Parliament: It’s not about Politics, it’s about People

This is the first article in a five (5) part series – Parliament: It’s not about Politics, it’s about People. The series was inspired by a string of occurrences during the 74th to 82nd sittings of the Eleventh Parliament of the Cooperative Republic of Guyana. It offers brief commentary and analysis in simple language to anyone interested in learning, and thinking more deeply about the types of solutions needed to address the issues arising from Guyana’s current state.

For as long as I live, I will never forget the spirit in which the 74th to 82nd sittings of our Eleventh Parliament were conducted. I am deeply disappointed in both sides of the House and severely wounded by what appeared to be a complete disregard for the sacred calling they each chose to answer, for the trust our people have placed in them, for the sacrifices our ancestors made to ensure that we could enjoy the right to govern ourselves, and for their own dignity.

The men and women who sit in Parliament are no fools or dunces. They are among the best and brightest minds this country has produced in their generations. They are also some of the most courageous among us because they chose to stay and give their life in service to this country. Why then have they so easily reduced the highest form of our national conversation (our Parliamentary Discourse) to nothing more than a common cuss-out?

Perhaps our Parliamentarians and many of us have forgotten that our National Assembly – one of the symbols of our right to call ourselves a free people – is something that we paid for in sweat and blood. To disrespect the sanctity of Parliament is to spit on our past, present and future.

The birth of our society was like any other birth. It was full of pain. Some of our people came here out of necessity or in search of fabled riches. Many more of our people were forced into this land either through enslavement or a false promise of prosperity. Our birth was also full of life and need, if not love. We came together and stayed together for survival.

Before 1966, our struggle for freedom from our colonial masters united us. Our fight was against a common enemy and we burned with desire for the right to be our own people. I don’t think we fully understood what that meant. With our vision turned outward on that long ago enemy, we perhaps failed to fully think through what would be required of us to build a nation.

Just over five decades since that first historic win (Independence), the common enemy and the immediate needs which bound us together have faded. Our sense of duty to each other has weakened and we are now each other’s enemy. These past weeks Parliament has, now more than ever before, been a house turned against itself.

I have heard many people describe the recent events in Parliament as “just politics”. Is it really? Parliament isn’t about politics, it’s about people and their lives. Every Member of the National Assembly is responsible for representing the interests of our people. They have been chosen to lead the advancement of this nation in a manner that is in keeping with the best interests of Guyanese. Now take a moment to think about the last two weeks without trying to decide which side of the House is to be blamed for what and ask yourself: have they been able to do this?

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Featured Image: Copyright Keno George (Parliamentary Stories)

Disclaimer:

This article, like all others in the series Parliament: It’s not about Politics, it’s about People, is not meant to advance any position on behalf of any political party or any other entity or group. It is part of a collection of political commentary and analysis – expressed in simple language by a young Guyanese – made available for anyone interested in learning and thinking more deeply about the types of solutions needed to address the issues arising from Guyana’s current political state.

 

A note from the Author:

Given the custom by party loyalists to misrepresent and misuse any type of political commentary to support their own positions, I feel that it is necessary to borrow the following from Thomas Paine (an English-born American political activist, philosopher, political theorist, and revolutionary) with whose work I became acquainted as a student of History at the University of Guyana:

Who the Author of this Production is, is wholly unnecessary to the Public, as the Object for Attention is the Doctrine itself, not the Woman. Yet it may not be unnecessary to say, That she is unconnected with any Party, and under no sort of Influence public or private, but the influence of reason and principle.

Craig Village, East Bank Demerara, December 16, 2017

 

Have a question or require further information? You can email me at sarabharrat@gmail.com

Politics Will Not Decide Who I am

When I was 7 or 8, I lived along Craig Sideline Dam at my grandparents’ farm house. I farmed my own little plot of cash crops to help buy my school books and I spent hours stooping in slushy mud, between pakchoy and lettuce banks, picking snails and weeds from among the healthy, thriving plants. This is something I haven’t very often shared about myself.

I have milked cows, sold fruits and vegetables on the road side and cleaned out chicken pens. During my teenage years, I stood behind the counter of my uncle’s shop in Craig Old Road selling into the night. I fetched cases of rum, bags of sugar and rice and occasionally bunches of plantains from the boat by the Craig trench landing to our house.

Most of my immediate family are traditional PPP supporters. My maternal grandfather was a cane cutter and farmer. His wife, was a seamstress and market vendor. On my father’s side, they were rice farmers from Essequibo and later moved to the East Coast of Demerara. These are things about myself I used to be afraid to share because I was afraid that I would be shamed.

I became politically aware during my early 20s. I realized then that everyone stereotyped me. Because I looked Indian, because I was of Indian ancestry, it was automatically assumed that I was PPP. And guess how we stereotype PPP supporters? PPP supporters are painted as backward cane cutters, as lacking intellectual capacity, as being dishonest, as being evil, as being the people responsible for the state of Guyana.

So when some people look at my face or any face like mine, this is what they think of us. This is the product of identity politics in Guyana. It has robbed us of the right to be and to be proud of who we are and where we came from. It has robbed us of the opportunity to really see our parents and grandparents, to truly value what they have brought to this nation. My grandfather died without me ever recognizing what an extraordinary man he was and how hard he worked for his country. I never got a chance to look him in the eyes and tell him how much he meant to me. You see, before he died I didn’t realize that he was a victim of a system that he couldn’t control.

I do not for a second believe that my experience is unique to me or to young people of Indian ancestry. I believe this is something that is experienced by all of us, no matter what we look like or where we come from. Our political culture has blinded us. We don’t see each other. We see the political stereotypes that have been painted of us for decades.

For a while, I hated looking in the mirror. I hated seeing my own face and what I believed it represented. Since then, I’ve realized that my ancestral history is so much more than the politics that has hijacked it.

And the worst part by far is that I cannot even speak up for my identity without having my voice politicised. If I speak for the Indian identity, for my right to this part of my culture and heritage, then I will be labelled as a pro-PPP racist. Most people don’t care for my independence, they only see what I look like and the stereotype that is attached to my features.

Yes, I am Guyanese and part of what makes any of us Guyanese is our unique sub-cultures and heritage. These differences give the Guyanese identity value. To attempt to take away any one facet of any of our identity, is to rob our country of part of its history and part of what makes it what it is.

We cannot have a Guyana without any of its people. We cannot have a Guyana without PPP supporters and they will never join us unless we stop demonizing them, stop crucifying them for their political beliefs, stop making them afraid to be among us. These people are our mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, our friends.

The PPP alone is not responsible for the crisis of identity politics in Guyana. The PNC, now under the unity umbrella of the APNU-AFC Coalition, is equally responsible. I say this not to cast blame on either party, but to acknowledge that identity politics has been a weapon of both our major political factions. And until Guyanese begin to see what identity politics has taken from them, we will always be shamed for being who we are.

Is a 50% ministerial pay increase really the best way to address corruption?

I originally wrote this article as a sample to be submitted to an editor. I decided to publish it today because there are some questions which must not be allowed to sleep for too long. If you would like a copy of the original article complete with references feel free to reach out to me either by commenting here, email or Facebook.

“I believe it is justifiable. You cannot have a situation like in the PPP where they were prepared to accept low salaries because they were thiefing money all over the place. We are not going to do that…and so we have to pay people well if you want them to perform.” Joseph Harmon, Minister of State, Stabroek News, October 7, 2015.

 

When Minister of State Joseph Harmon announced the 50% salary increase for Government ministers last year, many Guyanese expressed outrage for two reasons. They were angry because the move was perceived as a violation of the principles on which the APNU+AFC Coalition campaigned earlier that year and they believed that it expressed gross insensitivity to public servants at the lower end of the hierarchy.

On the day Harmon made the announcement, he was reported by Stabroek News and other major media outlets as saying that he believed the pay increase was justifiable because “You cannot have a situation like in the PPP where they were prepared to accept low salaries because they were thiefing money all over the place”.

Harmon’s statement alludes to the existence of a link between low pay of senior government officials and corruption. The World Bank has (since 1997) defined corruption as the abuse of public office for private gain. By “thiefing money”, as the Minister of State so eloquently alleged, the former PPP government officials were using their office or position of power for personal gain; they were engaging in corruption.

This corruption, as Harmon’s statement suggests, was due – not primarily to the lack in morality of his predecessors – but to the fact that they were willing to accept low pay. Within this context, the exorbitant salary increase appears to be a method for addressing corruption by way of prevention and for ensuring that senior government officials perform.

The most distressing thing about this statement is that it stands in stark contrast to the stance the APNU+AFC Coalition took while in opposition and on the campaign trail in 2015. These same PPP salaries, which Harmon now describes as “low” enough to be a cause for corruption were once represented in his and his peers’ rhetoric as being exceedingly high and for the “fat cats”.

In the interest of diplomacy, we can say that Harmon and the Coalition’s position on the matter has changed. However, since diplomacy has never been the best language for truth, the only thing left to say is that the campaigners of change have lied to the people.

But even in light of this most distasteful fact, Harmon is correct in presuming that an increase in pay for senior government officials is one way to tackle the corruption problem. Whether this is the best move that Guyana can make currently is another issue. Would it have made more sense to offer public servants lower down the hierarchy a salary increase in order to curb corruption?

In the absence of scientific data, some amount of introspection is necessary to support the statement which immediately follows. Petty corruption – as it exists at the lower level of the public service ladder – is now cultural. When a police man pulls over a driver, the former will most likely ask for money, the latter will willingly pass “a lil raise” and perhaps neither will fully grasp that they are engaging in an act of corruption.

Similarly, the practice by citizens who go to any government office is to hand over a “lunch money” in order to get efficient service. The rampant practice of corruption by lower to mid-level public servants has been linked by studies to wages that are too low.

Employees, Augusto Lopez-Claros writes in “Six Strategies to Fight Corruption”, may find themselves under pressure to supplement their incomes in “unofficial” ways. Lopez-Claros further refers to the popular study by Van Rijckeghem and Weder which shows there is an inverse relationship between the level of public sector wages and the incidence of corruption.

Increasing the pay of public servants across the board has been part of a national strategy that Singapore has successfully used for years. Singapore is one of the least corrupt countries in the world. One of the reasons Singapore has been so successful in fighting corruption is because it keeps the salaries of its politicians and civil servants high in order to prevent brain drain and to stamp out the economic incentive for engaging in corrupt activity.

The important point to note here is that Singapore did not just give hefty salaries to its politicians and top government officials but to public servants throughout the hierarchy. Hong Kong has since followed this example.

Will the Government of Guyana be doing the same? And if we assume that the ministerial pay increase is just the beginning, why did they decide to begin the increase at the top, was it really the best decision and when can public servants expect their salary increases?

Statements made by Minister of Finance Winston Jordan in “Don’t expect an elaborate increase” – an article published in the March 17, 2016 edition of the Kaieteur News – provides some of the answers. According to the article, Jordan warned that “the expectations for handsome increases need to be tempered” and public servants can expect only a “top-up” to their salaries.

The finance minister justified this “top-up” approach to the salary increase of low and mid-level public servants by agreeing with a recently released report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The IMF mission, which was recently in Guyana, suggested “moderating the growth of wages, as well as reforming public enterprises with a view to reduce their reliance on government support.” Jordan agrees.

It is clear that public servants lower down the hierarchy will not be receiving the same treatment as the Coalition ministers.

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Remember…We’re all Guyanese

Less than 24 hours ago His Excellency President Donald Ramotar named the big day: May 11, 2015. Campaign material flooded social media almost immediately and, of course, the inter-party battles begun.

Guyanese will be attacking each other in the safety of cyber world with the worst possible weapon: words. But must it really be this way?

Not so long ago, my elderly neighbour collapsed in her home and had to spend a few days in hospital. As soon as she came home again, I rushed over and I made sure I held her close and told her how much she meant to me. I did not want the words to be left unsaid.

Every morning she sits on her veranda watching as the soft sunlight slowly awakens our world. For years, my eyes have always turned upwards looking for her when I walk out my front gate. I cannot imagine our village without her. I cannot imagine becoming this me that I am without her.

Her family and mine will most likely not be voting for the same party in May but this does not lessen my love for this woman. She has a right to freedom of choice; to choose as she pleases.

So today, if any of you are so moved with those passionate emotions that cause us to wield words that inflict deep and lasting wounds, please don’t. I beg you.

Stop and think of someone like her, think of someone different from you, someone who does not share all of your beliefs but still holds a place in your heart. Think of how you still care for them despite this difference.

I am certain that all the people in my house will be voting PPP. I am not sure where my vote will go but I know where it will most certainly not go.

My family is aware of my choice and yet they love me no less. We are a family and we share a bond that cannot be broken by a difference in political preference. And is this not what a nation should be? A family?

So please, please, whether you’re supporting PPP, APNU, AFC or one of the others, I beg you to respect each other’s choice. In the end, isn’t this what we all believe we’re fighting for? For continued freedom? And doesn’t this include the right to freely choose without being hurt for that choice?

Remember, when this is all over we will still live together under the roof of this nation. And when the politicians have settled into the powers that we have given them at the price of our bond with each other, we will be the ones who will struggle to put the pieces back together again. We will be the ones, watching each other try to scrape a living.

It is sad that more often it is only in such times of great misery that we manage to see ourselves in each other and only then realise that beating a man over the head with one truth does not cause him to forget his own truth.

Without Wax,

Bharrat

Will the PPP win in 2015?

In the land of the blind, one-eye man is king…

From now until May 11, some of us will contemplate the answer to this question with much fear, hope or a combination of both.

Will the People’s Progressive Party (PPP)win? Or will they lose?

Before I answer this, I believe it is worth clarifying where I stand: I am the Bharrat who stands in the middle. It is true that I am not pro-Government. Unfortunately, this statement seems to be synonymous with “I am anti-Government” or “I am pro-Opposition”. I am none of these things. I, Bharrat, am pro-Guyanese.

Those on my left believe that – given the degree of exposure suffered by the PPP – the ruling party will fall. However, a condition which seems necessary for this is a coalition between the two main opposing parties. These people are not necessarily fearful of another PPP win but they intensely hope and, in some cases, believe that the ruling party will lose.

On my right, there are those who trust that A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) and the Alliance for Change (AFC) have sufficiently ruined their own images. If they could not capitalize on a hung Parliament then how will they make a coalition work? This is the question I hear the people on my right asking no one in particular with some hope in their voices. These people hope intensely for a PPP win and are very fearful of any other outcome. Fear makes people unstable; it makes them suffer.

During my months of bad health and worse silence, I listened intently to those around me. Many older Guyanese are still choking on rice flour bake and roti and the choking syndrome has been inherited, unwillingly for the most part, by their descendants.

Only tonight I was told that the “National Mood” is indicative of a PPP loss. However, I believe that what shows itself as a National Mood are things that we are able to see or feel in some way; things that have been let or leaked into the open. But what about those things which are carefully guarded? And never voiced?

It is all too easy to see the ocean’s surface but we must dive beneath the waves and become intimately acquainted with those powerful undercurrents that carry truth.

As it is now, I believe there is a higher chance of a PPP win than of a PPP fall.

In this worry of win and lose, all I can think of is whether the outcome, whatever it may be, will be best for our people; our Guyanese brothers and sisters. There are few men and women among politicians whom I perhaps can bring myself to trust but they are certainly not enough for a Cabinet and do not all come from the same camp.

While I do understand the fear that weighs on the hearts of men and women who could be my mother and father or my Nani and Nana, I sincerely hope that they can bring themselves to fight the fear.

We must recognize that politicians rise to power with our blessing and upon our shoulders. We, the people, give them power and we most certainly can strip them of it. This year can perhaps be the year Guyanese win if we learn to use our own powers; if we learn to put politicians in their place.

Without Wax,

Bharrat.

The Economics of Activism and the Writer

“…when a monster grows, it grows out of control. It eats up even those who created the monster. And it’s time that our people understood this.” Walter Rodney, 1977, Georgetown.

In January, a woman suggested that I put down my pen – because it was useless – and that I march in the streets of Georgetown. I was taken aback. Did she really believe that tramping aimlessly in the sun was superior to writing? And if so, did she believe it while being aware of the cost attached to silencing only one pen in Guyana?

Her view of writing did not surprise me. She is only a product of her society and its culture. She has been conditioned to see her world as a place where the writer is meant for spinning El Dorado fantasies and where writing is not truth but merely the silly imaginings of a fool. How many more Guyanese share her view? Even one more is too many.

I believe now, more than at any other time in the history of our nation, the writer – the man or woman whose pen deals in the currency of truth – has become chief activist. Writing is a powerful and dangerous form of activism. Words are not merely read or heard, they are felt, absorbed, embedded in the memory and they shape the way we see, think, act.

For weeks I have written about the fear and silence which imprison our people. The Guyanese writer, the Guyanese artist, is the voice of the silent, of the silenced. They carry the true spirit of the fight against oppression. They create hope for and belief in change. They awaken and give strength. Without them, there is no hope for freedom from oppression, no hope of stopping the monsters that have grown out of control, no hope of having hope.

Like any form of activism, like anything else in the world for that matter, writing comes with a price. For many weeks I have not written. I do not consider them weeks of silence. They have merely been weeks of observation, of learning. I have been watching and listening, absorbing.

I have also been working out the economics of activism, the economics of writing. Am I willing to pay what it costs to write? Do I believe that the possible results will be worth the price I pay? Yes, of course, I am willing to pay what it costs to write because writing is necessary for my survival, for me to be who I am.

I also believe that any price I pay to shift the culture of fear and silence, to awaken more people, to give my peers voices, will be worth it. I believe that our people and country are worth all my correspondence ending up at the Central Intelligence Unit eventually, my phone being tapped, my privacy utterly and completely invaded. I believe that it is well worth the anger, the depression, the heartbreak, the broken friendships, the lost relationships, the aloneness, the labels of anti-coolie coolie woman and racist.

So what is the problem? The problem is this: I am not the only one who shoulders the cost. I overlooked the fact that other people would have to pay a greater price for my writing. I did not consider the price that would be paid by the man I love or by my mother, my brothers, my nani, my friends. What right do I have to condemn these people to live in fear for me? Worse yet, what right do I have to put them at risk?

Would it be easier for all of us if I sat in my house and lived my life in silence? The fact is that not writing would cost every one of us far more than writing. If I did not write then I would abandon my basic responsibilities as a human being and eventually become but a shadow of a woman. If I did not write then I would rob our people of their chance of having one more voice, of change, of hope, of the promise of a better Guyana.

If I did not write then there would be one less to fight the monsters among us. If I did not write then the cost would be extended to not just family and friends but to an entire nation. Writing is clearly the more economical choice.

During my weeks of observation, many people asked me whether I had been threatened, if I had given up, if I had bowed to the monster. Who will threaten me? And where is the need to threaten me? The most dangerous thing I face is not threats from the oppressor or even my own fear; it is the fears of the people I love and my need to sooth them, keep them safe.

In the end, the writer, the artist, the activist must choose between love for a few and love for many. The writer must choose between self and others. The writer must be prepared to walk alone while using words to fill voids and unite people. The writer must be forever conscious of the cost attached to every word and pay the price for writing, for stopping the monster, for teaching the nation that we all face the same enemy.