by Rakesh Rampertab

“This is the level of political judgement in British Guiana…‘The people’ have learned their power—not the politician’s abstraction, but the people who wish to beg, bribe and bully because this is the way they got things in the past—in this way the people are a threat to the responsible government and a threat, finally, to their own leaders. It is part of the colonial legacy.”                                            

—VS Naipaul, after a journey with minister Janet Jagan to Wakenaam, to open a new overhead water-tank in January 1961. A PPP supporter complained about new water rate prices and threatened to withdraw his party support. (The Middle Passage, p. 121.)

Guyana has finally arrived at that juncture where, if one believes in tradition, we are truly West Indians. After all, the tradition of the modern West Indies began in criminality—or what the historian likes to refer to as piracy and imperial exploration. “The country has been overrun by dozens of bandits, escapees, and criminals of every description sporting a frightening array of deadly weapons and wrecking mayhem and murder at will,” reads part of an editorial from Stabroek News, dated August 26, 2002.

In literature as in life, the crook is often the anti-hero. But as usual, we have to be different—backwards. In Guyana, the new hero is the criminal. During the funeral procession for Linden London (aka “Blackie”), an ex-GDF soldier-turned-professional crook, his casket was draped with the Golden Arrowhead. This, one may assume, was a prelude to the flyer that was circulated a few months ago, declaring the  five escapees” as “freedom fighters.” And only last month, the flag was used again in what has clearly become a pattern—to drape the casket of slain criminal, Andrew Douglas, one of the five escapees. It is this kind of extreme degradation that now pervades our mentality—a kind of numbness of the reason that is taking over.

But long before the deportees and bicycle bandits, we, the so-called law-abiding and god-fearing citizens, have been sowing the seeds of criminal disobedience in every public sector. Looking back over the past 40 years or so, it is easy to recognize how greed began its overthrow of the canon of right and wrong. The Burnham era of the 70s and 80s especially are automatically characterized as one of corruption. Regretfully, that did not end when the PNC left office in 1992, and the scheming and widespread wiliness to corrupt, steal, and rape are all corollaries of a concrete sense of this greed that characterized our mentality.

This is evident in the government minister who takes bribes to process a gun license or land transport; the minibus conductor who withholds the $10 dollar change from a disembarking commuter, because it is considered insignificant; the chicken seller who always tips the scale with his fingers to get the supposed correct poundage; and the shopkeeper whose hand digs deeper into the rice, as he levels each cup before selling a customer.

In the interior, inspection agents from the Ministry of Geology and Mines have often turned blind eyes to illegal prospecting of precious minerals—for a nugget or two for themselves (of course, estimated illegal sale of gold is always more than actual sale via the Gold Board); customs officers undervalue duties on imports for “drawbacks”; business people bring Amerindian females to the city for “domestic” employment, and instead forces them into sexual slavery; the milkman has been known to dilute cow milk with water; the farmer who migrates but refuses to sell his vacant lands; and postal employees still “bust” open mails—all signs of our unscrupulousness.

I heard this joke on numerous occasions. It dramatizes the corrupt mentality that has become culture with us, and is even a source of comedy:

“A poor worker of the quarrying and logging giant, Tulsi Persaud and Sons, asked the owner, Mr. Persaud, for a loan. The single criterion for getting the loan was not honesty or long years of good service, but whether the worker had ever stolen from the company (many have reportedly stolen). The employee answered, ‘No.’ He was refused the loan.”

In Guyana, everyone is guilty until proven innocent. Everyone, the popular sentiment goes, is into “something” corruptible. The prevalence of this feeling has given it a kind of legitimacy, especially among the younger generations. Students leave UG to work on “wall street” to get   “quick” money. Some graduates of top schools who become employed in commercial banks like GBTI, have risked jail terms by stealing little fortunes, or conducting their own cash business “on the side” with customers.

While many claim that poverty has lead to such attitudes, it fails to explain why educated, well-paid workers including technocrats file forged tax returns, or explain the exorbitant markups some entrepreneurs often place on their products. All of this and more have been going on for years, never receding, but plunging further into our national consciousness. The cultures created around our  cambios” and the advent of the minibus in Guyana, have contributed significantly to crimes such as money laundering, back-tracking, and illegal sales of gold/diamonds by the first, and sex crimes involving minors/schoolchildren in the latter—not to mention loud music and speeding, both factors that have led to an increasing number in road fatalities. 

                             “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

                                                            —Shakespeare (Henry VI, Act II, Scene IV)

Lawyers are like roaches in Guyana—we have them in abundance. The law profession has become the breeding ground for public servants, especially young politicians. The entire judicial system has become one politicized arena, with race dictating who represents whom, and which leading political party to be aligned with. Anyone who has visited our courts as an observer can attest to the confusion there—and lawyers are in the thick of it. All sorts of stories have emanated from the judicial system that reek of ethical malpractice; magistrates accepting bribes, lawyers who cannot speak English language properly, and the disappearance of case dockets. Sometime in the early 90s, I read of a case that was thrown out because it was claimed that the docket was destroyed by rats.

To doubt that such things happen is to question reality—because a corruptible attitude has become the hallmark of Guyanese social activity. Corruption by the police is more prevalent that law enforcement by the police; from “top brass” members owning/planting marijuana fields to the recent visa scandal involving top members of the elite “Black Clothes” squad, these crimes make the traffic cop collecting his petty “lunch” bribes seem trivial. Yet, no crime is trivial; in fact, the first two crimes noted here originated from the “trivial” third.

When a society degenerates, it does so slowly at first, and then steadily thereafter. As people become more and more desperate, previously high-held social values begin to plummet, and this allows for vice to assume the role of normalcy (if not virtue) with little complains from the civilians. This is part of the degradation that has happened to Guyana, which makes it possible for oddities to occur—such as Hamilton Green becoming a mayor of Georgetown, even though he is publicly accused of having a disreputable past and responsible for many ill-reputed public incidents. One such incident occurred after the murder of a Jesuit priest by House of Israel members in 1979. This is what the late poet, Martin Carter, had to say:   

“Hamilton Green’s statement, published in the Chronicle of August 4, to the effect that a certain unnamed Roman priest was responsible for the death of Father Darke, is the latest flagrant example of this deliberate policy of degradation. It is so because it expresses contempt for the intelligence and humanity of the people.”

                                                                      —Martin Carter, Special Dayclean, August 1979.

“Who do we think we are,” Carter asked. Could it be that we think that we are special—gifted enough to get pass this “policy of degradation” and profit even if we continue to allow public servants of old, dishonorable pasts to lead—even if from the sidelines?

“If your face is twisted, it is no use blaming the mirror,” says a popular Russian maxim. This makes all the clamoring about crimes and destabilization seem a bit dégagé. It seems as if Christ was correct; “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” The criminal confraternity we are witnessing is just another step in the long tradition of trickery, in a small world dominated by race politics, corrupt entrepreneurs, and professional criminality—each linked to the others. It is not surprising, therefore, that out of all this came the beggar’s mentality—best exemplified not by the hundreds of beggars in the country, but by thousands who wait on foreign patronage from overseas relatives.

Who do we think we are? We are a “twisted” face that looks into a mirror but refuses to see our deformity. And so, in refusing, we continue on, some of us still painting and powdering and singing of “oh beautiful” Guyana, while most of us continue to head towards despair and self-destruction.   <<<                                                                   Page X>>>                       

Sept 02 , 2002
© 2001