As a Guyanese citizen, I was disappointed to see the New York Times’ coverage (March 6, 2020) of the political crisis in Guyana. Anatoly Kurmanaev’s article “Crisis Deepens in Tiny Guyana, the World’s Newest Petro State” spoke of “ethnic violence” that threatens foreign investment and petrol revenue.
I would like to point out that it is not only billions of dollars at stake, but rather the welfare of Guyanese people.
Kurmanaev’s focus on the billions of dollars in oil money that is “at stake”, fails to consider the people or the history that has led to the current unrest. The narrative he presents about Guyana and Guyanese is simple-minded, othering and disrespectful. Historically, such racist narratives have been used to justify toxic paternalist intervention by the Global North in countries in the Global South, such as Guyana.
Kurmanaev’s article makes clear his focus is the potential loss of foreign investments with no interest in the lives of those in Guyana. His article frames the existing civil tension in Guyana as a “wave of ethnic violence” in a “tiny” country comprised primarily of Afro and Indo-Guyanese, and positions these two dominant racialised groups and their affiliated political parties as Guyana’s main barrier to oil wealth.
As a Guyanese national, I argue that it is not billions of dollars that is at stake, but rather the welfare of Guyanese people and peace and trust among the various racialised groups. Guyana’s recent status as “the World’s Newest Petro State” does not obliterate the past, nor is it the root cause of the current tensions. The framing in the referenced article fails to acknowledge that the existing racialised tension in Guyana is historical. Even a small attempt at research would contextualise the complexity of the current situation and the decisions of the populations within.
Guyanese across racial groups are hurting, not because they foresee being denied access to oil money, but as a result of acts of violence they experience at the hands of their neighbours, friends, family and political leaders.
Many, if not most, Guyanese carry scars, pains and fears that have roots in a history of racist ideologies that facilitated: European’s genocide of Indigenous populations, enslavement of Africans and severe exploitation of indentured labourers, and the systematically inherited and unaddressed internalised racist prejudices that underline which racialised group is appropriate to govern.
Coupled with this is our political “leaders” desire to co-opt power by any means necessary through compromised electoral processes.
Narratives such as Kurmanaev’s contribute to paternalistic justifications about the Global North countries’ intervention in the lives and spaces of brown and black people, and further undermine the work that Guyanese need to do to address issues of poverty and development, democracy, corruption and sovereignty, and freedom and security.
Kurmanaev’s article also omits the fact that there are legal structures in place in Guyana to address these unfolding challenges. The struggle to alleviate racial tensions and to bring peace is ongoing in Guyana. There are state and local organisations across the country working to quell and counter pain and fear inherited from exploitations and violence by past political parties and the colonialist history across racial divides.
These organisations and groups are aware that all Guyanese should be able to share in the governance of wealth – whether economic, social or psychological – and to trust the political system to be fair and just in managing any amount of wealth the country generates.
The way we tell this story matters. Presenting ethnic rivalries as a natural feature of poor, “tiny” countries perpetuates racism and neo-colonial mentalities. To understand this crisis, we must consider the foundations of these tensions.
Omitting this background makes the article both inaccurate and dangerous. It obscures the work being done to secure better governance in the region, and it risks promoting interventions that will protect profits before protecting people.
I suggest that, in the future, journalists should remember their responsibility to minimising harm through their reporting, instead of contributing to narratives that may harm other peoples, and obscuring contextualised realities.
Pere DeRoy, PhD Student
Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies
The University of Kansas