THE DOORS TO NEGOTIATIONS WERE NEVER CLOSED
In due course, the people of Linden will come to a clearer understanding that they were used as pawns in a game of political competition within and between political parties.
This competition started long before that sad day of July 18 when the three protesters were killed. The competition began during the Budget debates and saw the AFC use the issue of the electricity tariffs in Linden to upstage APNU.
The AFC made a bold move to steal vital political turf from APNU after the main opposition APNU had reportedly reached an agreement with the government on the implementation of tariffs and for a developmental component for Linden.
APNU panicked and retreated when they saw what the AFC was doing. But a part of that retreat was also due to internal party dynamics within the PNCR. With Congress not far away and with factions competing for leadership, none of these factions wanted to be seen as being hand-in glove with the government and thus positions that were previously flexible hardened.
The political leadership of Linden has to take responsibility for what happened. They were reckless. The doors for negotiations with the government were never closed. What created the mirage of closure were political expediencies between and within the opposition parties.
Those persons who were on the bridge that day when the terrible events took place should not have been there. They should have been waiting on their leaders to engage the government.
Even after APNU made an about turn and sided with the AFC during the final stages of the Budget debate, even after $20B in funding was chopped from the Budget, the government never shut the door on talks.
If there is anything that has defined the Donald Ramotar administration, it has been its openness with the opposition. From day one, he has been meeting with them. From the early days of Parliament, the government has committed to answering questions. Quite unethically privileged and private information have found their way out of the Parliament and into the public domain. But this has not deterred the government from meeting and discussing matters.
The government cannot be accused of acting in bad faith. Perhaps the ghost of the past still haunts the Opposition and they still feel suspicious about dealing with the government but they can hardly accuse the government of backstabbing.
Admittedly, the opposition would have felt slighted by the failure of the government to allow them to be an integral part of preparing the Budget.
However, from the inception, the government indicated that it was the responsibility of the Executive to develop the Budget. This principle has been recently upheld. The government thus took the position that the opposition could make known its recommendations which would be considered.
The Opposition always had the fallback that after the Budget was tabled, they could force negotiations so as to press their demands. This is what happened before the matter was voted on in the Committee of Supply.
The Opposition came out looking good because they were able to wrest concessions from the government on the issue of old age pensions. If the Budget had been prepared conjointly, the glory would have had to be shared.
During these negotiations, there was no hiding of facts by the government. In fact the government took the unprecedented step of making public all the major contracts that were issued, and this has stilled a great deal of the speculation and criticism.
The government therefore while maintaining its right to be masters of executive policy has had an open-door policy towards the opposition and has met its request for information. It has also accommodated many of the demands of the opposition.
Against this background and in light of the position adopted by APNU in the talks with the government on the 2012 Budget, there was no need for what took place on July 18. There was no need for protests because negotiations could have continued on a solution to the electricity problem in Linden.
This was not a new issue as APNU itself had made suggestions on how the problem could have been dealt with by the government. One of those suggestions according to the Prime Minister was to apply the subsidy more intensely for those using small amounts of electricity. The Prime Minister did indicate in his address to the National Assembly that the suggestion was being considered.
So why protest? Why protest considering the facts at hand. The Prime Minister in Parliament had indicated that the average electricity subsidy for Linden was $60.81 per kilowatt hour. The average subsidy for the whole country was $8.78. This means that Linden is subsidized to the tune of more then seven times the rest of the country when measured per kilowatt hour. This clearly suggests that there was a need to look at the cost of generating electricity in Linden.
The same Prime Minister reported that the average subsidy per Linden household is about $200, 000 per year while for businesses in the mining town it is around $600,000. It was also reported elsewhere that the average consumption in Linden in about three times the national average.
These are problems that cannot be ignored or resolved without sacrifices on all sides. If these problems were ignored in the past that was a mistake but clearly they needed to be resolved and could not be resolved without instituting market mechanisms to induce conservation.
The other fact is that the subsidy was not being totally removed. It would have been impossible to unify the rates by removing the subsidy because the cost of generating electricity is high in Linden when compared to the rest of the country.
The government was however not proposing the removal of the subsidy. It was proposing a reduction of the subsidy with the people of Linden in the first instance paying tariffs that would have only been half of what the rest of the country pays.
But that is not the whole story because for bauxite pensioners there were preferences being offered. In fact, the deal was that bauxite pensioners who used 100 kilowatts or less would pay nothing. Yes, they would get for free what the rest of the country has to pay $6,000 per month for. No charge for the bauxite pensioners who were utilizing less than 100 kilowatt.
If the leaders of the Linden protest felt that the 50% being charged was too steep an increase at the first go, they should have asked for a more phased reduction. This may have posed some problems given the rising fuel costs but it was an issue that could have been placed on the negotiating table. But to take the stance of no increase was clearly untenable. And to resort to protest without exploring all possible negotiated solutions was irresponsible.
There was no need for such drastic action, except of course if the reason for such drastic action was related to extraneous matters.
Those people who died did not need to be where they were no July 18. It was mistake for such action to be taken without exhausting political dialogue.
That such an option for dialogue was not pursued makes the deaths of these persons so much sadder.