Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Guyana is Mired in Ethnic Conflict

By Henry Srebrnik, [Moncton, NB] Times & Transcript

Guyana’s ethnic woes make it a difficult country to govern.

Guyana’s 780,000 people form what many social scientists have characterized as a plural society, a form of social organization found in some countries that were colonized by Western powers.

Africans were brought over as slaves to work the sugar plantations, later followed by Indians as indentured labour when slavery was abolished.

By transporting different peoples from various parts of the globe for economic reasons, the British created a segmented colonial society.

The two groups remained highly discrete racial, ethnic and cultural communities with minimal common values.

Even after the end of British colonial rule in 1966, this South American country remained one of deep cleavages, with no common religious, political or ideological institutions to bridge the chasm between the ethnic groups. They have no common normative or philosophical framework, and therefore no concept of moral obligation towards each other.

In effect, one group rules over another through political or even military force; and those who are dominated feel little sense of shared identity with the political system. This has been true since independence

Indo-Guyanese now account for 39.8 per cent of the population, followed by Afro-Guyanese at 29.2 per cent. Guyanese of mixed heritage make up 19.9 per cent while indigenous peoples are at 10.5 per cent. Afro-Guyanese are Christians, Indians mainly Hindu.

Plural societies, maintained M.G. Smith, a Jamaican social anthropologist who taught at Yale University, are “defined by dissensus and pregnant with conflict.” So politics becomes a zero-sum game.

Since independence Guyana has seen fierce political rivalry between the two main ethnically-based parties, one largely the vehicle for the Afro-Guyanese population, the other dominated by the descendants of South Asians from the Indian subcontinent.

The 2020 presidential proved no different. The election on March 2 pitted the 75-year-old incumbent David Granger, leader of the People’s National Congress (PNC), the party supported by the Black population, against 40-year-old Irfaan Ali of the South Asian-backed People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C). Granger had won the 2015 election against the PPP/C’s then incumbent, Donald Ramotar.

Granger declared victory days after the vote but the opposition alleged that the results had been inflated in Granger’s favour. Following allegations of vote tampering, a recount, and a lengthy legal battle, the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) finally declared Ali as the winner on Aug. 2 – a full five months after the balloting.

The GECOM also announced that Ali’s party had won a narrow majority of 33 of the 65 seats in parliament, with Granger’s PNC-led but unwieldy A Partnership for National Unity and Alliance for Change (APNU-AFC) winning 31 seats. Another group claimed the remaining seat.

The election was one of the most significant since Guyanese independence because of one of the largest new discoveries of oil in the world off the coast of the country, which could put Guyana among the top 10 oil producers in the world.

Production by Exxon Mobil in the offshore oil fields, estimated to contain at least eight billion barrels, started last December.

Each side feared the opposing party would exclude it from the oil riches and use the proceeds to cement its political power for decades. After all, the new president will be the one to administer the windfall resulting from the find.

As if there were not enough internal conflicts in the country, Guyana is also at odds with its neighbours, dating back to quarrels between rival imperial powers. Much of Guyana is claimed by Venezuela in the west and Suriname in the east.

The Guyana-Venezuela border largely follows the Schomburgk Line, so called after the German-born British naturalist and explorer who sketched it in 1840.

The Venezuelan authorities, however, have long maintained that the Essequibo River, not the Schomburgk Line, is their natural eastern border. This is no small matter: the area in between the line and the river is 159,000 square kilometres, or 62 per cent of Guyana’s territory.

Not only is Guyana’s western neighbor claiming most of the country, the nation on the other side, Suriname, claims the so-called New River Triangle in the southern part of both countries’ common border.

Not surprisingly, the border dispute with Venezuela has revived after the discovery of the offshore oil reserves.

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