Oil and New Leadership Raised Hope in Guyana. But Political Rifts Are Resurfacing.


GEORGETOWN, Guyana — The old tensions are rumbling again.

Three years ago, Guyana attempted to set aside decades of ethnic divisions when it voted in a multiracial governing coalition that gave voice to a new generation of politics.

With a promising discovery of oil offshore around that time, the future suddenly looked brighter for a country where most college-educated people emigrate to the United States, Canada and Britain.

But old habits have proven hard to break.

The political party that held power for 23 years, before the new coalition was voted in, is already accusing the government of stacking the decks for the national election in 2020. Government preparations for the first oil production in the country’s history are going slowly. And promised investigations into past corruption by successive governments have floundered.

“We thought they would change everything, but they didn’t change anything,” Clement Dhanpat, a farmer of Indian descent, said as he walked out of a rice field on a recent day after spreading fertilizer.

Mr. Dhanpat said he had been lured away from his traditional party to vote for the multiethnic coalition in the last national election. But now he is so disgusted that he may abstain in 2020.

The new oil production will make no difference, he said, because “the oil is only going to help the politicians.”

Guyana, which calls itself the Land of Six Peoples, is the only English-speaking country in South America. Its population of 750,000 is mostly divided between descendants of African slaves brought over by the Dutch and those descended from Indians brought over by the British as indentured laborers.

Afro-Guyanese typically live in the capital and several towns, where they hold most of the jobs in government offices and the security forces, while Indo-Guyanese generally live in rural areas as rice and sugar farmers. The largest ethnic group, Indo-Guyanese are also numerous in the business community. And there is a small indigenous minority that mostly lives in remote regions.

The Granger government has increased funding for the national public university and raised teachers’ salaries, waged a campaign to combat the high rate of H.I.V. infection and AIDS, and upgraded the pumping system in Georgetown, the capital, to ease flooding.

But Mr. Granger has passed up opportunities to reach out to the People’s Progressive Party, the predominately Indo-Guyanese party that ruled the country for decades. And his passive governing style has given space to ministers who seem to prefer taunting political opponents to seeking reconciliation.

And while Mr. Granger has followed through on promises to slash subsidies for the sugar industry, putting thousands of Indo-Guyanese out of work, he has not cut the bloated government bureaucracy, which mostly employs Afro-Guyanese.

The government also revoked a 99-year lease for a building that housed a research center dedicated to Mr. Jagan, and repossessed the building in late 2016. It argued that the lease had not been legally executed and that the building should also honor other past presidents.

Though a court has since stayed the decision, the action was widely viewed as an attempt by Mr. Granger’s party to exert dominance.

His office declined a request for an interview.

The 2020 election will be held almost simultaneously with the production of the first oil in Guyana’s history, giving the next president an enormous advantage in wielding power. Within a few years, the government is expected to take in as much as $6 billion in annual royalties and taxes, a tremendous windfall in a small country.

The opposition accuses Mr. Granger of laying the ground for fraud in the elections, and there have been hints by opposition leaders of protests to come.

Following a practice introduced by former President Jimmy Carter in the 1990s to reduce political turmoil and election fraud in Guyana, the opposition in recent months provided Mr. Granger with three successive lists of candidates for chairman of the elections commission, which oversees the vote. They were turned down each time.

Mr. Granger instead broke precedent and selected his own chairman. The action was legal under the Constitution, but the opposition cried foul.

“This goes back to the old Burnhamite philosophy that if you are in power, you should never lose an election,” former President Bharrat Jagdeo, an Indo-Guyanese who is now the opposition leader, said in an interview. “They say, ‘It’s our turn now,’ and they trample on all institutions and safeguards.”

One of those institutions is the National Assembly, housed in the stucco Parliament building, a British colonial relic with a regal dome and window balconies. The chamber, paneled in mahogany, is a hotbed of division.

On a recent afternoon, the Assembly was considering a routine proposal to set term lengths for local offices amid a hail of fist pumping and finger pointing. The opposition accused the government of trying to undermine grass-roots democracy by gerrymandering local voting districts in a separate action, while Attorney General Basil Williams accused the opposition of “inequity for 23 years” in power.

“Sit down, sit down,” opposition lawmakers called out to Mr. Williams as they laughed and refused to lift their gaze from their smartphones.

Outside the chamber, the minister of natural resources, Raphael Trotman — an ally of the president’s and leader of the reformist third party in the coalition — acknowledged that Mr. Granger should have picked from the opposition’s election commission list.

“I will accept that reconciliation has not been as easy to obtain and forge as we had hoped,” Mr. Trotman said.

Mr. Carter last month urged President Granger and Mr. Jagdeo to begin a political dialogue to lower tensions.

Yet skepticism persists about the potential for political change, even with the coming oil wealth.

“The promise has not been fulfilled,” said Jason Calder, who as country representative for the Carter Center in Atlanta was an observer during the 2015 elections.

“People wanted change, and the coalition represented that,” Mr. Calder said. “But the two major parties still need to come to a reconciliation.”



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