Graz, Austria and Guyana, August 2004
Demarcation of difference, demarcation of hostility…
Guyana: one Nation, One Destiny and One People?
When people in a strongly divided society identify themselves by their ethnic group and additionally experience inequality and discrimination based on ethnical belonging, the chances of facing violent episodes is particularly high. Nonetheless, under the evident surface of ethnic differences there are root causes that can lead a society to be divided and in constant struggle. Thus, to see beyond ethnicity should be the first step if the purpose is to transform the situation either in Guyana or in any other country where ethnic violence has been happening.
Nowadays, the Republic of Guyana is the only nation state of the Commonwealth in South America. After the post-colonial times the two main racial groups of the country became rivals, starting a struggle to obtain or remain in power as the only means of survival.
Currently, the Indo-Guyanese dominated PPP (1) is in office; however, there have been several complaints about the legitimacy of the government in relation to irregularities with the electoral procedures in the country. It is established that every five years national elections and every four years local government elections should take place. Nevertheless, the last local government elections were organized in 1994 and the ones before in 1978.
As a consequence of the postponement of the elections local governors who were elected but are not in office any more (due to immigration or death) are being replaced by someone who is close to the PPP political party. As a result, the population is governed by persons whom they did not elect and in whom they have no trust. This situation feeds into feelings of insecurity and distrust on the local level. .
The reasons mentioned for the delays in local government elections are the tense situation around the national elections and disagreement about the voter lists. The voter lists are disputed by the opposition as being not accurate. With an electoral system in which people vote along ethnic lines the voter database is of extreme high relevance. To know how many people live in a certain area of a particular ethnic group can determine the election results.
The economical situation of the country deepens the ethnic tensions in the country. Poverty affects all population groups. Nevertheless, the resentment is so rooted that some people are starting to perceive the actions taken by the other ethnic group as the cause of their poverty.
Since the 1980s the economic growth in Guyana is very limited and it is dependent on a few sectors like sugar, rice and bauxite. In addition to this and in response to the bad security situation in the country the investors stay away and planned projects (for example to modernize the sugar production) do not come off the ground. Especially young people are constrained in their development and are confronted with blurred future perspectives. The economic opportunities are very limited.
Consequently, the bad economic situation combined with the increased ethnic polarization and the unstable political situation has led to several alarming situations. The first is the extremely high emigration rate. Besides failing to satisfy basic needs of the population, the Government is also not able to create ‘safe spaces’ in which people feel free and safe to express themselves. Most of the people have family in the United States or Canada and the future plan of almost every individual is focused on leaving the country as soon as possible. Businesses close down due to the numerous robberies and violent attacks, while small and medium enterprises are becoming the motor of the economy.
Secondly, the level of corruption is expanding rapidly. This takes place on every level of society. It is believed that resources of the Government are not spent effectively and transparently. This point is closely linked to the growing and economically interesting drug trade.
Another critical point in the country is the significant role that the military and the police play in the security situation of the country. The majority of the police and the military are composed of Afro-Guyanese. This creates a strong feeling of insecurity on the side of the Indo-Guyanese specially and also on the side of the four other ethnic groups (Chinese, Amerindians, Portuguese and Europeans).
The security situation deteriorated significantly three years ago after the last elections, won by the Indo-Guyanese and strongly contested by the Afro-Guyanese. The ethnic tensions came to the surface and manifested itself in widespread criminal violence. To curb this violence it is alleged that the Government has set up armed groups, so-called ‘death squads’, to get the situation under control. The police, instead of managing the conflict, became an instigator of conflict. Extra-judicial killings by the police play an important role in the feeling of being insecure. The general perception among the population was that the police was not able to control the crime situation as many policemen were murdered. For this reason the police started to protect itself against persons that they think are their opponents (extra-judicial killings).
Seeing beyond ethnicity should be the first step if the purpose is to transform the situation either in Guyana or in any other country where ethnic violence has been happening. A dialogue and reconciliation with the differences must be the basic foundation on which these societies should be erected. Embracing diversity is the most constructive possibility that will bring sustainable understanding in Guyana and the world.
Guyana is a multi-racial and multi-ethnic country where after gaining independence in 1966, ethnic lines started to speak in political, social and economical terms creating tensions between the main ethnic groups in the country. Under these conditions, the Afro-Guyanese and Indo-Guyanese- together with their legacy of resentment, mistrust, prejudice, intolerance and fear of submission have been submerged in a struggle to win and remain in power as the final means of survival and self-preservation.
The author of the file is Biviana Buitrago. This file is based on an assignment by Afke Bootsman who worked at the time of writing for UNDP in Guyana as a program officer in the area of poverty eradication.
(1) : Peoples Progressive Party.