Justice and Democracy in Guyana Fly Limply in the Breeze

  • Guyana’s founding father, the great Cheddi Jagan, would be hunched over in pain today if he could observe what is happening today to his precious country and party.
  • President Jagdeo consistently has failed to stem the rising tide of violent crime, while rumors of death squads and concerns over human rights weaken the government’s legitimacy.
  • The emergence of an independent political party to counter the entrenched interests of the two dominant parties could provide a democratic breakthrough for the nation.
  • Recently, Jagdeo has started to augment his legacy through his courageous stand, along with St. Lucia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, in refusing to join the rest of the CARICOM members in accommodating themselves to Washington’s anti-Aristide manipulation of Haitian politics.
  • The Sad Decline of Governance in Guyana
    With national elections scheduled for 2006 and no end in sight to the perpetual political haggling bedeviling the country, Guyana’s citizens are left to wonder how any of the political brawls connect to the country’s most pressing issue: a massive ongoing violent crime epidemic. In 2002, 142 people were killed in a country of only 750,000; the situation has not improved much since then. An August 19 report in Caribbean Net News noted that armed robberies had increased 44% over the previous year, and seemingly random murders continue to fill the headlines. Rapes are also a major issue, with 154 reported in 2004. The sources of the violence are many, and include the country’s overpowering racial division, brutal political disputes, extreme poverty and powerful drug organizations.

    The one area in which Jagdeo has excelled has been the steadfast role he has played in CARICOM regarding Haiti. Under considerable, if subtle, pressure coming from Washington, Jagdeo insisted in supporting the deposed government of President Aristide, unlike the far less neocolonial-inspired policies of the prime ministers of such fellow CARICOM members as Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, and the Bahamas, who reflected raw opportunism in their support of the Bush administration’s hapless Haitian interim government. Comparisons to Jagan have not gone unnoticed by other observers such as the brilliant Caribbean journalist Ricky Singh in a recent article in the Jamaican Observer.

    An Increasingly Ineffective Government’s Response to Crime
    The government has struggled to control the worsening situation, but President Bharrat Jagdeo has found few easy solutions and whatever thrust he brought to office as the successor to the legendary Jagans, has largely been dissipated. The question can now be asked, how much lower can Guyana descend from the cloaca that its political process now occupies. That the country’s political parties split violently along racial lines has only served to complicate matters. Jagdeo’s People’s Progressive Party (PPP) has its constituency mainly among Guyanese of East-Indian heritage, while the opposition People’s National Congress/Reform (PNC/R) fundamentally draws its support from urban Guyanese of afro-descent. While in the past, the PNC/R has been accused of inciting politically motivated violence to intimidate PPP voters or unconstitutionally challenge PPP rule, the PPP itself has also come under fire from local watchdog organizations as well as from abroad for its hardline approach to curbing the crime wave. The once wide gap between the two parties is rapidly narrowing.

    As early as 2002 Amnesty International (AI) had expressed concerns over four pieces of anti-crime legislation that had the potential to lead to human rights violations. A report on the organization’s website notes that the Criminal Law Offences (Amendment) Act 2002 “risks facilitating politically motivated prosecutions” and that “the act radically extends the scope of the mandatory death penalty to crimes other than murder and increases the risk that this penalty will be imposed following unfair trials.” Furthermore, AI notes that the Prevention of Crimes (Amendment) Act 2002 could lead to “arbitrary arrest, indefinite arbitrary detention, ill-treatment and torture as well as creating a “shadow” system of justice in Guyana for those deemed a risk to ‘public order and public safety.’”

    Death Squad Scandal Hints at Governmental Corruption
    These fears seemed to be confirmed when allegations about government sponsored anti-crime death squads came to light in early 2004. In a grotesque saga of crime and scandal, well-known businessman George Bacchus publicly accused Home Affairs Minister Ronald Gajraj of having directed a death squad known as “The Phantom,” after Bacchus’ brother Shafeek was gunned down by assassins that George claimed were actually intending to kill him. George Bacchus was certainly prophetic because in June 2004 he was shot to death in his bed. He had earlier stated that he had been an informant for “The Phantom,” and thus had first-hand knowledge of the workings of a shadowy group that was allegedly responsible for the killing of at least 40 people since 2002. “The Phantom” was legendary in Guyana, and was regarded by some pragmatists as the only effective response to the nation’s escalating crime wave. Yet, in spite of its popularity among some, the prospect of a death squad participating in extra-judicial killings provoked both domestic and international outrage.

    The developing scandal persuaded a reluctant President Jagdeo to set up a commission of inquiry to investigate the charges. Minister Gajraj temporarily stepped down, but even after pressure from both internal opposition and external organizations, such as the Caribbean-Guyana Institute for Democracy, forced Jagdeo to replace commission members deemed too government-friendly, hopes of justice remained faint.

    This spring, the revamped commission cleared Mr. Gajraj of charges of his involvement with “The Phantom,” noting that his perceived connections to a number of criminals through improperly issued gun licenses were likely the result of an effort to gather intelligence for police. While a great deal of suspicion about Gajraj and his links to “The Phantom” remained, the case was legally closed, and Gajraj was permitted to again assume his post.

    His return was both brief and scandalous, as the lingering questions prompted a domestic and international uproar, including Washington’s condemnation. A State Department release asserted that “Gajraj’s resumption of a key ministry, with direct authority over law enforcement activities in Guyana, undermines the rule of law in that country.” The Caribbean-Guyana Institute for Democracy declared that the reinstatement “disgraces the Guyanese nation” and observes that although Gajraj was cleared of personal involvement, the panel did affirm his connections to many nefarious characters including those individuals implicated in the murder of George Bacchus, namely Debra Douglas and Ashton King.

    Bacchus Murder Further Deepens Doubts
    George Bacchus was murdered just days before he was set to testify before the commission. While his assassination intensified the scandal and compounded the perception that Georgetown was rapidly becoming Latin America’s version of the Wild West, and that corrupt officials were protected by vicious hit men, it did not change at all the trajectory of the investigation. Some observed that Bacchus himself was no angel and that his tarnished past, in any event, would have weakened his qualities as a witness. Members of the commission couldn’t help but note that “he could have hardly have been found to be a credit-worthy witness and it would have been dangerous to rely on his evidence, implicating Minister [Ronald] Gajraj without corroboration.”

    Recently, a high court “quashed” the decision by a lower court’s “preliminary investigation” to charge alleged hit-woman Debra Douglas, with Bacchus’ murder, as reported by the independent newspaper, the Stabroek News. According to the report, Douglas was the “the third person to walk free in two separate trials for the Bacchus brothers’ killings” While it may be easy to assume that the acquittals have sinister political motives, the reality is that the Guyanese judiciary has a long history of failings and a distressing sensitivity to outside political conditions.

    A Struggling State and Unhappy Voters
    If the entire Bacchus-Gajraj putative death squad scandal embarrassed the Guyanese government, it seems to have had only minor repercussions for President Jagdeo. He has not personally been linked to any major corruption, and his responses to recent allegations of embezzlement at the Wildlife Division have been prompt and forceful. Of far more concern, however, is the country’s ongoing crime problem, for which he has offered few immediate answers and an almost distressing level of lassitude in the face of the phenomenon that could destroy his presidency. A recent $79 million allocation for new police surveillance and response equipment may help but the Guyanese citizenry seem to see little hope. One citizen, in a letter to the Stabroek News writes that when it comes to crime in Guyana, “the government seems either not to care or is out of its depth or both.” The problems come in multiples, with the corrupt and incompetent police only serving to facilitate a judiciary that puts few offenders behind bars. Earlier this summer the Guyana Human Rights Association released a report stating that the average conviction rate in rape cases over the past four years had been an appalling 1.4 percent.
    But if most citizens perceive the government as incompetent, the only question is whether or not the political system will easily be able to actually provide a solution. An August 28 editorial entitled “The People Want Peace” the Stabroek News, laments that the current political infighting has not offered the “immediate relief from the stress of daily living,” that the Guyanese people so badly needed. The editorial goes on to say that “Our politicians have a duty to help to extricate the population from the morass into which they have led the country. They have to develop a vision of this country to which all sections of the society can commit and work towards motivating the people to work towards making that vision a reality.”

    Yet it is uncertain whether the 2006 elections, likely pitting incumbent Jagdeo against Robert Corbin from the PNC/R, will offer the possibility for such a change. Guyana’s entrenched political interests in both the self-serving PPP and PNC/R may be more concerned with inter-party sparring than solving the nation’s problems. Such unresponsiveness is as big a threat to Guyana’s democracy as crime and corruption. The increasingly tawdry state of events can only shame the legacy of the late Cheddi Jagan, Guyana’s George Washington and one of Latin America’s most extraordinary leaders, who together with his stalwort wife Janet, who succeeded him as president, enshrined the principle of public rectitude in government.

    The Third Option
    Recently, however, the possibility that a “third force” might emerge to offer an independent challenge to the two mainstream parties, has intrigued many observers. The two key figures in the Alliance for Change, as the movement is formally known, are Raphael Trotman and Khemraj Ramjattan. Trotman, formerly affiliated with the PNC/R, and Ramjattan, formerly of the PPP, are both highly respected politicians. The moral weight possessed by these two reformers makes their efforts at changing the nature of Guyanese politics highly noteworthy.

    Alissa Trotz, a professor at the University of Toronto, in an article on guyanacaribbeanpolitics.com, speculates that the new movement could reenergize the currently stagnant political system, providing voters a reason to care and a hope that change might come. By offering Guyana a progress-oriented middle ground in the current stygian political battlefield, where the forces of darkness more often than not prevail, Trotman and Ramjattan may succeed in changing the nature of democratic participation in that country. And while an independent government will not have any intrinsic advantages when it comes to solving the problem of crime, it may prove more adept at addressing underlying social problems and generating a sense of civic responsibility last seen in the Jagan era, which could go a long way towards ending the current chaos.

    Although working against long odds, it could be possible that the Alliance for Change could parlay the nation’s current pervasive disillusionment into a victory next year. As such, the country’s current leaders must work to ensure that the elections can happen democratically, free from fear and violence, and that the outcome is not marred by the post-electoral bloodshed so common in Guyana’s history. If Jagdeo can do this, he may be able to secure the same legacy as Mexico’s Ernesto Zedillo, a man who by losing, won.