Guyana goes to the polls

The people of Guyana voted in National and Regional elections on 11 May, with the Jesuits urging that people move beyond the racial tensions that have marred the electoral process since independence. Guyana is much more than the small coastal strip where the sugar plantations used to be. If the descendants of the slaves brought from Africa and the Indentured labourers brought from India to work on those plantations, could turn their gaze inland, they would recognise that the real wealth of the country lies in its biodiversity and pristine rainforest. True progress and development for the nation can only come by including the Amerindian people with their traditional wisdom in the decision making process.

“There is a whole generation of young people in Guyana who have grown up under the present regime,” explains Fr Paul Martin SJ, the Regional Superior in the South American country. “They are disillusioned with the whole political system and few believe the elections can really make any difference, though many fear a violent reaction by whoever loses them.”

Since independence in 1966, the political system in Guyana has become polarised along racial lines, with around 30% of the population of African origin and 40% East Indian. “There are two principal parties: one, the PNC which draws its support almost exclusively from the Afro-Guyanese while the other, the PPP, is seen as the 'East Indian party',” says Fr Martin. “At the time of independence, political interference by outside powers played on traditional racial tensions. The PNC gained power and then held on to it through corrupt electoral practises. The Catholic Church was at the forefront of the struggle for a free and fair election which eventually took place in 1992, resulting in a PPP victory. However, initial optimism soon turned to disillusionment when it became clear that the new government was not going to promote the interests of all Guyanese but rather continue the practise of favouring their own racially-based supporters.  

Changed situation required fresh reflection

In response to the abuse of power by the PNC, the Church had a clear message to proclaim: free and fair elections. However, given that the East Indian population is in the majority, a “free and fair election” in which people vote according to race would always see the return to power of the PPP and the continued marginalisation of the Afro-Guyanese. “Sadly, up till now the Church has not had the resources to engage in a serious analysis of the new situation, and so articulate an alternative vision,” according to Fr Martin. “Like the rest of the population, the Church has felt the effects of the 'brain drain' with able people leaving the country rather than staying to solve the problems. There has to be something new. We need a new generation of visionaries within the Church able to campaign for a constitutional reform that would make possible a government which represented the interests of all racial groups and used the resources of the country for a genuine common good."Guyana election rally 2015

Fr Martin is hopeful that indeed that “new generation” is emerging. As the attention of the world turns to the seriousness of the crisis of global warming, the importance of preserving the Guyana’s pristine rainforest will become increasingly clear. Having a government able to promote the development of the people of Guyana while defending the natural environment will take on an international significance.

“The Jesuits have traditionally had a strong presence among the Amerindian communities. This presence gives us the starting point for a new reflection. Our challenge - for the Jesuits and the Church - is to reflect along with the indigenous people as to how they can enjoy a better life, respecting their traditional culture but at the same time integrating the benefits of the modern world. We must also reflect along with all the people of Guyana as to how the natural resources of the country, especially the vast rainforest, can be managed in a sustainable way rather than plundered for the short term profit of a few.  

Whoever emerges as the winner in today’s elections, it is clear that Guyana is entering into a new period in its history.

Photo credit: Guyanese Online