March 5, 2015

Clear and present danger from IRI youths

Just a year ago, this newspaper ran a series of editorials on the activities of the International Republican Institute (IRI) – an arm of the US Republican Party – as the executing agency for the USAID “Leadership And Democracy” (LEAD) Project in this country.

We were concerned that under the cover of the LEAD Project, the IRI would be acting to mobilise Opposition youths through training in social media to destabilise the present Government.

Inter alia, we pointed to the activities of the IRI in other jurisdictions to illustrate that predilection in its modus operandi. In January, 2014, we had cause to refer to the 2009 Opposition coup d’état in Honduras:

“The IRI was heavily involved in a ‘democratisation’ project in Honduras at the time and provided much non-monetary aid, such as training, advising and providing resources to the Opposition forces benefiting from the coup.”

In Feb 2014, we noted the condemnation by UNASUR of Opposition violence in Venezuela and quoted from an article by Dan Beeton of the Centre for Economic and Policy Research, a credible Washington DC-based Think Tank, “Violent Protests in Venezuela Fit a Pattern”:

“Venezuela’s latest round of violent protests appears to fit a pattern, and represents the tug-and-pull nature of the country’s divided Opposition. Several times over the past 15 years since the late, former President Hugo Chávez took office in 1999, the political Opposition has launched violent protests aimed at forcing the current President out of office.

“Venezuela’s Opposition receives funding from US ‘democracy promotion’ groups including the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and core grantees such as the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute (NDI).

“The NED, which the Washington Post noted was set up to conduct activities ‘much of’ which ‘[t]he CIA used to fund covertly’ has made a number of grants directed at empowering youth and students in Venezuela in recent years, and the USAID has also given money to IRI, NDI and other groups for Venezuela programmes.

“In Venezuela, (the IRI) funded groups involved in the 2002 coup, and (their) spokespersons infamously praised the coup after it happened.”

On their website, the IRI actually boasted: “New York Times cites IRI programmes in Venezuela.” It printed in full, an article by that newspaper of record in the US: “Venezuela groups get US aid amid meddling charges.”

In Guyana, without even consulting the Government on its parameters of operations, the IRI launched its programme and only paused when the Government threatened to deport the Head of the IRI from the country.

As in other jurisdictions, which include North Africa (including Egypt), the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Haiti, while claiming to educate “Guyanese” on their responsibilities in a democracy, the IRI ended up in Opposition constituencies more often than not.

In light of the above information, we find it alarming that the supposed “neutral” Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) has actually engaged a Guyana National Youth Council (GNYC), which was funded and trained by the IRI, to “mobilise” the youth vote in the lead up to the May 11 elections.

The point we wish to reiterate is that GECOM should at least consider whether it is not being used by the IRI to achieve the same ends that it pursued across the globe during the past three decades: regime change.

What makes GECOM’s decision even more troubling is that it appears that the Commissioners representing the political parties in the body were not involved in the decision.

The Chairman was reported by this newspaper to have interpreted its general mandate to be engaged in “voter education” to give him the authority to engage the IRI-funded GNYC in this task. We believe the Chairman has overstepped his authority and should be reined in by the Commissioners.

The May 11 elections must reflect the will of the Guyanese people – not that of outsiders.

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Dr Jagan’s legacy

Cheddi Jagan was born, and he died, in the month of March. It is only fitting, therefore, that as we gird our loins to choose our leaders for the next five years, we reflect on the legacy of this man who came out of the sugar plantations of Berbice to lead Guyana into the modern political era.

If all of western philosophy is considered to be mere footnotes to the speculations of Plato, then all of Guyana’s political history since 1950 are footnotes to Cheddi Jagan’s political ideas and actions.

WWI ended in the year of his birth and Indian indentureship had ended just the year before – in fact both his parents had arrived as “child immigrants”. Cheddi Jagan’s boyhood, then was governed absolutely by the “means of production” – the sugar plantation owned absolutely by British capital.

But by coming up to Queens College in Georgetown to finish his high school education, he was exposed to the more complex – and oppressive – social relations fostered by the urban setting, which housed the ruling strata of the colony.

His tertiary education in the US further opened his eyes to a more direct oppression between the classes and races in a society, as he traversed an America segregated along those same lines. But returning to Guyana in the middle of WWII, he saw possibilities of breaking down our own race and class divisions in our country through imbuing the incipient struggle for independence with the non-racial ideology of Marxism.

And we have to acknowledge this decision as his most lasting legacy to Guyana’s history. Before his entry into Guyana’s politics, the aspirations of the people were channeled along the lines of race and class cleavage perpetuated by the British through its “divide and conquer” policy. We had the League of Coloured Peoples, the British Guiana East Indian Association, the Portuguese Association and the Chinese Association.

While we may differ in our assessment as to how successful Jagan was in breaking down those barriers, we cannot ignore his inflexible position not to pander to race and ethnicity, which he maintained to the end.

The Peoples Progressive Party, which he launched in 1950, focused on the contradictions of class, and if this policy had been maintained, Guyana would unquestionably be among the most developed countries.

Today, revisionists may propose that Jagan ignored the Cold War between the US and the USSR, which played out ideologically for the supremacy between capitalism and communism. And that Guyana paid the price.

This is arguable because if Burnham had not provided himself as the vessel through which the US could push its own interest, it is quite likely that Guyana would have evolved into a more stable democracy where parties would compete for votes on issues rather than race.

It is gratifying that the PPP/C has not abandoned the legacy of Dr Cheddi Jagan and it is hoped that, at the Jagan Memorial function at Babu Jaan this weekend, the clarion call of the great man for an end to “race politics” will be sounded.

More than ever, this is needed since the successor to Burnham’s leadership of the PNC has fallen to David Granger, who is emphasising racial cleavages in his so-call movement for “national unity”. He did this when he accepted the AFC’s claim that they would be bringing 11 per cent of “Indian” votes to the alliance he created with the PNC and four other parties – A Partnership For National Unity (APNU).

This crude, open racial calculus was even rejected by Forbes Burnham as far back as 1962, when he expelled Eusi Kwayana from the PNC.

Dr Jagan was a man for all seasons and left legacies in many fields – which should be commented on as the monthly March unfolds. But we do feel that at this crucial point in our history, his non-racial legacy should be emphasised.

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Facing the Venezuelan threat

The news that the Venezuelan Government, through its Foreign Affairs Minister Delcy Rodríguez, has objected to Esso/Exxon about their oil rig preparing to explore for oil off the coast of Essequibo in a concession granted by the Guyana Government, should be cause for concern for all Guyanese.

Informing the United Nations Secretary General; the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR); the Organisation of American States (OAS) and the Commonwealth, the Government of Guyana reacted with alacrity to the provocative action: “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has requested that the Government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela desist from taking any actions that could only result in the stymieing of the development of Guyana and its people and that would be in contravention of international law.”

This action is even more serious than the last response to Guyana’s effort to exploit its mineral resources in the area. Back in October 2013, the Guyanese Government had hired the oil drilling company Anadarko to conduct studies for future oil concessions in the Roraima Block off Essequibo’s coast, where it was concentrating on petroleum exploration. The Venezuelan Navy intercepted the ship and forced it into a port at Venezuela’s Margarita Island. The captain, a Ukrainian national, was charged with violating Venezuela’s Exclusive Economic Zone while the rest of the crew were released.

As in the present situation, our Foreign Affairs Ministry made a stern response: “The Government of Guyana is of the firm belief that the actions taken by the Venezuelan navy vessel constitute a serious threat to the peace of this sub-region and the Government of Guyana, therefore, strongly condemns these actions.” From the statements of the Venezuelan Opposition, it was clear that they were behind the objections to the Guyanese petroleum exploration efforts in light of the accommodative posture adopted by then President Hugo Chávez to the Venezuelan pretensions to two thirds of Guyana. The Venezuelan Opposition claimed that the Government of Nicolás Maduro was now in favour of the idea of Guyana exploring for oil in waters off the Essequibo contra to Venezuelan claims that the Roraima Block was located in Venezuelan waters off Delta Amacuro state, in eastern Venezuela.

In the subsequent effort to deal with the matter, the Foreign Ministers of Guyana and Venezuela met on October 17 in Trinidad and hashed out an agreement that a technical team would meet within four months “to explore mechanisms within the context of international law to address the issue of maritime delimitation”. As Foreign Minister Carolyn Rodrigues-Birkett noted at the time, both sides restated that their individual and contradictory claims were valid, but in an evident coup for Guyana, the maritime demarcation was delinked from the fallacious claim Venezuela had been making for Essequibo.

This latest objection to Guyana developing its petroleum resources off Essequibo by the Venezuelan Government – without explicit arms-rattling by its Opposition – suggests that the Maduro Government is extremely weak and is attempting to preempt Opposition criticisms in the face of their necessary equivocation in the face of the mega US oil company being involved in this venture.

For us in Guyana, it is a salutary reminder that no matter what might be the personal relationships developed with the leaders of Venezuela, the border controversy is so deeply embedded in Venezuelan nationalistic politics, it can never be taken for granted. It is very heartening to note that Opposition Leader David Granger has supported the Government’s stance on the issue, just as Cheddi Jagan had done when the Venezuelans had invaded our portion of Ankoko Island. Not a blade of grass then and not a barrel of oil now.

Our Government and its diplomats must intensify their efforts to have the signed commitment by the Venezuelan Government to demarcate our maritime border – with no linkage to any other claims, pursued to its natural conclusion: that our demarcation is the legal one as was the case with the Surinamese claim back in 2000.

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Autochthonous institutions

One of the pastimes of the Guyanese political class is evidently to concoct institutions of governance that promise to resolve our political impasse. The Chinese recent rejection of the “division of power” premise undergirding western models of governance reminds us that by simplistically restricting our choices to those presented by the west, we may be setting ourselves up for an inevitable failure.
For most countries, their governance structures evolved organically in the course of their history. Britain, which once ruled us – and to which we have traditionally looked for our bearings – was once smaller kingdoms that gradually merged into four – England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland, and then into “one” through conquests.

Through hundreds of years of economic development pushing political accommodation they arrived at their model that works for them. One does not have to be Marxist to acknowledge their broad movement of accommodation involved a gradual diffusion of political power.
Our challenge is that we have turned that process on its head. We are seeking to engender equitable economic change through political structures that have worked for others which, almost inevitably, followed completely different historical trajectories.
In modern times – the last hundred years or so – we have had several countries in the Far East, most recently the behemoth China – develop economically at increasingly faster rates. But if we were to examine their political development, in almost every instance, their political democratisation lagged significantly behind the economic growth.

But the other salient fact is that, just as uniformly, they adapted traditional institutions to the exigencies of the challenges presented by modernity. They did not imitate the west “wholesale”.
In Japan, for instance, which was the first to experience the “economic miracle” in the Far East, they utilised their traditional close societal relationships to alter the western business model, in which employment is much more precarious than in Japan. The concern for employees’ welfare went a far way to dull criticisms of particular business families leading economic development through.

The point we wish to make is not that we should follow “the Far Eastern Model” because we would be repeating the same mistake that have made so far in following the west. We have to begin with an understanding and acceptance of the nature of our society and only then propose and craft institutions that can exploit our strengths and minimise our weaknesses in the development of our country in both economics and politics.
Take the political question that is now on the table with elections less than three months away. For the last 50 years, the “experts” noted that one group constituted an absolute majority of voters. But with the other group only a whisker away, it made rational choice for each to try to agglomerate their members but for the loser to deny legitimacy to the loser.

There is a great deal of truth in that concededly simplified analysis. But what the “experts” have to now concede is the demographics have changed and so must the mobilisational tactics. There is no one group with fifty percent of the electorate, so for any group to win a majority, it must have “cross-ethnic” appeal which should confer legitimacy.

There is no need for the crude resort to coalitions by self-appointed “racial” representatives: this merely reifies the old schisms. In the present “solution” presented by the APNU/AFC alliance, the 11 per cent Indian Guyanese vote that the AFC has promised to deliver to the “African-dominated” APNU will perpetuate all the old polarisations on “legitimacy”.

The PPP/C is the only party in Guyana that has remained steadfast in its recognition and acceptance that a cross-ethnic ideology – represented in their case by Marxism – must form the core of their mobilisational efforts because of the nature of our society. When they obtain their majority, legitimacy cannot be denied them. They are as autochthonous as you can get.

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Deaths in Police custody

The recent deaths of two inmates at separate West Demerara lock-ups must be a concern for not only the law enforcement authorities, but every Guyanese whose taxes are used to pay those charged with taking care of the prisoners and the upkeep of the facilities.

What is also a cause of much concern is the manner in which both men died, the explanations by the Police and the growing mistrust of the Police Force these incidents breathe among citizens.

Whether the Police have been criminally responsible or not, citizens expect at the minimum some regard for the life and limb by our lawmen. What obtains is a hapless Asif Raheem Khatoon of Meten-Meer-Zorg, West Coast Demerara (WCD) was arrested for allegedly beating his wife.

Khatoon would later receive “a sound thrashing”, according to media reports before being thrown into the lock-ups. He was released a few days later without being charged or placed before the court and died following medical checks at Georgetown Public Hospital (GPHC) where he was admitted due to the extent of his injuries.

The matter was investigated by the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), but nothing has come out of the matter thus far.

In the case of Zaharudeen Rozan, also of Cornelia Ida WCD, he was arrested following a report of him damaging his neighbour’s fence. He was thrown into the lock-ups.

What happened next is anyone’s guess. Rozan was reportedly beaten, fell into a fit and began hitting his head on the concrete floor. He died subsequently. According to an autopsy conducted by Pathologist Dr Nehaul Singh Rozan died from blunt trauma to the head, brain haemorrhage, and hyperextension which, according to the Police as explained by the Pathologist, were consistent with an epileptic seizure. There were also bite marks on his tongue.

These two cases come at a time when the dust has not yet been settled on the promotion of two officers fingered in the torture of a teenager back in 2009; the alleged brutality meted out to Colwyn Harding who had accused Police ranks of the Timehri Police Station of sexually assaulting him with a baton, and the shooting of a young man, Alex Griffith in his mouth by an officer following his arrest.

There have been other incidents of alleged Police excesses pointing to a high level of callousness among ranks. It is in this area for many citizens, our Policemen and women need training – respecting the rule of law and upholding human rights.

The Police Force should factor this in all of their training courses, making it clear that it is far more prudent, in the long run to adhere to prudent Police behaviour and rigorous enforcement of standards.

Rozan, Khatoon, Harding and Griffith’s cases, however, are not unlike the many about which people complain all too often, mostly without consequence. These men are all victims of a broken system, which must be fixed immediately if citizens are to feel any sense of security when a loved one is incarcerated.

It is common standard practice the world over that whenever someone is taken into custody and before being placed in a cell certain basic checks are carried out. For Rozan, a more alert Police officer ought to have ensured that he was sober before being thrust into a lock-up.

And what about his medical history? Shouldn’t this not have been ascertained before he was locked-up. All prisoners in correctional facilities regardless of custody level or security classification are guaranteed certain health services.

Besides, prisoners’ health records are established as soon as possible after their arrival at a correctional facility and health care staff also schedule annual health care screening appointment for each prisoner.

For what should be pellucid, assuming, somehow, it was not clear before, is that an out-of-control Police Force is not only bad for the society, but potentially expensive business for the state.

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Media and elections

Guyana is heading into full elections mode, as in three months time the nation’s citizens will be going to the polls to vote for a party of their choice. Already we have noticed that the major political players are making the rounds trying to convince voters that they have the best plan for the country’s development.

The media have an important role to play in relation to the manner in which they report on these elections. Media houses can either make a solid contribution to the democratic processes of the country by reporting on the elections in a responsible, truthful and professional manner, or they can seek to destroy the gains we have made so far by publishing content which could lead to hatred, division and violence amongst our people.

Under the auspices of the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM), and with support from the international development partners, media owners, managers and editors across Guyana recently sat down for two days and were engaged in very lively debates and discussions as to what aspects of the Media Code of Conduct (MCC) could be improved or what elements were missing, so that they could be included in the revised Code.

Both the state-run and privately-owned media and at least some of the main online news outlets by way of their signatories have indicated that they will use the Code as a means of self regulation.

For journalists, the Code provides a benchmark against which their output and activities can be judged by others, as well as guidance for them about acceptable methods of gathering and presenting news and other forms of media content to the public.

For the public, it provides some sort of a guarantee that the material they receive is a genuine reflection of the truth, based on information gathered fairly and thoroughly checked by those who present the information. The Code, in itself is a very thorough document which has undergone several revisions/modifications.

It includes key concepts or guides which every reporter here, especially those covering political and electoral issues, must au fait themselves with. GECOM has reported that it has already employed media monitors who are currently undergoing a rigorous training programme.

Once they have completed the necessary training, their job will be to analyse and report accordingly on all political content carried in the mainstream and online media outlets using the MCC as a guide.

The MMU and the International Media Refereeing Panel (which is yet to be established) will be faced with huge challenge of controlling what is published online, especially in relation to content on Facebook and Twitter. This does not prevent those mainstream media outlets, which also carry online versions from editing the comments accompanying articles, videos or audios posted on these sites.

A responsible media always exercises proper editorial judgment on all matters before they are published, especially if such matters relate to sensitive issues such as race, religion, politics and elections. If the content is found to be offensive, degrading, bias, untrue, inciting/inflammatory or racist they are edited, or dropped completely in the interest of the public.

While it may be difficult to monitor the output of all of the media houses across Guyana, some effort must be made to do some form of sample monitoring to capture those media outlets based in Essequibo, Bartica, Linden and Berbice which will no doubt carry a huge amount of political content.

It is widely accepted that the generally peaceful pre, peri and post elections environment which existed in the last two or three elections was due the high level of responsibility shown by media practitioners.

While the MMU had noted that there were a few infractions of the Code, most of them stood by it. This publication in particular was given kudos by the MMU and the International Media Refereeing Panel for its reporting of the elections.

Our hope is that this time around all media organizations in Guyana will strive to do better.

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Becoming a Republic

Republic Day. The dream of all colonial people has been to break the yoke of foreign rule that had compelled their subservience in what was often their own country. The model for freedom for most of them was the 1776 United States War of Independence, in which settlers fought their ‘home Government’ to become masters of their own fate.

In that war, the colonised people were descended from the same stock as the rulers, and in a cruel twist of logic, determined that their African slaves were only three-quarters of the worth of a white colonist.
This twist complicated the fate of most of the other colonies, such as Guyana, where the “natives” were non-white. Using an analogous logic, Britain announced without any sense of irony that we had to undergo a period of tutelage, before we could become “independent”. Other white settler colonies such as Canada and Australia, of course, were automatically spared this “tutelage”

.The tutelage, not surprisingly, was intended to produce natives who would serve the interests of the “mother” country and continue to do so when the latter had to depart. There was never any question that the colonial power intended to remain in place ad infinitum: their focus was not to leave until they could be assured of loyal tokens at the helm of “independent” countries.

After World War II, when it became obvious, even to Britain, that it could no longer muster the force to keep the Empire as a going enterprise, Independence was announced in 1947 for India and Ceylon in Asia, and a decade later, for Ghana in Africa.
The plan for their oldest colonies in the West Indies, but now not so economically attractive, was to cobble them together in a West Indian Federation in 1958 that would be subservient to Britain.
The contraption collapsed by 1962 and Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago became independent that same year because their leaders were considered “suitable”. Guyana, never a member of the Federation, had been promised independence around the same time – under “whichever party won the 1960 elections”.

But the victorious People’s Progressive Party (PPP) was deemed extremely “unsuitable” by the new super-power – the US – which replaced Britain on the world stage.
So we endured 28 years under a regime that was installed into power by US manoeuvres that included racial riots and arson. The People’s National Congress (PNC), under the “more suitable” Forbes Burnham, later tried to assert its independence from the US after Guyana became a Republic in 1970.

Even though it nationalized “the commanding heights of the economy”, Guyana remained tied to the US through the dialectic of the latter’s fear about the PPP becoming an ally of the US’s Cold War enemy, the USSR.
The dialectic allowed the PNC to rig all elections between 1968 and 1985 without sanctions being imposed on it – even from Caricom. Guyana could never be a true “Republic” under such a scenario: it was just that the lines of control were changed.
During the period of PNC’s “independent” line of “cooperative socialism” in the 1970s, the control was exerted through extension of credit by the multilateral institutions controlled by the US and Europe.

By 1988, the PNC under Desmond Hoyte had to return to the fold of orthodoxy under the International Monetary Fund (IMF) “conditionalities”. There was very little independence under the ministrations of that institution. Unlike the complaints against “austerity” today in Greece, the retrenchments and downsizing in Guyana and other Third World countries then were sold as “salutary”.

That albatross on our Republic was inherited by the PPP/Civic in 1992 but fortunately through the disciplined ministrations of Bharat Jagdeo, Guyana emerged relatively unscathed.
Today, we have a new opportunity to start with a clean slate and craft a truly indigenous path to become a real Republic. The Low Carbon Development Strategy (LCDS) is as good a place as any to begin this journey.

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Elisabeth Harper

The Peoples Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C), after much internal discussions, on February 21 announced career diplomat Elisabeth Ann Harper as its Prime Ministerial candidate for the upcoming May 11 General and Regional elections. The announcement no doubt came as a surprise to those in the Opposition camp and lots of supporters of the PPP/C.

While stating the rationale behind the party’s decision, General Secretary Clement Rohee explained that Harper was both qualified and competent to function as Guyana’s Prime Minister were the PPP/C to win the upcoming elections. He said her selection was unanimous, hinting that the party stayed true to the agreement it had back in 1992 which led to the formation of its ‘Civic’ component.

The PPP/C’s current Presidential Candidate Donald Ramotar appeared confident and upbeat about victory after making the announcement. But their confidence and optimism could not stave off the attacks from A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) and Alliance For Change (AFC) which entered a formal coalition on February 14.

These attacks started moments after the announcement on social media and when responses were sought from the coalition leaders to the PPP/C’s decision.  Any critical analysis of the comments made by the APNU/AFC coalition about Harper’s selection will reveal that there is an attempt to create a storm in a tea cup.

The Opposition appears to be arguing that Harper’s alleged lack of political experience will make her an incompetent PM if she were to be elected at the polls. The Granger-led coalition is also arguing that Harper’s selection will not affect the outcome of the 2015 polls, as she is unable to garner mass electoral support.

That aside, the coalition group is unable to make any formidable criticism of Harper’s selection as the PPP/C’s PM candidate. It cannot criticize her qualifications; moral stock or her integrity when compared to Nagamootoo..
When compared to Nagamootoo, Harper is seen as a cut above the edge and someone with the ability to move Guyana away from the politics of revenge, hate and vendetta which have been endorsed by Nagamootoo when one considers his actions and utterances in the past.

Why should Harper, who is a mature woman, be critcised for being ambitious? If she was unveiled as APNU’s PM Candidate or a Minister in its proposed Government of National Unity, would there be such a frenzy in our society?

She could swing more non-traditional support towards the PPP/C in what could be Guyana’s most historic and closely contested elections. Harper is also seen as an appealing candidate to women from all walks of life and stands a beacon of hope for those women who are fearful to accept such roles in a political system that is dominated by male chauvinists.
This means that she will face many hurdles and challenges as she prepares to hit the campaign trail especially from a coalition that apparently has no respect for women who are outspoken and passionate about a cause or opponents of bullyism.

Ask Vanessa Kissoon, Gomatie Singh, Volda Lawrence, Valerie Garrido-Lowe and a string of others who have suffered various degrees of injustices at the hands of their male dominated party.
The PPP/C’s decision to select Harper, who is the mother of three girls (Michelle, Melissa and Natasha), is strategic and does not appear to be based on the colour of her skin, nor a desire of the party to appeal to race.  The PPP/C has not made any reference to the need for the party to campaign in Afro-Guyanese communities with a candidate of the same ethnicity.

There is no record, public or otherwise, that Harper was brought on board by the PPP/C because she was never affiliated with its bureaucracy. Therefore, the Opposition parties may be underestimating Harper’s appeal as a woman of substance and a professional with an excellent track record.

She is quite similar to Janet Jagan. And just like Janet, she may be able to cause a major upset at the upcoming elections.

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Stars and black holes

It had to take a certain amount of stamina for Guyanese movie lovers to sit through the entire 2015 Oscars on TVG Channel 28/12 Sunday night, knowing that they had to be out the next morning through the streets of Georgetown “mashing”.
But for “silver screen” aficionados, there was really no choice: how else would they witness the spectacle of those who create spectacles for the rest of the world letting their hair down?

After all, how could the movie overlords of Hollywood really justify snubbing Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo from “Selma”, the film about Martin Luther King? Not a single Black person in the 20 personal nominations. To their credit, activists outside the event did not let them forget, nor did the otherwise insipid host, for whom it was all down hill after his tongue-in-cheek opening line: “Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest.” Then correcting it with a wink to “brightest”.

But “American Sniper” did not take any of the early-predicted awards. The story of the Navy Seal with the greatest number of kills in the history of American warfare was heavily criticised after the murder of three Muslims in North Carolina.
Even though Director Clint Eastwood tried to make the movie a bit more nuanced than the autobiographical novel, the depiction of Iraqis as “savages” still riled up anti-Arab sentiments in its viewers. This exacerbated the growing Islamophobia in that society and provided a background to the killings.

Two movies that did hit it big, copping the best actor and best actress awards, portrayed individuals with disabilities and this must be seen as a positive sign. Eddie Redmayne won the best actor Oscar for portrayal of the ALS afflicted physicist Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything”, while Julianne Moore’s powerful portrayal of an Alzheimer’s sufferer in “Still Alice”.

Inhabited by high percentage of persons who are seen a “different”, Hollywood does sometimes rise above the box office jingling to treat serious stories seriously.
Stephen Hawkins’ tale in quite extraordinary and should teach Guyanese a thing or two about “determination”. Diagnosed when he was still at Oxford with ALS and given two years to live, Hawkins goes on to graduate with honours, completes his PhD at Cambridge and is still alive at the age of 72, having become the most famous physicist since Albert Einstein.

While the movie thankfully goes light with notions of “singularities”, “black holes” and “multiverses”, it does bring to the fore the rigour that is needed in application to one’s tasks if anything significant can be achieved. Moreso, by an individual who is so handicapped that he has only been able to communicate with the aid of a computer operated by a single cheek muscle.

At places like the University of Guyana, where the constant whine is “lack of facilities”, what is evidently more crucially missing is lack of imagination and hard work.
Movies are very powerful shapers of popular culture, with American movies taking the top honours since the beginning of the art form. It is no use complaining that American films are heavily skewed towards the point of view of the dominant demographic of that country – white,middle-aged males.

Those who desire an alternative view have to follow the pattern of that other form of narratives – the novel. For decades now, individuals from the “empire” have been “writing back” – that is placing themselves and their concerns at the centre of their work. Whether it is dubbed “post colonial” or “post modern”, the narrative gaze has been widened.
One positive sign in this direction was Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Inarritu winning the Oscar for best director for “Birdman”, his funny satirical take on American show business. It was not the usual infinite regression since Inarritu is an outsider.
In his acceptance speech, he asked urged Americans to treat immigrants “with respect”. He has written back.

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Republic Day

Today is the 45th anniversary of our attainment of Republican status – no more Monarchs or their representative holding supreme power over our state, whether symbolically or legally. It has been claimed, with a large degree of truth, that at that time we “inherited a state but not a nation”. That is, we received all the paraphernalia of the modern state – Flag, Constitution, Coat of Arms, Motto, etc, but when it came to being a “nation” there was still a far way to go.
Part of the problem is that there is widespread confusion of just what being a “nation” entails. One view was summarised in the National Motto: “One People, One Nation, One Destiny”.
Probably reacting against the “divide and rule” machinations of the departed British, the early political leaders can be forgiven for trying to swing the pendulum the other way. But in fact, the urge to dissolve boundaries between peoples in a country has been inculcated conterminously with the formation of the modern state system back in the 17th century. The religion and culture of the King were supposed to become those of the people.
But by the time our Republic-hood was attained, the countries we were imitating in “dissolving” our peoples’ identities into a melange, were actually moving in the opposite direction. Recognising that different cultures could actually be strength of a country rather than a weakness, the ideal of “multiculturalism” was promulgated. The United States, which had accepted as its unofficial motto from its inception in 1776 the ideal of “E Pluribus Unum – Out of Many, One”, led the way in this movement. In 1956 it adopted as its official Motto, “In God we trust” and made as a central principle of all Government actions and policies the commitment to increase “diversity”.
While in our own country, there has been a growing recognition that “Unity of Diversity” might be a more appropriate motto and goal of our Republic, unlike in the US, this has not received official state imprimatur. Today, as we commemorate Republic Day, this state of affairs will be very obvious in the official celebrations of “Mashramani” or “Mash”. Initiated in what is now Linden as “Carnival” in imitation of the Trinidadian festival at the beginning of Lent, it was renamed with the Amerindian word for “Celebrations after hard work”.
But the movement to broaden the celebrations did not go far beyond that gesture. And there was obviously no thought of the appropriateness of commemorating the attainment of Republican status that started with the first mass slave rebellion in the Western Hemisphere with a Carnival that has totally different roots. So today as the bands “Mash” through the town they will be dominantly reflective of one cultural strain. And in other citizens desire to be part of those celebrations, they have to bend to the old pressures to jettison their own expressions of celebration and merge into the officially sanctioned one.
This year, the Government has initiated moves to remind citizens of the great contribution that Cuffy made to our Republic becoming a reality today. There will be a number of public lectures on the event. But these will inevitably be confined to a cloistered audience: the efforts to connect Republic Day with the Berbice Rebellion of 1773 must be translated to the masses of ordinary citizens.
And this will only be successful when those same people are facilitated to express their feelings of appreciation for that seminal event in their own forms and cultures.
Diversity is part and parcel of the nature of all creation. The challenge is not to deny it nor obliterate it but rather to deal with it so that it becomes a positive rather than a negative force for progress. As we go out to celebrate Republic Day via Mashramani let us resolve to allow a thousand flowers to bloom.
Happy Republic Day to all Guyanese.

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