“Africans in Guyana are marginalized in every sphere of our existence – economic, political and social.”
In the Theatre of the Absurd anything is possible. And so it is that Guyana’s President, Bharrat Jagdeo, is among six winners from government, science, business and entertainment to be awarded this year’s United Nations Champion of the Earth prize, for leadership in environmental conservation.
Bharrat Jagdeo has without doubt taken some steps to protect the amazing rainforests of Guyana, and this has earned him the title, Champion of the Earth. However, no matter how environmentally correct Jagdeo appears on the world stage, Champion of the Earth is no title for a man who heads one of the most corrupt and repressive regimes in the Caribbean and South America. Jagdeo is the leader of The Peoples Progressive Party (PPP), in power in Guyana for the last 18 years. The inconvenient truth is that Bharrat Jagdeo, so called Champion of the Earth, heads a death squad regime, charged with political assassinations and torture, and presides over a nation where disappearances and extra-judicial killings have become a way of life.
Bharrat Jagdeo is, at the same time, acclaimed by an international audience.
Lord Nicholas Stern, who is widely credited with changing global understanding of the economic impact of climate change, congratulated Jagdeo on his award from the United Nations Environmental Program, stating that Jagdeo’s “tireless advocacy, particularly on the urgent need to protect the world’s forests, has made a tremendous contribution to the international climate change agenda.”
Stern added “I know that he (Bharrat Jagdeo) shares my view that a future high carbon world is one of disaster, and we must redouble our international efforts to build a prosperous, low carbon future.”
And Nobel Peace Prize winner, Professor Wangari Maathai, has also congratulated Bharrat Jagdeo. Maathai said, “I would like to congratulate President Jagdeo on becoming a ‘Champion of the Earth.’ His tireless work to keep the world’s attention on the importance of saving our forests has been an inspiration to many across the world. His leadership continues to remind us that progress is possible and that we can save the world’s forests while at the same time fostering prosperity and improving the lives of our people.”
“Even Al Jazeera’s recent brief coverage of a massacre in one of Guyana’s villages failed to come to terms with the reality on the ground.”
How could Professor Mathai be talking about “fostering prosperity and improving the lives of our people” in the same breath as the name Bharrat Jagdeo? We must assume that she is unaware of the reality in Guyana, where conditions on the ground tell a very different story. Despite the many attempts by Guyanese abroad and at home to bring international attention to the rampant corruption, repression and plunder of resources by Guyana’s ruling regime, it has proved very difficult to get the attention of the international media. Not of major geo-political interest in the region, and with a president who has been adept at achieving world recognition for his environmental efforts, the international media has simply regurgitated the flow of lies coming from the Guyana government. Even Al Jazeera’s recent brief coverage of a massacre in one of Guyana’s villages failed to come to terms with the reality on the ground, instead depending on the government line of “police against bandits.”
Guyana’s Story Remains Untold
On a par with Haiti in terms of economic indicators, Africans in Guyana are marginalized in every sphere of our existence – economic, political and social. Our people eke out an existence on the pavements, selling whatever wares they can get their hands on from household goods to sweets, chewing gum and shoe polish, dependent on remittances from relatives abroad for their survival. Unemployment amongst Africans is endemic, and even if work can be found, wages are so low that the salary from a full time job in the public service would not even cover a family’s monthly rent let alone other expenses. The rate of illiteracy is high among African children – many families can no longer afford to send their children to school. The conditions in the schools are unspeakable. Meanwhile, private schools are a booming business and that is where the children of the political and business elite can be found.
The public healthcare system is almost non-existent. It is a fact of life for the poverty stricken in Guyana that to get seriously ill is to die. Africans live in appalling conditions, where life expectancy is at an all time low and infant mortality is one of the highest in the region. Hunger and malnourishment are the order of the day. Meanwhile, our natural resources are plundered by multi-nationals, with big kick-backs for those who do their bidding. The government calls this ‘foreign investment,’ we call it ‘plunder by invitation.’ The PPP regime has used the State as an instrument to enrich themselves. A resource rich country has been turned into a nation of beggars.
“The wholesale adoption of IMF and World Bank Structural Adjustment programs has basically ground the economy to a halt.”
The ruling PPP regime has been in power for almost 18 years. Traditionally an East Indian party, it draws its support from the East Indian community which makes up approximately 43.5% of the total Guyanese population, with Africans comprising approximately 33.2% and the remainder being Amerindians, Chinese, Portuguese, other Europeans and those of mixed race. The ruling party’s commitment to neo-liberal free-market policies has, like elsewhere in the Caribbean and South America, intensified the ever-widening gap between rich and poor. The wholesale adoption of IMF and World Bank Structural Adjustment programs has basically ground the economy to a halt. The Africans, who have been traditionally employed in the public sector, have suffered the most as a result of IMF dictates to cut back in this sector, most notably in the areas of health and education. The official economy of Guyana now only accounts for an estimated 30-40% of the GDP while the underground economy, fuelled by the drug trade, generates the remaining percentage. Guyana is a major transit point for cocaine from South America.
Apartheid in Guyana
This Indian-led Government has instituted its own form of Apartheid, based on ideas embedded in the Hindu Caste system. Apartheid, meaning separate development, is a system which has most definitely been covertly institutionalized in Guyana. Tensions between Africans and East Indians have a long and complex history and African resistance is brutally repressed. “Elite Special Squads,” better termed “Death Squads,” have emerged over the years within the Guyana Police Force and have been responsible for the extra-judicial killings of hundreds of Guyanese, the majority of the victims being African youth. This State-sanctioned violence has occurred at an alarming rate over recent years, with the State deliberately targeting areas where resistance to the government’s reign of terror is highly organized. President Jagdeo recently announced that his government has “unlimited funding” to equip the police to deal with so-called “crime,” while at the same time his government has no funding when it comes to development for African villages or communities. In fact, there is a policy of deliberate under-development.
Unholy Alliance with Drug Barons
In addition to the PPP regime’s clear sanctioning of police killings, they maintain an unholy alliance with the drug barons and their death squads (known as “the Phantom” in Guyana). Successive Ministers of Home Affairs, with the blessing of the Office of the President, and in collaboration with the country’s most notorious drug barons, have murdered hundreds of Africans.The government has turned a blind eye to drug trafficking in return for the drug barons’ assistance in the campaign to silence their political opponents. The alliance has also benefited the regime financially.
Exact figures vary concerning the number of killings by police and “the phantom,” since the bodies of many of the victims have never been recovered and are simply listed as “disappeared.” In 2005, Donald Allison, a community activist and boxing coach was brutally assassinated by a death squad. In 2006, prominent African lawyer, activist and TV presenter Ronald Waddell was also assassinated by masked gunmen as he pulled out of the driveway of his home. Both were outspoken opponents of the PPP Regime and Bharrat Jagdeo.
In 2009, 4 years after the murder of Donald Allison and 3 years after the murder of Ronald Waddell, one of the regime’s henchmen, Roger Khan, a notorious Guyanese drug baron, was tried in a New York courtroom.
It was revealed that Roger Khan was in possession of sophisticated spy equipment purchased from a spy shop in Miami. The only way such equipment could have been obtained and transported from Miami to Guyana was with written authorization from the Guyanese Government – the same PPP government led by Champion of the Earth, Bharrat Jagdeo. The authorization was produced in court – a document authorizing the purchase of the equipment signed by Guyana’s Minister of Health, Dr. Leslie Ramsammy.
During Khan’s trial in New York, overwhelming evidence was produced showing clear collaboration between Khan and the Guyanese government. Roger Khan himself admitted that he was doing his part to rid the country of the African Resistance. Of course he referred to his murderous rampage as dealing with “Guyana’s crime wave.” All the more ironic, coming from someone who was charged with moving massive quantities of cocaine from Columbia, via Guyana, to the Caribbean, the US and Europe.
In return for protective custody and special immunity that shields him from later prosecution in the United States, a former member of Khan’s Phantom squad, Selwyn Vaughn, became a Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) informant.
Vaughn testified that Khan ordered the assassinations of Donald Allison and Ronald Waddell. He further testified that after Waddell’s shooting, Khan phoned the Minister of Health, Dr Ramsammy and instructed him to order the doctors at Georgetown Public Hospital to let Waddell die. Such is the state of Affairs in the country ruled by a Champion of the Earth.
“No one has been brought to justice for the hundreds murdered by the Phantom and police death squads.”
Khan had alluded many times to the fact that he was working alongside ‘law enforcement agencies’ in Guyana. Vaughn testified that Khan’s group received help from Ramsammy on behalf of the government and he added that President Jagdeo would not like Khan to talk. He, however, concluded that Khan is not that type of person since “he could have talked about his involvement with the Guyana government when he was originally held by US authorities and would have walked right out”.
In assessing the situation, New York Eastern District Court Judge Dora Irizarry stated that based on the evidence before her, she felt that Khan’s “dangerousness” made it necessary for the jury at his trial to be granted anonymity and 24 hour protection. If this was the perceived danger level in New York, where Khan was in custody, one can imagine the danger for anyone who dares to oppose this regime and its cronies on the streets of Guyana. Khan’s New York defense lawyer, Robert Simmels, had met with Vaughn, who unbeknown to Simmels and Khan had become a US government informant. Vaughn recorded conversations in which Simmels advised him that Khan would need certain potential witnesses in Guyana to be ‘eliminated’. Simmels was later charged with witness tampering.
Judge Irizarry asserted that Khan’s “Phantom Squad” was responsible for “at least 200 extra-judicial killings from 2002 to 2006 in Guyana.” The real figures far exceed this number.
To this day, and despite all the evidence, no one has been brought to justice for the murders of Donald Allison, Ronald Waddell or the hundreds murdered by the Phantom and police death squads. Guyana is, in every sense, a failed State. The judiciary is dysfunctional and blatant corruption and racism prevails over every sphere of our lives.
And still Bharrat Jagdeo has been named a Champion of the Earth. The only thing to be salvaged from this absurd contradiction is that it serves to remind us of the disastrous state of affairs that exists on our Earth in 2010.
Gerald A. Perreira is a founding member of the Guyanese organizations Joint Initiative for Human Advancement and Dignity and Black Consciousness Movement Guyana (BCMG) and International Secretary for the ARM (African Revolutionary Movement). He lived in Libya for many years, served in the Green March, an international battalion for the defense of the Al Fateh revolution, and was an executive member of the World Mathaba based in Tripoli. Currently, he is the leader of Organization for the Victory of the People (OVP), an organization committed to building revolutionary democracy in Guyana.