Thinking & Promoting Development
Labaria snakes and the corruption culture in Guyana
By Dr. Ken Danns
A CULTURE of corruption has for many decades been entrenched in the Guyana society. This culture has been driven by a normative disposition to utilise public office and government bureaucratic authority to unlawfully appropriate the resources of the government – both national and local – and the country as a whole for private gain.
The players in this venal culture include some politicians, some public servants, some local government officials, elements of both the local and foreign private sectors, and many ordinary citizens as well. Corruption stems from a mindset of greed. Corruption in Guyana is cultural collusion and a widely supported disposition to dishonest appropriation of public resources. It is often engendered in fraudulent relationships with likeminded individuals or unwitting victims.
A corrupt culture is bred and sustained by governmental systems characterized by the lack of transparency and accountability and by authoritarian rule. The end result of widespread corruption in a society is: widespread inequality in wealth distribution; the retardation of progress; the erosion of trust and legitimacy for systems of governance, the alienation of citizens and the arrested development of their country.
Guyana has proven over the years to be a textbook case of a resilient corruption culture. Transparency International, a global agency concerned with monitoring corruption ranked Guyana a high 108 out of 176 countries in its 2016 index, which rated countries from the least to the most corrupt. Guyana received a score of 34. Anything below 50 is seen as a government failing to tackle corruption. Transparency International concluded: “In Guyana, economic hardship, institutional weaknesses, criminal justice inefficiencies, as well as racial fractures in society provide fertile grounds for corruption… all major governance indicators suggest high and deteriorating levels of perceived corruption in the country and the prevalence of both bureaucratic and political forms of corruption.”
In 1978, the authoritarian PNC Government in recognition that corruption had reached epidemic proportions launched a “clean-up campaign against corruption in high places.” Then Prime Minister Forbes Burnham promised that “toes will be mashed.” Commissions of inquiry were established to examine practices in various public corporations. Public corporation managers were dismissed without protest; other public officials were brought before the courts, including police and army officers and junior public servants.
On May 10, 1979 the Guyana Chronicle reported that Deputy Prime Minister and PNC Party General Secretary, Dr. Ptolemy Reid “renewed the call for supervisors and management workers to refrain from dishonest and malicious acts which endanger the welfare of the broad masses of the Guyanese population.” He said some workers, as soon as they were placed in responsible positions and enjoying a certain quality of living standards, pounced upon every opportunity to defraud and conduct corrupt practices to further enrich themselves.” In graphic language the Deputy Prime Minister Ptolemy Reid asserted that the perpetrators of such acts were like “labaria snakes,” which attack when the opponent is near. Dr. Reid added that “the same attitude was evident by workers who were near to the party and government machinery who hit with ferocious and deadly blows at the nation’s coffers.”
Dr. Ptolemy Reid, who was also a veterinary surgeon by profession, knew the characteristics of this specie of vipers very well. Their bites are painful and they use their venom to immobilise and digest their prey. Politicians, public servants, local and foreign business people and members of the public who are corrupt are akin to vipers… labaria snakes. They strike with venomous greed and ferocity on the resources and the institutions of the nation, immobilising its functioning and in the process poison public morality and trust.
The former People’s Progressive Party ruled the country for 23 years during which time their governance deepened and expanded corruption in Guyana beyond belief. The local and foreign media, the public, leading foreign governments which dispense aid and loans to Guyana, and Transparency International all lamented the rampant corruption. The kleptocracy that became manifest led the distinguished Guyanese Economist, Dr. Clive Thomas to conclude that the PPP/C rule led to the emergence and institutionalisation of a criminal state. The criminal state Thomas asserted is a “state for itself – it is primarily geared to function as an instrumentality for the accumulation of wealth for those who operate it.” Thomas pointed out that corrupt practices ranged from the executive’s purposeful establishment of illicit slush funds, repeated unauthorised spending of public monies, fraudulent public procurements contracts, illegal capital flows, particularly illicit mis-invoicing of exports and imports, illicit financial transactions, and irregular and illegal use of state agencies to intimidate individuals and “group-affiliated government critics,” as well as to penalise those private businesses that are not supporting the ruling PPP/C administration.
Politicians who are corrupt generally occupy positions of authority and may use their public office for illicit private gain; dispense patronage benefits to family, friends and supporters; engage in corrupt transactions with local and foreign business people; and unlawfully deny access to resources by others because of their party, race, religion or other social criteria. The politically corrupt are invariably in a position to introduce laws, regulations and policies to further venal objectives. Often they collaborate with other corrupt politicians marinating their plans and striking the nation’s coffers from their vipers’ pit.
Public servants who engage in corrupt practices may do so out of personal greed, to compensate for inadequate salaries, and in response to pressure from politicians or the public to compromise their functioning from the straight and narrow. Corrupt public bureaucratic officials frustrate the attainment of governmental goals and objectives. Their actions subvert progress making it difficult, if not impossible to implement policies, build or maintain projects and deliver reliable services or goods to the public. Their labaria attacks gum up the works creating widespread inefficiencies, lack of accountability and paralysis. Indeed, many governmental projects that are stalled, failing or less than efficient are infected by corrupt practices.
Elements of the local and foreign private sector are integral to promoting and sustaining a corrupt culture in Guyana. It is a mistake to think that corruption in Guyana is possible without the activist involvement and partnership of elements of the private sector. Labaria politicians and labaria public servants invariably work in collusion with like-minded business officials who are seeking the award of contracts, the avoidance of taxation, custom duty and other penalties, waivers of regulations, and, unfair if not outright unlawful access to public resources and property. Private Sector organisations will publicly condemn and speak out against corruption often not acknowledging that some of their own members may be drivers of it. Some foreign businesses are often pressured into offering bribes and kickbacks in order to expedite their business or obtain concessions. Some foreign businesses delight in dealing with corrupt politicians and public officials. By doing so they are able to maximize profits and benefits, ignore the laws and regulations of the country, extract and export the nation’s resources, and inflict serious damage on the natural environment. Guyana loses big time when corrupt politicians sell the nation’s birthright for a mess of pottage.
Elements of the general public are also involved in the corruption culture. Many Guyanese like to get things done through “lines”. “Lines” refer to a normative disposition to get things done or obtain services and goods through bypassing official regulations and procedures. Byzantine and ineffective public bureaucracies make it necessary to use “lines” to get even the most routine transactions done in a timely manner. The use of “lines” undermine transparency and accountability in public transactions and public institutions. Basic principles of fairness and justice are violated as the user of “lines” is afforded preferential treatment while others are made to wait longer, obtain less or are even be denied altogether. Some members of the public also bribe public officials to obtain goods and services or to avoid prosecution and penalties. Citizens often know which public officials are corrupt and even have false names for them. The attitude of such citizens is that the “big ones” doing it, so we can do it too.
The underground economy in Guyana is a viable conduit for corrupt transactions. The participants in this economy are guerilla entrepreneurs involved in tax and regulatory evasions and varied criminal activities. The illegal drug trade is illustrative of the underground economy. It is an industry of vipers. It corrupts the society at all levels, compromising the integrity of some politicians and public officials as well as members of the public. The drug trade corrupts other sectors leading to money laundering, including the establishment of legally registered businesses as cover for the nefarious trade.
The new APNU+AFC Government has inherited this monster corruption culture and must do something about it. Corruption in Guyana is embedded in the society and cannot be wished away by speeches and threats. Economist Dr. Clive Thomas estimated that well in excess of $333 – $340B were annually stolen and that 60 percent of the Guyana economy was being run by a financial underworld. Several agencies have been established to investigate corruption. These are the Special Organised Crime Unit (SOCU), State Assets Recovery Agency (SARA) and the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU).
In Latin American countries leading politicians and public officials have been charged for corruption while in office. Among these are two recent Presidents of Guyana’s huge neighbour, Brazil. So far in Guyana no big fishes have been caught. No toes have been mashed. No heads have been rolled. No snakes have been snared. Forensic audits, foreign experts and commissions of inquiry have so far not yielded tangible outcomes.
The problem with corruption in Guyana is that it is there for all to see. It is in your face! Some politicians and public officials were able to build mansions, have huge bank accounts locally and abroad, and display other conspicuous acquisitions, which based on their annual salaries it would be impossible to honestly acquire. As the widespread corrupt practices of the past government recede in the memory of the public, the APNU+AFC Coalition Government will be saddled with the legacy of a still vibrant corruption culture which may undermine its own capacity to survive and be re-elected. The labaria pits may appear dormant but they are very much active and pose a serious threat to transparency and accountability in this fledgling democracy.
Article adapted from: http://guyanachronicle.com/2017/10/03/thinking-promoting-development
- The University of Guyana