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President Jimmy Carter Visits Guyana, Aug. 11-13, 2004

By Jimmy Carter

After arriving in Georgetown, I had a briefing from Jason Calder, David Carroll, other Carter Center staff, and U.S. embassy staff, and then met with President Bharrat Jagdeo for about 90 minutes. The main issues that I raised and his comments are summarized below:

1. Continuous voter registration: Jagdeo is eager to bring the existing voters list up-to-date and to continue this process through the 2006 election. The U.S. government and other donors have offered financial assistance, and he is willing to have them suggest a list of organizations to be given supervisory responsibility and for the opposition (PNC) to make the choice and to have complete access to the list for any necessary changes. (This seems fair.)

2. Campaign finance: He would like The Carter Center to send an expert to help draft comprehensive legislation requiring full disclosure of all contributions made to political parties and how funds are expended. He also wishes assistance in the drafting of an access to information law similar to what we have done in Jamaica and Ecuador. (We will pursue this.)

3. Election commission: Jagdeo feels the present Carter/Price system (three members from each major party plus a neutral chairman) should be satisfactory through the next election and that the chairman needs to be more forceful in taking charge of the issues. (This is OK, although a technical/non-political commission is preferable at this juncture of Guyana's development.)

4. National Development Strategy: He claims that 90 percent of the recommendations have been implemented, and the government is ready to have the parliament consider the remaining points. (This does not include key recommendations on governance, such as political inclusiveness.)

5. Constitutional reform: There is a need to fulfill the constitutional mandate for establishing the four "rights" commissions and two others. This awaits willingness of the PNC to participate in the parliament. Jagdeo does not support moves for executive power sharing. (There are important steps to be taken if PNC would participate.)

6. Commission of inquiry re: death squads: He says the commission has published its rules and will complete receipt of submissions by Aug. 31. Subsequently, testimony will be received from all identified witnesses. He has requested "witness protection" from the United States for anyone who is fearful of giving testimony about alleged crimes. (One key witness was assassinated.)

7. Constituency based parliamentarians: The present ratio of 25 representing large constituencies with the other 40 being from party lists complies with the constitution, and he sees no need for changes. (This means that members of parliament are almost completely controlled by the two political parties, and the PPP has almost total control of legislative matters.)

8. May 6, 2003, communiqué: Jagdeo says the government stands by all the commitments made in this agreement between him and PNC Chairman Corbin, and he awaits participation from the PNC in passing laws accordingly.

9. Local elections: The Election Commission has said that it needs at least a year to prepare for local elections. If agreement can be reached with the PNC in September, local elections can be held in 2005, prior to the national elections. (This is doubtful. No local elections have been held for 10 years.)

10. Corruption: He claims the auditor general is a universally respected official who has full access to all aspects of the government and who presents to the parliament regular reports on all income and expenditures. Lottery funds are included in this procedure. Jagdeo would welcome any allegations or evidence about corrupt officials. (There is a major problem with corruption in Guyana. Freedom of information legislation might be of further help.)

11. Drug trafficking: Guyana always has been one of the routes through which narcotics have been transported, with its unguarded borders and minimal capability of interdiction, and the problem has increased. Jagdeo says with the U.S. now spending $1.5 billion on Plan Colombia v. $75,000 in Guyana, the problem is exacerbated. The government would welcome additional advice and support for its Coast Guard and drug agency, but can do little more. He claims there is a law that requires reporting of extraordinary bank deposits.

12. Lack of economic progress: He claims the housing and construction industry is booming, with no additional building contractors available. GNP growth in this and the service sector are obscured by the preponderant negative factor of sugar, rice, and bauxite, whose world prices have dropped. (GNP growth is zero, at best.)

13. PNC participation in dialogue and parliament: Jagdeo would welcome PNC involvement in the parliament, either full time, on a limited time schedule, or on selected issues. He believes the opposition considers its present abstention to be politically advantageous for them. He has asked Corbin to contact him whenever he is ready to discuss any matter, but will not extend another invitation. (This leaves the initiative on Corbin, although a magnanimous gesture from the president would be helpful.)

14. Khemraj Ramjattan: Ramjattan was in the leadership council of the PPP, but revealed confidential discussions to the media. He was warned at least 10 times to desist and was finally given an ultimatum. The party voted to expel him after he violated this party decision. (He's now president of the Guyana Bar Association.)

15. Equal access to state owned media: Jagdeo claims that only PNC responses to PPP statements are covered in this agreement. (Many government statements are highly partisan in nature, and PNC responses are not permitted.)

Jagdeo is an intelligent and capable leader, but he takes full advantage of the ancient "winner take all" system in Guyana. Following my meeting with him, I was very doubtful that his political party (PPP) would commence new dialogue with the PNC, be willing to make any substantive moves to implement the National Development Strategy, share political authority with other parties, or permit members of parliament to be elected by their own constituencies instead of being chosen from party lists on a proportional basis.

I continued a series of meetings the next two days, discussing the same issues with:

  • Yesu Persaud, a distinguished business leader, who was willing to help in civil society if we could find some avenue of hope
  • Chairman Robert Corbin and the PNC leadership, who were averse to resuming dialogue or returning to parliament unless the government implemented decisions from previous dialogue processes, but who urged us to stay involved · General Secretary Donald Ramotar and leaders of the PPP, who oppose any real changes in governance, but who wanted us to remain engaged
  • Ravi Dev, leader of an Indian party called Rise, Organize and Rebuild (ROAR), who had ambitious ideas for restructuring parliament
    Donors representing the U.S., Great Britain, European Union, United Nations Development Programme, Canada, World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, and International Monetary Fund, all of whom agreed with our basic concern about a stalemated country but felt constrained not to confront the Guyanese government to which they are accredited
  • Ethnic and cultural groups representing Afro-Guyanese, Indo-Guyanese, and Amerindians, who were very distressed and frustrated about their prospects for better lives. Some of them are genuinely afraid.
  • Ethnic Relations Commission, a newly-formed constitutional body with high ambitions and potential but with limited experience
    A group of private individuals who have great knowledge and experience who agreed with our concerns about Guyana but had numerous ideas about what might be done
  • The speaker of the parliament, who indicated steps could be taken to strengthen the parliament and made it plain to us that his party was firm in its position on sharing political power
  • The chancellor and chief justice of the judiciary, who thanked The Carter Center for its fine help and asked us to stay involved. Khemraj Ramjattan, president of the Guyana bar and the young PPP member expelled for his independence, attended
  • "Rights of the Child,"a dynamic group of about 25 leaders, 15 to 23 years old, dedicated to removing ethnic & racial barriers
    Civil society leaders, whom we asked to help form a public forum with whom we could relate, bypassing the stalemated political party structure. We learned later some of them might fear losing government contracts, licenses, etc., and
  • Working Peoples Alliance leader Sheila Holder, who was very forceful and convincing in supporting dramatic improvements in official and private affairs

After all this, I decided to make a very strong statement at my final press conference but, as a courtesy, to share in advance its main points with Jagdeo and Corbin. Jagdeo made some convincing explanations of some points and finally agreed to let me extend an invitation to Corbin to recommence discussions (after a long hiatus). Corbin responded positively, and I hurriedly handwrote a summary statement and shared it privately with both leaders. As outlined briefly in my press briefing below and the private statement (covering items 1, 3, & 4 in the press statement and the issue of opposition access to the state media), there is a chance for some progress. Jason Calder agreed to remain in Georgetown to follow up our efforts, while I left for Venezuela. He later reported good response to my public (and private) statements.

Press statement, Georgetown, Aug. 13, 2004

I would like to thank once again President Jagdeo and Chairman Corbin for inviting me to visit Guyana. I have had an opportunity to meet with a wide range of organizations and individuals, who all have given generously of their time and have shared their opinions and suggestions. I had productive discussions with Mr. Corbin and other leaders of the People's National Congress Reform, President Jagdeo and the Central Executive Committee of the People's Progressive Party/Civic, members of parliament of both ROAR and WPA/GAP, the chairman and commissioners of the Ethnic Relations Commission, the speaker of the National Assembly, the chancellor, chief justice, and president of the bar association, representatives of the private sector and trade unions, the Rights of the Child youth group, the international donor community, and others.

Although my faith in the Guyanese people remains, it has been a sobering visit. Except among a few political party leaders, there have been almost universal expressions of concern about the present condition and future hopes of Guyana, based on a failure of political leaders to heal the incompatibility and animosity that characterize their relationship.

When I first met Dr. Cheddi Jagan more than 12 years ago, he expressed a desire to heal the political divisions and ethnic polarization in Guyana and, with the approval of President Desmond Hoyte, The Carter Center assumed the responsibility of monitoring the election of 1992. Since then, we have worked for several years with political leaders and private citizens to develop a National Development Strategy, which prescribes a future for Guyana based on a shared commitment of private citizens and political leaders working in harmony, regardless of their social status, ethnic origin, or political party affiliation. This plan was developed under the direction of Bharrat Jagdeo, who was then an official in the finance ministry. One of its key provisions was a call for participatory democracy, in which opposition parties would share fully in shaping policies of the nation. Subsequently, there were promises of constitutional reform that would fulfill this commitment.

Instead of achieving this crucial goal of inclusive and shared governance, the Guyanese government remains divided with a winner-take-all concept that continues to polarize many aspects of the nation's life. Most members of parliament are directly dependent upon and responsible to the political party that chooses them, and not to the people whom they profess to represent. There are only spasmodic meetings between political leaders, and publicized agreements reached during those rare and brief sessions have not been fulfilled. The promises of constitutional reform have been frustrated.

Guyana is blessed with extraordinary human and natural resources, which President Jagdeo and other leaders are struggling heroically to utilize. However, there is little prospect for either substantial economic or social progress unless there is a truce in the political wars. No one party should bear the blame. The traditions and culture of both major political parties are deeply entrenched and have their roots in 50 years of fierce rivalry that denies the legitimacy of the other party's concerns. This problem can be solved only with basic constitutional changes in the system of governance.

Based on many years of observation and my recent conversations with Guyanese citizens and members of the international community, I have shared with President Jagdeo and Robert Corbin my thoughts on some steps that might be taken to ensure political harmony, peace, and stability.

1. The political leaders should consult with each other regularly, beginning with the implementation of agreements already reached, as described in the May 6, 2003, communiqué and other documents.

2. Representatives of the People's National Congress should return to their posts in the parliament.

3. All the provisions of the National Development Strategy should be debated in the parliament, with as many as possible implemented into law.

4. The Standing Committee on Constitutional Review should be reactivated to implement proposals for substantive governance and election system reforms, drawing heavily on civilian participation. The two party documents on governance represent a starting point.

5. An independent civil society forum should be created to lead a structured national discussion on a vision for governance of the country to promote reconciliation and the NDS. I hope civil society will organize itself in a nonpartisan fashion for this purpose.

The Carter Center and other international organizations will be eager to assist in these official and unofficial efforts and also to help ensure the integrity of future national elections, as requested by Guyanese leaders and civil society. In addition, the Center promotes legislation ensuring access to information and political campaign financing and has offered this service to the government of Guyana.

Of all the countries I have visited in the world, Guyana has the most unrealized potential. It is my hope and prayer that the future will be filled with peace, harmony, mutual respect, and economic and social progress.

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