President Jagdeo, others respond on race issue

by Festus L. Brotherson, Jr.
Guyana Chronicle
August 29, 1999

IN AN extended telephone interview with this writer last Friday, President Bharrat Jagdeo spoke out on the racism issue in Guyana, giving even firmer assurances that anyone found culpable of it in his administration will be held accountable and appropriate corrective actions taken.

"I simply will not tolerate it," he said. The President was

responding to comments and analysis in this column of last Sunday, which focused on challenges of racial tensions for the new government.

He said: "In any case of unfairness, I am willing to deal with it personally!" But, "people have to provide specifics so that each case can be dealt with on its merit. So far, this has been lacking."

"As I travel all over Guyana, many levels of insecurities in some communities are uncovered out of people's perceptions and actions thought discriminatory - and not only from Guyanese of African origin," the President revealed. As he spoke, a clearer view of the Catch-22 dilemma that the PPP/Civic administration has faced since winning office in October 1992 emerged, viz., the government is damned if it did, and damned if it didn't.

Mr. Jagdeo was particularly concerned about charges of prejudice in the awarding of government contracts for projects and again said he was willing to meet those having such perceptions for investigative and rectification purposes. In land distribution and discouragement of squatting, both major ethnic groups have perceptions of favouritism and "not being rewarded for playing by the rules."

On the latter, his office gets many letters from People's Progressive Party (PPP) supporters.

This writer got a sense of genuineness and energised motivation during the interview that suggests good things are in the offing for Guyana once the new chief executive is granted a honeymoon period to demonstrate performance. This is happening as more and more groups and opinion leaders send pledges of support for the President.

And so it is that despite rebuffs from the main opposition People's National Congress (PNC), the President's olive branch invitation to meet its leader, Mr. Desmond Hoyte, is fine statesmanship. Public pressure is building for Hoyte to reciprocate.

Last week, Minister of Education, Dr. Dale Bisnauth, also responded to this writer promptly and frankly on rumours that the Dolphin Community High School in Georgetown, named after the black Dolphin family whose members were patriarchs of educational excellence, was going to be renamed. On the Internet, in particular, this was promoted as racism.

It turns out that it was Dr. Bisnauth who vetoed the name change proposal which had come not from the government but from the local Parent Teachers' Association (PTA). A press release soon burst the bubble of the charge.

This example goes to show how openness in government is helpful towards diffusing misperceptions which become reified as facts.

Another response to last week's article was received from a former senior minister in the PNC government up to 1992. He thought the article "courageous," and said that one problem on the matter of political legitimacy (raised in the essay) was the opposition PNC's inability to articulate its point clearly.

According to this source, there seems to be lack of government acknowledgement that there is a legal challenge to the results of the 1997 elections which is before the Guyana courts, and that this fact does validate up to a point that party's stance on the PPP/Civic's legitimacy.

But a vital question is this. Does this legal challenge give the PNC the right to pledge, inspire and itself carry out disruptive and violent activities to make Guyana "ungovernable"? Few would agree not only because the results of such unpatriotic behaviour highlight economic ruin and intensified racial tensions, but also because it is simply pointless iconoclastic behaviour antithetical to sustenance of democratic governance with special

reference to countries newly embarked on building it - such as Guyana.

For some time now, the PPP/Civic has been treating the issue of racial discrimination as a combination of job insecurities by those thought to be affected and crudity, and poor interpersonal communication skills by management and other executives. This argument is persuasive to a large extent.

However, from observation, the tendency to embrace such origins has to be matched by publicly visible corrective efforts. And this is one reason why President Jagdeo's very firm assurances are refreshing.

A final thought. Politics anywhere is about pragmatics which necessarily involves patronage, i.e., rewarding one's core constituency for support received up to a tolerable point. This is particularly so in racially divided countries with near equally strong racially aligned political parties.

But what is that "tolerable" point? Hard to say except there will be a sense of when it is reached and breached. Clues usually involve a stagnant economy which intensifies job insecurities and the ferocity of battles for shares of a dwindling pie.

This writer reasserts the need for all of us to give the new chief executive a chance to perform. After all, leading a racially divided country is one of the most stressful jobs on planet earth.

A © page from:
Guyana: Land of Six Peoples