They’ve started calling him Donald de Duck. “If it look like a duck, if it quack like a duck, if it walk like a duck, it a duck.” That was the opening to a speech I heard at a peaceful protest in Guyana’s Revolution Square one recent evening, along with around 2,000 Guyanese. The country’s opposition leader David Granger was speaking about his political foe, the country’s president Donald Ramotar. Ramotar, he added, “look like a dictator, he walk like a dictator, he talk like a dictator.”
Sitting on the shoulder of South America, nestled between Venezuela and Brazil, the former British colony of Guyana is undergoing a political crisis. Ramotar earlier this month suspended parliament though did not dissolve it, using a rare but constitutional provision known as prorogation. It was in response to a planned no confidence vote by the majority opposition.
While constitutional, many saw avoiding the no confidence vote like this to be against the spirit of democracy.
“Our democratic rights was thrown in the gutter," Wilford Henry, a gold and diamond miner from the country's interior, told me as he stood listening to Granger at the peaceful rally that muggy evening. “The parliament is there to air our views, whether right or wrong, happy or sad.”
Much of the 740,000-strong population lives on the country’s Caribbean coast. Despite its proximity to Latin America, little of that influence has stretched into Georgetown, the country’s coastal capital. Instead, much of it in the English-speaking nation comes from a Britain of half a century ago, juxtaposed with an Afro-Caribbean and Indian overtone.
Since becoming independent from Britain in 1966, the country’s politics have been starkly divided by ethnicity. Descendents of African slaves governed the country for nearly three decades until 1992 when descendants of indentured Indian servants were elected to power and have remained there since.
Though Guyanese of different races generally maintain harmonious relations, the country has experienced instances of racially motivated violence. This has left painful memories and underlying tensions.
Ramotar heads a primarily Indo-Guyanese party while the opposition is largely banded together under an umbrella group of Afro-Guyanese parties led by Granger. Voting by the population is essentially delineated by ethnicity and the parties’ actual policies rarely come into the mix.
In his Georgetown office, the president told me that he was no more a dictator now than he was a few weeks ago. “I have no new powers,” he said. “Our parliament is not dissolved and I can’t rule by decree.” He insists that he would like to sit down and talk with the opposition rather than rush into a snap election. “What I have done is given democracy a better opportunity to breathe,” he said.
The opposition isn’t impressed. The ethnic divide began to blur in 2005 with the formation of a third political party. One of its stated aims was to bridge the gap.
Khemraj Ramjattan helped found that party and pushed for the no confidence vote. He rejects the idea that Ramotar is now keen to talk. “We were asking him to talk since June!” Ramjattan said to me. He sees the suspension of parliament as “breaking a pillar of democracy.”
Ramotar is not popular and his government has long been mired in scandal, though he says he is confident of winning any upcoming elections. A snap election is likely to be called within the coming months and Ramotar may struggle to win if the opposition groups manage to properly come together. After more than half a century, this could be the beginning of the end of ethnic politics in Guyana.
For World Report, this is Girish Gupta in Georgetown, Guyana.