THE atmosphere of political uncertainty that has characterized British Guiana since the elections last August continues to prevail. The economy, laboring under the legacy of unstable political conditions, is making little progress. Production on the sugar estates has been running behind last year’s performance, and there has been a continuing layoff of nonessential labor.
There is one cheerful aspect to this generally somber economic picture. After suffering heavy financial losses for three years, the British Guiana Rice Marketing Board was able to announce an overall profit of -$500,00.0 for the current crop year, which started in October. 1961. One of the reasons for this improved position was the availability of the Cuban market, which offered higher prices for Guiana rice.
Rice is grown on 27,000 small farms along the coastal belt, and its production employs between 50,000 and 80,000 people. These rice farmers have experienced increasingly improved conditions over the last five years. Their crops, sold to the government Rice Marketing Board at prices established according to the quality of the rice, have increased in size and quality as a result of the large sums of money spent by the government for irrigation and land reclamation schemes and improved methods of farming —as much as a third of development expenditures in the last two years.
In the sugar industry, over the same period of time, there has been a gradual reduction in the number of employees, following increased mechanization of field and factory operations. There has, however, been increased stabilization of jobs for the remaining employees. Most of the sugar is produced on large estates primarily owned by a British firm, Booker Brothers, operating throughout the British West Indies.
More than four fifths of the sugar is exported to the United Kingdom at a price negotiated under the Commonwealth Sugar Agreement. Anything in excess of the country’s quota under this agreement has to be marketed where possible at current world prices. The number of people employed may range from as many as 28,000 at peak season to fewer than 15,000 in the off-season. This seasonal fluctuation results in unemployment during the slow periods, much of it being disguised because the unemployed may assist on the rice farms.
The completed construction in 1960 of a 15,000 kilowatt steam power plant and in 1961 of a new alumina plant spurred production in the bauxite industry and resulted in the creation of a substantial number of new jobs. The workers in this industry have traditionally enjoyed the best conditions of work and wages in British Guiana. The strike which closed the industrial plant for nearly a week last February was politically motivated, in support of the protest against the 1962 government budget proposals, rather than directed against the company.
Georgetown, the chief urban center, with a population of about 90,000, has shown increasing evidence of prosperity. The influx of private cars and spurt of house building both by government and by private individuals were indicative of increasing financial stability. Postal savings increased in volume steadily, and insurance businesses have been thriving in recent years. In 1959 and 1 960. trade volume jumped from 44 million to 57 million pounds — this in a country of little more than half a million people.
The cost of uncertainty
Since last fall, there has been an increasing tendency to economic stagnation, particularly in the wholesale and retail businesses. Merchants are reluctant to invest large new sums in either plant or increased stocks of goods because of the uncertainty of the government’s intentions and the political unrest, particularly in Georgetown. More recently, the gutting of more than one third of the downtown business section during the fire resulting from the February 16 rioting has crippled many small and medium businesses, many of which are not liable for compensation, as only a few carried riot insurance.
Damage to stocks and property is estimated at between 5 and 6 million pounds. More than a thousand former employees of the burned-out businesses flood an already overcrowded labor market in Georgetown, and in view of the pessimistic business outlook, there is little hope that the majority of these will be absorbed by the business community soon.
This, among other factors, is the reason for the sudden increase in emigration. More than 800 passports were issued in one eight-week period this year to people who wanted to emigrate, primarily to the United Kingdom and Canada. Many of these people are of the better-educated middle and upper-middle class. They are selling their homes and giving up responsible positions in government and private business because of their pessimism concerning the future of the country.
Those who remain do so because of their reluctance to abandon their long-established way of life, rather than from any great confidence in the future. The professional men, particularly the lawyers, of whom there are a considerable number, show no particular desire to leave, but many of the younger dentists and doctors have been reassessing the situation in an attempt to decide whether to go or stay.
Emigration, economic stagnation, pessimism — these are all symptoms of the continuing political crisis that prevails between the left-wing government of Dr. Cheddi jagan and the militant urban support of the opposition parties. The nature of the crisis is complex, but there are two clearly obvious aspects confronting even the superficial observer — the increasing animosity between the two major races, the Negroes and the East Indians, and the absence of a political leader capable of mustering a substantial multiracial following.
Dr. Jagan’s People’s Progressive Party gleans its support from the East Indian rice farmers and sugar workers of the rural areas and a considerable part of the East Indian professional and business community in the urban areas. Economically, these supporters vary from very prosperous rice farmers and businessmen to poor, seasonally employed, unskilled laborers on the sugar estates. They share, however, a common racial loyalty to Dr. jagan, tempered, in the case of the better educated and more prosperous, by their shrewd assessment that with him, for the moment, lie their best interests.
Where there is any substantial divergence of East Indians from the People’s Progressive Party, it occurs generally among the Muslims, primarily those belonging to the Georgetown business community. Despite Dr. Jagan’s maintaining an apparently multiracial aspect to the executive council of the PPP, it is generally believed that Negro leaders elected in predominantly PPP constituencies are returned only because of Dr. Jagan’s approval. The party is not, however, completely bankrupt of Negro support, since voter returns in a number of areas where the population is fairly evenly divided between the two races indicated sufficient Negro support to enable the election of a PPP member.
Up to early 1961, the only opposition party was the People’s National Congress, led by Lyndon Forbes Burnham, a Negro barrister. This party draws most of its support from the urban areas of Georgetown, New Amsterdam, and Mackenzie, where most of the 190,380 Negroes live. It does command some minority support in rural constituencies with a substantial number of Negroes.
Since most of the country’s civil servants, teachers, police, and volunteer force are Negroes, the party’s support has an influence out of proportion to its numbers. This circumstance has been due not to any particular discrimination against the East Indians, but to the fact that in the past the Negroes have tended to attribute more importance to education, and accordingly have produced a larger number of eligible candidates for the available positions. Also, living in the urban areas, they have had the advantage of more and better schools at their disposal.
During 1961 a new party, the United Force, came to the fore, under the leadership of Peter D’Aguiar, a successful Catholic Portuguese businessman. Differing clearly from the democratic-socialist policies of the People’s National Congress, the United Force offered a program styled “economic dynamism,” based on capitalist free-enterprise principles with a strongly conservative bent. Like the PNC, the new party had a primarily urban appeal and presented, therefore, less of a threat to the rural-based governing PPP than to the urban-based PNC.
The most obvious result of the rise of the United Force was the splitting of Dr. Jagan’s opposition. In those areas which the PPP did not contest, it advised its supporters to vote for the United Force, thus enabling the UF to pick up four seats at the expense of the PNC, which won eleven seats to the PPP’s twenty.
The nature of Guianese politics is such that the political parties are the personal property of the respective leaders. The fact that the leaders of the two opposition parties, D’Aguiar and Burnham, are so alien in temperament, so self-centered in outlook, makes any likelihood of a unification of the opposition remote.
The one strong link is opposition to Dr. Jagan, and it was the sudden crystallization of urban resentment to his government in February, at the time of the budget proposals for 1962, that turned this link momentarily into a bond strong enough to enable the successful general strike protesting the new measures. Once the immediate crisis was over, the difference of approach again became apparent. Ideologically, Dr. Jagan and Burnham have more in common with each other than either has with D’Aguiar, a representative of what they both call “the vested interests.”
The frustration increases with the passing of time. The opposition leaders, with the strong urban support of businessmen, civil servants, dock workers, and bauxite workers, have the power to render much of the government’s program ineffective but are unable to defeat its legislation, although in April the Legislature did reject Japan’s revised budget by one vote. The rank-and-file supporters of the opposition, conscious of their numerical superiority, contemptuous of the rural supporters of the PPP, are frustrated at the inability of their leaders to take over the reins of government.
Obstacles to independence
Dr. jagan and his ministers, desirous of pressing ahead with their economic plans, are hampered by an inability to obtain foreign assistance and the opposition’s vigorous resistance to their raising such funds at home. In this atmosphere, the ideological assertions of the People’s Progressive Party and the increasing racial animosity are the final complicating factors. For a political leader to govern effectively in British Guiana, he must win the confidence and the votes of a substantial number of both the major ethnic groups, the East Indians and the Negroes.
The complete alienation of the rank-and-file opposition to Dr. Jagan because of his allegedly Communist aspirations makes it unlikely that he will ever be able to command more than a small part of the vote of these people. The fear of what he is thought to represent is too deepseated to alter this hitter antagonism.
Burnham, because of his strongly racial platform in the past, has also rendered unlikely any chance of ever commanding more than token support among the East Indians,
D’Aguiar is impeded by his Portuguese ethnic origin, and mistrusted by the other ethnic groups, particularly the Negroes. Also, his representation of the so-called vested interests would not endear him to the working class, although his own record of employee relations and conditions has been good.
With little prospect of the emergence of a new political figure, there is little hope of early improvement of the Guianese picture. Trade missions continue to arrive. Survey teams carry on their work. Talk of possible foreign loans, of factories to be set up by foreign corporations, of technical missions from the United States continues to circulate. Yet the reluctance of all sections of the population, particularly the large middle-class element, to face the poverty of the country and to accept the realities of increased taxation and belt-tightening seems incompatible with talk of independence.