The visit of US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Barbara Feinstein, to Guyana, and her wide-ranging discussions, mark an important step in the evolving relations between the US and Guyana. In the past, Guyana was not on the itinerary of high-ranking US officials. Prior to the visit of Mike Pompeo, Secretary of State in 2020, the last visit of a senior official was that of Phillip Habib, US Under Secretary of State, in June 1977 when he said as regards human rights: “This is not, in our view, a problem in Guyana.” The US was then mending a quarrel with the Burnham administration over the terrorist bombing of a Cuban aircraft in October 1976 in which 73 persons, 11 of whom were Guyanese, died. Now expected to play a greater role in Latin America because of the discovery of large petroleum resources, in which US companies are involved, the US interest in Guyana has escalated.
US policies have influenced the course of Guyana’s development in important respects over the past sixty years, in negative ways, for half of that period. The US and Guyana have now overcome those difficult decades. Unfortunately, this period, not only in Guyana, but against many moderately progressive leaders of developing countries had imposed a restraint on expressions of admiration of the inspiring portions of US history. One small example in relation to Guyana was the PPP’s historic efforts to pass a law requiring employers to recognize trade unions. Its effort to pass that law in 1953, based on US federal law, incurred the wrath of the British Government. A second attempt in 1963 was met with devastating violence which we now know was supported and financed by the CIA. The PPP’s campaign, started in 1953, for that trade union law, copied from the US, took 40 years to achieve in the middle 1990s. Jagan and the PPP were deeply inspired by the successful labour struggles, civil rights struggles and congressional democracy.
Fortunately, by 1990 US policy towards Guyana changed and much has been done since then to assist and support Guyana in many areas of development. During the period I worked in the elections commission, on constitutional reform and in the national assembly, I experienced firsthand the wide range of assistance offered to Guyana and its sustained implementation. It was material and substantial and did much to advance Guyana’s democratic development. Apart from the US government, non-US governmental agencies like Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the World Bank, the Carter Centre, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and, more recently, the Republican Institute and others have also independently contributed in various ways to Guyana’s development. Of fundamental importance in these efforts is the contribution of the US to the strengthening of Guyana’s democracy and, in particular, its electoral democracy. These efforts were slow and painstaking, but they rewarded Guyana with a fairly stable democratic regime, notwithstanding the post-elections, ethnic-related violence, inspired by the PNC, PNCR, APNU in 1992, 1997, 2001 and 2020. The US’s role in 2020 in saving democracy in Guyana, led by the much-admired, Ambassador Sarah Ann Lynch, will mark an historic event in US-Guyana relations.
There is a perspective to allegations of elections rigging in the post 1990 era. Before the ink was dry on the new elections laws in 1990-1991, the PNCR began to accuse the PPP Government of rigging the elections – pot calling kettle black. The most glaring contradictions in these accusations went unnoticed. The PPP was accused of rigging the 1992 elections when it was in opposition with 8 seats in Parliament. It was again accused of rigging the 2020 elections, when it was in opposition, by means of an allegedly bloated list which allegedly facilitated voting by non-resident and dead Guyanese. It should now be clear to all that the charges of election-rigging have nothing to do with the PPP, but everything to do with APNU’s explanation for its failure to win elections. The simple question to be asked for 2020 is: Why did the APNU+AFC government not create a new voters’ list while in office? The excuse of a bloated list facilitating fraud, when the APNU was vigilantly present at every stage of the electoral process, is a load of hypocritical bull and the PNCR knows that.
Most elections observers in the past have tried to placate the PNC/PNCR/APNU on the issue of election rigging, by suggesting an elections’ commission of ‘independent’ persons. I would support such a commission. I know fiercely independent persons of unchallengeable integrity that many of us can only dream to aspire to – Joe Singh, Jonathan Yearwood, Kenneth Benjamin, Melinda Janki, Josephine Whitehead and many others. But these persons, like all previous Chairs of Elections Commission, except one, who were selected by the PNCR, will be reluctant because they will be damnified by that party, when it does not get its way.
An ’independent’ elections commission is something that we should strive for. But after expending so much treasure to build Guyana’s democracy, the US should know that the problem in Guyana is not the composition of the elections commission, which would not, in the long run, satisfy APNU. It is the problem of ethno-political dominance. This is where the US should direct its efforts.