Racial divide must be bridged now - Dr Roopnaraine

Stabroek News
September 30, 2001

The racial division in Guyana is a direct result of the political fragmentation that exists in the country and if the situation were allowed to fester it would take generations to resolve.

Participants of the forum organised by the Guyana Trades Union Congress (GTUC) this week at the Ocean View International Hotel heard this when co-leader of the Guyana Action Party/Working People's Alliance, Dr Rupert Roopnaraine, addressed them on 'Race and Politics in Guyana'.

Dr Roopnaraine felt that Guyana was at a stage where there could still be a resolution of the political power struggle, which has resulted in serious consequences for the country. He Dr Roopnaraine said it became clear following the post 1997 elections disturbances that a system of governance had to be established where the losers in polls would be assured they had not lost everything.

He said the charges by the losers of flawed elections in Guyana "was occasion for the war" but not "the cause of the war." The latter, in his opinion, had to do with the stubborn adherence in Guyana to the Westminster winner-take-all model coupled with the fact that the population voted along racial lines when it goes to the polls. "For as long as the demographics of this country remain you have the danger of instituting a permanent racial majority and a permanent racial minority," Dr Roopnaraine stated.

He said after the 1997 elections the situation became so grave there were rumblings in the international community and eventually CARICOM took note and despatched a high-level team here to mediate. This led to the establishment of the Herdmanston Accord. Five important components were contained in the document:

1. The PPP/Civic would reduce its term in office to three years instead of five.
2. The opposition PNC would recall its protesters from the streets and take up seats in parliament.
3. Dialogue would be started between the two main political parties.
4. An audit would be carried out of the 1997 elections.
5. There would be constitutional reform.

The audit report, in Dr Roopnaraine's view, raised more questions than it answered and left the country worst off.

He noted the dialogue between the two parties never got going and the PNC continued its protests in the streets.

About six months later the St Lucia Agreement was formulated which reinforced the menu of measures of the Herdmanston Accord.

He said coming out of the two documents was the significant conclusion that the heart of the problems in Guyana revolved around the question of race relations.

The issue of race relations was tied to constitutional reform in the two documents so that it could be engineered to respond to Guyana's particular indigenous imperatives, bearing in mind the centrality of the race issue, he said.

The Constitution Reform Committee (CRC) set about its task with a view of establishing a form of consultational arrangement for governance, Dr Roopnaraine stated "for there were some of us who believed that the heart of the problem was the distribution of political power."

He said neither of the two main political parties opted to go in this direction. According to him, the parties continued to embrace the Westminster mechanism while agreeing to modest changes in the Constitution.

When it was realised that the battle was lost in the effort to rid the country of the winner-take-all approach, the smaller parties in the CRC came up with the concept of "inclusionary democracy" which sought to transform the system of government and make the losing at elections less unpalatable.

He said though the CRC completed its work on schedule and the reforms were drafted, little had actually reached the floor of the National Assembly. And the little that managed to reach the National Assembly had not been operationalised, Dr Roopnaraine stated.

The Ethnic Relations Commission (ERC) and Ethnic Relations Tribunal have been established under the law but they were yet to be brought into existence.

Dr Roopnaraine said it was his view that even though the ERC could deal with individual freedom it could not address the equation of mass aspirations. Dr Roopnaraine encouraged the continuation of fora such as the one held by the GTUC and stated that the item of race and politics must always be on the agenda.

"The task before us, sisters and brothers, is the healing of the wounds of the society, the reconstitution of the national movement and the confrontation of the real enemies of Guyana." He said that as long as Guyana remained in the current situation the outside forces would continue to reap benefits from the country's weakened state.

Dr Roopnaraine urged that there be recognition that the nation was at peril and all must come together to get it out of this morass.