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The President’s recently aired interview with international news agency Al-Jazeera reveals one of the core issues plaguing the PPP. Put simply, they seem to be struggling to come to terms with the challenges that come from natural resource windfalls like discovering oil. I will, in fact, take this even further, and say that they seem to be so shocked at Guyana’s sudden, extreme wealth, that they can’t recognise the scale of what has happened.
The President says that he doesn’t like the term “resource curse,” which refers to the challenges faced by countries blessed with abundant resources. He says that since the PPP knows how to govern well without resources, they are ready to govern now that resources are available. This is exactly what someone would say if they had no idea about the history of resource-rich developing countries. His assertion that the PPP is ready to govern couldn’t be further from the truth, firstly because the PPP has no stellar track record to rely on and secondly because the challenges we face today are quite different than they were during their previous time in office.
As an example, when the question of widespread local poverty was raised, the President seemed not to quite realise that in a nation of extreme wealth poverty is unacceptable. He committed not to its swift eradication, but to the same mediocre development strategy the PPP has always espoused. In the second-poorest country in the hemisphere (as Guyana was under the PPP) poverty might have been a painful reality, but in a country with the second-most barrels of oil per person in the world? Guyana increasingly resembles the most classic case of the resource curse, Equatorial Guinea, where standards of living actually declined after oil was discovered.
Don’t believe Guyana is on this path? I would humbly point you to the severe recent cost of living crisis, coupled with the government’s refusal to provide substantial assistance to those in need. This has eroded standards of living swiftly, at a time when the country’s oil revenues surged. Further, it has been repeatedly demonstrated that even at the beginning of Guyana’s oil boom there is enough revenue to substantially raise wages and salaries throughout the public service, as well as in the private sector through the salary top-ups the Opposition has proposed. This will sharply cut poverty figures, mitigate the cost-of-living crisis and eliminate the working poor.
On the other hand, when the issue of nationalisation was raised the President seemed unable to spot that the question was really about Guyana’s willingness to defend its legitimate rights. It is no wonder then that the nation is tensely awaiting the long overdue release of the audit of Exxon’s cost recovery expenses. Not only is this delay alarming, we are yet to see whether the government has in fact tasked the auditors with fulfilling Guyana’s legitimate right to identify whether or not costs have been inflated and the country robbed billions of dollars.
When the conversation moved to Sovereign Wealth Funds the President failed to mention that his government removed or diluted several oversight committees in Guyana’s, rendering our country vulnerable to the extreme inflationary pressures we saw in Venezuela, as well as lopsided, discriminatory resource allocation. He touted Guyana’s parliament, but that body can do little to stop relentless local procurement fraud (even less now that its Public Accounts Committee has not been meeting due to government members’ absence).
Eagle-eyed readers would recognise that in an earlier iteration of this interview I was also interviewed. I commented on the shocking rise of inequality locally, a topic that the PPP seems terrified to address in any form. I have attributed these lapses to PPP confusion and incompetence but of course some would say the PPP is deliberately refusing to acknowledge the challenges oil has brought. Some would argue the PPP is focused on stealing everything in sight. I shall not here, because the incompetence we are witnessing is more than enough to give anyone pause.
Instead, I will point out that fighting poverty and inequality are centerpieces of the Opposition’s People-Centred vision for Guyana, that we see education not as a buzzword but a transformative tool, that we recognise the mismanagement and discrimination plaguing the society. We recognise these issues because we understand that Guyana has changed radically, and these changes need to be addressed. Pretending that Guyana’s challenges are the same as they were before oil is delusion. I would invite the President to read Alice in Wonderland. He might find it to be very instructive.