The Challenges With Regime Change in the Caribbean

In May 2015, Guyana elected a new government. This was the first government change in 23 years and only the second time in the nation's nearly 50 year history that Guyana has changed governments. Since attaining independence from Britain in 1966, Guyanese politics has been dominated primarily by two major political parties, the People's Progressive Party (PPP) and the People's National Congress (PNC). In the most recent elections the PPP was the incumbent party, having been in power since 1992, and the PNC was leading a coalition of various political parties known as A Partnership for National Unity-Alliance for Change (APNU-AFC).

One of the key issues in the 2015 elections was the massive amounts of corruption in Guyana. Under the rule of the PPP, Guyana ranked as the second most corrupt member nation of the Caribbean Community (Caricom), second only to Haiti. In 2014 the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index ranked Guyana 124th place out of 175 countries, with Haiti being placed at 161. Since the 2015 elections a number of concerning things have happened that gives one the impression that a change of government will not change many of the fundamental issues in Guyana.

One of the most concerning actions by the APNU-AFC was the decision to raise their own salaries by 50% after only four months of being in office. This move was done despite the fact that Guyana is experiencing an economic slowdown. Guyana has also traditionally been one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, being ranked as the second poorest at one point. Guyana is also a nation that has grappled with some of the highest unemployment rates in the Caribbean.

The decision to raise salaries for government ministers also raises questions over how a nation that is struggling financially would be able to finance these increased minister salaries. Calvin Bernard, who serves as the Head of the Transparency Institute Guyana, asked, "If we are near broke how do we afford these increases?" Bernard questioned where the funds for this increase would come from since that detail was not actually explained by the APNU-AFC. Although the APNU-AFC has only been in office for a little over six months now, the salary increase, as well as other concerning decisions made by the government, such as passing bills in parliament before the opposition is given the time to adequately look over those bills, suggests that APNU-AFC intends to govern with the same lack of transparency or accountability which the PPP was so heavily criticized for.

Guyana's situation is nothing new in Caribbean politics, although government changes have been rarer in Guyana than it has been for most other Caribbean nations. It is not uncommon to see political parties criticize the corruption and lack of transparency on the part of ruling governments, only to get into office and behave in ways that are similar to the previous party that was in power. Barbadian writer George Lamming made the point that in the Caribbean political parties very rarely differ with each other in terms of their vision for their societies, using the specific example of the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) and the Barbados Labour Party (BLP) in Barbados. In describing the difference between the two political parties George Lamming explained, "The only difference they have is 'you have the government and I don't.'"

The competition over power between politicians has often been the basis of the development of opposition politics in the Caribbean. Using Guyana's own political history as an example, the two major political parties, the PPP and the PNC, stem from the same origin, with the PNC being a breakaway party from the original PPP which was founded in 1950. The break was not over any serious ideology differences, since Cheddi Jagan (the PPP's founder) and Forbes Burnham (the PNC's founder) were both leftists. The roots of the split were merely that Burnham made an attempt to wrestle control of the PPP away from Jagan and when that attempt failed he created a party of his own. Similarly, the DLP in Barbados was formed as a breakaway party from the DLP. The Jamaican Labour Party (JLP) was formed by Alexander Bustamante, who was previously a member of the People's National Party (PNP). In the 1980s the rivalry between the PNP and the JLP became so intense that in the 1980 elections it's estimated that more than 800 people were killed due to politically motivated violence. The political challenge that former British colonies in the Caribbean continue to face is that changing the government very rarely create a fundamental change in the way that those nations are governed. Often times these nations cycle back and forth between the same two corrupt parties. For instance, in Trinidad and Tobago the People's Nationalist Movement (PNM) was defeated in 2010 after controversies over corruption on the part of the PNM. The People's Partnership coalition came into power in 2010. The coalition government saw corruption scandals of their own, including a record 11 ministers being fired. In 2015, the PNM defeated the People's Partnership and returned to power again. Whether or not this PNM government will be different from the PNM governments of the past remains to be seen, although based on historical trends in the Caribbean one should remain skeptical.