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Democracy Threatened by Crime and Violence
– Odeen Ishmael PhD

The Guyana government is seeking assistance from the British and American governments to beef up security during the period of the general elections due next year. Guyana’s elections in 1992, 1997 and 2001 were plagued by opposition-led violent protests even though impartial international observers declared those elections to be free and fair. It is obvious from this current request that the government wants to implement preventive measures in case such behavior recurs next year.

Guyana is by no means the only country in the Caribbean region that experiences “election” violence. Jamaica has a history of pre-election violence involving supporters of both sides, but it tends to simmer down after the campaign is over and the results announced. Since the return of free and fair elections in Guyana in 1992, the trend has taken an opposite pattern: the violent opposition behavior was pronounced after the voting exercise was over.

The argument has been made that with the growth of democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean over the past decade, people will not allow their democratically elected governments to be removed by violence and other non-constitutional means. However, a counter argument was demonstrated by the removal of President Aristide from Haiti and the emergence of a repressive regime which enjoys backing from some of the very countries which demand more and more democratization elsewhere.

Also, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, democratically elected, was forcibly removed from power for two days in April 2002, only to be reinstated when the masses rose in protest against those who engineered the coup. A violent attack on the President’s office in Guyana in July 2002 by opposition supporters was repelled with the loss of lives. On the other hand, street protests accompanied by some violence forced the resignations of Presidents in Ecuador and Bolivia more than once in the past two years.

Despite moves to greater levels of democracy in the hemisphere, many of the freely elected governments continue to face serious threats from forces which promote their violent removal.

There is a feeling that some sections of Latin American and Caribbean society are not yet prepared to accept the results of democratic elections. Such forces were beneficiaries of discredited dictatorial regimes and they abhor losing out to the evolving democracy now being widely practiced. Perhaps they are still embedded deeply in the influences of repressive pre-democratic times when violence against politicians, journalists, workers, and pro-democracy activists was an everyday occurrence.

It is interesting to note that Argentina, Chile and Mexico are moving to bring to justice leading officials and politicians involved in brutal acts repression decades ago. In some countries, many of those violators still hold important positions in the military and government administration and feel that they are immune from prosecution.

With such actions as examples, people in other countries who suffered from political repression are also raising their voices for the same process to be applied. In Guyana, more and more people are now taking about a Truth Commission to be set up to investigate the period of non-democratic rule from 1968 to 1992 and for a complete investigation into the assassination in 1980 of the popular political leader and historian Dr. Walter Rodney.

But despite moves to bring old violators to face justice, even as recently as two years ago there were reports in Guatemala of violent attacks against human rights activists, trade unionists, journalists, indigenous leaders, and forensic scientists engaged in excavating the sites of earlier massacres carried out by the military during the days of the dictatorship.

Violence through guerrilla warfare against the government and between rival guerrilla groups continues unabated in Colombia. Much of this is fuelled by the cocaine trade and an end to decades of this violence is not yet in sight.

Everywhere in the hemisphere, murder rates have increased rapidly over the past five years. Kidnappings have become frequent, especially in the Dominican Republic and Trinidad and Tobago.

Actually, much of the rampant crime wave throughout Latin America and the Caribbean is spurred by the expanding drug trade. Just a few days ago, the Guyanese Police Commissioner confirmed what is widely known – that the influx of illegal guns (used by criminals) has resulted from the growing drug trade in the country.

The new dimension of criminals being involved in politics and not being ostracized is currently witnessed in Haiti. Persons wanted for human rights crimes and gun-running and drug trafficking participated in the ouster of President Aristide from Haiti. Ironically, some of them placed themselves in charge of policing. A blind eye was turned to these “security men” because those who disliked Aristide baptized them as “freedom fighters”.

The politicizing of crime has also been identified in Guyana where some criminals, wanted for heinous crimes were also labeled as “freedom fighters” by certain anti-government politicians.

With regard to Haiti, Caricom countries have so far refused to recognize the regime in Port-a-Prince. This is a result of the increasing violence, instability, arbitrary rule, and human rights abuses in the country since Aristide was sent into exile. And as the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs has said, the economic and humanitarian disaster in Haiti “has pushed the country closer to the brink of political chaos than ever before”.

In quite a few countries of the region, the security apparatus is showing a tendency to develop into a separate but independent arm of government. Politicians and bureaucrats in government complain that very often the Police are not showing effectiveness in flushing out and in capturing high-profile criminals. As a result, more and more government administrations set up their own independent system for information gathering because they see the existing security apparatus as inefficient and untrustworthy. Supporters of such an action feel this is necessary since criminal elements, associated with big-time crime, have enforced undue influence on sections of the security forces.

While all this is happening, the local communities are losing their effectiveness in upholding local security. Criminals brazenly commit violent crimes in villages and walk away without being intercepted. Undoubtedly, people are cowed into fearing that they would face retaliation since some of these criminals enjoy protection from certain residents in those very same communities.

The Caribbean countries, in particular, are faced with a situation where some persons deported from developed countries for committing serious crimes resort to criminal activity using illicit high-powered firearms to inflict violence on their victims.

Clearly, the horrifying aspect of the use of illicit firearms by criminal elements is that it has the capability of undermining the security of these states. This is because crime – now very violent in nature – undermines society by establishing a situation of instability which can lead to the destabilization of democratic governments.

As governments of the region implement measures to combat violent crime, the defenders of democracy everywhere have to be on constant watch. They cannot allow crime and violence to gain the upper hand.

(Caracas, 23 June 2005
The writer is Guyana’s Ambassador to Venezuela.)
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