‘Ramotar is an inconsistent defender of the constitution’ – US Ambassador reiterates call for LGE

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US Ambassador to Guyana, Brent Hardt
US Ambassador to Guyana, Brent Hardt

[www.inewsguyana.com] – Outgoing United States Ambassador to Guyana, Brent Hardt has lashed out at Guyanese President, Donald Ramotar for upholding the country’s constitution selectively.

The Ambassador made reference to the delay in setting a date for the long overdue Local Government Elections (LGE), which he noted should have already been held.

He was at the time speaking at the closing of Blue CAPS’ inaugural Building Communities through Leadership Training and Service (BCLTS) programme earlier this week where he cited Ramotar’s excuses for not calling the LGE.

“Imagine if the green light had been given in January to begin preparations, we could be days away from LGE today. To my mind, there is a fundamental structural flaw with a system in which elections that are constitutionally and legally required are perpetually delayed at the whim of the executive branch of government.

President Donald Ramotar.
President Donald Ramotar.

“We have seen a seemingly expanding array of excuses offered for not abiding by the constitution, for example the idea that there may be a need for a national election. But that can’t be an excuse, because every government under the Westminster system will always want to have that option in its back pocket. And the reality is that, even if the government set a date for LGE, the call for a national election would always take precedence. But by not even setting a date, the government keeps LGE always off in the elusive distant horizon. This purposeful delay after 20 years without elections is, it bears repeating, contrary to the constitution and laws of Guyana.”

According to the US Ambassador, “The President has correctly cast himself as a defender of the constitution – which is certainly one of his responsibilities as President — and has claimed that his opposition to certain National Assembly bills is based on his desire to abide by the constitution. But he cannot be an inconsistent defender of the constitution – ignoring the constitution’s very clear requirement to hold local government elections and, for that matter, to return bills to parliament no more than 21 days after they are sent to him.”

Hardt also pointed out that ne of the more creative excuses came from the PPP General Secretary, Clement Rohee who suggested that the people of Guyana are not in the mood for LGE.

“But the constitution and the legislation does not say that elections should be held every three years, unless some members of the governing party feel that people are not in the mood for LGE.   Elections are constitutionally and legislatively mandated. They are not dependent on a mood. In fact, in a democracy, the best way to assess the mood of a people is to hold an election.”

The Ambassador further noted, “The delay has also been attributed to “historical context.” But all of those so-called historical issues put forward have been resolved and are no longer relevant. Again, there is nothing in the way.

See below the full speech of the US Ambassador:

Remarks by Ambassador D. Brent Hardt at Blue Caps Ceremony

Distinguished Guests,

I am delighted to be here today as part of the closing ceremony for what I am sure has been a great program.  I could not agree more with theme of the program, “Creating the Future Begins with Cultivating the Leaders of Tomorrow.”   As you may have noticed, I have done a lot of interviews during the past couple of weeks and one of the most commonly asked questions has been, “What aspects of your job have you enjoyed the most?”  My answer is clearly working with the youth of Guyana and seeing what a bright future the country has in the days and years to come.   For example, we have 26 Youth Ambassadors who have participated in cultural exchange programs to broaden their understanding of community service and develop their skills as community leaders.  President Obama actually started his career as a community organizer and the importance of developing grassroots relationships continues to serve him today.

In this great country, youth volunteers have helped heighten awareness, especially among young people, about the harmful effects of littering.  Through our Guyana Shines program, volunteers have worked in schools and communities to encourage citizens to become part of the solution and keep their neighborhood and cities clean.  I have been heartened to see how many young people have embraced the challenge of creating a cleaner home for themselves, friends, and their families. We have partnered with Youths for Guyana and businesses like ExxonMobil, Republic Bank, and Caribbean Containers to take the next step in Guyana Shines:  Keep Guyana Beautiful.  We have also seen some of those volunteers initiate their own Berbice Shines and Linden Shines projects; each doing amazing things in their respective communities.  All these young people go to work in different communities every Sunday, without much fanfare, and make a positive difference, not only in the community, but also in building the character of their colleagues.  I am also encouraged that the government has followed suit and initiated the Pick It Up Guyana campaign and a new clean-up campaign in the city.  Thanks to all these combined efforts, we are beginning to see positive results.  

 As part of Guyana Shines, we have had volunteers visit schools to make presentations to students to build their awareness of the harmful effects of littering and to encourage them to care for their environment.  Educating young people is one of the most effective ways to transform the attitudes of a country.  It is how we tackled the same challenge in the U.S. in the 1960’s and 70’s.  In the span of a year, Guyana Shines reached 62 primary and secondary schools in the Georgetown area.

I highlight the Guyana Shines program today because, as some of you may recall, when we began our effort, there were many who were skeptical or critical – just as the Blue Caps have encountered.  But we persevered and proved the critics wrong – just as you will.  When we began the engagement, it was because we wanted to inject new thinking and a new approach to deal with a longstanding problem.  After seeing condition of the capital and the country and the longstanding finger-pointing between the city and the national governments, we decided we needed to take action as a mission to change the dynamic.  Together with our diplomatic and local partners, our Embassy team has worked with extraordinary dedication and persistence to encourage a greater national consciousness in favor of the environment.  And once this new consciousness takes root, I can assure you it will lead to many other positive developments in Guyana.  Civic pride is an extraordinary thing.  Guyana had it, lost it, and now needs to regain it.  Think about how this took place in New York. [ELABORATE] As I leave, I would therefore wish to call on all Guyanese and young Guyanese in particular to overcome cynicism and take care of your country and its environment for yourselves and your children.

We have also worked with young people in job an life skills development.  Through USAID and our Skills and Knowledge for Youth Employment Program, we have trained over 1,200 young people and more than 400 have found gainful employment.  By building partnerships with organizations like the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce and Industry (GCCI), we have successfully linked companies with SKYE graduates — reliable, high performing young people that employers can trust.  Blue Caps’ own Clinton Urling was instrumental in making this happen. 

The Embassy also held its first ever Entrepreneurship Speed Challenge, bringing together young, talented entrepreneurs who pitched their ideas to private sector leaders and investors.  And I have been told that some of the ideas are being funded by local investors.

During a series of media interviews during the past two weeks, I was often asked if there was any unfinished business or anything that I wished had happened during my tenure here.   Well, when it comes to unfinished business, the issue that comes to mind is one that I know is near and dear to your hearts as well:  local government elections.   This is an area where I think our Embassy’s engagement, together with our diplomatic partners, has been pivotal has been in elevating public consciousness of the importance of these elections.  Because of that engagement, public recognition is rapidly expanding that they need to take place, are constitutionally required, will help bring citizens even closer to their elected representatives, and will increase accountability on issues ranging from trash pickup to fixing local roads. 

You may recall that it was back in January 2013 when my ABCE colleagues and I joined in calling for 2013 to be the year for local government elections.  We did so in part because this was an issue on which all parties were in agreement, and in an environment of political division, we were looking to find ways to encourage mutual confidence and steps towards political consensus.

We then engaged actively with all parties to encourage passage of legislation that year – a historic but incomplete achievement.  It took a second Op-Ed – this time with wide range of civil society groups – and behind the scenes engagement to nudge bills across finish line last year.

Then again, earlier this year, as the issue started to fade a bit from public view, we again joined with an expanding group of civil society groups to refocus attention on the issue.  We are delighted that we are now seeing civil society in the lead, demanding the elections.  And let me be clear, you will need to continue doing so and doing so with persistence.  It appears unfortunately that local government elections will not be called unless the people of Guyana demand them – demand their constitutional right —  and raise their voices in ever greater numbers.

The reality is that LGE should and could already have been called.  There is no reason why not.  Imagine if the green light had been given in January to begin preparations, we could be days away from LGE today.  To my mind, there is a fundamental structural flaw with a system in which elections that are constitutionally and legally required are perpetually delayed at the whim of the executive branch of government.

We have seen a seemingly expanding array of excuses offered for not abiding by the constitution, for example the idea that there may be a need for a national election.  But that can’t be an excuse, because every government under the Westminster system will always want to have that option in its back pocket.  And the reality is that, even if the government set a date for LGE, the call for a national election would always take precedence.  But by not even setting a date, the government keeps LGE always off in the elusive distant horizon.  This purposeful delay after 20 years without elections is, it bears repeating, contrary to the constitution and laws of Guyana.

The President has correctly cast himself as a defender of the constitution – which is certainly one of his responsibilities as President — and has claimed that his opposition to certain National Assembly bills is based on his desire to abide by the constitution.  But he cannot be an inconsistent defender of the constitution – ignoring the constitution’s very clear requirement to hold local government elections and, for that matter, to return bills to parliament no more than 21 days after they are sent to him.

One of the more creative excuses came from the PPP General Secretary, who suggested that the people of Guyana are not in the mood for LGE.  But the constitution and the legislation does not say that elections should be held every three years, unless some members of the governing party feel that people are not in the mood for LGE.   Elections are constitutionally and legislatively mandated.  They are not dependent on a mood.  In fact, in a democracy, the best way to assess the mood of a people is to hold an election.

The delay has also been attributed to “historical context.”  But all of those so-called historical issues put forward have been resolved and are no longer relevant.  Again, there is nothing in the way.

And finally, suggestions that GECOM is not prepared or that people are not ready have also been shown to ring hollow by GECOM and by people such as yourselves who have made clear that the people of the country are very much ready. 

In the midst of these attempted justifications for delay, it is noteworthy that the President has recently called City Hall “just a disaster.”  He lamented that there is so much to be done around the city that isn’t being done.  So why would he not wish to hold LGE to create some democratic accountability within the city?

The President had said that “citizens should raise their voices a bit more as far as that is concerned.”  But citizens are raising their voices.  They are saying they want LGE to address the situation.  They want to raise their votes, but only he can give them that opportunity.  And it’s past time for him to do that.

Indeed, the PPP itself is on record strongly supporting LGE.  In its 2011 election manifesto, under the rubric of “Reinvigorating Local Government,” the PPP promised that it would “ensure, within one year of the 2011 General Elections, that LGE are held by end of 2012.

In January 2013, President Ramotar said the Government wanted to hold LGE, adding that the process is ongoing to put in place the necessary conditions.  “I cannot hold local government elections until those bills are passed,” he explained.  Well, those bills are now passed.

In July 24, 2013, the President asserted:  “The fact that we did not have these elections has nothing to do with a lack of will on our part. . .  I know that it is badly needed because many of the problems we face are due to the fact that we did not have local government elections.”  So now is the chance to solve those problems. 

Most recently, the President has said:  “It’s not like we don’t want local elections but there is a certain level of uncertainty.” “I would prefer to go to LGE, but I cannot shut my eyes to the reality that exists and make a bland promise that I would go to LGE tomorrow, as I would have done if we had the majority in parliament. . .” But the reality is there will always be uncertainty in politics.

The President has also referred to the “impact of the AML bill,” but AML sanctions are not something that will be like a spigot on or off.  In fact, FATF will not fully review Guyana for six months — which by the way is exactly the amount of time required for GECOM to prepare for LGE.  So again, AML uncertainties are not an adequate justification for further delay.

The President also recently indicated he would have called elections if his government had the majority in parliament”  But again, the constitution does not say, elections every three years, except when the executive does not have a majority.  It says every three years. 

Finally, I should note that the President’s reason given for rejecting the LGE Bill in parliament is essentially a reason he generated by not abiding by the constitutional requirement for responding to bills sent to parliament.  He advised parliament that he did not assent “because GECOM has publicly declared that it is impractical to hold LGE on or before August 1.”  Of course, had the president assented within the constitutionally required 21 day time limit, there would have been ample time to meet this schedule.  So essentially he is saying, I have delayed the bill long enough that the timeframe in the bill is no longer adequate.

In the midst of these excuses for delay, happily many civic and international entities have been speaking out, lead by the Blue Caps and with strong support from media entities such as the Stabroek News.  The PSC recently said there is no reason why local government elections should not be called as soon as possible and argued that lengthy delay in holding LGE has had a huge impact on the quality of services offered to local authorities.  Likewise, the Georgetown Chamber has been a consistent advocate for LGE, seeing their critical links to Georgetown’s development.

The United Kingdom recently suggested that Guyana’s democratic gains are under threat, adding that the decision thus far not to have local government elections is a stain on Guyana’s international standing.  The HC also noted that the reasons given for delay are a clear breach of the constitution and the Commonwealth Charter.  I join my UK colleague in calling on the Government to deliver what governments are constitutionally required to deliver and which the PPP and the other parties promised voters in 2011 they would deliver.       

So what, then, is the reason for not having elections?  GECOM has reaffirmed its readiness to hold LGE when called upon to do so.  Articles 71 1, 2 and 78 b make clear local governance is core part of governing architecture of country.  The Local Authorities Election Act calls for elections every three years the first week of December.  I have yet to hear any compelling reason for not doing so.

In the face of all this, I still believe that President Ramotar has a tremendous opportunity to make a historic contribution to Guyana’s political development by being the President who restores elected local governance to Guyana – a longstanding national goal and something that PPP founder Cheddi Jagan fervently believed in.  

After all this, you may ask why I as a U.S. diplomat care so much about LGE.  The answer, simply, is that I see it as genuinely transformative issue for Guyana.  Local communities need freedom, autonomy, and the ability to explore ways to develop themselves.  People face all kinds of local challenges and they want workable solutions.  Guyanese are innovative and creative, but they need the opportunity to cultivate their talents on local level.  Central control has choked off local creativity and initiative for too long.

This has in turn led to a disconnect between people and governance – a problem exacerbated by the parliamentary list system.  People don’t know where to turn to resolve their day to day problems.  Citizens want to be able to play their part, to call up a local leader and get action.

Thankfully, the Blue Caps understand that, for a society to fully realize its potential, young people must play an active role.  I applaud the Blue Caps goals:  to offer a platform for young Guyanese citizens to help shape and articulate public policy, to educate future leaders who will go back into their communities, help solve problems and bring about positive change and development, and to respect one another and cultivate a culture of trust and honesty.  These goals and values will serve you well as you move forward to help make local elections a reality and raise awareness on other issues such as the environment, respect for the LGBT community, trafficking in persons, etc.

President John F. Kennedy, who inspired a generation of Americans by creating the Peace Corps, famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”  He also said, “Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer.  Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past.  Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.” 

As I get ready to pass the baton to my successor, I want you to know that it has been a privilege and honor working with you to help build a prosperous, safe, peaceful, and democratic Guyana.  And I would like to leave you with a few words to ponder from some great sources:

The great American Robert F. Kennedy said:

“Our answer is the world’s hope; it is to rely on youth.  The cruelties and obstacles of this swiftly changing planet will not yield to obsolete dogmas and outworn slogans. It cannot be moved by those who cling to a present which is already dying, who prefer the illusion of security to the excitement of danger.  It demands the qualities of youth; not a time of life, but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a predominance of courage of timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease.”

And Benjamin Disraeli, the nineteenth century UK statesman once said:  “Almost everything that is great has been done by youth.”

And finally, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great American thinker and poet wrote:

“So nigh is grandeur to our dust,

So near is God to man,

When duty whispers low, Thou must,

The youth replies, I can.”

I wish you all the best.  Go forth and conquer. 

 

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