BY AMBASSADOR ODEEN ISHMAEL AT THE GUYANA INDEPENDENCE CELEBRATIONS SPENSORED
BY THE GUYANA TRI-STATE ALLIANCE AT CITY HALL, NEW YORK, MAY 16, 2003
Posted May 18th. 2003
Mr. Chairman, Members of the New York City Council, fellow Guyanese, distinguished guests.
Let me thank the Guyanese Tri-State Alliance for inviting me to participate in this prestigious ceremony marking the 37th anniversary of the independence of Guyana. I must congratulate the Alliance and all those who worked so hard to make today's activity such a great success.
I also offer my congratulations to the special honorees who are today recognized for their sterling contribution, not only to Guyana, but also to the communities in which they reside and work right here in the United States. I note that among those who are honored are two non-Guyanese, and I must express to them the gratitude of a thankful nation for the service that they have provided to our country.
As we all know, Guyanese, including those in this audience, migrated to this land in search of better opportunities for themselves and for their children. By and large, they have done well, achieving successes in education and in work. They have made their homeland proud and their successes offer worthy examples for the younger generation of Guyanese, here and at home, to emulate.
As we mark another milestone in our history, we must reflect on the struggles of our Guyanese ancestors in their own efforts towards emancipation and political freedom. Our history is marked with many valiant efforts of Guyanese - from the days of slavery and indenture to the period of Crown Colony government leading up to 1966, when Britain finally agreed to grant us political independence.
As is well known, the independence movement in Guyana began in the late 1940s and gained momentum in the 1950s (through the efforts of Dr. Cheddi Jagan and also Forbes Burnham) and into the early 1960s. It was during the 1950s, in particular, that Dr. Cheddi Jagan was elevated on the international stage as the foremost campaigner for independence, not only for Guyana but for all the colonial territories in the Americas, Africa, Asia and elsewhere.
The campaign for independence for Guyana became heavily internationalized by Dr. Jagan who on December 30, 1959 wrote a letter to international political parties, trade unions, and political leaders across the world urging their support for the freedom struggle in Guyana. Those of you who have followed the history of Guyana would be aware that the forum of the United Nations was also used in the early 1960s to campaign for independence for our country.
All over the world, freedom fighters relied heavily on international solidarity and support to win freedom for their people and to sustain the political independence that was won. You will recall that the United States fought a war for seven years to defend their independence which they seized from the British in 1776. Interestingly, the French provided the solidarity and gave tangible military support to keep the British at bay.
But the building of nationhood by the United States did not follow an easy street. When the United States was 37 years old - as Guyana is today - it was defending itself in a war against Britain, and the following year the British even set fire to Washington and burned down the Capitol and the White House. It was around this same time that the flag of the United States was designed and flown for the first time. The flag flying proudly and defiantly near Baltimore also inspired Francis Scott Key to write the words of the American national anthem.
But just as how the United States faced its problems - including a devastating civil war and a longer period of slavery than that experienced in the British colonies - and applied programs for economic development, we in Guyana will have to work to do likewise.
Backbiting and disunity will not help us to develop. We have had very much of those damaging influences. But we have cause to hope. The recent meetings and agreements between the President of Guyana and the Leader of the Opposition can help to provide the political leadership and direction our people want, and can help to generate the confidence that certainly will result in community building.
All this will be instrumental in the nurturing of our developing democracy. I believe that while we work to build and strengthen democracy in Guyana, we also have to ensure that the democratic future of our people is firmly shaped. I am therefore of the opinion that our young people, especially those who are now being educated in our school systems, should be prepared for the challenges that an evolving democracy will place on them.
The great American Thomas Jefferson wrote: "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never shall be."
As I have stated recently at another forum in Washington, I see a clear and meaningful relationship between education and democracy. For it is through the process of teaching and learning that we acquire the tools to control and guide our lives. We have to educate our people about their basic freedoms; we have to provide them with learning and skills to shape their lives; we have to enable them to develop the critical eye to discern the choices needed in public life. Failure to do these can be very damaging to the democratic process.
We must keep our people informed, for it is a people educated about freedom with a critical eye who will be able to avoid the hazards that arise out of such setbacks.
The Government of Guyana is constantly promoting the development of a democratic culture in our society to allow for the growth of democracy. A democratic culture is formed by the behaviors, practices, and norms that define the competence of a people to govern themselves.
But I emphasize that we have also to develop a culture of democracy which will inspire a determination in our citizens to want to defend democracy. Through the development of a culture of democracy we will develop the democratic citizen who will want to participate in the day to day affairs of his community, a situation which is today more and more desirable in many of our societies.
As we know, a democracy is ideally governed by the freely elected majority and protects the rights of the minority, with checks and balances firmly entrenched. For a democracy to show success, it should support competing ideas, part of an evolving process marked by the advance of technology. It must also support freedom of speech, guarantee human rights, and allow citizens to be critical of the ruling authority without fear of victimization.
As democracy evolves in Guyana, it must continue to have as its objectives "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". For these objectives to be fulfilled, the weakest in the society must be offered protection. Mahatma Gandhi wrote in 1948: "My notion of democracy is that under it, the weakest should have the same opportunity as the strongest. This can never happen except through non-violence." As a strong believer in the principles of Mahatma Gandhi, I firmly support this view.
In Guyana, over the past 37 years successive governments have implemented their programs to create jobs, security and harmonious relations. The social infrastructure has expanded and more and more facilities are being established for our people.
But there have been mistakes and lost opportunities. We are still a producer of primary products, the export prices for which are at the mercy of the market in the developed countries. We are still not able to establish large manufacturing plants despite the fact that we have a qualified labor force and an abundance of raw materials. Foreign investment has not been flowing as much as we desire, and the crime situation has been a stumbling block to rapid economic expansion. Even though the level has decreased, poverty still exists; and skilled Guyanese continue to depart for lands where better economic opportunities beckon.
How can we improve the lives of our people? We have to provide jobs through investments for all our people. But our people will also have to be educated to meet the demands of the modern age. We have to inculcate a pioneering spirit among our young people. They cannot remain crowded on the narrow coastal strip of our country. The interior must be busted open, and a practical methodology will have to we worked out so that this spirit of the pioneer can expand. In this enterprise, it is not only the Government that has to be involved. All Guyanese, including those who live outside of Guyana, must be participants, even if it is just to create ideas for development of our country, or to invest financially in large and small development projects. By doing all of this we will really begin to achieve and shape our economic independence.
The persons we honor today for their contribution to the Guyanese community are in sense all pioneers. Actually, all of you who have migrated to this land are pioneers. Many of you did not know what would face you when you came here, but you confronted the challenges and applied your initiative to improve your lives. Indeed you brought this pioneering spirit from Guyana. Surely, the spirit of the pioneer lives in all Guyanese at home. The application of such pioneerism can surely produce positive results in the economic development of our homeland.
Wasn't it the spirit of the pioneer that busted open the United States? People abandoned the relative comforts of the East Coast and braved all kinds of dangers to open up this country - in the effort to settle it and to develop the interior, east and west, north and south.
We all have hopes for the development of Guyana. But despite what lofty aims we have for the development of our homeland, we cannot move forward if we do not learn to trust each other. We have to sink personal differences and eradicate our prejudices. We have to be united. It is only when we are a united people can we say that we are truly a free people.
A happy Guyana Independence Day to all of you.
Thank you very much.