Oc­to­ber 5

Stabroek News Sunday - - REGIONAL NEWS -

Last week every­one was in nos­tal­gic mode: there was the 60th an­niver­sary of the PNC en­gag­ing the at­ten­tion of the one side, with the twen­ty­fifth an­niver­sary of the 1992 gen­eral and re­gional elec­tions be­ing the fo­cus of the other. Reams of pa­per have been ex­pended on the lat­ter topic, in ad­di­tion, no doubt, to quadrillions of words in vir­tual space. It did, of course, mark the end of the 24 years dur­ing which the PNC rigged elec­tions in or­der to stay in power, and for that rea­son a cer­tain mythol­ogy has grown up around it.

Those who were part of the PPP di­as­pora dur­ing some of those years have tended to em­pha­sise the role played by them­selves through demon­stra­tions in New York and Wash­ing­ton, and the lob­by­ing of im­por­tant fig­ures in the US gov­ern­ment, in bring­ing about free and fair elec­tions in Guyana. In their opin­ion it was the in­ter­na­tional pres­sure which fol­lowed these ef­forts that was in­stru­men­tal in forc­ing then Pres­i­dent Des­mond Hoyte to hold open elec­tions.

Led by one par­tic­u­larly pro­lific let­ter writer, this ver­sion down­plays the role played by an un­re­lated event – the fall of the Ber­lin Wall – which be­came the sym­bol of the col­lapse of com­mu­nism it­self. More mea­sured writ­ers, how­ever, such as Ralph Ramkar­ran (see page 7) ac­knowl­edge that this was a fac­tor in the se­quence of events, be­cause the West no longer saw the need to keep the “com­mu­nist” Cheddi Ja­gan out of of­fice here by tol­er­at­ing fraud­u­lent elec­tions. As a con­se­quence, they were more sus­cep­ti­ble to democ­racy ar­gu­ments.

The ‘di­as­pora lob­by­ist’ chron­i­clers also minia­turise the part played by Guyanese Ac­tion for Re­form and Democ­racy (Guard) ‒ the ne­go­ti­a­tions aside ‒ in the early 1990s which held pub­lic plat­forms on which mem­bers of civil so­ci­ety who had never spo­ken on pol­i­tics be­fore, did so. Some Guard mem­bers who spoke out were lead­ing fig­ures in their fields. It might be ob­served that had there been no sig­nif­i­cant lo­cal move­ment, the United States gov­ern­ment in par­tic­u­lar would have felt un­der no par­tic­u­lar con­straint to ap­ply pres­sure; a wide­spread move­ment lo­cally was crit­i­cal in these cir­cum­stances. In ad­di­tion, it could be ar­gued that even with­out in­ter­na­tional pres­sure, the lo­cal move­ment given suf­fi­cient time, would have achieved the same re­sult.

There can be de­bate about which of these causes should take prece­dence, or how they in­ter­acted with one another, but sat­is­fac­tory an­swers also must in­clude mo­tive: ie what was in Hoyte’s mind when he agreed both to free and fair elec­tions, as well as to the changes which were nec­es­sary to achieve these, in­clud­ing the pres­ence of in­ter­na­tional ob­servers. Was it just that he felt he could not hold out against US pres­sure in par­tic­u­lar?

Where that is con­cerned the role of Cari­com in the story is gen­er­ally ig­nored al­to­gether by com­men­ta­tors. Fol­low­ing Forbes Burn­ham’s death, an elec­tion was held on De­cem­ber 9, 1985, that was heav­ily rigged. Ac­cord­ing to for­mer Prime Min­is­ter of St Vin­cent and the Gre­nadines, Sir James Mitchell, his Do­mini­can coun­ter­part Eu­ge­nia Charles was so in­censed that she wanted Guyana thrown out of Cari­com. She even­tu­ally agreed that prior dis­cus­sion was the way to go ini­tially, and Sir James then con­vened a meet­ing in Mus­tique, where six Cari­com heads of gov­ern­ment gath­ered, in ad­di­tion to Hoyte. (Not all of them could go, be­cause the no­tice was too short.)

St Vin­cent’s for­mer prime min­is­ter has re­lated that he and the other heads em­pha­sised the im­por­tance of free and fair elec­tions, as well as need for ob­servers so the poll could be seen to be free and fair. For his part, Sir John Comp­ton, the for­mer Prime Min­is­ter of St Lu­cia, re­called that Hoyte was told he should not con­tinue the legacy of Burn­ham, and that in or­der for free and fair elec­tions to be held, there would need to be a free press and a level play­ing field for all the po­lit­i­cal par­ties, since the for­mer were not pos­si­ble with­out the two lat­ter. Hoyte as­sured his fel­low heads that open­ing up the press and giv­ing space to po­lit­i­cal par­ties to func­tion was part of his goal, and as an ex­am­ple he said the House of Is­rael would not be al­lowed to op­er­ate.

For­mer Prime Min­is­ter Mitchell sub­se­quently re­layed that in 1990, he wrote Hoyte and re­minded him of the Mus­tique meet­ing, and in par­tic­u­lar what had been agreed to in re­spect of ob­servers. The Guyanese Pres­i­dent then sent “some­one” to St Vin­cent to be briefed in this con­nec­tion.

Most of this is con­tained in James Mitchell’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, while both he and the late John Comp­ton spoke to Stabroek News on the sub­ject some years ago, not for the news­pa­per, per se, but for back­ground to an ac­count of the ori­gins of this pa­per. At that time, all those who had at­tended the meet­ing were dead, save for three, one of whom was un­able to con­tact.

So was Hoyte gen­uine in his com­mit­ment from 1986? The only thing that it is known he said pub­licly about it, was his re­sponse some years later to for­mer Am­bas­sador Ron­ald Austin when he asked about what had tran­spired on Mus­tique. Hoyte replied that the six heads wanted him to give op­po­si­tion par­ties more po­lit­i­cal space to func­tion, to al­low a free press and to hold free elec­tions, and that he had as­sented to all of it.

This ac­cords with both Mitchell and Comp­ton’s ac­counts, and in his favour it has to be ac­knowl­edged that he did al­low a free press and he did give op­po­si­tion par­ties more po­lit­i­cal space, oth­er­wise Guard would have been un­able to func­tion. And as he told the prime min­is­ters, he did too bring an end to the thug­gery of the House of Is­rael. Fur­ther­more, Hoyte had rea­son to be­lieve he might be ejected from Cari­com, since a meet­ing of the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s Coun­cil of Min­is­ters due to be held in Ge­orge­town was boy­cotted (although it wasn’t ex­pressed in those terms) by sev­eral states at the be­gin­ning of 1986. Af­ter Mus­tique it was resched­uled.

But what the Guyanese Pres­i­dent was think­ing at any given stage in the six-and-a-half years fol­low­ing Mus­tique is not re­ally known, and would re­quire some re­search among the records of his state­ments to heads of mis­sion meet­ings and var­i­ous party and gov­ern­ment groups. That he seemed to want to open up the so­ci­ety was ap­par­ent even be­fore the meet­ing with the heads, but whether that pref­er­ence ex­tended to even­tu­ally con­ced­ing a demo­cratic frame­work can­not be said, any more than it can be said that he rec­og­nized he would even­tu­ally have to hold free and fair elec­tions if he opened up the so­ci­ety.

At this stage we still don’t know what pres­sures the late Pres­i­dent Hoyte was re­spond­ing to ‒ re­gional, in­ter­na­tional or lo­cal, or a com­bi­na­tion of all three at dif­fer­ent stages ‒ or whether he was op­er­at­ing with his own timetable in or­der to give his eco­nomic re­forms in par­tic­u­lar time to work. In this way he might have thought he could win an open elec­tion which he knew must come, in­de­pen­dent of what out­side and lo­cal forces wanted.

Some­times what seems an ob­vi­ous ex­pla­na­tion for a his­tor­i­cal event is not al­ways so.

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