(Following is a commentary/Op-Ed written by former Health and Agriculture Minister during the PPP/C administration, Dr. Leslie Ramsammy)
It is clear that the majority of Guyanese agree with Leader of the Opposition Dr Bharrat Jagdeo the 2017 budget is the worst ever, pointing to an ominous future for Guyana.
When it comes to budgets, Guyanese cannot afford to be partial and politically blindfolded. Budgets are critical in moving a country forward or backwards. One thing is certain, the 2017 budget sets the stage for an portentous backward leap. It is frighteningly similar to PNC-era budgets and the gloomy impact of those budgets.
One of the statements by the Minister of Finance in particular brought jitters to me. He stated emphatically that providing financial support to GUYSUCO is a “total waste of money”. This is coming just a week after Prime Minister Nagamootoo posited sugar workers are ungrateful and describing support for sugar as “raiding” the treasury. Weeks before, President Granger had reiterated an earlier statement by the Finance Minister that APNU+AFC is unwilling to continue the support of GUYSUCO. These are not merely wild, vile, reckless, provocative statements; these are statements of people who are clueless in guiding Guyana forward for economic and social development. If anything the 2017 budget confirms the intention of APNU+AFC to close sugar, something Guyana will mightily regret, no matter what our present and future political persuasion.
Taken in context with pre-2015 election statements, the future of sugar is ominously on slippery grounds. The 2017 budget statement on sugar reinforces the pre-2015 election statements by senior spokesmen of APNU in presenting proposals to close sugar. One statement made at an APNU media conference called for the closure of sugar and use the land for aquaculture. Budget 2017 is confirmation APNU+AFC has a premeditated plan to close sugar. GUYSUCO does have serious difficulties presently, but instead of trying to address these challenges, APNU+AFC is using the difficulties as a platform to implement their wild, vile and wicked plan, hatched a long time ago. There was never any intention to address the difficulties, rather APNU+AFC has deliberately exacerbate the difficulties. What is before us is a charade, an expensive charade.
In fact, there has been a seismic shift in intentions pre-2015 elections when the PPP was determined to restore sugar and bring a new glory era. The PPP’s intentions were visible – address the difficulties and move sugar forward with major diversification, including production of ethanol, baggasse energy, molasses, packaged and processed sugar and rum and animal stockfeed. Diversification plans were for sugar-based products, not a reckless foray into non-sugar products, like rice. In fact, with the PPP strategy, GUYSUCO would have returned to profitability in 2017. By 2015, there were ample signals that the plan was working, with even APNU+AFC trying to take credit. In stark contrast, APNU+AFC has radically different intentions, exactly the opposite of the PPP – kill sugar, starting with immediate estate closures. They abandoned the PPP’s plan and embarked on a reckless path with a premeditated plan to end sugar. The difference in approach to sugar is like night and day.
As APNU+AFC prepares the ground for closure, let us remember that since the disastrous 1991 production of 129,900 tons, in the last 24 years, GUYSUCO has produced more than 300,000 tons of sugar 3 times, more than 250,000 tons 13 times and has dropped below 200,000 tons only twice, 2013 (186,000 tons) and this year is estimated to be around 180,000 tons. In spite of the many difficulties, GUYSUCO continues to show it has the capacity to overcome its difficulties. After 1990, GUYSUCO recovered and for a period of about 18 years, performed credibly and profitably.
After some difficult weather conditions and the arbitrary reduction of price for sugar exported into Europe, GUYSUCO has struggled in the last 6 years. These difficulties are not unusual for an industry that has continuously operated for more than 300 years. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries short periods of difficulties did result in the call for closure, just as we are experiencing today. In the end, those in charge were not seduced by the doomsday predictions for sugar and time has absolved them. Just as sugar recovered after the 1980s and many times before in its 300-years history, sugar has an indisputable resiliency record. APNU+AFC chooses to disregard this long history.
Besides almost 20,000 direct jobs, 70,000 to 100,000 people depend on the sugar industry for their livelihood. There are others who indirectly, through the multiplier effect of sugar, depend on this industry, manufacturers, vendors, taxi drivers etc. All told some more than 125,000 people will be affected by closure. APNU+AFC continues to expose its cluelessness about our economy when it disregards that sugar workers account for more than $22B in taxable income. APNU+AFC is ignoring that sugar attracts about $4B directly (about 5% of total direct investment in Guyana) and about $5B indirectly. Nothing in the budget takes into consideration the vital role sugar plays in our economy and everyday lives. Budget 2017 threateningly points to closure of sugar, but has no plans on post-sugar Guyana. Just shoving the largest single employer in Guyana to a corner is not an economic plan. Either APNU+AFC is clueless or vile and wicked.