). Some of them followed in their fathers’ footsteps by going around to homes (Afro in many cases) selling clothing and other cheap items from grips (suitcases) – to be paid for a shilling, a sixpence, a bit at a time over months.

Some others joined their parents in the operation of vegetable and other stalls in Stabroek, La Penitence and Bourda municipal markets. Others progressed to higher education.

Their industry was also evident in the practice of beggary: every Friday morning in Alberttown groups of elderly Indos would come to every yard on the block with several flour bags slung around their necks.

At each yard, we as children would have four large bowls with supplies of sugar, flour, rice and salt; and as each beggar came we would scoop some of the supplies and pour into the appropriate bags.

It was much later I learned that when what was collected at day’s end was greater than the individual’s requirements, they sold the excess.

Further, it was only Indos who came daily at noon to bring the family’s milk, having come from the East Coast with their supplies. When on occasion my mother would remark that ‘this milk looks thin’, inferring it had been ‘stretched’ with water, Hussein would respond ‘dat is how de milk from dis cow stay, but yuh shoud see how de calf fat’. ‘Stretching’ increased earnings, was not infrequently done, and customers learned to live with that, if not overdone.

So, in a sense, there has always been co-operation between the two groups:  they sell and we buy, except, of course, for real estate, about which more later.

They also almost entirely comprised the labouring gangs of the Town Council which with sharp scythes and cutlasses cleaned parapets, gutters, alleyways and the cemeteries. If  they now feel their day has come… perhaps it has.

Most Indo parents in those days were unschooled and as such illiterate, though not stupid, and they insisted their offspring focus on ‘larning’. Tertiary education for Guyanese was only available overseas and was thus prohibitively costly (indeed, in the period of my recall there was just a single unique case of anyone (Sydney King, later Eusi Kwayana {Black Man of Guyana}) attaining a degree in economics from his home base through correspondence courses.

Some Indo families know the pain of name-change just to be able to be admitted to certain schools, though, under slavery Afros had to undergo name-change just to exist.

The greatest boon in education to that group came later, with the beginning, on the initiative of Dr. Cheddi Jagan, of the University of Guyana through evening classes for all-comers on the premises of Queen’s College near the Atlantic foreshore in Georgetown.

These early classes were awash with Indo youths because their Afro counterparts had been dissuaded from participation by Afro politicians in what they had derogatorily described as Dr. Jagan’s night school. The few Afros who courageously got involved were called ‘Jaganites’.

Consequently, the early core of UG graduates was overwhelmingly Indo, and while there has been some balancing over time, they remain the majority in the current outflow.

Now, with a UG campus established on the Corentyne coast, Indo dominance in higher education in the country will strengthen, for they are numerically much stronger there, and they do apply themselves. Jobs requiring relevant qualifications will almost always go to them, a boon on top of political favouritism.

To test this theory, one needs only to look at results coming out of the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) where more often than not Guyanese Indos (invariably girls) are the top performers. This year one Indo girl got A’s in 15 subjects and another girl, also Indo, did only slightly less well with 14 A’s.

There was a time when Afro-founded and administered high schools were in the vanguard of a private sector thrust in secondary education: to name a few such schools – Enterprise High, Modern High, Chatham High, Demerara High, Day Commercial High, Washington High, but almost all have vanished from the land – negating the labours of such men as R. B. O. Hart, Randolph Cheeks, Claude Vieira, Hubert Barker, Frederick Lowry, Gladstone Wilson, Mc Callister… and others that I can’t immediately remember.

Apart from the advances made by Indos in higher education, there have been other means of wealth changing hands: In real estate, as I have said, Afro inheritance in some areas has diminished.

It is claimed at times that he who owns the land controls the country; and real estate transfer has been frequent and significant over the years… whenever Afro property-owners in Georgetown were ready to relinquish what had been acquired from their forefathers, the Indos have been not only willing to purchase but also ready with the resources.

I was 13 when my own family’s two large properties on First Street, Alberttown, were sold to Indos because when the matriarch died, disputing members wanted their share in cash… evidently not understanding how rapidly money could depreciate (eventually disappears) when not invested.

And that is part of the difference between the two racial groups: one generally hard-working, but risk averse and intimidated by the challenges of commerce; the other appreciating that wealth is not so much a matter of effort as it is of wisdom – the capacity to transfer, legitimately, resources from other people’s pockets into their own and knowing how to hang on to it and make it grow an hundredfold.

Another example: I well remember the spectacle of Ghana Day celebrations in Georgetown with hundreds of marchers resplendent in imported colourful African prints, bought mostly from Indo-owned stores.

Afro-Guyanese as a group, though there must be many exceptions, have not really grasped the simple truth that wages and salaries are only infrequently a route to wealth….

Makes one wonder about the perception of those critics who denounce the slothful progress of Blacks in former slave-holding jurisdictions and see such attitudes as the continuing psychological impact of centuries past.

In those times, slaves laboured for owners who provided food, shelter, clothing: now generations later their descendants labour for employers, receiving wages/salaries to provide themselves food, shelter, clothing – still not having come to terms with the fact that an employee, in capitalism or under any other ideology, is not paid the full value of his production: The wide differential between his worth and his receipts offsets costs and increases profits, thus enhancing the wealth of others.

This perception of enterprise versus employment is vivid on the main streets of commercial activity in Georgetown (Water Street, Regent Street, Camp Street, Robb Street) and New York (Liberty Avenue in Queens). Indo enterprise has Guyanized Liberty Avenue and sparkles in other small commercial segments in that city. Their forward pace is beyond compare with that of their Afro countrymen… just look at the food-vending outlets of Sybil’s versus Sars, or at Guyana-focused Indo-controlled New York newspapers and the Afro-founded Caribbean Impact.

There are now very many cases of earned Indo wealth in Guyana – family empires, by local standards. I remember when the Yassins started, and the Beharrys, and the Kissoons. I knew them personally. I also sat in class with some Sankar children at the St. Andrew’s C of E School, Cove & John.

And when Alston Kissoon began his small business at the corner of Camp and Robb Streets, I was a teenager involved in building furniture with Surinamer Edwin Maes. His workshop was on Regent Street below the home he rented from the Yassins which was aback of their small store, and his furniture store on Camp Street predated, and was obliquely across the road from, the Kissoons’ business.

On occasion, I would ‘drop in’ to speak with Alston and Lyla Sankar Kissoon in their start-up store after lugging crabwood boards to the nearby DeCaires workshop to be planed, split, ripped, or whatever.

But it had never dawned on me that I could establish a furniture business of my own and in time become an independent, wealth-producing entrepreneur. Rather, I went to night classes with the perception that I would be able to move on to better, more respectable employment than being a cabinet-making tradesman.

Afro parents were encouraging their offspring into collar-and-tie jobs. None would have wanted them to follow in their footsteps – behind the counter in the little Ma & Pa cake-shops which were in almost every city block. None foresaw that in time and with generations, this could become big business.

Again, we have to review the past: during 20th century Guyana, prior to and following the grant of political independence by Britain in 1966, Afros were making commendable strides in the society, where they had long been dominated and suppressed by colonial whites and other high-coloured descendants of immigrant stock from Portugal and China who controlled shipping, merchandising, the civil service, and their women won preference for ordinary sales clerks jobs behind retail store counters.

After slavery was abolished by England in the mid-1830s (followed by a long period of Afro indentureship), change from the ex-slaves’ perilous conditions in the colony had come slowly, first through the establishment of villages, food production on their own land, access to education and much later the organizing of labour with the establishment of trade unions.

However, for too many of the newly educated, the prize at the end of their rainbow was the security of salaried employment: as teachers. civil servants, hospital specialists, policemen, postmen, road, rail and sea transport personnel, construction and other artisans. Few ventured into self-employment as businessmen. Mostly lawyers practised as individuals, or in small groups as legal firms.

In the social hierarchy, Afros were considered in fourth position, of six, trailing English, Portuguese descendants, Chinese descendants, but ahead of Indian descendants, and the indigenous Amerindians (for some reason I have never heard explained, why society made a distinction between the English white and the descendants of immigrants from Portugal). The few citizens in mixed-race groups (who used to be described as mulattos, doughlas, santantones, buffiandas) fitted in where they might.

Participation as owners in the retail trade was not within easy reach of the urbanized Afro majority, though, for all one knows, the non-Black wholesale suppliers might have deliberately conspired to keep them out. And to the courageous few who persevered against the odds and founded small businesses, their progeny invariably went into the professions, or overseas, and most such businesses became first generation casualties.

There seems such lack of vision: I have periodically visited the production operations of a relative in Victoria Village (the first founded by freed slaves on the East Coast of Demerara) where time has virtually stood still these many decades… the same systems, the same methods, the same manufacturing processes as nearly half a century ago. No change, no modernization, no heirs with the interest to carry on. The business will very likely die with his death.

Major crime involving mostly narco-trafficking seems from media reports to be the newest area of Indo surgence, with the Roger Khans of Guyana controlling both the supplying end in north-eastern South America and the receiving end in Caribbean, North American and European cities

Guyana with its bulk, many large rivers, forests and considerable mineral resources has the potential to become the mecca of the Caribbean Community, based overwhelmingly on the extractive industries (including petroleum) and agriculture. Rapid progress there can stimulate growth and development, with substantial job creation, throughout the Region.

However, with lop-sided social and economic progress and nationally-created wealth being unfairly shared among its people, (particularly its Indos and Afros) its achievement may only strengthen dissension and create further problems.

The pathway to unity, tranquility and development may be not the traditional winner-take-all for a single party, but shared government based on proportional representation. The question is whether the country’s politicians are sufficiently mature to opt for such sophistication.

In the fullness of time it may well be that the solution will lie in genetics rather than politics – through increasingly more frequent inter-racial marriages which would contribute towards bridging the very worrying Indo-Afro divide…. a likelihood that is far, far, away.

PS: To those who might wonder whether my insight has been of any material benefit to me, the answer would be in the affirmative… I generally acted the advice I gave to others, and later to my children: Don’t criticize or condemn East Indians… Just follow the pattern.

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Comments

  • brandli62  On September 15, 2020 at 10:37 am

    The essay by Hubert Williams is a timeless jewel, worth reading even nine years after its publication. His analysis of origins and consequences of the racial divide in Guyana is razor-sharp and to the point. One of his solutions “genetics rather than politics – through increasingly more frequent inter-racial marriages” has been my mantra, too. I have voiced this opinion in some of my recent comments.

    Overall, this is an essay full of wisdom worth reading for all Guyanese whether the live in the country or abroad.

    Special thanks goes to Cyrill Bryan for re-posting the essay of 2011.

  • Seelocgan Beharry  On September 19, 2020 at 2:16 pm

    Sorry, I am behind in my reading and could not respond earlier.. I have not read this before This is indeed a brilliant and insightful essay on the Guyanese situation. Mr. William’s experiences narrated here are insightful and his assessments are very honest and excellent. This is essential reading to those of us who seek to understand our own histories.
    We thank Mr. Hubert Williams for this piece of excellent work, and Mr. Cyril Bryan for republishing it.
    Seelochan Beharry, formerly of Natural Science, UG

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