Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Rodney Redux

Last week, I promised to deal with the issue or Race and Wealth in Guyana, but due to a couple of factors, I've been unable to finish it in time. In the interim, I've decided to make to put this edition of "The Minority Report" - a version of which has been sent to the independent papers as a letter - on the current Freddie Kissoon effective firing from the University of Guyana.

From all appearance, despite the opportunity for soul-searching and retooling itself for operation within a more competitive democratic environment, the People’s Progressive Party seems to be stuck in the anachronistic attitude that carrying and using a big stick to crush (or to attempt to crush) it’s opponents is the most effective form of governance.

Now, I have no doubt whatsoever what the reasoning behind the termination of Kissoon’s contract was: Freddie Kissoon actions – his columns, the revelations of his libel trial, and finally his mounting of the AFC platform – in sum constituted an unchecked tenacity which eroded the myth of political omnipotence which has kept the followers and many opponents of the PPP in check;ergo the non-renewal of his contract not only takes away the financial base which allows him to write his critical columns, but sends a message to everyone else that “We are still very much in control, Parliamentary minority notwithstanding.”.

That is the logic of the impotent and the petty and the incompetent and the corrupt – an incumbent administration that is honourable, effective, principled and strong does not attack independent academia, nor the media, nor civil society. Indeed, the critics of an otherwise good government, as rabid as they may be, serve the purpose of being the remoras of that particularly political ecology, feeding as it were on the parasites of the polity, leaving the more useful elements to their proper function. The only circumstance in which there is no place for the political critic is that wherein the polity is primarily parasitical, thus the critic becomes anathema to the primary function of the government of the day, i.e., the usurpation of the resources and powers of the state.

The non-renewal of Freddie Kissoon’s contract is not an objective measure with regard to enhancing the human resource capacity of the University of Guyana, since a case would have to be made that Kissoon was either incompetent or inattentive in the performance of his duties relative to objective criteria of assessment, and/or, he irredeemably contravened some code of ethics established by the University. Seeking refuge in what may be a legal right of refusal to renew his contract in no way detracts from the appearance that this is a petty and vindictive and personal act; and, insomuch as Kissoon has targeted the ire of his pen against the President himself, then this counterattack can be construed to be with the blessing of Mr. Ramotar.

The government and its sycophantic outliers may argue from now until the cows come home that the days of Burnham are over, but this is essentially Walter Rodney redux, that particular tragedy this time repeated – as Marx, ironically enough, warned – as farce. In the revocation of the ban on Gordon Moseley, President Ramotar effected what was a relative positive, yet sum neutral, act vis a vis the restoration of Guyana to the unending path towards the democratic ideal; the attack on Freddie Kissoon, ultimately ineffective as it may be with regards to the cessation of Kissoon’s criticism, constitutes a demerit far worse than the Moseley ban in that Kissoon functions both as an academic and as a journalist, and the attack on him wasn’t simply a specific restriction on his function in either capacity, but the complete cessation of his functioning in one of those capacities.

Kissoon has been hired for, I believe, upwards of two decades as a lecturer at the University of Guyana, hence he is a qualified university lecturer – in arbitrarily denying him employment in an environment where he can only function in that capacity under a system the government controls, the government has denied an academic his right to work, because of his journalism. The fact that Kissoon can apply to other universities outside of Guyana is irrelevant – what is salient is that he cannot work, not even in a temporary capacity, at the state-owned university of his country of birth and citizenship although he is qualified to do so.

This is a clear case of the Niemoller Test of public moral fortitude. If you are a regular social commentator, or even an irregular one, either you stand up not simply for Kissoon but against what this travesty implies, or by your silence you signal your support for it, and hence – when the descent it implies reaches you – you should expect no voice clamouring in your defence.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The China Syndrome

So it’s New Year’s Day 2012, and I decide to counter the effects of the Old Year’s Night drinking with the time-honoured tradition of some Chinese food at around 2 o’clock in the afternoon. About halfway into the plate of mixed fried rice, a rakish looking Indian man in his late twenties walks in holding a two year old child, and proceeds to open the door leading behind the counter and hands the child to the young Chinese woman.

From the conversation, that follows, I glean that the rake, Rakesh, is the father and the Chinese woman behind the counter speaking broken English in a half Creole-half Chinese lilt is the mother. An Afro-Guyanese man comes in with box of children’s clothes and tries to sell some items to the only other customers in there, a bedraggled couple with two small children sharing two boxes of food. From the black lettering at the side of cardboard box, I learn that whatever it contained was MADE IN CHINA; judging from the bright colours, and quirky animal designs on the clothing it contains, I’m guessing so are the itinerant vendor’s goods.

What I take away from that little bit of social pantomime are two things. The first is the perhaps false sense of a new beginning, a reboot from the factious ethnic divisions of the elections concluded simply a month prior. It also planted the seed in my head about the impact of the two Asian giants – China and India – on this tiny swathe of land in South America, at the opposite side of the globe.

At least in terms of its basic paradigm, I believe that Benjamin Barber’s Jihad vs. McWorld theorem provides a basic analytical framework for contextualising the impact of China and India in Guyana, primarily the new migrations from the East, mirroring in a way but yet a far cry from the vehicle of indentureship the better part of two centuries ago. To use Barber’s terminology, if seems as if we are caught between the grindstones of not one globalization but several, the McWorlds of Western hegemony and Eastern expansionisms; even as we are being torn apart by the tribalism (Jihad) that has traditionally impacted upon our society.

An added dynamic to Barber’s theorem that may be peculiar to the local context however is that that tribalism is also increasingly interwoven, due to cultural and historical circumstance, into the fabric of Eastern globalization. It is most apparent with regard to Guyana’s Indo-Guyanese community which has not only enjoyed a two decades long political and cultural dominance nationally, but which has employed that wealth and political control to actuate the cultural and economic linkages with India and the Indian Diaspora that a generation ago had only dreamed, a phenomenon evidenced as much by the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman award conferred upon former President Bharrat Jagdeo by the Indian government, as it is by the obscene acreage of land leased for an even more obscene price by the Jagdeo administration to an Indian coffee mogul. The Queens Atlantic deal, also facilitated by the Jagdeo/PPP administration, is also underwritten by considerable (if silent) investment by Indian nationals.

In fact, what was quickly becoming a disproportionate Indian (national) presence in Georgetown’s central business district has only recently been checked by a necessarily more powerful economic phenomenon, Guyana’s own China Syndrome. Over the past three or four years, Regent Street has seen an influx of Chinese (national) owned businesses, selling everything from appliances to trinkets to household items at prices that have undercut even the legendary cheapness of Indian goods.

The Chinese presence in Guyana has traditionally been inscrutable and insular but nevertheless inordinately influential. We can simply consider the impact of the most ubiquitous manifestation of the Chinese in Guyana, the cuisine – Chinese restaurants come and go, the owners change hands without the average customer being aware; yet were you to extract or somehow shut down every single such restaurant in Guyana, there would be considerable social upheaval. In contrast, there are a grand total of two Indian restaurants in Guyana – the small Taj and the recently opened Maharaja Palace on Sheriff Street.

Today that insularity and self-sufficiency is quickly changing. From the smaller stores along Regent and Robb Street to medium sized entities like New Thriving Restaurant or Jason Wang’s China Trading, to major players like Haier and Jialing, the Chinese economic presence in Guyana is increasingly apparent.

Guyanese of Chinese heritage are apparently now establishing some of the same types of ‘Motherland’ linkages that their Indian counterparts have. When Haier was recently launched in Guyana in September of last year, Chinese-Guyanese businessman, Brian James (incidentally also a close friend of Jagdeo) was named as the company’s local partner; I have reason to believe that another Guyanese businessman of Chinese descent, Brian Yong, is also involved in the venture. While this column was planned over two weeks ago, a story published in today’s issue of Stabroek News is arguably vindicatory of the general thesis – an article on page 17 of the paper’s print edition (accessible here, subscription required), quotes owner of Celina’s Atlantic Resort, Bernard Yhun, protesting a former article claiming that his establishment has been bought by a Chinese businessman. According to the more recent article,

“Questioned about the Chinese male who last month identified himself as Mr. Hong and had told Stabroek News staff that his boss had acquired the business, along with the visible presence of scores of Chinese nationals on the property, Yhun said, ‘The reporter who was there did not understand the Chinese man. That is my family. My father is Chinese and his family is helping me with contracting and labour works to save cost.”

In short, as Chinese restaurants are no longer the isolated reservations of the Chinese presence in Guyana, as China’s continues its excursion into the region, (and there is no sign of abatement), we can expect a fundamental shift in not just the economy of Guyana but corollary things such as demographics and as a consequence the political environment. The owners of New Thriving Restaurant – Xiao Guang Zhao and Che Jian Ping – are no longer simply Chinese investors in Guyana’s economy, but are now naturalized Guyanese citizens. An article by Simon Tomero, published in the April 10, 2011 edition of the New York Times, about the Chinese presence in neighbouring Suriname could work equally well as a part sketch, part projection of the Chinese presence in Guyana. According the article, Chinese immigrants (legal and illegal) account for some 10 percent of Suriname’s population.

The question is, how do we handle China? In my opinion, it’s not that we should feel unduly threatened by China’s economic presence in the region – so far it has been generally benign, as opposed to the predatory activity that has been associated with Chinese involvement in natural resource extraction in Africa. We should also consider, for example, that even the mighty United States, at ideological odds with China for the greater part of a century, is not immune from China’s economic influence – according to Forbes, China held some $1.4 trillion (roughly a quarter) of US foreign debt as of October last year.

At the Third China-CARICOM Economic and Trade Cooperation Forum held in Trinidad in September of last year, then President Jagdeo suggested the opportunity – once trade disparity issues were addressed – of strategic engagement of Chinese capital in regional development, while cooperating with China for mutual leverage in policy formulation in international agencies, particularly the IFIs.

In my view, what growing economies (and as a culturally-inclined person I use this definition grudgingly) such as ours need to do first of all is to establish a baseline percentage of the patrimony we are willing to sacrifice as necessary for development and in order to strategise our negotiation machinery – both nationally and within the contexts of the ACP, CARICOM and the emerging UNASUR – accordingly. Almost everything is quantifiable, even decision-making, once we have a fairly stable, reproducible, non-arbitrary value attached – for example, if investment policy X yields a real income of Y over time period of Z, then we can – against the backdrop of GDP times [Y] growth for example – assign a value of A to that investment policy. If we put that baseline of national patrimony at, say, 80 percent or a more realistic 70 percent, it’s a starting point of negotiation for engaging external entities in toto – 5 percent CARICOM; 5 percent IFIs; 5 percent EU/US; 5 percent India/China; 5 percent ACP; 5 percent ‘other’.

From that foundation, we can start to craft a holistic policy for how we engage China, as opposed to what seems at present to be an ad hoc engagement (ironically under Jagdeo’s regime) as evidenced by the secretive airport renovation deal with the dubiously principled China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC); what was ostensibly an open bid for the provision of netbooks under the ambitious One Laptop Per Family (OLPF) now miraculously morphed into a long-term public-private partnership arrangement with Haier, something which skews, or at least raises fair-trade concerns about, the company’s commercial presence; and, significantly, the planned dedication of a channel to China’s English-language CCTV broadcast even as Guyana’s Broadcast Legislation and corollary press freedom issues remain stagnant or unresolved.

While I’ve concerned myself in this article to engaging China on the premise of its expansion and how that expansion impacts upon Guyana, the overall engagement with this power also presents tremendous opportunity for Guyanese business, particularly when it comes to intellectual property services. I was watching a BBC News item the other day on the protests caused by a delay of the launch of the iPhone 4S in Beijing – while, yes, Apple’s flagship cellular device has sold largely on the basis of the innovation of its hardware, it is how that hardware interacts with the copyrighted software applications (i.e. intellectual property) designed for it which represents its primary lure. Indeed, I believe that IP (internet-based in particular) products remain CARICOM’s best bet for overcoming what the former president highlighted as the key factor in the trade disparity between China and the Region – the lack of at least a partial bilateral free trade regime between CARICOM and the Asian giant.

In closing, in a related comment, Jagdeo’s appointment last year of writer, Professor David Dabydeen, a more than competent literary academic granted, as Guyana’s ambassador to China even as Dabydeen still holds the post of Guyana’s permanent representative to UNESCO – while recalling former Charge D’Affaires to Beijing, Choo Ann Yin – was baffling to say the least. From all reports, not only is Choo a more than competent young career diplomat, but she has the additional advantages of being of Chinese heritage and versed in the language.

I should probably put a disclaimer here stating I’ve met Choo once and briefly, while (despite my public criticisms of his associations with the regime) Dabydeen makes for an excellent drinking and intellectual conversation partner whenever he’s in Guyana, and I don’t believe that his tenure as liaison to UNESCO has been lacking in any way; that notwithstanding, if President Donald Ramotar is serious about crafting a proper China engagement strategy, it should probably with start with, as a basic prerequisite, deploying Choo back to Beijing first as an aide to Dabydeen but with the ultimate view of promoting her to an ambassadorship.

Next week, I’m going to tackle the hard topic of “Race and Wealth in Guyana” – hackles shall be raised, accusations shall fly, but the important thing is, debate is going to be stirred. Peace out.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Lining Up

I haven’t read it but I’ve read about it, Russian author, Vladimir’s Sorokin’s highly acclaimed post-modern novel, The Queue. The novel’s setting and characters are collectively one long line of people waiting to collect something or the other in Soviet-era Russia. A blurb taken from a review of the book, published in Publisher’s Weekly, says –

Sorokin creates a brilliant set piece, conveying the absurdity, the dehumanization and, above all, the inevitability of waiting in line."

Last week, I’m at the passport office waiting to apply for a passport for my son and I find myself in not so much as a queue but an informal arrangement of people all waiting to get a number which will inform you when to come back to join a line to get your documents processed. Somewhere between the exposure of the tit stuffed into the baby’s mouth and the Rastafarian gentleman questioning the logic of denying him access due to his wearing the same three-quarter pants he had on before he was sent away earlier to collect a missing document, a peculiar type of familiar anxiety kicks in.

I have an almost deep-seated animosity to lines. In a line, I get nervous, tense at times to the point where I feel that blood pressure induced pain at the backof my neck. There is indeed something absurd about a concept that seems so practical, so necessary, yet so indicative of the very opposite of those things.

My most intimate memories of queuing up came from the seven years I spent at President’s College. Like most schools, we would line up for morning assembly – unlike most schools, however, being residential students, we had to line up for everything else: for meals, for snacks, to bathe in the morning, to go over to school, before you entered the bus on school trips, for study period in the evenings.

There was an earlier precedent, my primary school days, when I could not have been more than ten years old at the time. I remember going to a place at the back of Guyhoc Park, something that only registered in my young mind as the phonetic rendering of what I later learned was the abbreviation, K.S.I – or Knowledge Sharing Institute. I distinctly remember scant and dusty shelves boasting cassavas, eddoes, plantains and polythene bags of sugar with the metal pint cups and these huge scales with the different pound weights to balance them, and the inevitable lines at the cashier’s counter.

Twenty years later, we’ve switched from lining up for basic items provided under the control of the State, to lining up for basic services provided by the State. In more developed societies - developed in terms of both economy and polity - the queue is an anomaly, necessary not for basic goods and services but for luxuries, swanky clubs, designer goods, successful movie franchises, hit video games, objets du desir. In Guyana, we do it to get passports, and ID cards, and for the privilege of paying utility bills.

To stand up in a queue and wait for something you need that is owed to you by the State, even as you are abused and otherwise dehumanised by the agents of the State, takes a certain capacity for intellectual stasis and timidity, something you either are born with or have had conditioned into you by way of a Pavlovian repetition and Orwellian ubiquity.

The lines of 1984 have not moved, they’ve simply shifted; from the tedious queues for basic goods at the KSIs to the tedious queues for basic services everywhere, there has been little evolution in terms of the fundamental psychological mechanism that makes lines part of the things we accept and put up with in Guyana. It is easy to see the bureaucratic efficiency or mismanagement or whatever as the causative factor in all this but really it is simply a symptom of our conditioning – the mind that will not put up with that sort of inefficiency and complementary arrogance that we find in the typical state agency is the mind that penalizes these things by transforming the system.

A little over a month ago, we basically queued up in front of our televisions to be subjected to not a small amount of arrogance and at times disdain from GECOM, its Chairman Dr. Steve Surjujbally, in particular, in its presentation of the results of the national elections. Contrast that with the timeliness of the release of results in two fellow CARICOM territories – St.Lucia and Jamaica – look at their per capita GDP compared to ours, and you have an at least circumstantial statement on the correlative relationship between civil acquiescence and development.

As long as we accept without question the need to line up for hours to collect as basic a thing as a passport or an ID card, we are collectively saying that we accept inefficiency and the abusive authority of the State as part of what we expect from the people we hire to serve us: we’re saying that we’re okay with petty bureaucratic tyranny in the place of public service.

It is not to say of course that the absurdity of certain lines are apparent only in state institutions – a few weeks ago, a friend and I went to Palm Court. She decided to make an early night of it and after following her back to her car, I tried to get in again, only to be met by a line that I had to join again in order to get back into the club.

The lines at the Passport Office have their parallel of sorts in the new phenomenon of the lines in front of Palm Court. At a fundamental level, the basic psychological mechanism is the same: – at the Passport Office, you collect a booklet, at Palm Court you collect a paper wristband; both represent having been processed and documented for migration from one place to another. And in both cases there are people for whom the line does not matter: at the Passport Office, a big vehicle pulled up and a high-level member of society calmly walked passed everyone and went straight in; at the club, a big vehicle pulled up and a high-level member of society calmly walked passed everyone and went straight in.

The difference lies at a more fundamental level– we are all born with the inherent right to citizenship and by extension a fundamental right to free and unrestricted travel and the provision of the documents that would allow us to do so, provided by the State; but the privilege of participation in luxury overpriced entertainment at a private club is something that you will not find in any national constitution or international charter of human rights.

In Guyana, the mind that accepts the conformity that is foisted upon us by the State, the mind that toes the line, so to speak, is the mind that progresses in the society but only at the pace that the hierarchs approve of – the line here is not just a mechanism for efficiency, but a mechanism for control and, to some degree, social stratification. If the Ukrainian comedian, to cite another Soviet-era satirist, Yakov Smirnoff had ever had the privilege of an hour in the line at the Passport Office in this place, I could easily imagine him adding another one to his now famous reversal jokes, one which would go like this: in Soviet Guyana, you don't form line – line form you.