Solidifying ethnic blocks

Volda Lawrence, Chairperson of the PNC, was caught in a dilemma when she candidly responded to her (and the PNC’s traditional) constituency’s complaint that the good life they were promised has not been delivered, three years down the road by the Government they put into office. She was recorded as saying, when it comes to jobs, “The only friends I got is PNC so the only people I gon give wuk to is PNC and right now I looking for a doctor who can talk Spanish or Portuguese and ah want one that is PNC!”
Such talk, of course, directly raises fears of discrimination along ethnic lines because of the historic alignment of voters along those lines in Guyana. In a country which is still among the poorest in the hemisphere, such reactions are not surprising when the discriminatory intent is so bluntly expressed, and politics still defined “who gets what, when and how”. Even in the absence of explicit statements, however, the adherents of the major parties read “hiring preferences” into the messages of their leaders.
This has been going on ever since the national movement was split in 1955 and most analysts blame either the leaders or “ethnic identity” for our politics of preference which has helped keep our politics as a zero-sum game. Guyanese elections have been categorised – not unfairly – as ethnic censuses since the one in 1961. The 2015 is certainly not been an exception. Many, if not most, Guyanese ruefully shake their heads when alluding to this reality and wistfully wishing, “If only…”. Elections are seen as reinforcing our “divisions”.
One of the reasons we vote the way we do is because of what one African-American scholar has called the logic of “linked fate” to explain African-American voting behaviour. If circumstances, whether systemic or planned (like with Ms Lawrence promise to the PNC faithful), affect a set of people specifically and consistently, it is only “reasonable” that it will dawn on them to react similarly to the “stimuli’. In the latter case Lawrence’s statement will help to solidify her base but at the same time, that of the PPP.
Historically, our fates were very early on linked to our ethnicity by how the British rulers treated us – Amerindians were allowed to sink back into the “interior”; Africans were slaves and then “ex-slaves”, Indians were indentured sugar workers while the smaller Portuguese and Chinese indentureds could carve a niche in the retail sector to serve the rural folks in a cash economy. It soon didn’t matter whether there were nine tribes of Amerindians or dozens of tribes from West Africa or North and South Indians: each of those groups coalesced separately because their fates were separately linked by the British.
In the modern era, with the coming of “democracy” to allow control of the State through the agglomeration of numbers, the politicians merely followed the ethnic logic and organised along group identities that had already been outlined. Jagan’s carefully constructed PPP of 1950 was a self-conscious “ethnic coalition”. The ethnically channelled political struggle however led to its own problematic which we called our “ethnic security dilemmas”. For the longest while, the majority Indian Guyanese felt that even if they won “democratic elections” at the ballot boxes, they faced an existential threat to their physical security. African Guyanese, on the other hand, felt that because of their minority status, their wellbeing was always going to be at the mercy of the not necessarily benevolent majority.
Following independence, “discrimination” became a fact of life regardless of which ethnic group was in power: whether that discrimination was “political” as Burnham asserted – or Lawrence may claim, or “racial” as Dr Jagan accused was irrelevant. And vice versa when the shoe was on the other foot. While the demographics have now been reversed to remove the African security dilemma, Indian Guyanese now feeling doubly threatened by both dilemmas. Discrimination, however, is still alive and kicking.
But this is not just an academic exercise. The choices of the new APNU/AFC Administration in staffing their Administration has exacerbated the fears in that community that “it is payback time”. And reinforced ethnic identity, not necessarily in a benign fashion.
The apparent conflict between ethnic and national identity will therefore become exacerbated rather than fade away unless we insist on implementing policies where discrimination in whatever form is fought by all. Wishing away ethnicity will otherwise be a pipe dream.