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Monday, May 22, 2006
High time for a 'third force'

Over the last year, the Stabroek News has been reporting and speculating regularly on the political careers of Raphael Trotman and Khemraj Ramjattan, both of whom have been publicly taken to task for criticizing their respective parties, the PNC and PPP, and both of whom have been given a regular kind of 'call and response' column in your newspapers. I believe it is fair to say that the Stabroek News has made no secret of its hope that they represent, at the very least, winds of change within their respective parties. Recently, the tempo has quickened, with the announcement in the May 8 edition of a 'third force,' a new political party with the potential to seriously challenge the current political gridlock.

This is extremely hopeful and exciting news. The time has come for something different and it has to start by inspiring people, wherever they are, into believing that Guyana's future genuinely belongs to everyone, and that they have a real stake in the outcome of the next election.

It seems clear that Raphael Trotman and Khemraj Ramjattan have finally recognized that the roots of the current crisis are buried deep in the hearts of the PPP and PNC, that there is no changing from within, that there is little hope of reaching out by these two parties the consequences of whose policies have been so devastating for so long.

The multiracial, cross- class, anti-colonial promise that the People's Progressive Party once represented gave way 50 years ago to the institutional legacy of the 1950s and 1960s: the PPP and PNC, two parties whose very existence today is guaranteed by racial entrenchment. The irony is that whatever our disagreements with them, many of the generation that has left us this legacy also had, at one point, the occasion and experience of working together for a common, explicitly stated purpose - Janet Jagan, Cheddi Jagan, Eusi Kwayana, Martin Carter, Rory Westmaas, Forbes Burnham and so many others. Not to put too fine a point on it, most of these stalwarts were in their twenties, early thirties when they committed their lives to the public stage. The generation of twenty-somethings in Guyana today has a very different relationship to politics, and part of the challenge is to change that.

This means changing what politics has come to mean, the one-upmanship that the two main parties are involved in, sacrificing principled positions based on careful considerations to the zero-sum game. The most striking recent example I can think of was when the PNC commemorated the Chapman ferry tragedy in Linden and the PPP went to visit the graveside of Kowsilla. I am sorry, but don't tell me this had to do with respect for the dead, mourning the tragic events of the 1960s and ensuring they never happen again. It had to do with each side, in the most vulgar way possible, trying to take the limelight and the moral high ground of victimization by 'the other side.'

It means listening to each other, instead of boxing people in with labels and shutting down genuine dialogues. I can speak from personal experience. For example, on at least two public occasions I have been 'accused' of being WPA. I say 'accused' because this is usually all that is said, as if it is self-explanatory. This has always puzzled me, and it is also a very sad state of affairs because it means there is no need to engage what I have said on its own merits. All you have to do is label someone and that is enough to silence any possibility of a genuine conversation. (For the record, whatever my political sympathies or affinities, I left Guyana before it was possible to cast a free vote. I am not, nor have I ever been a member of a political party. Ask yourself, why would I write this article if my aim was single-mindedly to get WPA votes? Yet why should this matter at all?)

What does it say about us and where we have come, that we are so comfortable putting ourselves and others into neat little categories, as if Black or Indian or PPP, PNC, WPA, told you absolutely everything you needed to know about someone, all their hopes, their fears, their aspirations? Told you who to trust and who to suspect, who was good and who was bad? How did we ever reach this place where we have trapped our bodies, our hearts and minds in these small, small boxes? How did we ever become so closed? What does it mean that these are the lessons we are passing on to the next generation? What might it take to change that?

I believe that most Guyanese in Guyana either do not vote at elections, or end up casting a safety/fear vote on their ballot paper. What I mean is this: the fact that most votes go to the PNC and PPP does not mean that these are the only popular parties and will be so for eternity. This is not to say there are no other parties contesting elections. Yet none of these, with the exception of the WPA for a period that was too brief and ended too tragically, has captured the imaginations of Guyanese, has directly and successfully confronted this albatross around our necks. I believe (I want to believe) that Guyanese people feel that they have no choice, that nothing has come along recently to break this vicious, stinking legacy, and that one's vote is therefore a vote for protection, for self-preservation. In Guyana these days that translates into a vote for race. It is a dread dread situation.

I believe that most Guyanese - wherever they are - are completely fed up with the situation and desperately want a change. In the days before May 8, letters were published in the Stabroek News from Guyanese at home and abroad, all anticipating some kind of announcement from the two R's (Raphael and Ramjattan), all offering support. There is definitely potential for something here and it has a history. The last time we saw this was in the 1970s, and here I am thinking of the example of Walter Rodney's tireless commitment to multi-racialism and the interests of the working people. This was not the search for political power in the way we have it today, the form that debases. It was a determination for which Walter Rodney paid the ultimate price, a period of hope that ended with a bomb on June 13, 1980. True, this is a different time today. There are no Walter Rodneys, but he left a lesson for those of us who care to listen, the absolute belief in the working people.

So, the hint of change in the air today is good news. Transforming the political culture will take a lot of courage and a lot of work. Raphael and Khemraj are mainly urban (Ramjattan undoubtedly has more support outside of Georgetown, possibly in the Corentyne area), do not have base support, need to build up infrastructure practically from scratch, and will most likely be even more vilified by the parties they have left in the weeks and months to come (this is something both parties are equally good at, it seems to me). The list goes on.

There is a great opportunity to tap into this energy, and it should not, indeed must not be missed. Once (even before) the excitement subsides, the first question for this potential new party has to be 'What and who are you for'? In his letter to the editor, Raphael himself noted that he is tired of the same old same old. He observed that while the big ones fight, the majority of Guyanese people are left to fend for themselves. And he ended by wanting a different future for his children, for the next generations who stand to inherit nothing but bitterness today.

If we follow this line of argument, then it seems to me that the reasons for breaking with politics as usual cannot be separated from the priorities that should top any agenda for a third force. That is to say, the racial divide that seems to consume us at elections helps to maintain a status quo which benefits the haves while making things worse for working people.

After almost two decades of structural adjustment policies, most Guyanese are no better off (I remember when people used to call the Economic Recovery Programme the 'Empty Rice Pot.' In fact this was one of the slogans PPP supporters also used to chant, but look at how smoothly the current administration, rhetoric notwithstanding, showed it could be trusted by international capital!) Income gaps continue to widen, education remains more or less irrelevant to getting a living wage, migration rates remain alarmingly high (according to a recent OECD report we now export the largest number of 'skilled' workers, over 80 per cent, in the world).

Moreover, on whose backs are these programmes carried out? The working poor, and among them women in particular, end up having to work more and more for less and less.

For example, when the public hospitals don't have medicines or cannot care for people, it is women who take their sick and elderly home and look after them. When food prices skyrocket, it is women who end up hurting their heads hunting for cheaper food or trying to stretch the next meal.

When we devalue our currency to make ourselves more attractive to foreign investors, people can afford even less (the thing about foreign investment, which Stabroek News has also named as important and requiring a 'stable political environment,' is that no-one seems to think that we should demand minimum standards that protect workers' rights and the environment). Yet we are asked to have short-term memories, in five-year cycles, or whenever we go with begging cup for more international funding. It is absolutely amazing - which patient, which company do you think would be prescribed the same remedy for twenty years when it was clear to everyone that it was doing no good at all?

This is a bizarre example of the emperor's new clothes - he's standing in front of us, completely naked, and our 'leaders' pretend he is fully dressed! Are they frightened? Indifferent? Couldn't care less because they are not the ones personally paying the price?

This is why any new initiative, if it is not to continue exploiting and abusing those who pay the highest price and whose lives are continually structurally adjusted downwards, must begin by explicitly declaring itself on the side of alternatives to the policies that have resulted in the current economic situation.

It must explicitly speak to and be on the side of working people. It must not be subservient to the powers that be (both local as well as international) that pay lip service to 'democracy,' 'good governance' and 'economic freedom' while pushing for decisions that do not involve the majority of the Guyanese people and that are democratic only insofar as they spread the misery and poverty far and wide.

As a young-ish Guyanese woman (late thirties and counting) who lives abroad, distanced but certainly not detached from Guyana, I totally endorse the general thrust of the stories and letters to the Stabroek News that say it is high time for a third force. But let us also be absolutely clear. Any significant shift at the polls will depend on convincing Guyanese across race, young and old, women and men, interior, country and town, those who have never left and 'comebackies' who return to help make a difference, those who remain in the diaspora and help from there to fund-raise and speak out in their various communities, that their involvement will be worth the long haul.

People are not stupid. The majority of Guyanese are working people, poor people, upon whose support and votes any breakthrough utterly depends. If this party is to be formed, and if it is not about using people to get to office (the sort of stupid, selfish, dog-eat-dog ambition that characterizes politics these days), then it must start and end by listening to, sharing with, learning from and building upon the energies, creativities and hopes of those who have sacrificed the most, and benefited the least. Only in this way will it ensure popular support. Only in this way will it sustain itself for the long struggle to find a different kind of tomorrow for all Guyanese.

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